This is a transcript of ‘Episode 2 – Mistakes in conventional thinking’ by Adam Dorr. The entire series is available on YouTube. The book on which the series is based, “Brighter: Optimism, Progress, and the Future of Environmentalism” is available on Amazon.
Hello everyone, Adam Dorr from RethinkX here. Thanks for joining me. In this video, we’re going to explore how to rethink solving environmental problems through the lens of new technology and disruption, using climate change as our primary example. And we’ll start by looking at several ways in which conventional thinking about environmental issues is mistaken. So let’s dive right in.
Your House is On Fire
Mistake number one is misunderstanding the scope of our problems, especially climate change. We’ll use some visceral metaphors to make the point here. Metaphor #1: Your house is on fire. That’s a problem. What should you do? First, put the fire out. That part’s obvious. It’s also obvious that you need to put out ALL of the fire. Extinguishing only some of the flames is not going to solve your problem.
Second, repair and upgrade your house. You’re not done when the fire is out, not even close. Extinguishing the flames is the easy part. You’re only done when you’ve fixed all the damage, rebuilt what was ruined, and added safeguards to prevent future fires.
Now consider climate change. Our world is on fire. But the conventional narrative about how to deal with this crisis is ludicrous. Why? Because we can’t solve climate change by consuming less or reducing some of our greenhouse gas emissions any more than we could save a burning building by putting out only some of the fire.
And getting to net-zero emissions, like putting out a fire, is only the first part of the job. Once we reach net-zero, we’ll still have a huge amount of repair and restoration work ahead of us because the planet won’t magically heal overnight by itself from the damage that we’ve done to it.
So that’s mistake number one. Our environmental problems are much bigger than most of us imagine. Especially climate change. We can’t solve them by taking shorter showers, driving a bit less, and just not eating meat on Mondays. The situation is far too serious now to fix with a few minor lifestyle changes.
Prosperity to Solve Big Problems
We need much, much more powerful tools to meet these formidable challenges. But the good news is that we already have the tools we need. We have the new and clean technologies that will disrupt energy, transportation, food, and labor over the next twenty years.
Mistake number two is forgetting that it takes prosperity to solve big problems. Prosperity is the term that we use to describe the general condition in which we possess sufficient means and know-how to transform our world or ourselves in needed ways. The greater the problem we face, the more prosperity we require in order to solve it.
It’s worth remembering that every society at every moment in human history has always been just one unsolvable problem away from annihilation. Many societies have collapsed throughout the ages. No matter how “sustainable” they might have been, those societies didn’t sustain their people when they needed it most – in the face of enormous unanticipated problems. What would have sustained them is greater resources and knowledge – in other words greater prosperity. Well, we are no exception. The only thing that stands between us and the next civilization-ending threat – whether it’s climate change or an incoming asteroid or the next global pandemic or anything else – is how much problem-solving capacity, meaning how much prosperity, we develop between now and then.
Mistake number three is thinking that we can retreat from our environmental problems rather than facing and overcoming them. A widespread belief among environmental scientists, policy makers, and activists alike is that if we just slow down, if we just cut back and do less of the things that cause ecological damage, then that will solve our problems.
Well, the “house on fire” analogy is instructive here because it shows that cutting back on what is harmful isn’t a complete solution. And let’s really drive the point home here with a couple more analogies.
Retreating from Environmental Problems
First, we all have a natural evolved instinct to freeze and then retreat from danger. If you stumbled upon a sleeping bear or a pride of lions twenty thousand years ago, that instinct might have been a lifesaver. But there are times when freezing up and then trying to backpedal is exactly the wrong move and, unfortunately for our civilization, this is one of them.
We haven’t stumbled upon a sleeping bear here. It’s more like we’ve rounded a blind corner at a full sprint only to face a chasm with no bridge. Well, we either make the leap or we plummet to the bottom.
So returning to climate change, cutting emissions by 25, 50, even 90 percent, is not enough to solve the problem. Unless we achieve net zero emissions and withdraw several hundred gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans by mid-century, catastrophic impacts are still inevitable.
Here’s our last metaphor. The belief that we only need to ‘degrow’ the global economy and that that will make us ecologically sustainable is like medieval doctors prescribing bloodletting. Number one, it won’t solve the problem. It won’t work. Number two, it will make actually solving the problem harder. Number three, it will create entirely new problems in the meantime.
First, the bloodletting treatment won’t work because reducing ongoing emissions does nothing to repair the damage we’ve already done. Second, the bloodletting treatment would undermine the very thing we need most to tackle this immense challenge – prosperity. The trillions of dollars, the technological innovation, the political will required to repair the atmosphere and oceans will all be much, much harder to muster under austerity than amidst abundance. And third, the bloodletting treatment would cause a global economic catastrophe and social catastrophe comparable to the climate crisis itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, caused the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression by reducing global production and consumption, GDP, by only 3.5 percent. But that was enough to wipe out the equivalent of 495 million full-time jobs and, as ever, the poorest and most vulnerable were hit hardest. Now, instead of a 3.5 percent downturn, imagine 80 percent, permanently.
Even if we were foolish enough to deliberately torpedo the entire global economy in the name of sustainability, the environment would be among the first casualties of the chaos and conflict that followed.
Again, the good news here is that we already have the tools we need to solve the climate crisis. We don’t need cold fusion or warp drive. Solar power, wind power, and batteries are here. Electric vehicles are here. Precision fermentation and cellular agriculture are here. Reforestation and enhanced weathering are here. We don’t need miracles. What we need is major investment in refining, scaling, and deploying these technologies as soon as possible.
The takeaway message from all of this is that we have to do more than just harm our world a little bit less. We have to stop harming it and start healing it. And the only way to do that is with new, clean technology.
That’s it for this video. There are links to the book “Brighter” and RethinkX’s other publications in the description below. If you’re new to the channel, please consider subscribing and giving this video a thumbs up. That really does help increase our visibility and magnify the impact of our work.
Thank you everyone for watching and remember: the future is brighter than you think. We’ll see you all next time. Take care.