Technology can solve big problems. But only under certain conditions.
The text of my Talk at TED 2016 in Vancouver.
“On a sleepy afternoon in 1785 at an elementary school in Lower Saxony, in what would one day be Germany, a lazy teacher set his students busy work. Sum all the numbers between 1 to 100, he ordered — and settled back to read his paper. But in a minute, one student raised his hand and announced the solution: 5050. The cleverest child had seen that every pair of numbers in the series, such as 1 and 100, 2 and 99, etc., adds up to 101, and that there are 50 such pairs. The eight-year-old inventor of this trick was Carl Friedrich Gauss, who would become the greatest mathematician since antiquity, and the formula works for all series of numbers that are evenly spaced.
“When we talk about solving big problems with technology, such as how we will provide energy, food, water, healthcare, and education for the nine and half billion people who will be alive in 2050, we often borrow this language of mathematics; we hope for insights like Gauss’s, which will provide a breakthrough or shortcut. “Solve for x,” we order technologists. In the jargon of Silicon Valley, we want “disruptions:” technological innovations that appear like miracles and displace tired ways of doing things, often by competing on price. But in the real world, solutions to big problems are not so easily won, because big problems are civilizational and they are hard.
“Here’s a more difficult problem, which humanity solved. The ozone layer of the stratosphere absorbs more than 97% of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Without its clement umbrella, we’d get cancers. In 1974, acting on a hint from the environmentalist James Lovelock, two chemists named Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina predicted a depletion of the ozone layer caused by our own technology, the chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs used in air conditioning systems, refrigerators, and aerosol sprays. They said CFCs would drift high enough for solar radiation to split off a chlorine atom and react with ozone, destroying the ozone molecule. Other scientists confirmed the hypothesis, and later discovered a huge decrease of ozone around the poles.
“But In 1976, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences endorsed Sherwood and Molina’s theory, over the objections of industry. In 1978, the U.S, Canada, and Norway banned the use of CFCs in aerosol sprays. And since 1987, 197 nations have signed the Montreal Protocol, which committed the world to phasing out CFCs. As a result, the ozone layer is slowly recovering: it will return to its 1980 levels before 2070. Kofi Annan called Montreal “the single most successful international agreement” in history. For their work on stratospheric ozone, Molina, Rowland and another chemist named Paul Crutzen were awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Molina and Crutzen are still alive.
“There are evils in the world, such as environmental degradation, that seem to survive identification as evils; and goods, like regulating the chemicals responsible, that we know to be good but cannot embrace. That’s because the anticipated changes in our lives seem unnecessary, or come too soon, or are unbearable to contemplate.
“But in the case of CFCs, we were able to act. Why? First, the science was complex but incontrovertible: the impact of CFCs was confirmed within a decade, and industrial opposition to regulation collapsed. Second, institutions around the world devised rational commitments. Third, we already had technological alternatives to the use of CFCs, or could quickly develop them. Finally, the politics of the time were right: it was the 1970s and 80s and environmentalism was still respectable; the public could grasp the imminent threat of a “hole” in the stratosphere; and politicians saw some personal or party benefit in supporting corrective national laws and international accords.
“Since I spoke to TED three years ago about how technology can solve big problems, I’ve been working on just that: I’ve been building an organization at MIT called Solve, which seeks to discover, evaluate, and advance technological solutions to global problems. I’ve learnt a lot about when big problems can be solved by technology, and I’ve discovered that conditions similar to Montreal must exist: the problem must be well understood; institutions must function; industry and entrepreneurs must find in labs technologies that they can test, develop, and manufacture at scale; and politicians and the public must care to solve the problem.
“Much of the work of Solve has been done against the dark background hum of the great challenge of our own time: climate change. Here, too, the evil is recognized by many, if not all, and the good is known, too. But the problem of climate change is much harder than the depletion of the ozone by CFCs — wickedly hard. Once again, the culprits are our own technologies, but this time they are foundational: the hydrocarbons we burn to fuel our technological civilization, but which contribute to the greenhouse effect.
“With 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, and enormous reserves of fossil fuels, some part of which we will use, at least 2 °C of global warming, once thought the upper band of what we could bear, now seem locked in. More is possible. It will be hotter; seas will rise and flood cities; there will be more droughts and storms, and crops will fail; nations will fight; and refugees will stream from the poor parts of the world. Faced with all this, it’s easy to recall the words of Job: “The thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.” It’s easy to lose heart. But it’s never too late until it’s too late; and life goes on until it doesn’t. We must decide what we want to do next.
“Don’t panic! We must investigate the science of climate change that is not fully understood, including climate sensitivity, which will tell us how bad it will all be and how fast it will happen. To limit increases in temperature, we must swiftly replace fossil fuels with the low-carbon technologies we do have, such as solar and wind power, while researching and developing solutions that still elude us, like how to store electricity generated by renewable sources, or build safer, cheaper nuclear reactors. We must imagine the economic, agricultural, and engineering consequences of a hotter future, and plan.
“All this will require smart energy policies, including a price on carbon, and a substantial increase in how much countries spend on energy R&D. Scientists, regulators, business people and technologists, and politicians and ordinary citizens will have to act collectively, think globally, and feel a duty to the future.
“Technology, which has expanded human possibilities and grown wealth, has also created problems, like global warming. Under certain conditions, technology can solve those problems. But there are no miracles. We have to want the solutions, and cheerfully accept that the solving won’t be easy.