• hickman

Big ideas 2: Spaceship Earth

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

This is installment number two in my long read about big ideas. Click here for the intro...

As I said earlier, I'm trying to take stock of what's happening, now and into the next one or two decades, to help inform what I should or could be working on... These two are about Spaceship Earth...

We broke the planet.   Dang, it sure does look like we need a new planet.


I think it's both fair and safe to say—at least amongst educated and rational people—that human activity is changing climate. And over the last two decades, we’ve proven that policy can impact the planet’s health: if you’re as old as me you’ll remember when we outlawed fluorocarbon aerosols and freon for DIY AC recharging. Our cars may be hotter in the summer, but the hole in the ozone layer is the smallest it's been since we started caring about it. But, and this is the messed up part, the jury is still out on whether or not we have the political willpower to continue to set scientifically informed policy. Disturbingly, the pendulum in the US, is swinging towards a resounding “no” on that question. It seems that economic forces alone won’t help—China doesn’t want our garbage anymore, so recycling is no longer viable. Carbon off-set trading isn't a real market, and is toothless without actual policy and enforcement. Coastal cities can only hold back rising waters for so long, and with the physical Maker Tank sitting at 200 feet above sea level, I’m just barely not nervous. Across myriad facets of this problem, Tech can help, but not if Tech waits for Policy to be the motive force. My conclusion—there is still lots of white space for innovation against this problem, but outside of on-trend consumer products, I don't think I could make a big impact here.

We will fight wars for potable water. I thought this was a big problem the last time I did this exercise, in around 2008. I believe this problem is still manifesting, and that it will get worse over time. I don't believe even projects like the South-to-North Diversion Canal in Beijing can keep up with the growing disparity between "where water is" and "where people are." For a while yet, we will continue to grow cities in stupid places. Then I think we'll see wholesale population migration, whole cities will collapse.  A good friend whose opinions and predictions I trust more than my own thinks it will be much worse than this, and that with the collapse of cities, people will die in their millions. Irrespective of the magnitude of the problem, we will continue to mine and deplete underground water supplies faster than they can replenish. I think this one will be more impactful, in the long arc of history, than resource conflicts in the last two decades over fossil fuels. My reaction to this one is summed up in a thought from a friend, approximately "sure, but lots of people are already working on the desalination problem." And they have a big head start.

Stay tuned for a few paragraphs about the global political climate...

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