TED Conversations

Stephen G. Davis

CEO, KnGrid


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Maintaining human civilization by focusing on the key challenges of our time: energy, food and resource depletion.

While the ominous threats of a changing climate have failed to prompt America or any other large economy to wake up from our consensus trance, there are other challenges equally as frightening and urgent: The certainty of increasingly costly fossil fuels and their impact on our banking system. Rising energy prices are taking their toll on the middle class already.

At the same time, we see a scramble by emerging economies to emulate America's suburban lifestyle. The problem is that America's perpetual growth model rely's on cheap energy to validate suburban home values. It is a problem that no politician can even discuss in today's hacked operating system for privately funded elections.

We must develop clear consensus about this problem. In order to avoid economic chaos, we need to chart an orderly course to a world that does not rely on ever increasing oil production and perpetual growth in consumption of all things.

We have an entire industry with formidable political clout that does not want this problem to even be acknowledged, let alone solved.

There are solutions:

1. More walkable and bike-able communities with local food production
2. Less Suburban sprawl which leads to stranded (and destroyed) wealth as liquid fossil fuel prices inevitably trend upward when daily production rates peak.
3. More emphasis on distributed energy generation with renewable sources combined with energy storage technology.
4. Developing less energy intensive farming techniques that don't rely on oil based fertilizers and pesticides. ("Perma-culture")

This transition will require decades. To avoid chaotic economic consequences, it needs to begin now. As T. Boone Pickens once asked "when's the best time to plant a tree? The answer is 20 years ago." Another salient comment from James Howard Kunstler: "No amount of renewable energy is going to allow us to continue running what we're running the way we're running it."

If this frightens you, it should.


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    Sep 5 2013: Thanks Fritzie. I wonder how many people would embrace the competing ideal, however, if the externalities associated with oil production (IE, climate change, military costs, environmental degradation, respiratory illness, etc) were priced in. In my mind, that's the best policy remedy. It involves what many today (sadly) believe is inherently evil: government and regulation. I'm well aware that TEDsters talk about more walkable communities, but is that trend happening fast enough to save us? I doubt it when I read about the projected number of automobiles anticipated by 2030. (from 800M to 2.1B)

    Which gets to real challenge: There's not a single company on the S&P 500 that does make an implicit assumption in their business projections: unlimited access to growing supplies of oil. The banks certainly assume it every time they lend money for the purchase of a suburban home that has no value without the use of a car.

    Are we addressing this as though we understood it? Nope.
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      Sep 5 2013: Providing affordable in-city housing is a major challenge to be sure. Imagine how many people living in the suburbs of San Francisco would move into the city if they could afford to live there! Even if prices at the pump do not reflect the true cost, traffic congestion for those who need to commute in can make either in-city living or telecommuting look pretty good.

      Improving urban schools would be an extremely valuable policy lever. Many families choose suburbs primarily to escape urban schools.
    • Sep 6 2013: Is it possible that the "inherently evil: government and regulation" influence in all this creates an environment that lowers the standard of living? In return, removing both the power of demand and the consumption rates of oil. Of which results in conflicting business projections with the reality of the market and the eventually dissolve of established business models. This then providing an opportunity for alternative solutions to be implemented. Would the results of this increase the purchasing power of the dollar?

      The dollar's power is determined by our wallets, beliefs and the prospective prosperity that allows intelligent consumers to effectively dictate the relationship between commodity, regulation, government and corporations.

      We just need to work on the 'intelligent consumer' part...

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