Archeology of innovation

We humans are great at innovating, true. But there are limits. And a deep reason, perhaps, why our worst problems are those we’ve created for ourselves


A couple of years ago, at a scientific meeting on global challenges, I heard a talk by a bearded anthropologist named Sander van der Leeuw. He titled his talk “The Archeology of Innovation,” and I expected to hear something about early mankind and the development of technology. I did. But his larger argument blew me away, because it wasn’t just about the distant past. Van der Leeuw suggested an explanation for something that puzzles a lot of us who believe in the amazing innovative creativity of humanity: If people are so smart, then why is it that we’ve got ourselves in such a collective, global mess? Why have we created problems such as climate change, and pushed the environment to its limits in dozens of ways?

I’ve written more on Van der Leeuw’s explanation below. I think it’s among the more profound ideas I’ve come across in the past few years. It’s come back into my mind because Van der Leeuw and Chinese economist Yongsheng Zhang have a new working paper that takes the idea further and examines, how, possibly, we might find some ways out of our problems.

If you’re not convinced that we face some serious problems, have a look at the pair of figures below, assembled by climate scientist Will Steffen of the Australian National University, which illustrate the near-exponential growth in over 30 different measures of the scale of human population and its impact on the environment in historical context. The figures (one is in this short review paper, the other I received from Steffen by email) illustrate how, a few hundred years ago, and more or less in sync with the Industrial Revolution, various indicators such as global population, water use, number of rivers dammed, global economic output, number of species extinctions and atmospheric carbon dioxide started following a steepening path upward. First, measures of human activity:

Second, measures that show our direct influence on different aspects of the environment:

We have, in short, changed the planet in profound ways over the past few centuries. Before then, for many hundreds of thousands of years, not a lot happened. Then we came along, discovered science and technology, and the rest is history. The sudden explosion and resulting shift is so pronounced that scientists now talk about a new geological era — the “Anthropocene,” in which all Earth processes come to be powerfully shaped by human activity. Of all the usable energy reaching the Earth from the sun, for example, we humans already gather and exploit close to 5 percent. Nearly half of the planet’s land surface has been altered by human action and practice.

This is all the result of the singular skill that sets us apart from all other species — our unparalleled capacity for innovation, especially through technology. Which brings me back to van der Leeuw. New techniques for everything from farming to computation interact and combine to drive the creation of more innovations in an ever-accelerating spiral. Paradoxically, technological innovation has also created our biggest problems, including climate change, environmental destruction and the threat of nuclear annihilation. If innovation is both the key to our success and the primary threat to our existence, what can we do?

The first thing, Van der Leeuw suggests, is to get clear on this problem, and where it comes from. There’s a temptation to think (some skeptics even think this about climate change) that the next round of innovation will somehow be different, that this time we’ll find solutions through innovation without causing any other problems, even though this has never happened before. This is a wishful thinking, and delusional, Van der Leeuw suggests, because the unintended consequences that always seem to surprise us emerge quite naturally out of a mismatch between our thinking about what we do and the truth of what we do. This is the insight I think is so important.

Here’s the idea. Our brains make sense of a multifaceted world by ignoring much of its complexity — a trait Van der Leeuw calls “low dimensional” thinking. In engineering a dam, assessing how agricultural runoff influences an estuary or figuring out how automobile emissions might alter the atmosphere, our conceptual models (or those of our scientists and engineers) at best consider only a few of the true pathways of cause and effect. Our brains are naturally limited, and so are our mathematical models. As Van der Leeuw puts it, “every human action upon the environment modifies the latter in many more ways that its human actors perceive, simply because the dimensionality of the environment is much higher than can be captured by the human mind.”

This is why human innovations, even as they help us in ways that we see clearly and understand, also end up affecting our environment in ways that we mostly fail to recognize. Effects build up in the environment — and this includes the social environment, as well as biological or physical — over the long term. We’re unaware, until eventually we have the famous unintended consequences so familiar from technological history. We may, for example, not yet know what lies behind the obesity epidemic in Western nations, but it is surely a consequence of one or more technologies — in food manufacturing and distribution, in human transportation, in entertainment and advertising.

Here’s the gist of the argument in Van der Leeuw’s own words, from this paper of a few years ago:

Human cognition, powerful as it may have become in dealing with the environment, is only one side of the (asymmetric) interaction between people and their environment, the one in which the perception of the multidimensional external world is reduced to a very limited number of dimensions. The other side of that interaction is human action on the environment, and the relationship between cognition and action is exactly what makes the gap between our needs and our capabilities so dramatic.
The crucial concept here is that of ‘unforeseen’ or ‘unanticipated’ consequences. It refers to the well-known and oft-observed fact that, no matter how careful one is in designing human interventions in the environment, the outcome is never what it was intended to be. It seems to me that this phenomenon is due to the fact that every human action upon the environment modifies the latter in many more ways that its human actors perceive, simply because the dimensionality of the environment is much higher than can be captured by the human mind. In practice, this may be seen to play out in every instance where humans have interacted in a particular way with their environment for a long time — in each such instance, ultimately the environment becomes so degraded from the perspective of the people involved that they either move to another place or change the way they are interacting with the environment.
Ultimately, this necessarily leads to ‘time-bombs’ or ‘crises’ in which so many unknowns emerge that the society risks being overwhelmed by the number of challenges it has to face simultaneously. It will initially deal with this by innovating faster and faster, as our society has done for the last two centuries or so, but as this only accelerates the risk spectrum shift, this ultimately is a battle that no society can win. There will inevitably come a time that the society drastically needs to change the way it interacts with the environment, or it will lose its coherence. In the latter case, after a time, the whole cycle begins anew — as one observes when looking at the rise and decline of firms, cities, nations, empires or civilizations.

Think of this next time you’re reading about any of the brilliant schemes for geo-engineering our way out of climate change, without having to make any sacrifices to economic growth. How likely is it that these interventions won’t have any unintended consequences?

If Van der Leeuw’s argument is right, then we’re going to need some kind of radical break with our past behavior if we’re to engineer a viable future. We’re currently locked into a strategy of almost reckless innovation, and economists, among others, seem to celebrate this as our only way forward. It may be, yet if we innovate as we have in the past, we’re likely also to go on churning up new crises as well. If we see faster innovation as the key to further economic growth, we should also expect the unintended impacts on our environment to grow even faster.

Van der Leeuw also muses about a possible solution, or part of one: Learn to innovate differently, in part by using technology to reduce the mismatch between our brains and reality. Computing and communications technology can improve our ability to handle large quantities of information. They make it possible, in principle, to help our brains build more accurate models of reality. Indeed, this is already happening in some areas, in large-scale models of climate, which include thousands or millions of atmospheric variables, or in new models of economies that try to include every last business or household. Information technology may also enable us to act back against some of the homogenizing influences of globalization, and to preserve the diversity of cultures and ways of being that could be crucial to growing sustainable ways of existing on our planet.

Van der Leeuw has expanded on this in a new paper with a colleague, the Chinese economist Yongsheng Zhang. They don’t have all the solutions, or even any of them, but do offer a completely unique — and I think inspiring — way of looking at where we are as a species today. We’re stuck in a predicament of our own making. It’s up to us to be more clever than we have been in the past.