How Innovation Could Save the Planet

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By Ramez Naam

Ideas may be our greatest natural resource, says a computer scientist and futurist. He argues that the world’s most critical challenges—including population growth, peak oil, climate change, and limits to growth—could be met by encouraging innovation.

The Best of Times: Unprecedented Prosperity

There are many ways in which we are living in the most wonderful age ever. We can imagine we are heading toward a sort of science-fiction utopia, where we are incredibly rich and incredibly prosperous, and the planet is healthy. But there are other reasons to fear that we’re headed toward a dystopia of sorts.

Ramez Naam spoke at WorldFuture 2013, the annual conference of the World Future Society in Chicago, in July of 2013.

On the positive side, life expectancy has been rising for the last 150 years, and faster since the early part of the twentieth century in the developing world than it has in the rich world. Along with that has come a massive reduction in poverty. The most fundamental empowerer of humans—education—has also soared, not just in the rich world, but throughout the world.

Another great empowerer of humanity is connectivity: Access to information and access to communication both have soared. The number of mobile phones on the planet was effectively zero in the early 1990s, and now it’s in excess of 4 billion. More than three-quarters of humanity, in the span of one generation, have gotten access to connectivity that, as my friend Peter Diamandis likes to say, is greater than any president before 1995 had. A reasonably well-off person in India or in Nigeria has better access to information than Ronald Reagan did during most of his career.

With increased connectivity has come an increase in democracy. As people have gotten richer, more educated, more able to access information, and more able to communicate, they have demanded more control over the places where they live. The fraction of nations that are functional democracies is at an all-time high in this world—more than double what it was in the 1970s—with the collapse of the Soviet Union.*

Economically, the world is a more equal place than it has been in decades. In the West, and especially in the United States, we hear a lot about growing inequality, but on a global scale, the opposite is true. As billions are rising out of poverty around the world, the global middle classes are catching up with the global rich.

In many ways, this is the age of the greatest human prosperity, freedom, and potential that has ever been on the face of this planet. But in other ways, we are facing some of the largest risks ever.

The Worst of Times: The Greatest Risks

At its peak, the ancient Mayan city of Tikal was a metropolis, a city of 200,000 people inside of a civilization of about 20 million people. Now, if you walk around any Mayan city, you see mounds of dirt. That’s because these structures were all abandoned by about the mid-900s AD. We know now what happened: The Mayan civilization grew too large. It overpopulated. To feed themselves, they had to convert forest into farmland. They chopped down all of the forest. That, in turn, led to soil erosion. It also worsened drought, because trees, among other things, trap moisture and create a precipitation cycle.

When that happened, and was met by some normal (not human-caused) climate change, the Mayans found they didn’t have enough food. They exhausted their primary energy supply, which is food. That in turn led to more violence in their society and ultimately to a complete collapse.

The greatest energy source for human civilization today is fossil fuels. Among those, none is more important than oil. In 1956, M. King Hubbert looked at production in individual oil fields and predicted that the United States would see the peak of its oil production in 1970 or so, and then drop. His prediction largely came true: Oil production went up but did peak in the 1970s, then plummeted.

Oil production has recently gone up in the United States a little bit, but it’s still just barely more than half of what it was in its peak in the 1970s.

Hubbert also predicted that the global oil market would peak in about 2000, and for a long time he looked very foolish. But it now has basically plateaued. Since 2004, oil production has increased by about 4%, whereas in the 1950s it rose by about 4% every three months.

We haven’t hit a peak; oil production around the world is still rising a little bit. It’s certainly not declining, but we do appear to be near a plateau; supply is definitely rising more slowly than demand. Though there’s plenty of oil in the ground, the oil that remains is in smaller fields, further from shore, under lower pressure, and harder to pump out.

Water is another resource that is incredibly precious to us. The predominant way in which we use water is through the food that we eat: 70% of the freshwater that humanity uses goes into agriculture.

The Ogallala Aquifer, the giant body of freshwater under the surface of the Earth in the Great Plains of the United States, is fossil water left from the melting and the retreat of glaciers in the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000–14,000 years ago. Its refill time is somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years from normal rainfall. Since 1960, we’ve drained between a third and a half of the water in this body, depending on what estimate you look at. In some areas, the water table is dropping about three feet per year.

If this was a surface lake in the United States or Canada, and people saw that happening, they’d stop it. But because it’s out of sight, it’s just considered a resource that we can tap. And indeed, in the north Texas area, wells are starting to fail already, and farms are being abandoned in some cases, because they can’t get to the water that they once did.

Perhaps the largest risk of all is climate change. We’ve increased the temperature of the planet by about 2°F in the last 130 years, and that rate is accelerating. This is primarily because of the carbon dioxide we’ve put into the atmosphere, along with methane and nitrous oxide. CO2 levels, now at over 390 parts per million, are the highest they’ve been in about 15 million years. Ice cores go back at least a million years, and we know that they’re the highest they’ve been in that time. Historically, when CO2 levels are high, temperature is also high. But also, historically, in the lifetime of our species, we’ve actually never existed as human beings while CO2 levels have been this high.

For example, glaciers such as the Bear and Pedersen in Alaska have disappeared just since 1920. As these glaciers melt, they produce water that goes into the seas and helps to raise sea levels. Over the next century, the seas are expected to rise about 3 to 6 feet. Most of that actually will not be melting glaciers; it’s thermal expansion: As the ocean gets warmer, it gets a little bit bigger.

But 3 to 6 feet over a century doesn’t sound like that big a deal to us, so we think of that as a distant problem. The reality is that there’s a more severe problem with climate change: its impact on the weather and on agriculture.

In 2003, Europe went through its worst heat wave since 1540. Ukraine lost 75% of its wheat crop. In 2009, China had a once-in-a-century level drought; in 2010 they had another once-in-a-century level drought. That’s twice. Wells that had given water continuously since the fifteenth century ran dry. When those rains returned, when the water that was soaked up by the atmosphere came back down, it came down on Pakistan, and half of Pakistan was under water in the floods of 2010. An area larger than Germany was under water.

Warmer air carries more water. Every degree Celsius that you increase the temperature value of air, it carries 7% more water. But it doesn’t carry that water uniformly. It can suck water away from one place and then deliver it in a deluge in another place. So both the droughts are up and flooding is up simultaneously, as precipitation becomes more lumpy and more concentrated.

In Russia’s 2010 heat wave, 55,000 people died, 11,000 of them in Moscow alone. In 2011, the United States had the driest 10-month period ever in the American South, and Texas saw its worst wildfires ever. And 2012 was the worst drought in the United States since the Dust Bowl—the corn crop shrank by 20%.

So that’s the big risk the world faces: that radical weather will change how we grow food, which is still our most important energy source—even more important than fossil fuels.

A number of people in the environmentalist movement are saying that we have to just stop growing. For instance, in his book Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute says that the Earth is full. Get used to it, and get ready for a world where you live with less wealth, and where your children live with less wealth, than any before.

I don’t think this idea of stopping growth is realistic, because there are a top billion people who live pretty well and there are another 6 billion who don’t and are hungry for it. We see demand rising for everything—water, food, energy—and that demand is rising not in the United States or Europe or Canada or Australia. It’s rising in the developing world. This is the area that will create all of the increased demand for physical resources.

Even if we could, by some chance, say That’s enough, sorry, we’re not going to let you use these resources, which is doubtful, it wouldn’t be just, because the West got rich by using those natural resources. So we need to find a different way.

Ideas as a Resource Expander, Resource Preserver, and Waste Reducer

The best-selling environmental book of all time, Limits to Growth, was based on computer modeling. It was a simple model with only about eight variables of what would happen in the world. It showed that economic growth, more wealth, would inevitably lead to more pollution and more consumption of finite resources, which would in turn take us beyond the limits and lead ultimately to collapse.

While it’s been widely reported recently that its predictions are coming true, that’s actually not the case. If you look at the vast majority of the numbers that the researchers predict in this model, they’re not coming true.

Why did they get these things wrong? The most important thing that the forecasters did was underestimate the power of new ideas to expand resources, or to expand wealth while using fewer resources. Ideas have done tremendous things for us. Let’s start with food.

In The Population Bomb (1968), Paul Ehrlich predicted that food supply could not support the population, just as Malthus did. But what’s happened is that we’ve doubled population since 1960, and we’ve nearly tripled the food supply in total. We’ve increased by 30%–40% the food supply per person since the 1960s.

Let’s look at this on a very long time scale. How many people can you feed with an acre of land? Before the advent of agriculture, an acre of land could feed less than a thousandth of a person. Today it’s about three people, on average, who can be fed by one acre of land. Pre-agriculture, it took 3,000 acres for one person to stay alive through hunting and gathering. With agriculture, that footprint has shrunk from 3,000 acres to one-third of one acre. That’s not because there’s any more sunlight, which is ultimately what food is; it’s because we’ve changed the productivity of the resource by innovation in farming—and then thousands of innovations on top of that to increase it even more.

In fact, the reason we have the forests that we have on the planet is because we were able to handle a doubling of the population since 1960 without increasing farmland by more than about 10%. If we had to have doubled our farmland, we would have chopped down all the remaining forests on the planet.

Ideas can reduce resource use. I can give you many other examples. In the United States, the amount of energy used on farms per calorie grown has actually dropped by about half since the 1970s. That’s in part because we now only use about a tenth of the energy to create synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is an important input.

The amount of food that you can grow per drop of water has roughly doubled since the 1980s. In wheat, it’s actually more than tripled since 1960. The amount of water that we use in the United States per person has dropped by about a third since the 1970s, after rising for decades. As agriculture has gotten more efficient, we’re using less water per person. So, again, ideas can reduce resource use.

Ideas can also find substitutes for scarce resources. We’re at risk of running out of many things, right? Well, let’s think about some things that have happened in the past.

The sperm whale was almost hunted into extinction. Sperm whales were, in the mid-1800s, the best source of illumination. Sperm whale oil—spermaceti—was the premier source of lighting. It burned without smoke, giving a clear, steady light, and the demand for it led to huge hunting of the sperm whales. In a period of about 30 years, we killed off about a third of the sperm whales on the planet.

That led to a phenomenon of “peak sperm-whale oil”: The number of sperm whales that the fleet could bring in dropped over time as the sperm whales became more scarce and more afraid of human hunters. Demand rose as supply dropped, and the prices skyrocketed. So it looked a little bit like the situation with oil now.

That was solved not by the discovery of more sperm whales, nor by giving up on this thing of lighting. Rather, Abraham Gesner, a Canadian, discovered this thing called kerosene. He found that, if he took coal, heated it up, captured the fumes, and distilled them, he could create this fluid that burned very clear. And he could create it in quantities thousands of times greater than the sperm whales ever could have given up.

We have no information suggesting that Gesner was an environmentalist or that he cared about sperm whales at all. He was motivated by scientific curiosity and by the huge business opportunity of going after this lighting market. What he did was dramatically lower the cost of lighting while saving the sperm whales from extinction.

REVIEW

A Better World Is Just a Series of Innovations Away

The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet by Ramez Naam. University Press of New England. 2013. 368 pages. $29.95 (cloth), $28.99 (e-book).

Within the past century, we have successfully eradicated diseases, multiplied our harvests of food crops, expanded access to electricity to billions of people in impoverished areas of the globe, and elevated the standards of living of the entire globe. And we have accomplished all of this simply by the power of innovation, according to acclaimed transhumanist Ramez Naam, a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

In this century, innovation could likewise be our means to continue improving our lives while also curbing runaway resource consumption, looming climate change, and ecological harms, he believes.

Naam presents the scope of the near-future environmental and resource challenge, and he identifies one of its most powerful drivers: surging consumption of limited resources throughout the developing world, where tens of millions of hitherto-indigent people are attaining the substantial diets and middle-class lifestyles of industrialized nations. Some conservationists urge the world to halt further economic growth and increases in resource use, he notes, but he strongly disagrees: Those developing-world peoples have every right to achieve better standards of living.

He is optimistic that technology development will enable us to produce more energy, food, and consumer amenities with progressively lower inputs of resources. In fact, it already is, he argues, pointing out a multitude of ongoing improvements in renewable energy generation, crop growth, and efficiencies in manufacturing. He urges the global community to boost its societal investments into technology R&D. A more sustainable future awaits us if we do.

The Infinite Resource is heavily focused on technology development but describes it in conversational language that most readers will find readily approachable. Ramez Naam’s book is thus a reader-friendly volume for all audiences interested in our species’ potential for a maximally better future quality of life.—Rick Docksai

One more thing that ideas can do is transform waste into value. In places like Germany and Japan, people are mining landfills. Japan estimates that its landfills alone contain 10-year supplies of gold and rare-earth minerals for the world market. Alcoa estimates that the world’s landfills contain a 15-year supply of aluminum. So there’s tremendous value.

When we throw things away, they’re not destroyed. If we “consume” things like aluminum, we’re not really consuming it, we’re rearranging it. We’re changing where it’s located. And in some cases, the concentration of these resources in our landfills is actually higher than it was in our mines. What it takes is energy and technology to get that resource back out and put it back into circulation.

Ideas for Stretching the Limits

So ideas can reduce resource use, can find substitutes for scarce resources, and can transform waste into value. In that context, what are the limits to growth?

Is there a population limit? Yes, there certainly is, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to hit that. Projections right now are that, by the middle of this century, world population will peak between 9 billion and 10 billion, and then start to decline. In fact, we’ll be talking much more about the graying of civilization, and perhaps underpopulation—too-low birthrates on a current trend.

What about physical resources? Are there limits to physical resource use on this planet? Absolutely. It really is a finite planet. But where are those limits?

To illustrate, let’s start with energy. This is the most important resource that we use, in many ways. But when we consider all the fossil fuels that humanity uses today—all the oil, coal, natural gas, and so on—it pales in comparison to a much larger resource, all around us, which is the amount of energy coming in from our Sun every day.

The amount of energy from sunlight that strikes the top of the atmosphere is about 10,000 times as much as the energy that we use from fossil fuels on a daily basis. Ten seconds of sunlight hitting the Earth is as much energy as humanity uses in an entire day; one hour of sunlight hitting the Earth provides as much energy to the planet as a whole as humanity uses from all sources combined in one year.

This is an incredibly abundant resource. It manifests in many ways. It heats the atmosphere differentially, creating winds that we can capture for wind power. It evaporates water, which leads to precipitation elsewhere, which turns into things like rivers and waterfalls, which we can capture as hydropower.

But by far the largest fraction of it—more than half—is photons hitting the surface of the Earth. Those are so abundant that, with one-third of 1% of the Earth’s land area, using current technology of about 14%-efficient solar cells, we could capture enough electricity to power all of current human needs.

The problem is not the abundance of the energy; the problem is cost. Our technology is primitive. Our technology for building solar cells is similar to our technology for manufacturing computer chips. They’re built on silicon wafers in clean rooms at high temperatures, and so they’re very, very expensive.

But innovation has been dropping that cost tremendously. Over the last 30 years, we’ve gone from a watt of solar power costing $20 to about $1. That’s a factor of 20. We roughly drop the cost of solar by one-half every decade, more or less. That means that, in the sunniest parts of the world today, solar is now basically at parity in cost, without subsidies, with coal and natural gas. Over the next 12–15 years, that will spread to most of the planet. That’s incredibly good news for us.

Of course, we don’t just use energy while the Sun is shining. We use energy at night to power our cities; we use energy in things like vehicles that have to move and that have high energy densities. Both of these need storage, and today’s storage is actually a bigger challenge than capturing energy. But there’s reason to believe that we can tackle the storage problem, as well.

For example, consider lithium ion batteries—the batteries that are in your laptop, your cell phone, and so on. The demand to have longer-lasting devices drove tremendous innovations in these batteries in the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s. Between 1991 and 2005, the cost of storage in lithium ion batteries dropped by about a factor of nine, and the density of storage—how much energy you can store in an ounce of battery—increased by a little over double in that time. If we do that again, we would be at the point where grid-scale storage is affordable and we can store that energy overnight. Our electric vehicles have ranges similar to the range you can get in a gasoline-powered vehicle.

This is a tall order. This represents perhaps tens of billions of dollars in R&D, but it is something that is possible and for which there is precedent.

Another approach being taken is turning energy into fuel. When you use a fuel such as gasoline, it’s not really an energy source. It’s an energy carrier, an energy storage system, if you will. You can store a lot of energy in a very small amount.

Today, two pioneers in genome sequencing—Craig Venter and George Church—both have founded companies to create next-generation biofuels. What they’re both leveraging is that gene-sequencing cost is the fastest quantitative area of progress on the planet.

What they’re trying to do is engineer microorganisms that consume CO2, sunlight, and sugar and actually excrete fuel as a byproduct. If we could do this, maybe just 1% of the Earth’s surface—or a thirtieth of what we use for agriculture—could provide all the liquid fuels that we need. We would conveniently grow algae on saltwater and waste water, so biofuel production wouldn’t compete for freshwater. And the possible yields are vast if we can get there.

If we can crack energy, we can crack everything else:

Water. Water is life. We live in a water world, but only about a tenth of a percent of the water in the world is freshwater that’s accessible to us in some way. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s water is in the oceans and is salty. It used to be that desalination meant boiling water and then catching the steam and letting it condense.

Between the times of the ancient Greeks and 1960, desalination technology didn’t really change. But then, it did. People started to create membranes modeled on what cells do, which is allow some things through but not others. They used plastics to force water through and get only the fresh and not the salty. As a result, the amount of energy it takes to desalinate a liter of water has dropped by about a factor of nine in that time. Now, in the world’s largest desalination plants, the price of desalinated water is about a tenth of a cent per gallon. The technology has gotten to the point where it is starting to become a realistic option as an alternative to using up scarce freshwater resources.

Food. Can we grow enough food? Between now and 2050, we have to increase food yield by about 70%. Is that possible? I think it is. In industrialized nations, food yields are already twice what they are in the world as a whole. That’s because we have irrigation, tractors, better pesticides, and so on. Given such energy and wealth, we already know that we can grow enough food to feed the planet.

Another option that’s probably cheaper would be to leverage some things that nature’s already produced. What most people don’t know is that the yield of corn per acre and in calories is about 70% higher than the yield of wheat. Corn is a C 4 photosynthesis crop: It uses a different way of turning sunlight and CO2 into sugars that evolved only 30 million years ago. Now, scientists around the world are working on taking these C 4 genes from crops like corn and transplanting them into wheat and rice, which could right away increase the yield of those staple grains by more than 50%.

Physical limits do exist, but they are extremely distant. We cannot grow exponentially in our physical resource use forever, but that point is still at least centuries in the future. It’s something we have to address eventually, but it’s not a problem that’s pressing right now.

Wealth. One thing that people don’t appreciate very much is that wealth has been decoupling from physical resource use on this planet. Energy use per capita is going up, CO2 emissions per capita have been going up a little bit, but they are both widely outstripped by the amount of wealth that we’re creating. That’s because we can be more efficient in everything—using less energy per unit of food grown, and so on.

This again might sound extremely counterintuitive, but let me give you one concrete example of how that happens. Compare the ENIAC—which in the 1940s was the first digital computer ever created—to an iPhone. An iPhone is billions of times smaller, uses billions of times less energy, and has billions of times more computing power than ENIAC. If you tried to create an iPhone using ENIAC technology, it would be a cube a mile on the side, and it would use more electricity than the state of California. And it wouldn’t have access to the Internet, because you’d have to invent that, as well.

This is what I mean when I say ideas are the ultimate resource. The difference between an ENIAC and an iPhone is that the iPhone is embodied knowledge that allows you to do more with less resources. That phenomenon is not limited to high tech. It’s everywhere around us.

So ideas are the ultimate resource. They’re the only resource that accumulates over time. Our store of knowledge is actually larger than in the past, as opposed to all physical resources.

Challenges Ahead for Innovation

Today we are seeing a race between our rate of consumption and our rate of innovation, and there are multiple challenges. One challenge is the Darwinian process, survival of the fittest. In areas like green tech, there will be hundreds and even thousands of companies founded, and 99% of them will go under. That is how innovation happens.

The other problem is scale. Just as an example, one of the world’s largest solar arrays is at Nellis Air Force Base in California, and we would need about 10 million of these in order to meet the world’s electricity needs. We have the land, we have the solar energy coming in, but there’s a lot of industrial production that has to happen before we get to that point.

Innovation is incredibly powerful, but the pace of innovation compared to the pace of consumption is very important. One thing we can do to increase the pace of innovation is to address the biggest challenge, which is market failure.

In 1967, you could stick your hand into the Cuyahoga River, in Ohio, and come up covered in muck and oil. At that time, the river was lined with businesses and factories, and for them the river was a free resource. It was cheaper to pump their waste into the river than it was to pay for disposal at some other sort of facility. The river was a commons that anybody could use or abuse, and the waste they were producing was an externality. To that business or factory, there was no cost to pumping waste into this river. But to the people who depended upon the river, there was a high cost overall.

That’s what I mean by a market externality and a market failure, because this was an important resource to all of us. But no one owned it, no one bought or sold it, and so it was treated badly in a way that things with a price are not.

That ultimately culminated when, in June 1969, a railway car passing on a bridge threw a spark; the spark hit a slick of oil a mile long on the river, and the river burst into flames. The story made the cover of Time magazine. In many ways, the environmental movement was born of this event as much as it was of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In the following three years, the United States created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

Almost every environmental problem on the planet is an issue of the commons, whether it’s chopping down forests that no one owns, draining lakes that no one owns, using up fish in the ocean that no one owns, or polluting the atmosphere because no one owns it, or heating up the planet. They’re all issues of the commons. They’re all issues where there is no cost to an individual entity to deplete something and no cost to overconsume something, but there is a greater cost that’s externalized and pushed on everybody else who shares this.

Now let’s come back again to what Limits to Growth said, which was that economic growth always led to more pollution and more consumption, put us beyond limits, and ends with collapse. So if that’s the case, all those things we just talked about should be getting worse. But as the condition of the Cuyahoga River today illustrates, that is not the case.

GDP in the United States is three times what it was when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, so shouldn’t it be more polluted? It’s not. Instead, it’s the cleanest it’s been in decades. That’s not because we stopped growth. It’s because we made intelligent choices about managing that commons.

Another example: In the 1970s, we discovered that the ozone layer was thinning to such an extent that it literally could drive the extinction of all land species on Earth. But it’s actually getting better. It’s turned a corner, it’s improving ahead of schedule, and it’s on track to being the healthiest it’s been in a century. That’s because we’ve reduced the emissions of CFCs, which destroy ozone; we’ve dropped the amount of them that we emit into the atmosphere basically to zero. And yet industry has not ground to a halt because of this, either. Economic growth has not faltered.

And one last example: Acid rain—which is primarily produced by sulfur dioxide emitted by coal-burning power plants—is mostly gone as an issue. Emissions of sulfur dioxide are down by about a factor of two. That’s in part because we created a strategy called cap and trade: It capped the amount of SO2 that you could emit, then allowed you to swap and buy emission credits from others to find the optimal way to do that.

The cost, interestingly enough, has always been lower than projected. In each of these cases, industry has said, This will end things. Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff said the economy would grind to a halt, and the EPA would come in with lower cost estimates. But the EPA has always been wrong: The EPA cost estimate has always been too high.

Analysis of all of these efforts in the past shows that reducing emissions is always cheaper than you expect, but cleaning up the mess afterwards is always more expensive than you’d guess.

Today, the biggest commons issue is that of climate change, with the CO2 and other greenhouse gases that we’re pumping into the atmosphere. A logical thing to do would be to put a price on these. If you pollute, if you’re pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and it’s warming the planet, so you’re causing harm to other people in a very diffuse way. Therefore, you should be paying in proportion to that harm you’re doing to offset it.

But if we do that, won’t that have a massive impact on the economy? This all relates to energy, which drives a huge fraction of the economy. Manufacturing depends on it. Transport depends on it. So wouldn’t it be a huge problem if we were to actually put a price on these carbon emissions?

Well, there has been innovative thinking about that, as well. One thing that economists have always told us is that, if you’re going to tax, tax the bad, not the good. Whatever it is that you tax, you will get less of it. So tax the bad, not the good.

The model that would be the ideal for putting a price on pollution is what we call a revenue-neutral model. Revenue-neutral carbon tax, revenue-neutral cap and trade. Let’s model it as a tax: Today, a country makes a certain amount of revenue for its government in income tax, let’s say. If you want to tax pollution, the way to do this without impacting the economy is to increase your pollution tax in the same manner that you decrease the income tax. The government then is capturing the same amount of money from the economy as a whole, so there’s no economic slowdown as a result of this.

This has a positive effect on the environment because it tips the scales of price. Now, if you’re shopping for energy, and you’re looking at solar versus coal or natural gas, the carbon price has increased the price of coal and natural gas to you, but not the cost of solar. It shifts customer behavior from one to the other while having no net impact on the economy, and probably a net benefit on the economy in the long run as more investment in green energy drives the price down.

Toward a Wealthier, Cleaner Future

The number-one thing I want you to take away is that pollution and overconsumption are not inevitable outcomes of growth. While tripling the wealth of North America, for instance, we’ve gone from an ozone layer that was rapidly deteriorating to one that is bouncing back.

The fundamental issue is not one of limits to growth; it’s one of the policy we choose, and it’s one of how we structure our economy to value all the things we depend upon and not just those things that are owned privately.

What can we do, each of us? Four things:

First is to communicate. These issues are divisive, but we know that beliefs and attitudes on issues like this spread word of mouth. They spread person to person, from person you trust to person you trust. So talk about it. Many of us have friends or colleagues or family on the other side of these issues, but talk about it. You’re better able to persuade them than anyone else is.

Second is to participate. By that I mean politically. Local governments, state and province governments, and national governments are responsive when they hear from their constituents about these issues. It changes their attitudes. Because so few constituents actually make a call to the office of their legislator, or write a letter, a few can make a very large impact.

Third is to innovate. These problems aren’t solved yet. We don’t have the technologies for these problems today. The trend lines look very good, but the next 10 years of those trend lines demand lots of bright people, lots of bright ideas, and lots of R&D. So if you’re thinking about a career change, or if you know any young people trying to figure out what their career is now, these are careers that (A) will be very important to us in the future and (B) will probably be quite lucrative for them.

Last is to keep hope, because we have faced problems like this before and we have conquered them every time. The future isn’t written in stone—it could go good or bad—but I’m very optimistic. I know we have the ability to do it, and I think we will. Ultimately, ideas are our most important natural resource.

About the Author

Ramez Naam is a computer scientist and author. He is a former Microsoft executive and current fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He lives in Seattle, Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @ramez.

This article draws from his new book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet (University Press of New England, 2013), and from his presentation at WorldFuture 2012: Dream. Design. Develop. Deliver. Naam will also be a keynote speaker at WorldFuture 2013: Exploring the Next Horizon in Chicago.

*The previous version of this article included a comma where a dash was more appropriate to convey meaning. The editors regret the error.