29 November 2009

The single biggest problem

Filed under: green, solar energy, UKH+, vision — David Wood @ 2:35 pm

Petra Söderling, my good friend and former colleague on the Symbian Foundation launch team, raises some important questions in a blogpost yesterday, Transhumans H+.  Petra remarked on the fact that I had included the text “UKH+ meetings secretary” on my new business card.  A TV program she watched recently had reminded her of the topic of transhumanism (often abbreviated to H+ or h+) – prompting her blogpost:

…I haven’t changed my mind, David. I still think this is not pressingly important or urgent. In my view, the single biggest problem we have at hand is that people are breeding like rabbits, and the planet cannot feed us all. Us rich westerners consume so much natural resources that just supporting our lifestyle would be a burden. But, we are not only idiots in our own consumption manners, we are idiots in showing the rest of the world that this is the preferred lifestyle. Our example leads to billions of people in developing and underdeveloped countries pursuing our way of living. This is done by unprecedented exploitation of resources everywhere.

We’re in a process of eating our home planet away, and helping the richest of us to live healthier and longer is no solution. What’s the point of living 150 years if you’re breathing manufactured air, all migrated to north and south poles from desert lands, and eating tomatos that are clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone? As rich and clever as we are, I think we should solve first things first…

The mention of “first things first” and “single biggest problem” is music to my ears.  I’m currently engaged on a personal research program to try to clarify what, for me, should be the “first things” that deserve my own personal focus.  Having devoted the last 21 years of my work life to mobile software, particularly for smartphones, I’m now looking to determine where I should apply my skills and resources for the next phase of my professional life.

I completely agree with Petra that the current “western consumer lifestyle” is not sustainable.  As more and more people throughout the developing world adopt similar lifestyles, consuming more and more resources, the impact on our planet is becoming collosal.  It’s a very high priority to address this lack of sustainability.

But is the number of people on the planet – our population – the most important leverage point, to address this lack of sustainability?  There are at least four factors to consider:

  1. World population
  2. The resource consumption of the average person on the planet
  3. The outcome of processes for creating resources
  4. Side-effects of processes for creating resources.

Briefly, we are in big trouble if (1.)x(2.) exceeds (3.), and/or if the side-effects (4.) are problematic in their own right.

My view is that the biggest leverage will come from addressing factors (3.) and (4.), rather than (1.) and (2.).

For example, huge amounts of energy from the sun are hitting the earth the whole time.  To quote from chapter 25 of David MacKay’s first-class book “Sustainable energy without the hot air“,

…the correct statement about power from the Sahara is that today’s [global energy] consumption could be provided by a 1000 km by 1000 km square in the desert, completely filled with concentrating solar power. That’s four times the area of the UK. And if we are interested in living in an equitable world, we should presumably aim to supply more than today’s consumption. To supply every person in the world with an average European’s power consumption (125 kWh/d), the area required would be two 1000 km by 1000 km squares in the desert…

In parallel with thoughtfully investigating this kind massive-scale solar energy harvesting, it also makes sense to thoughtfully investigate massive-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere (the topic of a blogpost I plan to write shortly) as well as other geo-engineering initiatives.  In line with the transhumanist philoosophy I espouse, I’m keen to

support and encourage the thoughtful development and application of technology to significantly enhance human mental and physical capabilities – with profound possible consequences on both personal and global scales

There are, of course, large challenges facing attempts to create massive-scale solar energy harvesting and massive-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere.  These challenges span technology, politics, economics, and, dare I say it, philosophy.

In a previous posting, The trend beyond green, I”ve spelt out some desired changes in mindset that I see as required, on a global scale:

  • rather than decrying technology as “just a technical fix”, we must be willing to embrace the new resources and opportunities that these technologies make available;
  • rather than seeking to somehow reverse human lifestyle and aspiration to that of a “simpler” time, we must recognise and support the deep and valid interests in human enhancements;
  • rather than thinking of death and decay as something that gives meaning to life, we must recognise that life reaches its fullest meaning and value in the absence of these scourges;
  • rather than seeing the status quo as somehow the pinnacle of existence, we must recognise the deep drawbacks in current society and philosophies, and be prepared to move forwards;
  • rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”;
  • rather than seeking to limit expectations, with comments such as “this kind of enhancements might become possible in 100-200 years time”, we should recognise the profound possible synergies arising from the interplay of technologies that are individually accelerating and whose compound impact can be much larger.

Helping to accelerate these changes in mindset is one of the big challenges I’d like to adopt, in the next phase of my professional life.

Whatever course society adopts, to address our sustainability crisis, there will need to be some very substantial changes.  People embrace change much more willingly, if they see upside as well as downside in the change.  The H+ vision of the future I see is one of abundance (generated by the super-technology of the near future) along with societal harmony (peaceful coexistence) and ample opportunities for new growth and exploration.

To return in closing to the question raised earlier: what is the “single biggest problem” that most deserves our collective attention?  Is it population growth and demographics, global warming, shortage of energy, the critical instability of the world economic order, the potential for a new global pandemic, nuclear terrorism, or some other global existential risk?

In a way, the answer is “none of the above”.  Rather, the single biggest problem is that, globally, we are unable to collaborate sufficiently deeply and productively to develop and deploy solutions to the above issues.  This is a second-level problem.  The economic, political, and philosophical structures we have inherited from the past have very many positive aspects, but many drawbacks as well – drawbacks that are becoming ever more pressing as we see accelerating change in technology, resource usage, and communications.


  1. Very inspiring reading. Very inspriring. I will wait eagerly for the next steps you are taking in addressing the issues.

    On “single biggest problem is that, globally, we are unable to collaborate sufficiently deeply and productively to develop and deploy solutions to the above issues”, I couldn’t agree more.

    On the five “rather than” points, I couldn’t agree more.

    In general, I agree with everything you are saying, and have trust that the H+ development will produce many great inventions in curing and preventing diseases. But I do hold on to my opinion that there is a limit to the number of people the earth can support.

    Energy and CO2 are not the only issues with overpopulation. Erosion, desertification, floods are results of complex human interventions in food production, housing, travel, basically any action we take between waking up and going to sleep. As an interesting example, I just read that the increasing number of water closets is resulting that phosphorus is disappearing from the land (this is because excrement is no longer used as fertiliser, but is now washed to oceans where it stays).

    But my real arguments are these:

    1) you mention the “processes for creating resources”. You also say that “rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural””. Yes, I agree, development is good.

    But there must be a limit to how far we can strech the boundary of “natural”. Even if we could manufacture all chemical elements in a lab, how would we know what is the balanced amount of each element in nature. I suppose what I’m trying to say, that when we approach the intersection of alchemy, biology, philosophy, even “spiritual belief”, we are approaching a line where we might drown in our own cleverness. In addition to the known-known, and the known-unknown, there is always the unknown-unknown. Perhaps this is something you will address in your next phase?

    2) My second argument why too many people is not a good thing, is that people need space, and space is limited. If we are aspiring for good life, we not only need to have healthy bodies, but also healthy minds. Some people like to meditate in a church, some in musical concerts, but others choose wild nature. Wilderness, silence, being alone in the woods, meadows and moors is an experience that requires a space empty from other humans.

    Anyway, thank you for this post. I look forward to reading more.

    Comment by Petra — 30 November 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  2. While I agree with a lot of the points here I find myself somewhat against the general theme. I think there are two main reasons for this:
    1) “we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”” – I actually find it rather arrogant given millions of years of evolution and our relatively short spell of technological development that any of us presume to know what “better than natural” actually is. We (as a species) attempted this with food production over the last few decades with absolutely disasterous affects on health and the environment. Why would it be any different with the next iteration? My personal test criteria for new foods is that they get at least a generation of testing before being rolled out globally (and certainly before they become a staple for me – i.e. I’m not volunteering as a guniea pig) – that is until we really understand the human body to the extent where we can accurately predict the effects. We might think we can now, but lets test that understanding first.

    2) When it comes to energy and other forms of power and wealth, history has shown a strong tendency for the people with resources to fight hard with whatever tools they have available to maintain the status quo. Of course a suitably advanced and sufficiently low-cost set of technologies could overcome all of this and I like the vision you present if we could get there. However, those technologies require a lot of development and that development has to be funded. Promising technology that could massively disrupt the status quo tends to get stalled or shelved far more often than it should.

    So, I guess in harmony with your closing paragraph, the single biggest problems we have are fear and greed and the power structures that maintain them.

    In a world where a man can become the President of the USA, funding his campaign without large corporate donations, maybe there’s a way to truly harness technology for the public good? I wish you lots and lots of luck finding it, but at the same time I urge you strongly to respect the wisdom of nature.

    Comment by Mark Wilcox — 30 November 2009 @ 5:02 pm

  3. Petra and David,

    To be fair, massive CO2 removal from the atmosphere using geo-engineering will cause the world population to drop dramatically.

    (plants are currently CO2-starved, and evolved when the atmosphere had much higher CO2 levels. The biosphere is currently growing thanks to the latest slight increase)

    “food” for thought 😉

    Comment by Troed Sångberg — 4 December 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    • For another set of arguments about whether the global population is too large, see the recent combative Spiked article, “Too many people? No, too many Malthusians”:

      In the year 200 AD, there were approximately 180million human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time a Christian philosopher called Tertullian argued: ‘We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.’ In other words, there were too many people for the planet to cope with and we were bleeding Mother Nature dry.

      Well today, nearly 180million people live in the Eastern Half of the United States alone, in the 26 states that lie to the east of the Mississippi River. And far from facing hunger or destitution, many of these people – especially the 1.7million who live on the tiny island of Manhattan – have quite nice lives…

      The first mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate how society can change to embrace more and more people…

      The second mistake Malthusians always make is to imagine that resources are fixed, finite things that will inevitably run out. They don’t recognise that what we consider to be a resource changes over time, depending on how advanced society is…

      And the third and main mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate the genius of mankind. Population scaremongering springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, simply the users of resources, simply the destroyers of things, as a kind of ‘plague’ on poor Mother Nature, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and the makers of history. Malthusians insultingly refer to newborn babies as ‘another mouth to feed’, when in the real world another human being is another mind that can think, another pair of hands that can work, and another person who has needs and desires that ought to be met…

      It’s likewise worth reflecting on “the Parable of Horseshit” in Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker review of Superfreakonomics.

      I agree with Petra that there are great advantages to being able to meditate, on occasion, in locations of solitude. However, I think that immersive virtual reality will before long be able to recreate similar sensations (perhaps even better ones…)

      // dw2

      Comment by David Wood — 4 December 2009 @ 11:00 pm

    • Hi Troed,

      Can you provide links to more info about the biosphere (plants etc) currently growing due to the recent increase in CO2 in the atmosphere?

      // dw2

      Comment by David Wood — 4 December 2009 @ 11:18 pm

      • David,

        Sure, I think it’s an interesting topic considering possible increases in crop yield.

        “They found that over a period of almost two decades, the Earth as a whole became more bountiful by a whopping 6.2%. About 25% of the Earth’s vegetated landmass — almost 110 million square kilometres — enjoyed significant increases and only 7% showed significant declines”


        And here’s a good paper on CO2 levels over geological times. Sometimes at more than a magnitude higher than today – and it’s during some of that time that plants evolved.

        Click to access Geocarb_III-Berner.pdf

        (I’m actually worred that well-intended artificial lowering of CO2 levels might be a cure worse than the possible illness)

        Comment by Troed Sångberg — 5 December 2009 @ 12:05 am

  4. David,

    I think you’ve already answered the question about what your biggest single problem is. The fact that there are so many different issues to tackle means that people are all looking at different issues and you should be trying to help align what they are doing.

    Your blog and the work that you are doing is helping people to come to common conclusions about what the right solutions should be – so carry on doing it and don’t get distracted by the detail. There are plenty of bright and dedicated people that have the solutions we will all need. You just need to help people identify which ones are going to work and which aren’t.

    Comment by David Harper — 6 December 2009 @ 5:17 pm

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