Sunday, December 11, 2011

A roadmap for growing prosperity while saving the planet

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Summary: In this interview, author Ramez Naam provides a sneak peak into his upcoming book: The Infinite Resource - Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth.

Ramez Naam is not your everyday computer geek. The ex-Microsoft employee holds a seat on the advisory board of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, is a Senior Associate of the Foresight Institute, and a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

Naam is also the author of More Than Human: Embracing the promise of biological enhancement, an analysis of how scientific development over the next decade will make humans stronger, smarter, and live longer.

His next book, due out in 2012, looks at the current intersection of human civilization, prosperity, and natural resources and how it is possible for us to prosper like never before but with less environmental impact in the future. I caught up with Ramez over an email interview today:

In your upcoming book, The Infinite Resource – Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth, you point to knowledge as the path to a prosperous future. What inspired you to pick this theme?

RN: The book is really the intersection of two lines of inquiry. The first is the state of the environment and our natural resources. We’re simultaneously facing climate change and peak oil, ocean overfishing and fresh water shortages. As someone who cares about the future, I wanted to understand those challenges for myself.

The second is about innovation and its relationship to resource use and prosperity. I come from a tech background, so I’m used to the incredible onward march of Moore’s Law. But I was surprised to discover that something like Moore’s Law operates in solar energy. In the last 30 years, the price of electricity solar photovoltaic cells has dropped by more than a factor of 10. This decade, it’ll drop below the price of electricity from coal fired plants – the current cheapest. In 20 years, if the trend continues, it’ll be half the price of electricity from coal fired plants.

The driving force behind the reduction in solar energy prices is innovation. Scientists and engineers in the area keep coming up with new ways to make solar cells cheaper, thinner, lighter, and more efficient. That’s an accumulation of knowledge that has the promise to help us offset the depletion of a physical resource – oil.

That intersection led me to view our knowledge base itself as a resource.  And as a resource, knowledge plays by different rules that make it incredibly powerful. Unlike physical resources like oil, our stockpile of useful ideas and engineering designs and insights into the laws of nature keeps growing. Ideas don’t get destroyed or consumed in usage. If I have a piece of knowledge and I share it with you, I don’t have to give it up myself – its impact gets multiplied by the number of holders. And best of all, the right knowledge can substitute for or multiply just about any other resource – energy, labor, materials, land, even time.

So once I understood that, I started seeing these patterns everywhere. Farming technology has reduced the amount of land it takes to feed a person from 10 million square meters to just over 1,000 square meters. Making steel from iron takes a tenth the energy it once did. Even in computing – not only are we getting more computing power per chip, we’re getting more computing power per amount of energy we use. If we went back to the efficiency of the first computers in the 1940s, then an iPhone would draw as much power as the state of California. Innovation – our accumulation of useful bits of knowledge – has substituted for natural resources in all those cases.

If we have any hope of coming out of the next few decades better off than we started, then it rests in our rate of innovation.

You argue that the cost of market externalities should be factored into the economy (e.g., carbon tax). What are some example technologies that have the greatest potential to manage or reduce them?

RN: That’s right.  The market – which is this incredibly smart algorithm – gets garbage values as inputs when it comes to things like the value of a stable climate, the negative value of CO2 in the atmosphere, the value of acidification of the oceans.  The market can only optimize variables that have prices attached, and none of those do.

Plenty of technologies exist that can mitigate our negative impact on climate, and along the way buy us energy security, cut off funding for middle eastern dictatorships, and cushion us against peak oil.   Efficiency is a huge untapped opportunity.  We know how to cut American energy consumption by half without any significant impact on our lifestyle.  Solar energy is another huge potential.  The sun hits the Earth with 6,000 times as much energy as all of human civilization uses, from all sources combined.  In just 88 minutes, the Earth gets as much energy from the sun as humanity uses in a year.  So there is a huge untapped energy potential there, larger than anything we know of except the dream of fusion.   And, if we have to, there are ways to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it so it’s no longer affecting climate.

But because we don’t ask consumers and businesses to pay the full cost of burning carbon, they’re not properly incented to pursue those opportunities.  If we had a price for carbon emissions that captured their full cost to the world, you’d see a huge rush of consumers towards greater efficiency, and of entrepreneurs and investors to the areas I just cited.   Perversely, world governments actually subsidize the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses to the tune of more than $500 billion a year.  Our policies are actually headed in the wrong direction, accelerating both peak oil and climate change.  We need to reverse course there.

Current models show global population eventually plateauing, so wouldn’t current levels of growth and prosperity be sufficient?

RN: There’s a perception that population growth is going to apply tremendous environmental pressure, but it’s actually a smaller factor than affluence.  The world’s population is only going to grow another 35% or so before it peaks, compared to the 200% growth that it went through in the 20th century.   But most of the people alive today, in China, in India, in Africa, are incredibly poor.  Growing their affluence means using more energy, more water, more rare earth elements.   That is really the driver in consuming more resources.

Fortunately, it looks like we have plenty of headroom for that, if we innovate quickly enough.

Climate contradictions fueled by ideology vs. fact have left many of us confused. How can we know what to actually believe?

RN: I’d encourage people to look into it for themselves. Go look at the pictures of the glaciers retreating on Kilimanjaro. Go look at the extent of Arctic sea ice – the lowest its ever been at the North Pole.   The planet is undeniably warming. Are humans to blame?  Everything tells us yes.  We know CO2 and Methane trap heat in the atmosphere.  We know that we’ve released a tremendous amount of them into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. And we know that every time in ancient history that CO2 levels were this high, the planet was incredibly warm, much warmer than it is today.

There are always uncertainties in future predictions. There are always year-to-year and place-to-place variations in weather. But, averaged across the planet, things are warming, that warming is accelerating, and it’s clear that the fossil fuels we’ve emitted and which we continue to emit in record amounts are the primary culprit.

As a transhumanist, you support the idea of human super-intelligence and post-biological evolution. How will this trend impact our relationship with the natural environment and our dependency on it?

RN: I do think we’ll see increasingly good ways to improve on human intelligence.  In a sense, we see that already. The next generation chips from Intel or the next generation solar cells from First Solar are designed and built by teams of people networked together and assisted by software. Their brainpower is effectively enhanced.

The smarter we get as a civilization, the more power we have to out innovate our problems. If we look at the basic physical limit of the resources around us – the amount of energy, land, food we could grow, water, and so on, there’s no reason that we couldn’t have 10 billion people on this Earth living in incredible prosperity – far beyond what people in America enjoy today – with dramatically less impact on the planet. So that’s my hope, that as we get smarter, we use that intelligence to progressively improve on the efficiency of our technologies, as we have done throughout history, and reduce the negative impact we have on this planet and the millions of other species we share it with.

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer.

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