I recently gave a presentation to a group of students titled “Innovation is the Solution to Climate Change,” and I thought I would expand upon this idea here.
Note: Italicized words refer back to the title/thesis
Let’s dissect this title, first beginning with the term climate change. For the purpose of this thought experiment we are going to define climate change as anthropomorphic climate change, or human induced climate change – meaning that the changing climate and the rising temperatures of the Earth are being caused by human activities which increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The three primary activities that contribute to climate change are 1) deforestation, 2) waste 3) burning of fossil fuels. Anthropogenic climate change can then be described as – the impact of humans on the ecosystem. To continue our definitions, an ecosystem is a system of interdependent organisms that share the same habitat. Interdependence is visible from the symbiotic relationships between bees and flowers to the large-scale chemical balances maintained by trees exhaling oxygen and animals (us) breathing it in.
To recap, our statement now reads: Innovation is the solution to the impact of humans on the ecosystem.
Impact. Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren defined Impact in their Science article “Impact of Population Growth” using the equation — Impact (I) = Population (P) * Affluence (A) * Technology (T), or I=PAT for short. Meaning, if we want to reduce our impact we need to reduce population, affluence, or technology. The world population has tripled since my father was born in 1950, and by the time he reaches the age of 80, the population will have quadrupled. The world is moving mighty fast and certainly influencing our Impact. But after contemplating on population one might quickly realize that there are some human rights issues barring this as a solution. We desire extended lifespans, we want to be healthier, we want to reduce child mortality, and we certainly don’t want a large reduction in population due to famine or catastrophe. We must then assume population is a constant, it is non-adjustable, it is not our solution.
Second, there is affluence, or wealth, or consumption. This is presently a heated international debate – no country has ever developed without increasing carbon emissions, an unfortunate by-product of industrialization. To limit emissions from developing nations threatens their ability to develop and bring their poor out of poverty. This is a contentious issue taking place on the international stage between China (now the largest emitter in the world) and the USA (the largest emitter over time and per capita). The USA wants China to agree to reduce emissions, but China claims that the West was able to develop for 300 years using carbon-intensive technologies and China should have this right as well. This is ethically difficult, emissions need to be reduced for the entire world to benefit, and to do this both the USA and China need to lead. But we (humans) cannot in fact say that any one person or nation should be poor, or that one person does not have the right to the same comfort and wealth as another human might have. Again, it seems we must take affluence as a constant.
Lastly, there is Technology. In this case technology does not just refer to electronics, but instead to consumed goods, human-made goods, or the physical objects on which we spend our Affluence. Here is a variable – technology is malleable, it can be changed, it can evolve. To accurately update the IPAT equation, I would argue that Technology needs to be rewritten as Tff/Ts, or T sub fossil fuel and T sub sustainable. If we consider T in this way, we divide technology into those techs that emit fossil fuels and those that have net positive impacts (in carbon terms). Sustainable, in these terms, is defined quite fittingly by the Brundlandt Commission as: “Sustainable Development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Thus, sustainable technology does not create negative externalities in the present or future. In this solution, as we move from a fossil fuel based society to a sustainable-technology society, the denominator becomes larger, eventually surpassing the nominator, and increasing towards infinity. As this happens the fraction becomes smaller and approaches the limit of 0. If we consider the entire equation I=PAT, if T approaches 0 than no matter the numerical values of P or A (how many people or how much money they have), the Impact will always equal Zero. Our solution then, is to invent and drive the adoption of sustainable technologies.
We have successfully defined the terms solution and climate change, next let us return to our original axiom and contemplate Innovation. If we consider all the thoughts, ideas, and information ever created by humans and we put it all into one circle and call it the “Body of Knowledge,” than innovation is the pushing of the boundaries of that circle. It is a dot on the outside of the circumference, a physical expansion of the area of the circle, it is what we don’t know and what we don’t know we don’t know, it is every new idea, invention, and thought. Innovation is not just technology, innovation comes in numerous shapes and forms — writing, design, philosophy, policy, activism, entrepreneurship, urban planning, art – practically every discipline is a form of innovation and each contributes to pushing the boundary of the Body of Knowledge. Most importantly, each of these forms of innovation have one thing in common – they all come from people. People innovate. People create. People are the solution to climate change, or People are the solution to the impact of humans on the ecosystem.
“How then can I be innovative?” you might ask. I would offer three pieces of advice that can help someone be innovative.
1) Be Mindful. Wake up to the world around you. Become a sponge; learn all you can about that big Body of Knowledge. Be mindful of the world around you. Also be mindful of yourself, be healthy – it will give you the foundation from which to build.
2) Be Interested. Question the Body of Knowledge, don’t take anything for granted. Ask questions about everything, challenge the status quo and go in search of your own answers.
3) Be Creative. Ask yourself “What is next?” Expand upon that Body of Knowledge and the assumptions you have challenged. Write down your ideas, build something, paint, create, and innovate.
To bring it all together: Mindful, healthy, interested, questioning, creative people are the solution to the impact of humans on the ecosystem.
Note: I am in the process of putting up the lecture with powerpoint and voice over.