(By Gregor Macdonald) Once a year the very chic and exclusive TED conference
takes place in Southern California, bringing together entrepreneurs,
inventors, and thought leaders from every corner of the world.
There, gathered around a stage, a kind of hive mind begins to
unfold in which the most cutting edge ideas in healthcare, energy,
social development, and behavioral psychology are shared from a very
plugged-in, big-screen podium. It's extremely well done.
And despite the reflexive criticism from outside the conference --
that the gathering is inward-looking and elitist -- TED usually does
manage to disturb the zeitgeist, a little, with its unveilings in
technology and innovation. It is plainly good that next-step advances in
solar technology, data collection, and developing world health
initiatives are explained and broadcasted from TED. Especially given
that policy makers, or those who have the ear of policy makers, are also
often in attendance.
A better charge to level against the TED conference, however, is that it's routinely, if not unfailingly, optimistic.
The 2009 conference, held in the aftermath of the global financial
crisis, did not address the unpleasantness of that historic event in any
meaningful way. Moreover, very few talks in recent years have addressed
energy costs, especially the price revolution in oil.
In some sense, TED is the techno-innovators' version of the faith
expressed by neo-liberal economics, in which the market solves nearly
all of its own problems. The enduring posture at TED, therefore, is one
that acknowledges serious world problems, ranging from war to famine,
water, and food availability, but which nearly always concludes that
amazing and ingenious people -- geniuses -- are working to solve the problem. The Great Man theory of history would find each TED conference a comfortable place to be.
So it was perhaps surprising, but also encouraging, that the January
2012 TED conference finally addressed the subject of collapse, by
inviting Paul Gilding to give his talk The Earth is Full (opens to video).
I'd actually seen a version of Gilding's talk at the Ilhahee Lecture Series here in Portland
last fall. Gilding's view is that we've reached a relationship between
global population and available natural resources that makes it
inevitable that the economy -- a converter of natural resources into
goods -- will sharply slow down, if it has not started to slow down
already. Gilding can be thought of not as a neo-Malthusian, or a doomer,
but rather as an ecological economist. (As most readers know, I share
this same view.) Gilding looks at trailing historical growth rates --
again, the rate at which natural resources are converted to industrial
and population growth -- and concludes that the future size of the
economy at these growth rates would create a machine that the earth
simply cannot sustain. Again, I agree.
But Gilding's TED talk was countered, if you will, with a more typical
and rousing plea from Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation.
Diamandis, grounded heavily by a personal background in science and medicine, is not naive. His talk, Abundance is Our Future,
was a laundry list of fast-moving technological innovations that have
transformed poverty rates historically and promise to transform quality
of life in the years ahead.
One of the most laudable and humanistic beliefs advanced by Diamandis
is that the 3 billion people who have not yet come online to the
Internet and telecom networks represent a vast and underutilized supply
of human thinking. As a previous educator myself, I find this argument
to be powerful.
My quibble with Diamandis and his talk is that the magnitude of the
world's present challenges cannot wait for the array of potential
solutions that may start to work at the margins of humanity, even
despite his core belief that innovation and its impacts will actually
start to speed up. After all, Diamandis is an adherent to technological singularity,
the notion that exponential growth in technology will eventually reach a
crescendo, thus offering humankind super-solutions at a kind of
hyperspeed rate of change.