Innovation is the Solution to Climate Change – A Thought Experiment

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.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Bob Lohrmann says:

    Hey Nat,

    So I’ve been reading some your blog! Lots of interesting stuff, thoughts, ideas, musings, etc. Kudos.

    Specifically, the topic “Innovation is the Solution to Climate Change” has provoked some thought in me.

    You begin with what I believe is a fundamentally flawed assumption: namely, that the human species has a right to exist and grow on the planet superceding the right of all other species to exist and grow. You base your arguments on a premise built on a fallacy one or more steps removed from the fundamental truth. And as such, while I find your arguments well thought out, they lead to an untenable conclusion.

    I agree that climate change is (this time) a result of the impact of humans on the ecosystem. Any thoughtful person without a political/economic agenda would have to agree. A graph of the annual average planetary temperature correlates exactly with a combination of human population figures and the use of carbon-based fuel, especially the use of oil in the internal combustion engine. So, no disagreement there.

    Now let’s look at impact. I like the neat little equation I=PAT, though I think your use of “or” when identifying the variables begs the question by prematurely eliminating solutions which might utilize a combination of all three factors (PAT). I’d rather see “and”. And maybethe equation would be more accurately reflect your conclusions if it read I=PA/T (that is, Impact equals Population times Affluence divided by Technology.) But I digress.

    We can and do conceptualize something called “human rights” and because we’re humans we naturally think human rights are somehow fundamental rights. Human rights trump earthworm rights or fox rights or tree rights, we think. This is the premise upon which all anti-conservationist arguments are based. The endangered snail-darter (to use an historical example) does not have a right to exist if that species stands in the way of our economic development which provides jobs and affluence, etc. The Impact of human beings on the planet is causing extinction of species at a rate conservatively estimated at 10,000 times greater than naturally occurring extinctions. Specicide is tolerated because it sustains and promotes the growth of the human species. For now.

    Our belief that our right to exist is THE fundamental planetary right is deeply and profoundly entrenched. The Book of Genesis (I, 24-31) tells us that on the sixth day, after creating all other species in the world and just before resting, God created humans and gave them (us) not only the right of dominion but the mandate to subdue the planet and said “Be fruitful, and multiply.” And so we have. We, the decendents of this god’s creation.

    And yes, Nat, I agree that we fear and loathe death. We fear our own death, primarily, and secondarily the deaths of other members of our culture. We certainly don’t loathe the death of other species nor the deaths of other cultures. In fact, every species and culture we come into contact with that stands in the way of our voracious appetite for affluent consumption, we destroy. Without exception.

    That brings us to affluence/wealth/consumption. I would suggest your ethical dilemma is also based on a fallacy. There is no dilemma, Nat. China has no “right” to destroy the planet in the name of growth, progress and consumption than we ever had. Extending that argument (“you did it, now it’s our turn to do it”) could then justify slavery, for instance, because the West exploited slave labor in the past (and still does, in fact, or nearly does.) We just happened to get away with it because the planetary population (and concomitant consumption) wasn’t so large as to make the consequences undeniable. The past commission of crimes certainly does not justify the future commission of those same crimes. That’s just rape versus gang rape. And the idea that Western affluence is viable, sustainable or even moral is absurd.

    Technology will not outwit nature no matter how smart we get. The Brundlandt Commission leaves out one salient word: human. When you add that word you can more easily recognize the bias. “Sustainable Development is development that meets the human needs of the present without compromising the ability of future human generations to meet their own needs.” I should point out that by using the word “human” I, too, am denying the historical success of every surviving tribal culture on the planet before they came into lethal contact with our culture. Maybe it would be better stated, “development that meets our cultural needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations of our culture to meet their own needs.”

    I’m reading about cancer right now. My mother has been diagnosed with it and is undergoing chemotherapy. In the book, How We Die, author Sherwin B. Nuland describes cancer thus:

    “All nature recognizes that death is the final step in the process
    of normal maturation. Malignant cells don’t reach that point—
    their longevity is not finite…. Cancer cells cultivated in the lab-
    oratory exhibit an unlimited capacity to grow and generate new
    tumors. The combination of delayed death and uncontrolled birth
    are malignancy’s greatest violations of the natural order of things.

    There comes a point at which home turf is not enough— offshoots of
    the gang take wing, invade other communities, and, emboldened by their
    unresisted depredations, wreak havoc on the entire commonwealth of the
    body. But in the end, there is no victory for cancer. When it kills its
    victim, it kills itself. A cancer is born with a death wish.” (Italics mine.)

    Does this sound an awful lot like our culture? It does to me. Our culture is a cancer on the planet. We assume the right of immortality (infinite longevity) and unfettered propagation. We assume the right to ignore the immutable natural order of things.

    I think the unpleasant (“inconvenient”?) truth is that we are doomed. Until things get really bad, really bad (“it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” as Dylan sings) we will continue down this path where meaning and happiness is equated with comfort and consumption. Where even the best of us, those of us who believe in the right of all species to exist, believe also that humans of this culture have more right. And the price we are going to pay for that belief is, I’m afraid, the inevitable collapse of everything on which we base our culture and civilization. I just can’t see us giving anything up until there’s no more to be had.

    But there is another way, perhaps many other ways. Some of them are covered in your advice for innovation. Be mindful. I agree. We need to be mindful of how our fundamental cultural belief system has duped us into ignoring what is right in front of us. We need to be mindful of what the world teaches us if we just stop and really look, not in the context of sustaining our way of life, but in the context of the immutable laws of the universe. We do need to be interested and question everything. I’d suggest starting the questioning at an earlier point than you do. We need to question whether this culture is valid. And certainly we need to be creative. We are going to need to find creative ways to recognize and put into practice our “oneness” (if you don’t mind me slipping a little Zen into the equation) with the planet. We’re also going to need a whole lot of creativity to pick up and begin again when it all collapses.

    We are not separate. We are literally everything we see around us. We are all the beauty. We are everything we destroy. And we will only survive by adhering to the rules that govern all life.

    Anyway, Nat. Thanks for the thought provoking blog. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to see you if not Christmas Eve, then sometime around the holidays.



    • natmanning says:

      Thank you Zen Master Bob! I appreciate your input, and as always you raise the conversation to the next level. I concur with your thoughts here, and they are indeed at the next level of thinking, requiring a real look at humanity and our function in this world. I agree that I have taken a few things for granted in this approach: humanity’s continued existence on this planet, our right to be on this planet, and that we should in fact shape our actions to ensure this. I do agree with you that this is not a given, and that human existence is not more important than other species. I attempted to shape this argument taking into account a few of the realities we face as humans, however unfortunate they might sometimes be, so as to make concrete steps in a positive direction and not freeze ourselves in fear of the larger goals and realities at hand. More thoughts and discussions needed! Thank you for your input!

  2. Bob Lohrmann says:

    I sent an email to your mother saying, in effect, that I felt as though my response above was emblematic of my generation, “sorry we fucked everything up so bad. See ya!” You are thinking about these things and acting on your thoughts. And for that, I applaud you. I will keep reading and commenting.

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