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Clean technology, while a huge opportunity, will not go to scale in time to prevent a global economic and social crisis.

Considering all the comments on my talk, The Earth is Full, I would sum up by saying that everyone pretty much agrees we face some serious ecological and resource limits. The debate is will these naturally be dealt with in the normal course of technological and market processes, or will they result in a serious global economic crisis. My view is strongly that a crisis is inevitable and that it will be an economic crisis - but that will then trigger a war level of mobilisation that will drive massive technological change. So relying on technology to prevent the crisis is wrong.


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    Mar 21 2012: Hi Paul. Great talk and I'm also learning a lot from this discussion. I was pretty optimistic. After watching your talk and Peter's, and just now one of Matt Ridley's, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-zLK50w4Q0 I think I've probably been fooling myself.

    One very important point you made was that it's a web of problems facing us. Each is easy for people to imagine they've found solutions to, while not noticing that it makes another problem worse. In my view, we problem-solve like this rather than facing fundamental facts of our biology. We are evolved animals. People talk about us as though we were rational, agreeable folk. They propose a solution: everyone will be on board. But there are very diverse warring factions, from the religious to the secular, the ultra-technologist to the neo-luddite.

    We developed our modern civilisation through competition, not just co-operation, and I believe that is the simple hard-wired imperitive that will bring our current civilisation down. It will not be sufficiently profitable for those who might to do the right thing at any step along the way - that is how it has been for all of our history - in fact, since we left the forests that sustained us without our effort beyond reaching out to grasp fruit, the abundant past we innovated our way out of.

    Right now, food, medicine and all sorts of technologies are being patented by the rich, so that we will be even more dependent on them for everything than we already are. Our democracies have been whisked away by plutocrats and they hold us to ransom. The Occupy Movement was perhaps just a rumble before an earthquake, as the 99% wakes up to reality and begins to demand/create wealth redistribution. Technology might have little to do with how it pans out.

    Matt talks about humans learning to share ideas and work together as if it were just a good, but technology helps us compete with (kill) everything else on the planet while specialisation lets us relinquish responsibility to the cloud.
    • Mar 21 2012: John
      Thanks for your thoughts and yes, people make the constant mistake of confusing what's possible with what will happen, allowing as you say for vested interest, resistance and so on. There's no doubt we have great potential but we must accept the crisis that will drive us there.
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        Mar 21 2012: Thanks, Paul. It's very refreshing to find a TED speaker discussing their views and inviting others. I have to say I shift on the optimist-pessimist scale a lot, but at the moment I'm even more pessimistic than you.

        You say "we must accept the crisis that will drive us there" - but where?
        • Mar 21 2012: John
          Yes, we all have those days when it all seems impossible to imagine! "Where" can only now be a war like mobilisation in response, and that's why the crisis will have to be accepted first.
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        Mar 22 2012: Paul, there's a misunderstanding between us on the matter of "where" we get to: what I thought you meant was a further condition, a healthy human civilisation after the crisis and the war-like mobilisation. What do you see as that condition, and do you have any thoughts about how it might be stabilised? The last point is the source of my pessimism. It seems to me that the attributes that brought us to the current brink are inexorable - sad irony: I just checked the definition of that and the first line of the google results included the example, "the inexorable march of technology".

        If it were just a matter of mass change of attitude - if we stopped praising things like "working hard" and "innovating" and all the rest, which are part of that inexorable march towards domination/destruction of the biosphere and instead admired low-impact living - that would be a long shot, but perhaps imaginable after some deep catastrophe. However, I sense that the problem may be even deeper - a fundamental reality of evolution: those who work hard and innovate collect more resources and have evolutionary advantage over those who walk lightly on the earth. The pressure that replaced the eco-friendly nomad, first with the small farmer, then with Homo extravagans isn't a political fashion, but biological fact. I say this not to depress people, but because it may be vital to understand and accept, as much as the current crisis, in order to come up with wise responses.

        Of course, I may be wrong to equate innovation and hard work with further destruction. It's a hunch I have with little solid evidence, but it seems to me that the green industries have turned out less green than expected, not just due to specific hidden environmental costs, but because they represent a raised threshold for human activity generally, which we can be expected to grow into. Do we need a new understanding of green? Currently, we'd be proud to clear areas of virgin "wasteland" to build an "eco-friendly city".
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        Mar 22 2012: P.S. Sorry, I just realised I'm being lazy, followed the link to your biography and found more of your opinion already for me to read, although I'd be delighted to discuss the issue further; and for saying "even more pessimistic than you" - when I see your bio has you as an optimist! Me, I'm a happy stoic. :)

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