Dot Earth: 9 Billion + 1 Planet
How do very complex systems—natural, human, built, technological—interact under rapidly changing conditions? Join us for a free-wheeling conversation between science writer Andy Revkin and ASU Sustainability Scientist Brad Allenby, as they discuss how we can build social, economic, and environmental sustainability in a highly unpredictable, contingent world.Related Events: Dot Earth: 9 Billion People + 1 Planet
Rick Shangraw, Emcee: Look, we’ve got a really interesting presentation, talk today. Almost all of you know Andy. I had a two-page bio on Andy I was going to read, and I’m not going to waste my time. Award-winning journalist, created New York Times in 2007 the Dot Earth Blog. He’s blogging now as you can see.
Andy Revkin: Actually, yes.
Shangraw: I’m sure you are. I’m sure you are.
Revkin: On this.
Shangraw: And he’s somebody that 20 years ago began writing about climate when nobody was worrying about the climate. He was writing about it 15 years ago, 10 years ago. Then five years ago people said, “We must have problems with the climate,” so his colleagues began writing about it. So he’s way out in front. We couldn’t be more excited about him being here. He’s sitting next to and will be going back and forth with Dr. Brad Allenby.
Brad’s a faculty member in the Fulton School of Engineering. He’s particularly in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. He’s also a Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, has an appointment in the School of Law also. As many of you know, Brad, he’s done a lot of work, almost considered one of the grandfathers of industrial ecology, spent time as a director of energy and environment at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, was at AT&T running their environment and safety program at AT&T before coming here. He is provocative to say the least, [Laughter] and so looking forward to what’s going to go on.
I also would like to introduce just for a quick second the Honorable Kristina Johnson, who’s sitting in the front row. Kristina is the, most recently, Under Secretary of Energy and is here visiting ASU with her Science Advisor Mark Handschy and we’re glad to have her in the audience also. Thank you, Kristina. [Applause]
So with that, I’ll turn it back over to Rob to start the festivities.
Rob Melnick, Moderator: Let me just say a word about how we’re going to conduct today’s session. It’s going to be a little different than some of the sessions we’ve had in the past that you may have attended, the Wrigley Lecture Series; it’s going to be a conversation. After some fairly brief opening remarks by Brad and Andy respectively, and some kind of responses to one another, we’re going to try to keep that fairly short.
We really want to engage in a dialogue here, and so my job really is to try to bring questions from you into the discussion. I have plenty of questions for them that I’ve got in my mind that I’d love to hear, but I really want to hear from you, so we’ll have a microphone going around and hopefully we’ll be–Mindy will be fleet of foot in doing that. Try to keep your questions–I only ask this–try to keep your questions short and get to the question. Okay. Get to the question.
We have the opportunity to listen to two people who are world-class thinkers on the subject, and so please avoid the editorials, okay, and try to get to the question part of it so we can hear from them and get some discussion going. That would be, I think, the most profitable way to spend this time.
With that, Brad, I’m going to ask you to speak first and to make whatever comments you feel are appropriate for today considering we’re only talking about the future of the entire human civilization and the planet in which we live.
Brad Allenby: Thank you, Rob. First I’d like to thank all of you for being here. Andy, I’d like to thank you for slogging out from JFK, appreciate it. What I’d like to do is I’d like to start with a couple of videos which I think answer the question really as well as anything I could say, so if we could roll the George Washington piece. [Video Playing 4:32-5:32]
And now for our second learned study, could you roll 1984? [Video Playing 5:42-6:41] So a couple of thoughts about those advertisements. The first is if you don’t understand why they were up there, then you probably don’t understand the world that we’re already in. Now, you realize, of course, both of those were the same ad. If you think about it, what they did was take a technology which for many people is iconic for personal freedom and associated it directly with that.
Both of them were heavily understated. The Dodge ad didn’t even mention Dodge, and yet both of them are very potent. I showed my engineering class the Dodge advertisement and they realized it was totally hokey. They realized that it was completely phony, that it was designed to manipulate them and they loved it.
When I was in the Army going through basic training and most of the folks with me were going to Vietnam, there were–the pinups were about half and half. Half of the pinups were what you’d expect from hormonally challenged males. The other half were automobiles–Chevys, Fords. If you don’t understand the appeal of those technologies, if you don’t understand how integrated the human and the technological spheres already are, then you don’t understand the world that we’re trying to deal with. The simplistic solutions that we derive absent that kind of knowledge are going to fail.
I want to suggest a couple of things. The first thing I want to suggest is that what these advertisements indicate is that we’re facing a world that is far more complex than we think it is because the objective pieces that we can get a hold of, the data, the climate change, the artifacts, those are all embedded in culture and psychology. Every problem we deal with is a wicked problem. It involved humans. It involves irrational aspects of our behavior. Unless we know that, unless we’re prepared for that, then the solutions we suggest are going to fail.
I don’t want to start off by being provocative, but let me point out that we have been negotiating climate change for 20 years. Over that period, emissions have gone up every year. That is hardly an encouraging track record. Our idea now is maybe we’ll do geoengineering–take massively powerful technologies and unleash them without much of any idea of what’s going to happen. This does not speak well of purports to be a sentient species.
I want to make some other suggestions too. Look back at those ads. One ad is for automobile technology. One ad is for information and communication technology. Both of them speak to the allure of technology in supporting personal freedom. I’m not going to talk about Egypt or Tunisia or any of that. I don’t have to. What I want to do is suggest something much more basic.
If we really want to manage technology, we need to understand how to manage the relationship that people have with different types of technologies. Is it possible, for example, that I can take the network generation and shift them over to perceiving ICT as iconic for personal freedom rather than automobiles? If I can do that, will it make it easier to change underlying automotive technology in ways that may be more desirable? That’s the kind of thinking I suggest we need to be concerned with.
I’ll conclude by thinking of something that happened to me very recently. I was reviewing an article for the best environmental science and engineering journal in the country, ES&T, published by the American Chemical Society. It was a life cycle study of biofuels. It admitted that there were a number of difficult issues, but it was a life cycle study of biofuels.
This life cycle study ignored completely the fact that if you accelerate the flow of carbon through biological systems, you necessarily accelerate the flow of all the other elements that are part of those systems–nitrogen, phosphorus. We’re having a meeting on phosphorus here at ASU tomorrow. Most people don’t know that the phosphorus cycle is fairly heavily impacted by human activity already. Nitrogen, of course, is badly impacted by human activity.
What are we really doing with biofuels? Something that this LCA missed completely. What we’re really doing is we’re saying we’re going to fix the carbon cycle by breaking the nitrogen and the phosphorus cycle. Again, I suggest to you that if we purport to be a sentient species, we’ve got to begin doing better than that. So I guess I would leave it at that. Andy.
Revkin: Well, boy, that’s a good place to start, not to leave. If we could go to my laptop here, I’m going to just show a couple images as conversation provokers as well. I’m thrilled to be here with Brad who I’d never met face to face, but for years now I’ve been drawing on his brain. Until today, actually, in my mental map, he just was a brain, like this. [Laughter] Like in that Harry Potter scene–
Allenby: You’re saying that’s gone downhill fast.
Revkin: No, no, no. [Laughter] No, no, I feel much better now actually. You know like the Harry Potter movie, the brain’s floating in this aquarium, and I love the way you think. This isn’t a debate really. I think we’re on similar tracks. I’ve come at the issues of our time in the role of communicator. I never even played a scientist on TV. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an engineer. I’ve spent close to 30 years talking to hundreds of scientists and engineers and looking at issues that matter, like climate change, the role of agrochemicals.
One of the first stories I did in the early ‘80s was about–on the environment was about a pesticide called Paraquat that was a great new tool in this kind of agriculture called No-Till Agriculture, which has all kinds of benefits, but there were side effects. Paraquat was poisoning thousands of people a year in developing countries who drank it accidentally. It’s a brown liquid. They would store it in Coke bottles and that’s a bad combination.
I’ve been going at it though from those standpoints, but–and with climate change, which I’ve been writing about since the mid 1980s, I spent the first 15 years exploring climate as a biogeophysical problem. Emissions are rising. These are the possible consequences. These are the possible secondary consequences for nature and for things that matter like water supplies.
It was only the last five or ten years I really started to home in on an element I hadn’t really considered, which was the element I’ve been using personally to explore all these questions, which is my mind, the human mind. On my blog–the reason I started Dot Earth more than three years ago was after several decades of conventional journalism–of talking to people, trying to get a sense of, okay, this is what we know, put that in a paper or a magazine or in a documentary a couple times–I was always searching for definitiveness.
With journalism generally there’s sort of a faux sense often of definitiveness, of clarity. The New York Times front page is black and white, but actually when you stand back from it, it’s really gray if you can’t see the individual letters. I began to realize in, again, the last few years that if I’m not examining, not just being a journalist, if I’m not looking at the whole pipeline–how information matters or doesn’t matter, how people absorb knowledge or reject it based on predispositions–then I’m not really going to get traction. That means I’ve dived into this very ugly arena of cultural cognition.
There’s a website. I encourage you to write down culturalcognition.net, one phrase, which is a place where researchers led by Dan Kahan at Yale are exploring these boxes that we’re in, durable silos really where if you’re in one, you’re going to go out there and reject anything that sounds like global warming from human activities as a dangerous thing. If you’re in the other, at the other end of the spectrum, you’re going to actively embrace anything about the weather that seems to fit in a marginal way that we’re heading into a catastrophe and you’re going to reject anything that gets at the durable uncertainties about climate.
That’s what led me also to shift from conventional journalism to a new role where I’m still writing for The New York Times in an interrogatory way everyday. I’m not telling you–most of the time on Dot Earth I’m not saying what I think. I’m asking questions, like I did yesterday about Egypt’s uprising. I mused on–I said basically this is a great moment to examine some of these issues. Look through the last few days or week of speculation on what triggered the uprising in Egypt. You can find–essentially everyone with an agenda found a lesson in the Egypt uprising.
It was about poverty. It was about a dictatorship. It was about global warming, if you’re climate progress. It was about food insecurity. I raised the point that it’s probably at least partially about technology, about the fact that if you want to collaborate and coordinate massive demonstrations today through texting and cell phones, you have this incredible real-time ability to sort of get a lot of people to do something at the same time, or to think about something.
I want to show you very quickly a couple images. [Image Shown 17:17-18:32] One thing that we need at this time is new ways of thinking about information. You can’t see this very well, but if you go on the blog it’s been there a few times. There’s a British illustrator named Adam Nieman N-I-E-M-A-N created these portrayals of earth’s liquid and atmospheric resources where he took the actual known volume of the world’s oceans and fresh waters and made it into a sphere. That little green bubble on the left there is all of the world’s liquid water.
I’ve sailed across two oceans when I was younger, so I know how big the oceans are. It’s amazing to be in the middle of the Indian Ocean 1,000 miles from land with two miles deep of water underneath you, and it feels utterly beyond measurement. Then when you actually put it into a ball, it’s really small. I think that’s an interesting way to captivate it and galvanize a discussion of anything related to water resources. You look at that. By the way, you can’t even see the fresh water. If you put the fresh water into a sphere at that scale, you wouldn’t see it.
The one on the right, the pink bubble, is all the atmosphere. At sea level pressure, if you took all the air in the atmosphere, put it in a volume at sea level pressure, that’s the global commons. That’s what we have to parse out to 9 billion people in a few decades in terms of who has the right to pollute or not pollute or–and especially with greenhouse gases, that’s a big issue. There’s a new way of thinking and having discourse about climate, energy, water resources that comes from a new way of measuring and conveying knowledge, which is a great thing.
These images will be so dark that I won’t even go there. This picture says something that I think you can see. [Image Shown 18:57-19:42] This is three pie charts. You can see the dark area which is red. This is who has cell phones in the world. At the left it’s 2000. The overall dimensions of the pie are the total number of cell phones. It was 700 million cell phones in 2000, 2 billion in 2005.
As you can see, by 2005 it’s essentially roughly 50/50, rich countries and poor countries. Now it’s three-quarters of the world’s 5 billion cell phones are in developing countries. Three-quarters of the world’s cell phones, 5 billion cell phones, and we’ll be up to having more cell phones than there are people in a few years, are in developing countries. To me that says very powerfully that discourse is the opportunity for both learning and shaping knowledge and spreading ideas is explosively growing. That means we’re at a great moment in our history.
We have this... there’s been this talk of a noosphere–this is the idea of the planet of the mind–for generations. There was a French theologian and a Russian geochemist in the ‘30s who came up with this idea–information will be the sort of global resource–a long time ago. Now we’re kind of inching toward having that potential.
But as Brad said, we also have to look inward and see it’s not just about sharing information, it’s about self-recognition. How do we, facing complicated problems–like how to minimize conflict on a crowding planet, how to minimize risks of contributing to long-lasting global warming and sea level rise–if we don’t look inward and recognize how we as human beings, for the moment, have limited capacity to deal with some kinds of problems with the wicked and even super-wicked qualities that Brad alluded to, we’re not going to get there from here.
One thing I love about Brad’s title here is it’s Engineering and Ethics, which means you can’t really move forward with one or the other in this century. I wrote on my blog today that each of those things alone is insufficient. If we all take on the attributes of the Dalai Lama, and who’s an omnivore by the way, he’s not a vegetarian, and the attributes of Lester Brown and we’re still 9 billion people seeking decent lives, you can’t get there from here without technology. But technology alone is insufficient as well without some new sense of values on how to share those bubbles that I showed you a few minutes ago. That’s a good place to stop and start to ponder some things.
Moderator: Okay. Let’s have just a brief reaction, Brad, perhaps to Andy’s remarks and then vice versa for just a moment and then we’ll start with some questions, okay?
Allenby: No. I think Andy got it right, as he usually does. The part that’s interesting is if you look at some of the figures Andy was showing, what we are not doing well is understanding how rapidly change is undermining virtually all of our operating assumptions. You assume that China is behind the United States in terms of educational quality. That’s not the case. Leading areas of China like Shanghai are in fact well ahead of what we do in the United States in terms of educational quality, according to the latest international surveys.
We assume that people in developing countries don’t have access to the same kinds of information flows that we do. Certainly not in the same way, but that cell phone indicator shows that they’ve got plenty of access and they know how to use it. I think that Andy’s points are very well taken.
It gets even worse because, of course, one of the differences between past periods of radical change–and we’ve had them. The railroad was one such. One of the differences is that in this period of change we are far more than before able to make the human part of the design space. If you think about the world of the past, it was humans changing the world for their benefit. Now you have a situation where that arrow goes both ways. Humans may be changing the world, but we can also start to redesign ourselves in deliberate ways.
The question that has already risen, and which I leave you with, is “is there anything about the human that is not contingent, anything at all?” Because if you think there is, you’d better start paying attention now because it’s being undermined. We’re developing drugs that can change your memory. We’re developing tools that will, taken altogether, enable possibly radical life extension.
People who are working on this at Harvard and Stanford talk about the individual that’s going to live to 150 with a high quality of life already having been born in this country. What does that do to virtually every assumption we make about sustainability if we start to have a population of rich, wealthy people–with money to spend and consumption that they want to do–that lives to 150? Who gives? Do we live to 150 at the expense of people in other countries that are already dying at 45 on average? What kind of equity are you going to have in a world like that? Andy.
Revkin: Well, there, too, you get–I still feel overall optimistic about this, despite all of these foreboding questions. One reason I think I feel that way is that the gap between–there’s still a glaring gap between the absolute richest and the absolute poorest–but because in part of things like that cell phone graph, we’re poised right now to have information and knowledge and insights matter in places that couldn’t reach that information, in a faster way than it was ever possible.
I’ve already got in my head a map charted out from–I don’t know if anyone saw the story in The New York Times in December, a great piece about a woman in Kenya in a rural village who was tired of going into town and getting overcharged to charge her cell phone battery periodically at a ridiculous rate. So she invested $50.00 in a solar panel for her roof and put it up and started charging her cell phone at home. She had a light that her kids could do their homework by, and their grades were going up. She then opened up a little business in her home charging other people’s cell phones because she had a surplus of energy, and now her neighbors are putting her out of business because they’re buying rooftop solar panels.
Now, these solar panels are completely uneconomic at the scale like to power Phoenix. Again, we already have them. But in a special situation like that there’s an outsized value, even that small costly amount of energy is transforming life in that village at a runaway pace. It’s infectious.
That says to me, okay, you got a kid with a cell phone and a light to study by, an LED bulb, in rural Kenya. You have open-university kinds of portals now so that anyone virtually with access to the web can study at MIT or Arizona State, so you have this potential right now poised. The academic community can be a very powerful–we were talking about this at breakfast–can be a very powerful engine in facilitating the globalization of having access to the kinds of information that foster innovation and prosperity.
Now, that won’t happen on its own. Well, it is happening on its own in that little village, but I think it can be greatly ramified and amplified by things that we can all do right now, so I’m kind of like–I’m okay with where we’re at, even though there’s a very daunting sense of the future right now.
Moderator: I’m going to start the questions and then I want you to be thinking of your own questions and I’ll call upon you. Mindy, you’re going to be running around with the microphone, right? First a very quick one because Andy just actually answered the question I had for himself already, which was on a scale between optimism and pessimism as we ramp up to 2045, where do you stand? You said you’re an optimist. Maybe in between we have guarded optimist and guarded pessimist. Brad, where do you stand? Are you optimistic about our future? Do you think we’re in trouble beyond repair now?
Allenby: I guess I would say I don’t think that that’s really a valid question. [Laughter]
Moderator: Thank you, Brad. Where was that in the script– [Laughter]
Allenby: I knew you’d like that.
Moderator: –that Brad embarrasses Executive Dean? Yes.
Allenby: No. In the sense that–in the sense that I think both optimism and pessimism imply a level of knowledge about the future which I am completely incapable of. I do think that the world that we’re facing is awesome in the original sense of that word. It has the potential for extraordinary events.
The generation of students that sit in front of me now in class are going to see things that no generation of human history has ever seen and that we have only dreamed about in science fiction. It’s going to be extraordinary, but it’s going to be very, very dangerous. High risk, high reward; a very, very challenging and interesting world. Optimistic or pessimistic, I’m just in awe.
Moderator: I want to ask one question for both of them and then I’ll open it up. You actually touched on this, Andy, a moment ago, and that is we think a lot here about how you get the information knowledge scholarship exported from the university. How do you get it applied? Many of the people in this room, faculty, students alike, and many of you are colleagues across campus, deal with aspects of sustainability on a daily basis in teaching, research, and things like that.
With the possible exception of the formal technology transfer system that universities have, universities are not particularly good at presenting their knowledge, presenting their information, communicating as we were talking about last night, Andy, to the decision makers. How do you export this rich understanding and knowledge and discovery of technologies–but not just technologies, but the social dynamics and things like that, that are not widgets and cars or computers–to the decision makers who actually have to apply these things to solve the problem of sustainability? How do we get over that bridge? How do we get from here to there?
Because my experience at least is that decision makers, whether they’re city or state or they’re private or public, look to universities for these solutions, but often we’re not forthcoming with them in a way that they can understand or use them. How, in your opinion–what are some good ways perhaps that we can, we as university, members of a university and a knowledge community–can we export some of this knowledge so that it gets applied to problem-solving?
Revkin: It’s a wonderful question. It presumes that decision makers matter. [Laughter] I do think they matter in some ways because they apportion resources. The Federal Research and–the Federal R&D budget–actually, can I quickly show a slide that’s relevant? While I’m pulling up the slide, I’ll say that there’s evidence–I think the thing that the academy can do best is to make the case that information and that science particularly and that inquiry matter.
Part of what has to be conveyed is that failure matters because we’ve kind of like–if you leave it up to the conventional politics to determine how to apportion a finite R&D budget, for example, you’ll always do it based on things other than that reality, that if you really want an advance society, you have to let a lot of things bloom and fail to have some not fail.
[Image Shown 31:46-33:24] Just to give you a rough sense of where we’re at with energy inquiry in this country–and this chart you don’t need to see the details; basically Sputnik is at the left and the end of the stimulus package is at the right–this is a graph of 50 years of scientific inquiry as funded basic R&D money from the federal government. The private sector money is different. It’s had a downward trend overall.
What you see in yellow is the space race, so back in the–you know, Sputnik went beep, beep, beep and we really had a moment as we were saying this morning, ‘cause it was truly an existential kind of moment. We cared a lot and we had several tens of billions of dollars a year expenditure on R&D related to space. That all kind of faded away.
The upper band, the dark purple, is health, medical research. Not building hospitals, but studying cancer. There’s a lot of questions about whether that was effective. A lot of it failed. Maybe that was all misappropriated, but it was misappropriated because it shows we care about health so we spend a lot of our R&D money on health.
Energy is the green band in the middle that you can sort of see. It looks like a python that swallowed a tennis ball some time in the 1970s. The tennis ball, of course, was the energy crisis. We went from it being a tiny portion of our R&D budget to it being a slightly less tiny portion. Then it fades away and it’s a bipartisan slumber party, as I described it on the blog, on energy ever since.
I think the scientific and academic community, it focused on these issues, can make a pretty compelling case that, hey, society, if you are about energy, setting aside the climate question, that’s how much we’re interested in energy right now. It’s not a hard point to–not a hard thing to make.
Now, one last related image is this is the entire R&D budget of the country. [Image Shown 33:43-33:53] All of that stuff fits in the red at the top there. The rest is military R&D. We spend about $80 billion a year on military Research and Development now. I don’t think this means we need to rob the Pentagon of some of that. I think the Pentagon already is shifting toward understanding that its R&D should be focused on some of the same issues that we’re talking about here, so I think shifting priorities is important, not necessarily taking things away entirely.
That graph is like–for me, it’s kind of like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the movie where everyone kind of keeps building the same shape. I keep showing this over and over and over again.
Moderator: Well, Brad, while you formulate your answer, I wanted to publicly thank Andy for not saying that‐
Revkin: My water went away.
Moderator: It’s over there on your chair in the back.
Revkin: Oh, yeah, thank you.
Moderator: For not saying I asked a dumb, irrelevant, and unviable question [Laughter] as someone else did, but you go right ahead, Brad.
Allenby: I think Andy’s first statement is important. Do decision makers matter? More subtly, how do they matter? Where do they–how many degrees of freedom do they really have to make decisions that impact the way these systems flow? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think it’s a lot less than we usually think it is.
On the role of academia, I think that the usual position that most academics take in a discussion like this is that if only the public and decision makers were smart enough to listen to us, we would provide that utopia for which they yearn.
In fact, I think that–and I should point out that this is my opinion only and not that of Arizona State University–I think that academia’s badly broken. I think that we have too many people that are living too far in the past, teaching too much information that’s already migrated to the net and is commonly available. I think that the challenge that academia faces is trying to learn how to teach wisdom in a world that’s gone from information scarcity to information overload, as I think Andy has shown very well.
I think frankly we do a pretty bad job of it. Part of the reason we do a bad of it is that there are very few people in academia that are willing to admit how badly we’re performing right now. I guess that’s my response.
Moderator: Fair enough. Let me open this for questions and I want to once again appeal to you to ask a question. Okay. Yes, sir. Is the microphone coming over? Here, do you have it? Use this. Do we have a second mic?
Audience Member: You started out by speaking about the ethics-technology nexus and how ethics is really necessary. The way you framed it was anthropocentric or the discussion has been anthropocentric. I just was wondering why that was framed that way, when we talk about biocentrism, ecocentrism, why the anthropocentric framework?
Revkin: This is a great and important point. I started to explore this question about two years ago when I interviewed Ed Wilson. Again, I’ve talked to him for a very long time about biology and the broader conservation ethic and his concept of biophilia. I think the reason we’re focused on the human element within all that is because what we need is what I recently called on the blog anthropophilia.
We have been for too long looking at the biological system as something out there. We usually look at us with kind of a shame on you or woe is me kind of approach to the human element in that picture rather than looking at us more dispassionately and regarding ourselves–embracing our nature essentially as part of this larger system. When we say anthropophilia meaning–well, anthropophilia to me is kind of the idea of looking at ourselves as part of this larger system and really integrating that, concretizing that reality.
It comes with being aware of how we work and how we fail and how our brains work and how we tend to end up in compartments in society and we have our politics that won’t get this right. We have our traditions that lock us into approaches to knowledge that in some way we recognize aren’t working, but how do we kind of break through those barriers. I think that’s why we’ve been both focused on the human element.
Again, I think the capacity to innovate is there. The capacity to modulate our behaviors has to incorporate the natural–the reality is, as I said with Wilson–he spoke of Wilson’s Law. I wrote a piece. It’s easy to find. Just Google for Wilson’s Law and you’ll find it. That if we just focus on kind of the geophysical system and carbon and we kind of engineer a solution and disregard the natural elements, we’ll fail. If we focus on sustaining a thriving biological system with us in it, most likely we’ll get the geophysical things more right and still preserve the integrity of the planetary systems. I think for me that’s why we’re focusing on the human element. I don’t know what Brad thinks.
Allenby: I guess the reason that the initial focus is on the human element is primarily I think because the human element is at this point impacting and shaping many of the natural systems: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, biodiversity, et cetera. To focus on the human element for me does not imply that there is necessarily something better or good about that as opposed to ecocentrism or biocentrism. It’s simply recognizing that right now the human element is having an impact across all of these systems.
Raising one level above that what I would say is any ethical system that enables me to view the world in a coherent manner is necessarily partial. What I would say as an overall positioning statement is that whether you choose a particular form of human ethics, pick your poison–deontological or utilitarian, whatever you want; whether you chose ecocentrism, Leopold’s what is good for the ecosystem is... choose whichever one you want; the precautionary principle–they all have some element of validity to them, but they’re all partial.
If you’re really going to work with a complex system, you need to be able to integrate across different and even mutually exclusive ethical systems. That’s a skill we’re not good at because we equate that with relativism, which I don’t think it is. We can go into that in some detail if you want later. My point would be that I think any particular ethical system is necessarily too limited to fully explain the world that we’re already in, including the anthropocentric ethical system.
Moderator: Next question.
Audience Member: With regard to the anthropophilia, right, you have the human species and the human individual, so kind of you could refer to one or the other. I think I read somewhere that some people attribute the renaissance to the impact on the European human species of the Black Death and–
Moderator: Can everybody hear?
Audience Member: With regard to what’s an ethical response to kind of the climate debate, should we seek to postpone the catastrophe in which case it will be really big or should we seek to cause it to happen sooner so that it will be easier to manage?
Revkin: This has come up many times in my conversations with people on these issues. Dan Schrag who is now on PCAST, the President’s technology and science committee, and who’s a Harvard I guess I’d call him a polymath now on these issues. He’s focused a lot on energy as well as on his climate history stuff.
Years ago I had a conversation with him which got to this question of there’s two options facing climate to push the change you would need in emissions as we head toward 9 billion people seeking decent lives. One is to magically build public will, to have a higher cost on carbon emissions sufficient to drive everyone to change their habits and investments in technologies. The other is to push really hard on the technology. Those are two variables. The pace with which we address carbon would be determined by the two. He’s looking at that.
It’s really pretty clear we’re not going to do it with public will, especially when you realize that nearly all of the emissions that are coming, the new emissions are coming in China and India, and they want energy. They’re very happy for us to pay for getting the carbon out. Then you say, well, okay, we’ll just innovate our way.
He knows we’re kind of not capable of that as well, and so what he says is the scientific and academic and intellectual community needs to be–have the plasticity to develop the tool kit and the intellectual capacity, what Bill Gates calls the communal IQ, so that you’re ready, so that you’ve got the capacity to ramp up in ways that can get at the problem as public will perhaps changes because of some clarity that would emerge amid all the frozen fountains in Phoenix that this really is an issue. I think he’s got some–you know, that’s got some merits.
Allenby: So playing off what Andy said, I think that what I would argue is that the constraints on climate change are very clear and very powerful and most of what we proposed to do essentially ignores the existing constraints. I mean, the Kyoto Protocol has not worked for 20 years.
Geoengineering, even if we’re stupid enough to implement it at scale, is not going to work the way we think it is. No powerful technology is only going to operate on one small part of the Earth’s system. It just doesn’t happen that way.
That doesn’t mean that we’re hopeless though. To use an example out of industry, when the Montreal Protocol was being discussed, the electronics industry in the United States was faced with having to get out of using CFC’s at a fairly rapid time pace. We did so, and we did so because we had a lot of options on the shelf. A lot of technology options, some management options, some product redesign options, but there was a lot there. Wasn’t used, wasn’t commercialized, but it was available, so we got out pretty quickly.
Then because this is the way the Senate works, the Senate decided we ought to get out of lead in two years, in solder. Couldn’t do it, didn’t have the options. We had no technology that would substitute for lead-based solder in electronics, certainly not at scale.
Now, what that tells me is that if we really are serious about being ethical about climate change, we–I don’t think you’re going to stop the Kyoto process, so you might as well continue it. It’s locked in right now. I think you want to do what you can to avoid geoengineering, certainly at scale. You can certainly develop a lot of options that would give you the ability to adjust in ways that may have a portfolio of impacts that is manageable, and we don’t do that.
Let me give you an example of one sample technology: meat in factories. For those of you that, like the Dalai Lama, are omnivores, cows are a really, really ineffectual way of making steak. I mean, they are just not what an engineer would come up with. [Laughter] Cow produces 50 kilograms of methane a year. Cows are just really, really inefficient, so you make the meat in factories.
Now, think about what that would do. That would mean that the land that we are now using for cattle, for pigs, for chicken–something like a third of the grain production in the world goes to produce meat–that would be freed up. That would give you an enormous area of land to be able to begin to do, for example, biofuels without doing serious damage to some of these other cycles. Factory produced meat might be a really neat geoengineering technology.
Now, some of you here probably run cattle and your immediate response is, “What the flip?” [Laughter] It’s actually not that, but this is being recorded. The answer that this gives is a more realistic answer. Nothing we do is going to be without cost, so the question becomes how to balance the cost and benefits in an option space with a portfolio approach I think gives you the best opportunity to do it pragmatically. But we don’t do that, particularly in climate, because the discussion’s too polarized right now.
Moderator: I want to ask a follow-up question about Kyoto since you brought it up. One of our previous Wrigley speakers, some of you may have been here for Cynthia Rosenzweig, who works with NASA and also with the city of New York, came here and gave her reflection on her time in Copenhagen during the talks which were by any measure a disaster. She said that what was hopeful though was the fact that while the Kyoto talks were going on and Obama was there and other people were trying to make headway and didn’t, that the Mayor of Copenhagen convened a group of Mayors. They made a great deal of progress.
The report that subsequently came out from the Mayor’s conference that was going on at the same time as the Copenhagen Conference among Nations was Cities Act while Nations Talk. Now, since Copenhagen there had been Cancun and I see Dan Bodansky, Professor of Law and also a faculty member of the School of Sustainability, was there. Some progress perhaps was made there, but certainly was not the end all be all.
My question is this, Brad, you said we should continue the Kyoto–from that platform we should continue the talks because even though they failed and we continue to do them. Would it maybe be more sensible to say, look, nations are not going to agree on this stuff, China and India are just not going to give in and we should work at a sub-national level to start thinking about how to put together a global patchwork or quilt, if you will, to solve this problem perhaps at a city level, especially since the world is urbanizing so much?
Allenby: I’m not sure that any kind of approach that depends on a political imposition of meaningful climate change controls is ever going to work. I think that–not directly. I think the Kyoto Protocol is going to continue not because I think it’s a good idea, but because it’s locked in. There’s too many institutions and too many people that have devoted too much effort to Kyoto and that process. It’s simply not going to stop.
Directly it won’t produce anything. I mean, directly I think climate change negotiations are fairly ineffectual. Indirectly what it does is it maintains the visibility of the issue which ripples it across complex systems in ways that we really don’t perceive yet. Andy was one of the exceptions, but after Copenhagen, there were a slew of headlines about how the world had failed and climate change controls had failed, which was ridiculous. Copenhagen had failed and most people knew it was going to.
What had not failed was you didn’t change the way that different people adapt. I defy you to pick up Time or Newsweek–is Newsweek still published? [Laughter]
Moderator: On-line I think, yeah.
Revkin: On-line, yeah. Okay.
Moderator: I’m not sure.
Allenby: Or the Economist and not read an article about climate change. Companies talk about it. NGO’s work on it. The public cares about it. Some pro, some anti, but at least they care. What you have done is you have developed a potential in the system for adaptation that is occurring at levels that we don’t think about explicitly. I think we’re doing a fairly effectual job systemically of adaptation. I think that we perceive very little of that.
Revkin: On that, I’ve been writing about climate diplomacy since before it existed. Unfortunately–I can say unfortunately. I was at the first meeting in Toronto in 1988, conference on the changing atmosphere, that kind of led to the–preceded the framework convention and then have been following it ever since.
As you say, I don’t throw it out. I don’t think we need to throw out the whole thing. The framework convention on climate change which was negotiated in ’92 enshrines some basic fundamental pledges, that the emitting countries owe some obligation to assist poor, unempowered countries to deal with what will be their challenge first, which is adapting to coastal change and to climate change. That’s what you’re going to see. The one thing that’s going to remain concrete in these meetings is who pays how much to who in terms of compensating for the impacts of climate change.
The thing that the meeting is useless at is the whole issue in the late 20th century, the presumption was that the climate problem was a pollution problem. We were kind of successful with the Clean Air Act. We were successful with CFC’s as you heard. We just apply that new model to CO2 and we’ll just restrict and have a market and all will be well. It’s clear now, what’s been very slow for the community to agree is that that model does not apply to the energy system.
In fact, there was a young journalist. I was in Cancun and a guy named Alex Kirby was there on a fellowship. One night we’re having a beer in this ridiculous hotel and he turned to me. He was like 23. He was new to this whole subject. He said, “So wait a minute, so they’re trying to engineer the economy to engineer the climate.” And he went, “Oh, my God, that’s so ridiculous.” I said, “You know, you’re right.” Actually I quoted him later on Dot Earth because he really crystallized that that old model doesn’t apply, there’s too many reasons why it doesn’t apply.
Going forward, what I’ve been pitching is the idea, and I’m not the only person saying this, that having a climate–considering issues like development, development assistance, technology partnerships with climate as one of the filters, just as we do for socially responsible investing, we have climate-responsible investing, making it an obligation when you’re–if the World Bank is going to invest in a bridge or a dam in the Congo, it better well be resilient enough a project considering what could come with climate change. It’ll be something that’s reflected in many different realms of how people in countries interact.
The idea that we’ll have a climate-centric agreement that will be the thing that will be the changer of the energy system I think has gone away and it’s a healthy thing.
Moderator: Next question. Yes. Do we have a mic?
Audience Member: [Inaudible 54:25]
Moderator: Could we get a mic? Okay. Clear enough.
Audience Member: Human species has done a wonderful job of setting aside evolutionary forces and manipulating them for our own benefit over the past 12,000 years, more extensively over the last [inaudible 54:41]. But don’t you think [inaudible 54:44] in other words, there’s a self correcting–
Moderator: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Audience Member: –that’s hurting [inaudible 54:58] is the way we were created and the way we were evolved [inaudible 55:05].
Moderator: I suspect people could not hear fully in back. Can you repeat a little bit of the question?
Allenby: Andy, do you want to go ahead?
Revkin: Well, the way I–I’ve addressed this question recently, and the way I’ve put it is, can we prove that we are something other than bacteria on a plate of agar. So far I don’t think we’ve really shown that we have the capacity in a big way–at least with energy and possibly with some of the other basic elements like phosphorus–shown the ability to use this intelligence we’ve got to modulate our behaviors in anticipation of these big risks.
We don’t yet–science has kind of delineated that for us there is an edge to the Petri dish. That’s kind of what has happened these last 25 years or 30 years or so when things like climate and phosphorus and nitrogen. We so far seem to still be just like bacteria on a plate of agar and will self–sure.
The way I framed it in a post I was just looking for is can we kind of seek peak us before we hit peak everything. Right now peak everything you hear whatever, pick your resource, and I think it’s still an open question. Can we manage kind of a soft landing or are we stuck with letting natural selection kind of do it? That debate goes on. I don’t know–actually we were talking about this too. I can’t remember how you’d consider that question.
Allenby: Well, I think it’s–I mean, first, there’s the obvious point that if you hit the edge of the Petri dish, you fall off the edge. The real question is, are there ways in which we adjust that are not picked up in say the biological models, by say technological evolution? Clearly the number of people living on the planet right now would be impossible to maintain at anywhere near the current level of population with a hunter/gather technology set. You probably couldn’t do it with an agricultural technology set. You need the technology sets that we’ve got now. Do they have other impacts? Absolutely they do. Figuring out how those play out is a lot trickier than it really sounds.
There tend to be two kinds of Kool-Aid involved in this particular discussion. One kind of Kool-Aid says there are limits to everything and we’re just consuming too much, therefore we’re all going to die. The other Kool-Aid says it doesn’t matter, economics always works, substitution works, we’re not only going to live, but we’re going to live wonderful lives.
I think both of those are statements of faith rather than defensible in terms of the data and the history that we’re aware of. I think the reality is technology changes, we change, resource use changes as part of those patterns. Right now our challenge is to try to understand these integrated, natural, human built systems in better ways so that we know what’s actually going on, but I think right now we don’t. I think this is another area where scholarship is pretty pitiful.
Revkin: By the way, just quickly, this is an arena again I think where the way we communicate, the way we convene, the way we teach–to get an accurate understanding, looking behind those kind of headlines or summaries–has to really evolve. One reason I migrated from the old model of journalism–and I still do it once in a while; I do plan on trying to write a book again someday–to this discourse that’s on Dot Earth is I’m trying to find a way to foster in people an awareness of the complexity that is hidden when you have public discourse that’s mostly undertaken from the edges.
In fact, I did a post recently. I kind of was bemoaning that Obama didn’t mention climate change in his State of Union Address, but not for the conventional reason, which is just to kind of fight the fight against those other guys. I think he could’ve articulated that climate matters. What you’ve heard a lot of is very loud proclamations of definitiveness from many people over many years. There is stuff that’s really robustly understood that is hidden by that kind of ping pong match that’s our public discourse.
So let’s all as a community go forward and address what we know and what we don’t know, to embrace the reality that there’s many aspects of the system we don’t know. Like the fact that there’s a fountain frozen near my hotel here this morning, even as we’re warming the world, but he can’t do that.
Actually I said I know you can’t do that at the State of Union Address, but you better do it in a speech sometime this year, otherwise we’ll just be locked in this kind of–and that’s just the microcosm of this broader opportunity I think that the academy has as well to build–and I see it as implicitly being buildable on-line, a new way of engaging on these fundamental questions of sustainability. How many people is too many? Rather than doing the traditional debate, do a non-debate. What do we agree on? Not fighting the fight to see who wins or loses the argument based on logic, which again in the midst of real uncertainty you can’t really win. I think there are ways to do that.
Moderator: Any questions?
Audience Member: Good morning. I had a question. We talk about stakeholders and decision makers that affect the planet and we talk about governments and we talk about academia. We talk about corporations to some extent as well. My question is related to what role should corporations have? Because in noticing the first commercials that you put up there and trying to create desires within each of us, what role do corporations need to play in the fight for sustainability? Given the significant changes in the geopolitical landscape over the last ten years and what’s going to be forthcoming, what risks are there in them being in the game at all as they work in a more global way?
Revkin: I think corporations, it would do them well to recognize the importance of fostering education. I don’t mean that in the simple way that universities should have blank checks written by more and more companies, but I do think that they can help build the case that we don’t have the intellectual capital, the intellectual infrastructure that we need to have a smooth ride as a country or a world in the next few decades. That’s something that’s important that they should be a part of fostering.
Whether that takes the shape of what IBM is doing with its smarter planet initiative or what many other companies like it are doing is another question. I think one thing that has to kind of be examined in the policy arena is the power of companies in Washington to torque how things get done. That I don’t think is going to change ever. Capitalism is fundamentally rapacious. When the boards of companies are talking about their fiduciary responsibility, I would love to think that they could redefine fiduciary responsibility to have a broader–literally have a broader definition so it’s not just about making more money.
That won’t change until people–the populous more generally–has a broader sense of obligations and the ethical imperatives that come with where we’re at as a species. I don’t think corporations are going to change. I do think they need to recognize intellectual infrastructure’s not there and help make the case that that can be built out more.
Allenby: Yeah, actually Andy’s absolutely right. I would love to see corporations be a lot pushier about the failings of academia. It’s very, very hard to get academics, particularly tenured academics, to understand how badly they’re performing. If corporations could help a glimmer of light enter into that medieval mindset, they would validate their existence.
That said, I think–with all due apologies to my colleagues. [Laughter] That said, I think corporations have an interesting relationship with society at this point. The idea that corporations should be responsible for sustainability is an attractive one because they’re so powerful and because they control much technology.
The danger of it is that corporations, once they become responsible for sustainability, are not very good at it. I mean, if a corporation is bad at doing economics, they find out. That’s what Chapter 11 is for. If a corporation is bad at doing sustainability, then that’s a much more difficult kind of challenge to hold them to.
Having been on the corporate side, there’s an additional challenge that comes up. It sounds as if corporations should be able to respond to sustainability. The problem is everybody’s got a different idea of sustainability. When I was at AT&T we were dealing with a German rating organization for sustainability purposes. We were doing great until they found out that we provided service to the American military. Then they rated us as a don’t-buy because we were assisting the American military.
Now, not only did this ignore sort of views which might’ve taken a different perspective, but it made it very difficult to follow this line, this line, and this line. There’s the idea that everybody agrees with what sustainability is. That’s a very useful fiction. It helps us all get along. We don’t scream at each other. But the fact is we don’t.
As a corporation when you’re getting hit with questions about do you do this, do you do that, do you do this, it’s very hard to know whose agenda you should privilege, particularly if you’re a big corporation. Because if you privilege somebody’s agenda, you’re swinging a lot of weight. Is that your role in society? Should you really, for example, swing a lot of weight towards an antimilitary campaign by a German NGO? Is that your job as an American corporation? It’s not as easy as it sounds superficially.
Revkin: Yeah, the idea that Wal-mart by fostering better practices in its supply chains is going to have the world of 9 billion people living decent lives by doing that is kind of a fantasy. Wal-mart is selling consumption far more than it’s selling LED light bulbs. I think the idea that a corporate world will be the thing that changes this I think is kind of fantasy.
But I’m not anti-corporate because that overall–Matt Ridley has written a book called The Rational Optimist that I encourage you to read, whether you agree with it or not, because it builds the case that commerce essentially–global commerce, the history of commerce, interchange, exchange, trade–is the main thing that has caused the human species to have its innovative capacity multiplied far beyond anything we know of in nature. That trade again, trade being commerce and business, is something that’s fundamentally important.
Moderator: There was a question over here.
Audience Member: The London Geological Society I think in the last few decades has talked about the Anthropocene era from sort of a biocentric and ecocentric perspective, how human culture is reorganizing the geological systems. Now, I wonder what you would all think about–it seems what we’re speculating about is a geological transition toward–the way I would like to see it is in say 100 years in the future the London Geological Society will look back and consider this period a greater–a transition from the lesser Anthropocene to the greater Anthropocene. And so I wonder what the role of the university and maybe emergent businesses in your minds and things like that are in a larger project of a epochal geological transition.
Revkin: I’m taking notes because I’m going to tweet that later. That’s great. [Laughter] I wrote a book on global warming that came out in 1992. I wish I knew Greek better back then because I posited that we were–at that time I wrote that we were entering the anthrocene instead of anthropocene, and so I could’ve beaten Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize winning chemist, to the punch on using that phrase to describe–
Allenby: Isn’t that a type of coal?
Revkin: Huh? It is actually, but, again, I wish I had known my Greek roots of words better. That’s a great–I like the idea of just delineating two phases of the human era of planetary domination. I think in a way–yeah, and, again, as the other question, the–what I wrote, again, gets back to this idea of whether it will be a conscious thing or whether it will just be there because we kind of hit the wall and then you’ll see this trace of our decarbonization being enforced on us because we lose the capacity to burn coal and we become a much tinier species, so that still is the question. Will that be a conscious transition or one that’s enforced upon us by the systems? That’s the question to me.
Allenby: Yeah, so a couple of thoughts. I use the anthropocene all the time when I write because it’s such a convenient way to express the state that we’re at now where humans really do impact if not dominate many elements of natural systems, maybe not in terms of overall volume, but certainly in terms of critical dynamics.
Here’s the question I have about that term. The anthropocene is used as if this were the human era. Now, if yo