Are the optimists right?

One bold (and popular) narrative for the time we live in is to describe it in world-historic terms. We are the makers and witnesses to the dawning of a new Age – an Age of Enlightenment, or Discovery, or Abundance – or Creation, as a group of techno-optimists argue in a series of whitepapers under the banner RethinkX. (Some authors of the series include James Arbib, Adam Dorr and Tony Seba.)

Their narrative is that for millennia, humanity has been stuck in a crude Age of Extraction – tearing up forests and mountains to get at the fuel and minerals we need, slaughtering whole herds of animals to get slices of protein.

But new technologies now enable us to sip and synthesize the resources we need in more refined ways, sometimes with molecular precision. Instead of working with scarce raw materials, we will work with a seemingly limitless supply of photons, electrons, molecules, genes and data bits to make everything everyone needs.

This is how we solve global crises like climate change and achieve abundance for all – not by conquering new lands or making fast breakthroughs in nuclear fusion, but by scaling up certain emerging technologies to do much, much more than before with the same inputs

The implication is that rather than pursue a bunch of different agendas to fight climate change (or hunger, or inequality), society’s whole focus should be on the big prize: shifting the Age we're living in from Extraction to Creation. Because on the other side of this historic shift, our biggest problems will no longer exist.

Our mistake, they argue, is to try to fix these problems with a hodgepodge of well-intentioned efforts that distract us from the main opportunity. So long as we’re stuck in the extractive paradigm, that hodgepodge will never be enough. The only viable solution is to shift to a whole new input-output model. And, they argue, we already know which technologies will do it.

Breaking the Binary

Are they right? Is solving climate change mainly a matter of doubling down on the technologies that promise to shrink fastest our appetite for raw materials and fossil fuels?

Bold scenarios, confidently presented, provoke big reactions.

A predictable binary debate ensues, with much motivated reasoning displayed by both sides. Those who like this description of the future (first and foremost, people who develop and sell the technologies of salvation) line up in support. It is further confirmation that the world would be a better place if only everyone would adopt our solution. 

Those who don't like that future or doubt the intentions of those hawking it, line up against. 

This binary dynamic is widespread in society today. Whatever the problem, technology is going to be recognized and listed as part of the solution. Whatever your field, techno-optimism is present in discussions about the future. 

The real world isn’t binary, so binary thinking is unlikely to serve us best. Breaking the binary can be an important act of original thinking that helps unblock fixed positions, spark discovery, and improve situations.  

How can you break the binary of techno-optimism in your world? How can you introduce useful complications into either/or debates so that better insights for the future can emerge? Here are some avenues to explore…

The Case for Techno-Optimism on Climate Change

First, let's appreciate the powerful logic of technology-driven stories about the future. 

We all have personal experience with the transforming effect of new technologies upon our daily lives. Skilful observers of the underlying dynamics, like James Arbib and his collaborators at RethinkX, ground their techno-optimism toward solving climate change on two basic insights: 

1. Change comes faster than we think

The first insight is that disruptive technologies reliably beat our expectations of how fast they’ll displace the old way of doing things. 

"Disruptive" is an adjective so over-used that it has come to mean little more than ‘new’ (and sometimes not even that), but Arbib and his crew give it rigour by thinking about it in terms of economic incentives:

Take personal transportation. An electric car that drives itself can be over 100x more efficient than a fossil fuel vehicle driven by you. Electric drivetrains last a lot longer than combustion-engine drivetrains. Autonomous vehicles can be active 24x7x365, instead of sitting parked 95% of their life. And unlike personal vehicles, which might have 80% of useful mileage left in them when they are scrapped, autonomous vehicles can be driven until their engines are utterly exhausted. 

More efficient means cheaper; 100x more efficient means a lot cheaper. Given the new choice between paying a lot to drive a car and paying a little to be driven around by a robot, many people are going to switch away from owning their own car in favour of “Transport-as-a-Service.”

And it’ll all happen faster than we think. Why? Arbib and his co-authors point to the mismatch between our linear thinking and the non-linear dynamics of technology adoption – namely feedback loops. Feedback loops cause the pace of adoption to accelerate over time. Virtuous cycles  make the incentives to adopt electric cars stronger and stronger. Vicious cycles make the penalty for driving around the old way bigger and bigger. 

It’s already happening. Cities are rolling out more charging stations, which makes electric car ownership more convenient, which leads more people to buy them, which drives down the price tag, which leads more people to buy them, etc – a virtuous cycle for the new thing. At the same time, some gas/petrol stations in the city shut down (due to falling demand), which makes car ownership less convenient, which leads fewer people to buy them, which lowers demand further (a vicious cycle for the old thing).  

Arbib's team canvassed several historical and recent examples on their way to concluding that technologies are going to transform society faster than we think. It’s an obvious statement today, because we have all lived its truth, but it’s worth restating because we consistently set expectations for the future that are too much like the present

As one prominent example, they point to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) forecasts for renewable energy adoption. In 2014, the IPCC’s best-case scenario assumed that solar, wind and geothermal power would supply 4% of the world’s energy by the year 2100. Now we’re on track to surpass that threshold by 2030.

2. The foundations are shifting

The second insight that grounds their techno-optimism toward climate change is to notice in which sectors some of the biggest non-linear shifts are happening now: in transportation, in energy production and in food production.

These are among the core functions of civilization. Shift any one of these foundational functions, and you cause a cascade of changes across the whole of society. Shift several at once, and phrases like “the dawn of a new age” begin to look less like hyperbole and more like historical accuracy.

To bolster this insight, Arbib's team offer their own model of how civilization works. (Their model owes an intellectual debt to a large body of theory on this topic. To take a detour down this path, check out Neue Geo’s own 10-minute video-primer, which draws upon Carroll Quigley’s 1960 work The Evolution of Civilizations, Alvin Toffler’s 1980 classic The Third Wave, and others.) 

At a systems-scale, their model goes, civilization is basically made up of three things: 

  1. Five core production functions: Energy to power our work, Food to feed our bodies, Materials to make our tools, Transportation to move things through space, and Information & Communications for learning and collaboration.
  2. Technology, which enables each of these sectors to take inputs and make outputs. 
  3. An Organizing System (an O/S): the institutions, power politics, values, culture, norms and rituals that bind the population into a cooperative enterprise and keep the system stable.

This meta-picture is helpful when thinking about planet-wide challenges like climate change. Although fewer and fewer people today work in these core production functions, they continue to consume the most planetary resources. Just three – Food, Energy and Transportation – together account for over 90% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The future is bright, Q.E.D.

Combine these two insights, and the case for techno-optimism is complete. 

In Transportation, they argue, the shift from fossil-fuel car ownership to autonomous electric vehicles could be largely complete in North America and Europe by 2030-35. 

In Food, they point to precision fermentation (lab-grown proteins). Today’s protein supply chain is roundabout and wasteful: rearing big animals in factories and farms, then breaking them down into marketable meats and throwing away the rest. Lab-grown proteins reverse that model: start with micro-organisms (bacteria), feed them sugar and grow them up into just the meats people want to eat.

Lab-grown protein may be 5-10x cheaper than the slaughtered alternative. Again, economics will drive adoption, and the results will be felt society-wide: the collapse of commercial livestock and fisheries, the release of 80% of today’s pasture land for other purposes (like reforestation); ending hunger. 

In Energy, they point to renewables (solar, wind and biomass power). The cost of a kilowatt-hour of solar power in 2020 was only 1/5th what it cost in 2010, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, and the cost continues to fall. Similar non-linear cost curves are proving true for wind power and battery-storage. The cheaper these renewables become, the more renewable energy gets installed, and the cheaper they become again. 

Plus, unlike fossil fuels, the ultimate supply of renewable energy (the sun) is virtually unlimited. If the acceleration of renewable power generation continues, solar and wind will one day not simply substitute oil and coal; they will supply a super-abundance of energy beyond what could ever be possible with finite fossil fuels. 

Techno-optimists challenge the status quo with a simple question: Why don't we just do this instead? The direct benefits would be strong; the indirect effect would be to end society’s CO2 problems.

Is climate change a challenge? Or is it a choice to hold onto past ways of doing things when we could be doing something smarter?

Opportunities for Action

Technology promises to make this world better. At least some of that promise is surely real. But it won’t be realized unless you bring some important complications to the conversation. Here are three ways you might help break the binary in your world: 

1. Improve others' foresight with your uncertainty

Techno-optimists speak with confidence about what the positive consequences of implementing their agenda will be. Left unchallenged, this confidence can cause blind spots in everyone’s thinking. RethinkX's whitepaper on climate change offers a textbook example of this. They conclude: 

“The conventional ‘whack-a-mole’ approach to [solving climate change] has tried a wide variety of techniques, policies and technologies to decarbonize our global economy.

The results are discouraging.

A far better approach is to accelerate technological disruption to transform how we produce energy, food and transportation…”

It’s phrases like “whack-a-mole”, which dismiss every other approach to solving this complex global problem as a time-waster, that rile up the techno-skeptics and risk dragging you into dead-end Twitter wars.

More helpful is to bring back the uncertainty that they have removed from view. 

Doing foresight is a journey in two dimensions: complexity and uncertainty. Zurek and Henrichs (2007) sketched the landscape this way: 

Communicating foresight tends to be more one-dimensional. For Fortune-tellers and Futurists, their aim is to convince. Uncertainty muddies an otherwise clear message and makes it harder to persuade people, so they tend to hide it. 

But uncertainty can also make the message stronger – especially if the topic is complex and you need many, diverse allies to come together to make big change happen.

Academics tend to understand this well. The Academic’s aim is not to convince. It’s to get other thinkers to gather around their ideas. They are in the business of publishing theories that are compelling enough to attract serious study and unfinished enough to entice others to work on improving them. So they take pains to proclaim some big important things they don’t know

Uncertainty is not the hole in their thinking – it’s the research agenda to attract allies. Academics may fail to make headlines (all those caveats!) but they don’t want to be the last word. They want to be the first word in a whole new field of research. (That's the only way to win a Nobel prize.)

It’s likely that the techno-optimists in your world are trying to convince, rather than convene. So it’s up to you to restore the missing uncertainty to their message, and help make the latter happen.

Take climate change: What if the optimists are wrong about how fast these planet-saving technologies can replace the status quo? Hindsight has shown that some of RethinkX's confident predictions were too optimistic. It turns out, trying to replace reliable infrastructure than must never shut down is slow work – as every rider on the New York or London subway station already knows. Upgrading a nation’s electricity grid “is like trying to upgrade an airplane while it’s flying in the air,” as one Neue Geo member, a senior executive in the energy industry, put it. 

What if the optimists are wrong about the system dynamics? What if their understanding is incomplete? Arbib's team rests a lot of their confidence on the power of non-linear forces: vicious cycles that speed up the death of the old, and virtuous cycles that hasten the birth of the new. 

But that’s not the full picture. Vicious cycles can also form against new technologies. (Think anti-vaccine and anti-nuclear movements.) How big a braking force will these counter-cycles be? 

“What’s the missing research agenda?” Or more simply, “What if…?” are powerful questions to ask to help improve the technology agendas that are reshaping your own world. 

2. Proclaim your doubts proudly

Every big-think whitepaper begins with a long Disclaimer to limit legal liability in case somebody loses money by relying upon what it says. For example, the RethinkX reports insert this legalese upfront:

“Any findings, predictions, inferences, implications, judgments, beliefs, opinions, recommendations, suggestions, and similar matters in this report are statements of opinion by the authors and are not statements of fact…The content of this report does not constitute advice of any kind… Any scenario or statement in this report is based upon certain assumptions and methodologies chosen by the authors. Other assumptions and/or methodologies may exist that could lead to other results and/or opinions…” 

Works of brave new thinking (like the RethinkX series) need Proclaimers – stronger, upfront declarations of viewpoint, belief, bias, motivation and doubt. Proclaimers invite other people to add complexities that the authors can't possibly untangle alone. 

Take a cue from academics: the most valuable followers are not those who buy your theory, but those who improve upon it. 

3. Create middle ground

The conclusion to any work of techno-optimism inevitably lists out the social shifts that society must make to “seize the extraordinary opportunities emerging” – shifts in mindset, beliefs, institutions, governance and decision-making. RethinkX's proposed path to solving climate change is no exception:

“Optimizing for these opportunities will also require fundamental transformations to our organizing system [i.e. to how the rest of society functions]. Our current organizing system is structured around the needs of the industrial production system, and is therefore not optimized around the dynamics and possibilities of a different production system…” 

In short, for this to work we must change how we think. Technology can solve all our problems, but only if we let it. (Side note: Optimists of every endeavour — faith, law, politics, science, meditation — tend to reach the same conclusion.)

But isn’t this prescription the same medicine that got us here in the first place? The world will be better if we reorder everything to support the new solution.

It’s common nowadays to see technology as the best hope for progress – or to blame technology for all the ills of modernity. Is the techno-optimist’s agenda a roadmap to a new age of abundance where wicked problems like climate change are broken forever? Or is it the blind leading the blind — an invitation to endlessly repeat the cycle of crisis we’re caught in? 

Take their prediction that lab-grown proteins will quickly displace meats from live animals in our food supply. They’ve quantified many benefits: cheaper protein, repurposed lands, revalued rainforests (imagine all the undiscovered micro-organisms in the Amazon that might be profitably lab-grown for human consumption). 

What about the costs? Some might be clear and predictable, like the destruction of commercial ranches and fisheries. Others are harder to predict. For all our modernity, we are still caught in the circle of life. We depend upon the health of other plants and animals for our own survival. What happens if we step outside that circle completely? Will that version of humanity be better or worse? 

By now we’ve learned that the best promises of the techno-evangelists don’t play out as predicted. In 1954, Lewis Strauss, architect of the U.S. “Atoms for Peace” Program and one of the founding members of the Atomic Energy Commission, described the coming Nuclear Age: 

"It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, and will know of great periodic famines in the world only as matters of history…"

Today nuclear power is an important (and problematic) part of the equation, but was it the harbinger of a new Age? No. Progress always proves harder than promised. 

We’ve also learned that technology can quickly, dramatically transform people's lives. It might not solve all our problems, but it certainly does change the problems we've got.   

Instead of taking sides in this debate, how can you create more middle ground for new thinking to emerge? 

One way would be to push the techno-optimist’s own thinking further. 

In Arbib's case, their thinking is based on the insight that technology adoption is non-linear. Vicious and virtuous cycles cause us to keep making bad guesses about how fast and strong the shifts might be. 

Where else should we apply that insight? How much else in our world is non-linear? Social stability? Support for change? Inequality? 

If technology adoption is the only nonlinear dynamic in the system, then maybe shoving forward large-scale change to how food, energy and transportation happen is the best way to solve a lot of today’s problems. But if nonlinearity is everywhere, then what might the unintended effects of that one big shove be?

Techno-optimistic scenarios and solutions are key sites where more original thinking is needed. Technology enjoys high power and status in modern life. Most action plans, regardless of the problem, agree that technology is part of the solution. 

Technology is always going to be at the table. Can you improve the role it plays in your world?