The Nature Conservancy

Q&A with Ramez Naam Dialogues on the Environment


Source: The Nature Conservancy

Mark Tercek: You have been a Microsoft executive, a tech entrepreneur, a novelist and an author of two non-fiction books. What has that varied experience taught you about the best approach to solving environmental problems?

Ramez Naam: It’s been quite a ride. Really those experiences have given me three core lessons that I bring to thinking about the environment.

The first comes from management. When you’re managing a large number of people, you learn that incentives matter tremendously. You really want people to be rewarded for doing the right thing for the customers and the organization. If your incentives are set up wrong – if for some reason you reward people for behavior that’s actually bad for your customers or your organization – then you’re going to encourage that behavior.

The same is true when it comes to the environment and natural resources. If the incentives are aligned right – towards better preservation and restoration of nature and natural resources – then you’ll see a tremendous amount of activity in that direction. You’ll see individuals making choices that are better for the planet. You’ll see businesses doing the same. You’ll see entrepreneurs trying to start new businesses and innovate in new technologies that are good for the planet.

Sadly, today, our incentives aren’t set up well – you can make a lot of money burning fossil fuels, digging up wetlands, pumping fossil water out of aquifers that will take 10,000 years to recharge, overfishing species in international waters that are close to collapse, and so on.  So when it comes to trying to manage how our entire planet-wide market and all the people and businesses in it deal with nature and our natural resources – we first and foremost need to change the incentives.

The second lesson comes from technology – both as it manifested in my career in corporate environments and in writing science fiction. Technology is incredibly powerful. And in many ways, the sky is the limit in terms of what you can actually accomplish with the right science and the right technology. But to get there, you have to actually invest in R&D. And often that means you have to be willing to spend an awful lot in that R&D phase before you see the benefits. When you look at the companies that have really won customers over in technology – say, Apple and Google – you find that they spend billions of dollars on R&D each year, often spending that much on a product before they ever make a dime back in profits. Unfortunately, in the environment, I don’t see as much willingness to invest heavily in R&D as I do in consumer technology. And that’s a pity.

The third lesson comes from being a writer. And that is that people want stories. People respond to the concrete much more than to the abstract. You can say that the IPCC projects 4 degrees Celsius of temperature change by 2100, and it means nothing. You can show graphs all day long, and most of your audience won’t really feel it. Then you can show one picture of a glacier that’s melted to nothing, or tell one story of people’s lives disrupted by Sandy or by last year’s drought, and you get markedly higher response. So we’re going to see public attitudes switch not in proportion to scientific findings or graphs, but in proportion to the stories they hear, the people they know whose lives have been touched by climate change or some environmental calamity. That’s what really changed public opinion.

Mark Tercek: You are remarkably optimistic in The Infinite Resource. You argue that we can all live better while doing less harm to the environment. How is that possible?

Ramez Naam: There are really two kinds of optimism. There’s the complacent, Pollyanna optimism that says “don’t worry – everything will be just fine” and that allows one to just lay back and do nothing about the problems around you. Then there’s what we call dynamic optimism. That’s an optimism based on action. It’s a viewpoint that says “yeah, we have problems, but we can beat them, if we hustle, if we make the right choices.”

That second kind of optimism is what I argue for. How? Well, we’ve done it before. In the late 1960s, the Cuyahoga river that runs through Cleveland was a mess. The river was so polluted by oil and chemical runoffs and garbage that virtually all the fish species that lived in it had already died off. And in ’69, a train crossing a bridge over the river threw a spark from one of its wheels and actually set the river on fire. Well, things are better now. Most of the fish species in the Cuyahoga are back. The river’s clean enough you can drink from it. The oil and chemical runoff and garbage are gone. And that hasn’t happened because we ended economic growth. The average income in Cleveland is triple what it was in ’69, but the river’s clean. What happened was the we created new rules and new incentives. Between 1969 and 1973 we created the EPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. That didn’t happen by itself. It took people rallying and saying “enough is enough.” But when we focused, we solved the problem.

The same is true with the Ozone Hole and with Acid Rain.  You don’t hear much about either of those any more.  We made huge strides against those problems.  And we did it in every case without impacting economic growth.

Mark Tercek: You’ve written a lot about technology and particularly the fear of new technology. What do you see as the proper role of technology in addressing problems of the environment and human development?

Ramez Naam: Technology is vital. We have to have development in new technology if we’re going to solve these environmental problems without throwing humanity back in poverty.  Think of it this way: Today we have climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from human power and transportation infrastructure. At the same time, we have 2 billion people who live in energy poverty. And between now and 2050, population will grow by another 2 billion people, and people in low-energy countries like China and India will be wanting more energy than today.

So, if you had no new technology, and you powered society as we do today – mostly by fossil fuels, you’d have only two choices: Doom yourself to horrific climate change by burning all that carbon and releasing all that CO2. Or power down society, reducing total energy usage around the planet. One leads to ecological collapse. The other is a reversion, in many ways, to poverty.

So you’re between a rock and hard place. What can you do? The only real solution is innovation in new technology. You have to be able to generate usable energy without greenhouse gas emissions and you have to be able to do it cheaply if you want people to choose that approach. That means new technologies. New technology lets you grow the resource pie, which is the only way you can get out between that pincer of rising consumption (as we end poverty) and environmental and natural resource depletion.

The same is true in water, in fishing, and in farming.  Agriculture is the #1 source of deforestation.  By some estimates it accounts for 80% of the forests chopped down in the tropics.  Obviously we want to stop deforestation.  Yet when you look at the trends, you see that over the next 35 years we’re going to need to grow about 70% more food to keep up with population growth and richer diets in Asia.  So if you want to feed the planet and keep the forests we have, you need to be able to grow roughly twice as much food per acre around the world.  How do you do that?  New technology.

Now in the food case in particular, one of the technologies that could help there – genetic technologies that could create better crops with higher yields and less need for water and fertilizer – is tremendously feared.  Very little of that fear is scientifically grounded.  And even worse, in my opinion, is few of the people who propagate that fear think about the ecological imperative to save the planet’s forests.

All of that said – as powerful as technology is, it has to be paired with policy. Today we don’t have good global policies in place for climate. We know the incentives are off. Just like you could dump oil into the Cuyahoga in the 60s and let someone else foot the bill, today you can pump CO2 into the atmosphere and let the whole world foot the bill. So we have to innovate in technology. But often we need to use policy to level the playing field, or to be sure that a technology is managed in a responsible way.

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