Restoring Our Faith in Progress: Part 2 – How Science Justifies Optimism

This is part 2 of a series. See part 1 on ‘How Prosperity Solves Problems’

Understandable despair 

 

The trouble with climate change – as I explained the Part 1 of this series – is that the incumbent authorities to which the public looks for guidance, including most especially the scientific community, have failed to provide a coherent and compelling plan for how to correct course. This understandably leads to despair. 

Being told that the way to meet the enormous challenge of climate change is with personal sacrifice, lifestyle change, and other forms of individual austerity rather than with collective prosperity – in direct contradiction of virtually all other historical examples of problem solving – rings false on many levels. What it really feels like is that the scientific community thinks the situation is hopeless but is refusing to admit it to us. Sadly, I can personally attest that this is indeed what a good number of my colleagues in the environmental disciplines have privately believed for the last decade or more. 

The real problem, of course, is that significant parts of the scientific community have failed to understand precisely how prosperity can solve climate change. Filling this gap in our knowledge is an important part of the work that my research team at RethinkX has done over the last several years. The answer is that the path to prosperity is via the clean disruption of energy, transportation, and food – and this prosperity will in turn enable us to solve not only climate change, but many other environmental and social problems as well. 

The danger of doomsaying 

Climate change is widely regarded as an existential risk, meaning that it poses a threat to the very survival of our civilization. Although there is room to argue the nuances, let’s not get bogged down in that debate here, and assume for the sake of discussion that climate change really could be the end of us if we don’t get it solved.  

The implication that clearly follows is that if the situation is actually hopeless and there is in fact no real solution to climate change that doesn’t involve tanking our modern way of life one way or the other (as is strongly suggested by the desperate non-solutions proffered by the scientific community and other authorities), then that means everything our civilization has achieved up until now has been for nothing. Every disease we’ve ever cured, every peace we’ve ever struck, every scientific discovery we’ve ever made, every step of moral progress toward equity and diversity and inclusion we’ve ever taken. Fire, the wheel, language, music, writing, art, philosophy – all of it has been for naught if we wipe ourselves out with climate change. 

It would be bad enough to think that all human progress has been in vain. But it’s worse than that. The much more pernicious idea that has infected an entire generation worldwide is that progress itself is to blame for dooming us. The fatalism and nihilism that follow not only take a terrible toll on individual sufferers in their personal lives, but also severely undermine our collective capacity to actually solve climate change and other problems. 

Climate change is a much bigger problem than most of us realize 

I have written elsewhere over the last decade that climate change is actually a much bigger problem than the public realizes, because the scientific community has avoided explaining how much carbon removal will be required to actually avoid catastrophe. The motivations behind this lack of transparency and forthrightness on the part of the scientific community are complicated. But regardless of whether it is to avoid being alarmist, to keep the focus on mitigating emissions, or to prevent complacency, the majority of the public and policymakers are under the impression that everything will be fine as long as we reduce our emissions by a large percentage. But this is not true. Even if we could wave a magic wand and slash net emissions all the way to zero tomorrow, the planet would still get clobbered by climate change impacts for decades or even centuries by the carbon dioxide we have already emitted unless we take further corrective action to repair the damage we have done to the atmosphere and oceans. 

By analogy, we are like an infant in an overflowing bathtub. Yes, we must stop the inflow of water as soon as possible. But turning off the faucet isn’t enough by itself. We must also drain the tub back down to a safe level as well. In many ways, that’s the harder part. This means getting to net zero emissions is not a solution to climate change, but is just the first step on a journey that is much longer than most of us realize. 

Crucially, these facts also obviate the conventional narrative, because they show unequivocally that austerity cannot solve climate change – not even in principle, let alone in practice. Cutting consumption and emissions only reduces the flow from the faucet. It does nothing at all to drain the stock of water we’ve already added to the tub. The impacts of climate change will be catastrophic unless we do both within the next few decades. 

I should note from personal experience that this is a substantial part of the reason why some of my fellow environmental scientists have privately believed the situation is genuinely hopeless for quite some time now. I suspect it is perhaps also why the scientific community at large has drawn so little attention to these inconvenient truths. 

Problems are inevitable 

The renowned physicist and philosopher of science David Deutsch explains that because problems are inherently inevitable, the only thing that is truly sustainable is to continue expanding our problem-solving capacity. That means making progress.  

The idea of regress, however, can be seductive. We are inundated in the news media, popular film and television, literature, and advertising with claims that the past and the primitive were somehow more sustainable than our modern way of life. But with few exceptions, this is a childish and irresponsible fantasy that we ought not to indulge. 

In reality, the only thing that offers us any protection at all from the next major problem we face is progress. This is because every society at every time in human history has always been just one unsolvable problem away from annihilation, and we are no exception. Every past society that ever collapsed – and there have been many throughout the ages – did so because it faced a challenge it couldn’t overcome. Indeed, the same is true for every species that ever went extinct as well – and that is 99.9% of all species that have ever lived, including all of our close hominid ancestors. If an asteroid impact of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs struck today, it would almost surely be the end of us as well. But, thanks to progress, we now have a fighting chance of detecting and deflecting the next world-upending asteroid or other existential threat before it is too late – including climate change. 

Consider the COVID-19 pandemic. As imperfect as our response was, one aspect of it that brooks absolutely no criticism is the astounding speed with which we were able to develop safe, effective vaccines. But what if, in the name of avoiding climate change, we had only allowed half as much economic growth and technological progress over the last 100 years instead? How many years would vaccine development have taken with 1970s technology? And how many more would have died as a result? Now, imagine the situation we would be in if the virus had been ten times as lethal and had primarily struck children instead of the elderly. Such viruses do arise – indeed, it is almost inevitable that our luck will run out and we will face one of that kind sooner or later.  

True, we would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 50% in this imaginary scenario. But, we would also have to wait until the 2070s before clean technologies were finally ready to disrupt energy, transportation, and food. So instead of starting to decarbonize in the 2020s as we are now, in this scenario we would just spend the next 50 years continuing to emit carbon anyway. Would that really have been a more sustainable outcome? 

Consider also that the COVID-19 pandemic caused a temporary contraction in global GDP of “only” 3.5% – but nevertheless wiped out the equivalent of 495 million full-time jobs. So what would a permanent reduction of 50% look like? And following our previous analogy, keep in mind that we would still only be halfway to turning off the faucet, and not a single drop of the way toward emptying the bathtub. 

Problems are inevitable, whether naturally occurring or of our own making. The only thing that stands between us and the next civilization-ending threat is how much problem-solving capacity we develop between now and then. That means progress is our only real protection, whether we like it or not – including from problems we have inadvertently created with previous technological advances. To lose sight of that fact puts us in very grave peril. 

Problems are solvable 

Every problem humanity has so far faced has had a solution, or else we wouldn’t be here. Although truly unsolvable problems are conceivable, such as a cataclysmic astronomical event that devastates our entire solar system, they are unlikely enough that we can ignore them. Every problem we are ever likely to face, including the proverbial dinosaur-killing asteroid, will be something that we can solve – if we have the right tools in hand, meaning the right knowledge along with sufficient prosperity to utilize that knowledge quickly and effectively enough. Climate change is no exception. 

We already have the tools we need to solve climate change 

In our research report, Rethinking Climate Change, we explain that the disruption of energy (by solar power, wind power, and batteries), transportation (by electric vehicles, autonomous driving, and ride sharing), and food (by precision fermentation and cellular agriculture) will allow us to reduce net emissions 90% by 2035, on track to going far below zero into a deep carbon withdrawal regime in the 2040s. 

A crucial finding of our research is that these eight technologies we need to solve climate change already exist. They are science fact today, not science fiction. That means we don’t need to waste time and resources on numerous band aid fixes like “clean coal”, “clean diesel”, or teaching cows to use toilets in hopes that we can chip away enough of the emissions problem at the margins to make a meaningful difference before it’s too late. And we certainly don’t need to bury our heads in the sand with austerity in hopes that the draining-the-tub part of the climate change problem will somehow magically solve itself if only we can somehow manage to turn the faucet a bit and slow emissions by half or so.  

Instead, we can tackle climate change head-on using the same thing that has worked every time for every other major challenge in human experience: better tools and knowledge borne of progress and prosperity. 

Justifiable optimism 

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of our recent research is that it shows there is now good reason to be optimistic about solving climate change, thanks to the imminent disruption of energy, transportation, and food by clean technologies. This is an entirely different kind of optimism from the sanctimony of the conventional narrative that merely urges us to adopt an optimistic attitude as a way to cope with what otherwise appears to be a no-win situation. 

It has been a joy and a privilege to watch people come to understand the full implications of the energy, transportation, and food disruptions, because when they finally see there is a legitimate pathway to solving climate change they experience a sudden relief from all of the cognitive dissonance and despair caused by the conventional narrative. Being the bearer of this good news is like giving water to a person dying of thirst. It has changed my life. Not long ago, for example, a gentlemen named William approached me after a presentation with tears in his eyes. He explained that he and his wife had decided not to have children because of the bleak future they believed lay ahead, but that after learning from our work that there is genuine cause for optimism, he had changed his mind. I have no words to describe the beauty of that moment. 

Pessimism may be contagious, but so is optimism – especially justifiable optimism. As a scientist, it has been an immensely gratifying privilege to be the bearer of good news that warrants such optimism. I don’t envy my colleagues in the environmental sciences who are so often the bearers of bad news, nor do I envy the environmental policymakers, planners, and activists their hitherto Sisyphean task of trying to sell austerity as some kind of solution to climate change. Thankfully, we can now all stop trying to roll that boulder up the hill.  

Restoring our Faith in Human Progress 

The real solution to climate change has finally come into clear view. Almost 90% of global emissions come from energy, transportation, and food, and so the clean disruption of these sectors over the next two decades will be transformative. Moreover, the same technologies that drive these disruptions will also enable us to withdraw carbon from the atmosphere and oceans affordably, which means they offer a truly complete solution to climate change beyond just the mitigation half of the battle – something that no amount of austerity or degrowth can achieve.  

The despair and nihilism caused by the false belief that climate change is an unsolvable problem have eroded an entire generation’s faith in human progress. Some members of the scientific community have been complicit in cultivating this corrosive mindset. My colleagues should be ashamed for not understanding the technological basis of progress and prosperity properly, and for thus failing to see how disruption offers both a solution to climate change and the only viable path forward for our civilization. We can and must do better. 

Problems are inevitable, but they are also solvable, and that means true sustainability is only possible via progress borne of prosperity. Solving problems with means and know-how is a timeless, tried-and-true approach that will allow us to meet the daunting challenge of climate change along with all the other challenges we are sure to face in the future.  

If all of this comes as a relief, rest assured that you are not alone. A groundswell of optimism is building as disruption is starting to restore our faith in progress. The task now is to ensure that our choices reflect this renewed optimism, both as individuals and as entire societies. 

1 thought on “Restoring Our Faith in Progress: Part 2 – How Science Justifies Optimism”

  1. Hello Adam ,
    Some good points, but….
    Specifically let me refer you to the Rethinking Humanity book p58, Figure 13 and the “We are here” timestamp indicating “we” are approaching the Breakthrough-Collapse junction. Apologies, but only a financially secure technology focused USA citizen who has not travelled that much would have placed the global “we” on the centreline in 2021.
    The evidence I see, analyse and use for (non-linear) foresight, indicates that a) societal collapse is already occurring and accelerating in many countries, and b) the East-West/authoritarian-democratic divide has passed an inflexion point leading rapidly towards multi-theatre hybrid warfare. Hence, whilst your arguments for the five positive disruptions etc. are convincing, personally I foresee that they are scaling up within a very hostile global theatre of gradual and uneven collapse, intense geopolitical rivalry, armed conflict, and hardening internal social divisions.
    So, I suggest, reality is somewhere between the worldview of techno-optimists such as yourself, and the millions of disparaged specialists working on the sustainability and peace challenge/problem/opportunity.
    The opportunity here is to for RethinkX to look harder at how these disruptions could be provided the critical 10 -20 years of breathing space they need to deliver the transformations promised, globally. This may entail a much deeper integration of geopolitical and social issues than what I see currently in your models.
    Best regards

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