13: The spirit of innovation knows no limits

Since 1972, the self-evident fact that there is only one Earth has been repeated like a mantra. [1] In 2008 the WWF introduced its state of the world report with the innovative observation that ‘We have only one planet’. It went on to argue that ‘by the mid-2030s we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles,’ and today insists that ‘Humanity’s demands exceed our planet’s capacity to sustain us’. [2]

This account does little justice to the role of innovation, which mediates between human beings and the planet.

The resources that are limited today are not so much the Earth and nature, as human imagination, consciousness and daring. Already innovation has, in many people’s minds, been reduced to an abstraction such as creating a more sustainable future. Today the precise and always unimpeachable goal of sustainability looms large not just in energy, transport, forestry and agriculture, but also at Wal-Mart, and in fields as varied as banking, commercial and residential property, packaging, design and IT. Even if climate catastrophe came tomorrow, it would be difficult to justify the narrowing of the scope for innovation that has taken place. Yet sustainability is now praised as a mother lode’ of organisational and technological innovations, and it is said that ‘smart’ companies now treat it as innovation’s new frontier. [3]

No doubt when Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, despairing voices told him that there was ‘only one Portugal’. And for the people of Haiti today, it is clear that there is not one Earth, but rather their own very special Hell and then, perhaps, the kind of Earths enjoyed by other people. For ourselves, we are confident that, in terms of what civilisation could achieve, there is more than one Earth available to mankind – even without space travel, which we strongly support.

By focusing for nearly 40 years on the same old finitude of the Earth, arguments for sustainability have often become directly hostile to innovation. Take the developing world. Climate change or not, it would fare better if it had better infrastructure. But because building such infrastructure would use resources and release greenhouse gases, this approach is discouraged. So to save the developing world from climate change, it should stay as it is.

This is no recipe for innovation.

A narrowed scope for innovation: the example of climatology

There can be no clearer example of the narrowed the scope for innovation than of climatology. No official statement on an innovative, low-carbon economy is complete without an opening declamation about climatology, and about the complete scientific consensus that is supposed to exist, within its varied discipline, on the man-made origins of global warming.

This admiration for one branch of science, however, stands in sharp contrast with the feelings that surround science as a whole. Everywhere there are insouciant, instrumentalist and penny-pinching attitudes toward research in general, and especially toward basic research. Meanwhile, zealous scientific proponents of climate disaster such as James Hansen or James Lovelock have become celebrities. Indeed, the charisma of climatologists is now judged so great, the London Guardian feels free to describe Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as ‘a leading climate scientist’, which he is not.[4]

If climatology has become an idol, however, technology – even technology for dealing with climate change – certainly has not. It is true that one or two environmentalists have converted to nuclear power, that schemes for geo-engineering climate are not quite given all the ridicule they once were. There are also plenty of boosters to found for shares and jobs around ‘greentech’. But in general technologies for dealing with climate change are held too uncertain, too risky, too costly and above all too slow to emerge. The end of the world, it’s said, is coming fast; so the right course, the ‘low-hanging fruit’, is immediately turning things off, going vegetarian, not having more babies, or insulating your loft. Long-term programmes of R&D are not part of that agenda. [5]

Resource depletion and the depletion of the human spirit

Opponents of the technologies associated with resource depletion often lead a larger and more silent kind of contempt for innovation today. Methods of coal, gas and oil extraction are for them ‘dirty’ in more than any technical sense. Technologies that might be thought renewable – biofuels, hydroelectric power – are themselves thought to lead to the depletion of food and water. Use the next generation of nuclear reactors to desalinate seawater? That’s out, too.

Grim forebodings about resource shortages now drown all calls for innovation. In 2009 the chief scientific adviser to the British government warned that, on top of dealing with climate change, population growth and urbanisation in developing countries would by 2030 raise demand for energy and food by 50 per cent, and demand for water by 30 per cent. Humanity was headed for ‘a perfect storm’ in 2030,

‘… because all of these things are operating on the same time frame… If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages’. [6]

Professor Sir John Beddington did go on, in a speech, to give a brief mention of what he termed the ’enormous ingenuity’ of mankind, and also made a nod in favour of more investment in science and technology. [7] In general, however, he followed today’s fashionable, simple, lurid and vulgar contrast between nature’s limited supplies and humanity’s demand to loot those supplies and leave a mess behind.

In this framework innovation recedes into the background, any subtlety to economics disappears, and people, represented purely as voracious consumers, become a problem. [8] Those who speculate about a demographic time bomb of more old welfare recipients supported by fewer young wealth creators and taxpayers are oblivious to how robotics and IT might both increase productivity enough to deal with the issue, and at the same time give great help to older people in everyday life. Those who say that a UK population of 100 million by 2081 would make life ‘intolerable’ forget how, in China, millions of Shanghainese already manage to live together in skyscrapers. [9] Those who fear rapid growth in China’s demand for coal and oil ignore how Chinese energy technologies are already ahead of America’s. [10]

In a world where 3D nightmares are based on crude, 2D economics, it’s now more vital than ever for people to hold out the possibility of what is today derided as a ‘technical fix’. This does not mean that technology is an independent variable, solving all ills. It is Beddington’s human ingenuity that creates technological solutions. Resolve, willpower, political vision and prioritising the right technology are the key factors to consider.

Yes, technological solutions themselves cause new problems. But on the whole, mankind has been able to solve those new problems too.

Those who are obsessed with resource depletion diminish what can be done with innovation. They turn innovation into a matter simply of survival. In so doing, they chain down the human spirit, which wants to see improvements.

Why innovation knows no end

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, sent a report to Franklin Roosevelt that pronounced science to be ‘the endless frontier’. [11] While, significantly, he noted that ‘freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science’, and took up a Roosevelt question on what the President had termed ‘the war of science against disease’, for Bush it was war, and what he called the ‘ever continuing battle of techniques’ surrounding war, that provided the main rationale for endless commitment to innovation.

Yet though innovation does demand endless commitment, that’s not because of war. Rather, the human capacity for innovation and the human possibilities that emerge from it are infinite. Similarly, while fears of peak oil and peak gas are indeed overdone, there will never be a bound on human thought.

The frontiers of human enquiry have yet really to press up against the confines of the natural world. In a famous lecture given in 1959, the American physicist Richard Feynman proclaimed: ‘there’s plenty of room at the bottom’. [12] What he meant was that, down at the level of atoms, enormous amounts of chemical, biological and other kinds of information can be and are carried in an exceedingly small space. More than 50 years later, there remains much to find out about and do in the atomic realm.

Of course, explorations at the nuclear level have given the world the Bomb, and   objections now attach to every kind of experiment in the sub-micron world of nanotechnology. But if better understanding the nucleus can lead to the acceleration of radioactive decay, so understanding the atom can lead to new materials and new medicines. In the same way, humanity’s grasp of the chemistry of CO2 still has far to go. [13]

Done at an industrial scale, the recycling of waste also has far to go. The capture of CO2 from the atmosphere is possible, and, in bulk, new transport fuels may one day come out of what is caught. But let it be noted that, to some closed minds, any kind of technological advance – even those based on astronomical forces – is suspect. The sunlight incident on the Earth is enormous, even in Britain, but the British government’s Sustainable Development Commission has never campaigned for more R&D on solar power. Given the right locations and the right civil engineering, there is little limit to tidal power, but controversy still attends the construction of a barrage at the Severn, in the west of England. In principle there is little limit to wind power, either; but, all the same, a disturbing medical condition, described as Wind Turbine Syndrome, has emerged – based on a case series of 10 families allegedly affected. [14]

Natural limits exist. But right now naturalist prejudice tends to be just as powerful as natural limits, and much more inhibiting of innovation than they are.

Markets, sticks, carrots and nudges are no substitute

Climate change, declared Lord Nicholas Stern in 2008, is ‘the greatest market failure the world has ever seen’. Yet the main solutions to this failure are to do with the state imposing a market price on CO2. This is not very innovative.

The fact is that climate science has itself benefited from technological innovation. Market mechanisms, like the sticks, carrots and nudges that are supposed to make human behaviour more environmentally minded, will never come up with new scientific equipment in the laboratory and in the field.

Stock markets for carbon, Green taxes and a more extensive labeling of consumer products do not amount to innovation. Instead of holding everyone a potential innovator, they convert everyone into a real perpetrator of environmental damage, lacking ‘awareness’ of climate change. Instead of finding new sources of value in the future, they concentrate on moral wrongdoing in the past.

Where, as with climate change, genuine environmental problems exist, innovation should never be underrated in its ability to deal with them. But innovation has a bigger agenda than simply the environment.

Innovation is open to anything and everything.

[1] Barbara Ward and René Dubos, Only One Earth: The Care And Maintenance Of A Small Planet, WW Norton, 1972.

[2] WWF, Living Planet Report 2008, 29 October 2008, pp1, 2, on http://assets.panda.org/downloads/living_planet_report_2008.pdf, and WWF, ‘Living Planet Report’, 29 October 2008, on http://www.panda.org/about_our_earth/all_publications/living_planet_report/

[3] See for example Ram Nidumolu and others, ‘Why sustainability is now the key driver of innovation, Harvard Business Review, September 2009.

[4] Randeep Ramesh, ‘India “arrogant” to deny global warming link to melting glaciers’, The Guardian, 9 November 2009, on http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/09/india-pachauri-climate-glaciers

[5] Hoping, somewhat forlornly, that ‘It might be possible to predict, on the basis of spikes in patenting rates, when deployment will take off for each of the main types of clean technologies’, some sages observe: ‘Since irreversible climate change is already upon us, there isn’t time to sit and wait years for great innovations to wend their way toward everyday use’. See Alex Rau and others, ‘Can technology really save us from climate change?’, Harvard Business Review, January 2010.

[6] Beddington, quoted in Ian Sample, ‘World faces “perfect storm” of problems by 2030, chief scientist to warn’, The Guardian, 18 March 2009, on http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/mar/18/perfect-storm-john-beddington-energy-food-climate

[7] Beddington, speech to a conference on sustainable development, 19 March 2009, on http://www.govnet.co.uk/news/govnet/professor-sir-john-beddingtons-speech-at-sduk-09

[8] Beddington himself, invoking the 18th century father of technology-free economic projections, asks: ‘am I now a second Thomas Malthus?’ He replies: ‘Not quite’, because, though he predicts a perfect storm of global problems in 2030, he professes himself ‘reasonably optimistic’. Beddington, op cit.

[9] Alasdair Palmer, ‘At this rate, life in Britain will be one big squash’, The Daily Telegraph, 29 August 2009, on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/6111574/At-this-rate-life-in-Britain-will-be-one-big-squash.html.

[10] On America slipping behind China in energy, see John Doerr and Jeff Immelt, ‘Falling behind on Green tech; The Washington Post, 3 August 2009, on http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/02/AR2009080201563.html

[11] Science – The Endless Frontier, Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, July 1945, on http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/vbush1945.htm

[12] Richard P Feynman, ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom: An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics’, 29 December 1959, on http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/feynman.html

[13] George M Whitesides and George W Crabtree, ‘Don’t forget long-term fundamental research in energy’, Science, Vol 315 No 5813, 9 February 2007.

[14] See Nina Pierpont, Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment, K-Selected Books, 2009, p27, on http://www.windturbinesyndrome.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/WTS-sample-pages.pdf. Pierpoint believes that air pressure changes, noise and vibration coming from nearby wind turbines can lead to chest pulsations, internal vibration, tinnitus, headaches and ear fullness, as well as sleeplessness, deficits in concentration and memory, and physical symptoms of anxiety.

Add Your Comments


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <ol> <ul> <li> <strong>

Your email is never published nor shared.