April 2012 Archives


The time has come to end the ideology wars. 

For too long, discussion about environmental and social challenges has been divided into two camps:  The Neo-Malthusians (here and here) and the Cornucopians (here and here).

The former forsee gloom and doom--an imminent global train wreck driven by climate change, resource depletion, ecosystem destruction, and a combination of growing population and inequality.  The latter forsee an unprecedented boom driven by the creativity and innovation of an increasingly sophisticated and interconnected global economy with millions of new, well-educated people from the emerging markets of the world.

The Neo-Malthusians are the ultimate pessimists ("limits to growth"); the Cornucopians are unabashed optimists ("growth of limits"). The Neo-Malthusians project current trends into the future and see disaster.  The Cornucopians assume that technology will always produce the necessary substitutes and solutions when we need them (because scarcity means higher prices and higher prices signal opportunity for innovators).

It turns out both are probably right:  We face unprecedented environmental and social challenges.   Markets get distorted by perverse subsidies and incumbent resistance so that the price signals that should drive innovation are delayed or deferred.  Humans have difficulty perceiving gradual, slow-developing changes and tend to wait for crises before acting (the "boiled frog" syndrome).  So there probably will be major disruptions and unpleasant surprises in the years ahead.

That said, humans are also infinitely adaptable, resilient, and able to mobilize rapidly when a real crisis is finally perceived.  The level of creativity and inventiveness is astonishing, and we are adding millions of creative people to the stock of potential problem solvers every year.  The internet enables connectivity and exchange on a scale that we could not have previously imagined.  The engine of entrepreneurial capitalism is powerful and should not be underestimated.  So, there is every reason to believe that amazing things will happen that totally change the landscape for the better in the coming decade or two.

Just like the Democrats and Republicans in the United States need to set aside their petty ideological differences for the good of the country (and the world), it is also time for reconciliation and synthesis between the Neo-Malthusians and the Cornucopians.  

Such reconciliation means that we need to learn how to become "skeptical optimists"--optimists because of the potential for new, sustainable technologies to grow exponentially in the coming years (see, for example, Singularity University); skeptical because of the scale and scope of the challenges we face. Skeptical optimism gives us the perspective we need to solve the world's social and environmental problems through a new form of sustainable entrepreneurship and enterprise.  And the time is now.

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