A pessimist and an optimist talk at TED2012

The first two videos from TED2012 are up. They're from yesterday's session. Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, gave a very depressing talk about the imminent end of life as we know it. It's titled The Earth is Full:

Have we used up all our resources? Have we filled up all the livable space on Earth? Paul Gilding suggests we have, and the possibility of devastating consequences, in a talk that's equal parts terrifying and, oddly, hopeful.

Gilding's talk was followed by a much more positive one by Peter Diamandis, chair of the X Prize Foundation and Singularity University, titled Abundance is our Future:

Onstage at TED2012, Peter Diamandis makes a case for optimism -- that we'll invent, innovate and create ways to solve the challenges that loom over us. "I’m not saying we don’t have our set of problems; we surely do. But ultimately, we knock them down.”

I was glad Diamandis' talk followed Gilding's, because I tend to believe the most recent argument I hear.


  1. I was tempted to believe the first man was evil, but it turns out he was just painfully aware of how little we are willing to move while we’re comfortable. We’ll be fine, but not after several reality checks I assume. At the risk of sounding like a hippie, I think a focus on optimization local food and resources would greatly benefit this issue. 

    1. If saying that means I’d run the risk of sounding like a hippie, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I’m already as much of a locavore as I can afford to be.

  2. Perhaps the talks should be re-ordered?

    I would love to believe that we will have the technology to solve all of our problems and that the Kurzweilian idea that the singularity will make everything amazing.  The trouble with the idea that computer technology will catapult us into the future is that Moore’s law ended.  There are still improvements to be had, but you can only get so many exponential improvements going from a current feature size around 18nm down to that of a 0.1nm atom.  Problems with power dissipation mean that many of those transistors can’t even be used.

    We live in an energy hungry society and pay little attention to how tenuous our energy consumption needs may be.  What happens to the cost of food and living when the cost of energy continues to increase? What if we can’t make sustainable fuels with the energy density of petroleum? So far we are a long way off and we aren’t really paying attention.

    When confronted with the idea that the finite world won’t be able to sustain our world growth, the typical responses are to deny the problem, assert that technology will save everything, or to go into a survival/apocalypse mode.  I think Diamandis falls into the category that technology will save everything, or he is ignorant of the complexity of the problem.  The apocalypse still hasn’t happened yet, and the real version probably will fall in line with Gilding’s description.  
    I believe there are opportunities to make the future better, but we should have started working on them ten years ago.  I agree with Gilding that we won’t address the problem until it is fully brought to our attention, but it isn’t clear to me what the salient sign of life threatening disease will be that triggers a sufficient response.  Continued chaotic and increasing in gas prices? More expensive food? Starvation? Keeping our heads in the sand will only make life more painful further down the line.  

    We live in interesting times.

  3. It took some cojones for Peter Diamandis talk about what great customers all those newly connected people are going to make, after Paul Gilding’s infinitely more realistic talk. Diamandis’s message would be lovely and inspiring without climate change. With climate change, it’s just irresponsible.

  4. Can’t they find anything better to play the optimist role than this silly techno-fantasy about a singularity. Diamandis thinks exponential growth can go on together. That’s just stupid. It’s an impossible Hamster idea. (See: The Impossible Hamster Club).

    There are some optimists around who both understand the scale and urgency of the problems of climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, agricultural stress, etc., and actually have something sensible to say about how we can address them. Kurzweil and Diamandis are just silly.

  5. A neo-malthusian who follows of Al Gore’s mass persuasion (aka propaganda) campaign that was started at TED 2006 to the point of using Al-Gore-isms and the-end-is-nigh rhetorics who doesn’t realize that guys like him and Al Gore are responsible for justifying such nonsense as destroying some 140 million tons of grain in the USA each year for “sustainable fuels” to ward off the dreaded “carbon collapse” leaving over a hundred million people undernourished TODAY even though the means of feeding them had been around in 2006.

    The “climate crisis” that supposedly caused the Russian drought of 2010 caused the loss of 10 mio tons of grain. Compare that to 140mio tons of maize destroyed for bio ethanol in the USA that year. Ask yourself, what’s worse?

    In the same year of 2010 (and also 2011), Germany planted rape-seed on 1.5mio ha – it used to be a neglible 0.02mio ha before the biofuel craze. Germany has wheat yields of 8 tons per ha. Germany alone had it within its power to offset the damage of the worst drought in Russia in the last 100 years by simply planting wheat instead of rape-seed and harvest 12 mio tons of it.

    What are you telling the people starving in Africa because market prices of grain have doubled and tripled? That the earth’s climate is to blame? Seriously?

    Those are the exact kind of talks that make me not watch TED videos for months on end, that make me hate TED and  make me miss the genuinely good ideas that some people also have.

    To quote Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Al Gore in 2006:

    “Help with the mass persuasion campaign that will start this spring. We have to change the minds of the American people. Because presently the politicians do not have permission to do what needs to be done. And in our modern country, the role of logic and reason no longer includes mediating between wealth and power the way it once did. It’s now repetition of short, hot-button, 30-second, 28-second television ads. We have to buy a lot of those ads. Let’s rebrand global warming, as many of you have suggested. I like “climate crisis” instead of “climate collapse,” but again, those of you who are good at branding, I need your help on this.”

    Notice how Gore pretends to deplore the decay of the role of logic and reason, the reliance of politics on ads and branding instead of reasoning – only to go on to tell the audience that this is in fact the greatest thing since sliced bread and his mass persuasion campaign should (and did) use it as much as possible.

    We are in danger and I am in fear that those people will cause even more damage than they already did. Don’t believe the propaganda. Think for yourself.

    1. Al Gore is off topic here. Someday, though, I am interested in hearing why some people find him so annoying. Just not today and not here, please.

      1.  Then forget all I wrote about Al Gore and just remember that burning food is neither sustainable nor a way to save the planet from starvation. That’s enough.

  6. Malthus would be very impressed.  And we all know how right he was.

    An economy that’s “twice as big” doesn’t necessarily consume twice as many physical things.  As shortages crop up, the market will work around them, as it has ever since malthus, and the economy can continue to “grow” without consuming proportionally more physical stuff.  How inconvenient for his thesis.

    1. Classic – “Planet earth is eating itself alive.  I could give you countless studies and evidence to prove this, but I won’t, because if you want to see it, that evidence is all around you.”


    2. Except for that everything you say is a hypothetical: the market WILL work around, not the market IS working around. How did it work around petroleum over $100/barrel a few years back? Not too well. What it did was immediately contract. Then fuel prices go down, economy grows just enough until oil prices rise again, more contraction, etc. 

      Likewise, some of what Gilding says is hypothetical, but he seems to be working from observations of reality. You seem to be working from a magical concept (the miracle of the Market).News alert: If the population doubles, food production needs to double. You can’t have a magical economy that grows forever without doing real things like feeding people. 

      And you can’t have a growing economy where fuel supply does not grow at the same time. There’s only so long it can “grow” by way of fraudulent financial schemes. What we’re witnessing is an end of that. 

      1. bigmike7, I’m certainly not defending fraudulent financial schemes.  But you’re wrong about the idea that the economy can’t grow without “fuel supply” growing at the same pace.  The economy doesn’t just consist of physical goods – in fact, much of what the U.S. produces takes the form of software and services largely disconnected from energy resources.
        Also, I wonder why you say that the economy didn’t work around $100/barrel oil a few years back.  Seems to me like it worked just fine – in fact, the move to hybrid vehicles and urbanization is exactly the sort of adaptation that the market creates, and is the sort of thing that has made Malthusian predictions laughable.  Do you have a suggestion for what the market (or some other entity) could have done better in the face of $100/barrel oil?  Curious what you would prescribe instead of a market…

  7. Since we’re going off topic I’d like to include Harold Bloom’s thoughts on Ayn Rand:

    “Ayn Rand was a writer of no value whatsoever, whether aesthetic or intellectual. The Tea Party deserves her, but the rest of us do not. It is not less than obscene that any educational institution that relies even in part on public funds should ask students to consider her work. We are threatened these days by vicious mindlessness and this is one of its manifestations.”

  8. Oh great, the computer won a Jeopardy match. That about sums up where we are. Someone please ask that computer and the Jeopardy fans to get to work on saving the Amazon rainforest.

    Diamandis’ thinking is so simplistic and magical. Take the idea of connectivity and social networking. Why should “hearing from 3 billion more minds” necessarily help solve resource depletion? Connectivity is showing itself to be a destabilizing factor as the power equation between citizens and governments shifts. Reactionary and defensive  governments will put more energy into maintaining power and status quo. Sorry to say this, but from the very selfish motivation of keeping petroleum flowing so we can buy more time to solve things, a bunch of twitter-fueled civil unrest in the Middle East is not the best thing, really. I’m happy if people will be less oppressed, but I’m just saying that that doesn’t translate into solving resource depletion. 

    He does not address energy in a realistic way. He only mentions solar energy as a hope for addressing fossil fuel decline, but solar energy will never have the easy portability and high density to replace fossil fuels. And even if it did, or if some replacement for fossil fuels came out of nowhere, that would actually speed our depletion of other resources. He does exactly what Gilding criticizes some optimists for: ignoring that the physical world has actual limits and that we can’t happy-talk our way out of that.  

    The problem is not even so much of finding a petroleum replacement, it is doing it quickly enough that the world economy can start growing again–immediately–and keep growing FOREVER. And this means an ever-expanding fuel supply. And this is what Gilding was getting at when he talked about the end of growth. Our entire system is based on growth. No growth = no promise of profits in future = no lending = end of capitalist and industrial society.

    Paul Gilding talks about what people talked about when I was a kid in the 70’s: over-population. It seems to be a topic that has gone off the radar. And even Paul Gilding tries to put a little too much sugar coating on this: The Earth just won’t support 9 billion people no matter how well we organize and plan the transition. I’m sure he realizes this, but we have to start somewhere, and he seems very genuine in his desire to get people moving without collapsing in fear.

    1. Isn’t it odd how the predictions of population fear-mongers in the 70s turned out to be completely wrong?  

      Kind of like Malthus?

      How is it that population / growth fear-mongers are always wrong?  Maybe because they fundamentally misunderstand human ingenuity and economics?

      Population fear-mongers are actually quite similar to crazies who predict the end of the world – Mayan calendar adherents, etc.  

      Also, you are flat wrong about ending growth ending capitalism.  First, growth isn’t ending regardless of the “fuel supply,” since economic growth is not necessarily material.  Second, profits don’t depend on growth.

      1. Isn’t it odd how the predictions of population fear-mongers in the 70s turned out to be completely wrong?

        You don’t get out much, do you?

  9. I read years ago a SciFi short story about a guy who built a time machine.  (Or a transmogrifier..it was in one of my Dad’s Azimov or Fant/SciFi paperbacks) And I guess he charged people a crap load of money to use it; but the deal was you could choose your future.

    Once you walk out into daylight, the universe would be forever changed for good or ill: Topia, dys or u…you choose.

    The guy was a crook, of course: there is no machine that can ‘change the future’.  Except by the end of the story he realized how many rich and powerful influential people paid to go through his phony gimmick: and chose the darker path.


    For myself; I’m in the corner of the first guy.  Call me a wingeing nattering nabob of negativity if you will.  But Gilding is on the ball.

    Diamandis showing a graph of the tech explosion over the last 100 years strikes me as…is trite the word?  Maybe not…how about deceptive.  ‘Look!  The lines of technological superiority go Up and Up and UP!!!  We can keep this going FOREVER!’

    Well, no.  I’m sorry but…no, we can’t.  Don’t get me wrong: the modern world and the tech that improves mankind has made huge and blazingly fast strides in my lifetime alone.  It’s flipping fabulous and amazing and I salute the hard work and brilliant minds that have brought us such improvements in communications, information, medicine et al.

    And if the Slingshot really works as advertised, what a boon to Humanity!  Millions of people could be saved from sickness and death Every Year!

    But does anyone else see a problem with that?  There really are quite a lot of homo sapiens running about these days…so lets ensure that none should die before their full lifespan is realized?  That’s the plan, is it?

    Alright then.  But mark my words: when the sweet crude becomes less sweet and easy to drill and refine, and the ‘100 years supply!’ of natural gas burns away: what then?  When the hungry billions rise up and say ‘We Want What You Take For Granted’; will you give it to them?  Will you give up on your dreams of travel, new clothes, meat for dinner, bandwidth, coffee, more than one child, a personal vehicle, advanced medical care etc etc?  (some of you are thinking ‘damn right, if it helps’  Most of you are thinking ‘wait…you didn’t say bandwidth did you: that’s off the table!’)

    Gilding has an important point that I will leave you with:  a heavily armed citizenry that is, frankly,  Under Educated, Extremely Sensitive, Prone to Violence..and in many cases: Praying For The Apocalypse.  

    All the imaginary nanobots in the world will not change Human Nature.  To wit: when the going gets tough, the tough will shoot you for your canned goods.

    But while we live..let us live!  Cheers, and have a good evening…

  10. Why call it “pessimist talk”. It is a quite realistic one. Everything (from food to housing, to fuel, to whatever…) is more expensive than when I was a child, and i’m only 35 (more expensive means less abundant). Also pollution has worsen in de last three decades. I guess is just realistic to think that if the world was less polluted and more abundant 30 years ago, and nothing changes, in 30 years the world will be more polluted and less abundant than now. For the ones who “don’t believe” in this very common sense path of reasoning… imagine your apartment. Now imagine another family moving in with yours. And then imagine another one. And then another one. And then another one…

    1. By every measure, we are far more affluent today than we were 30 years ago.  How big was your TV when you were growing up?  How many computers did you have?

  11. I believe we are in a race; a race between technological advancement, and running out of resources.

    The two outcomes are: get off this planet in a meaningful way, or decrease in population.

  12. The real noodle-melting, weirdness-inducing fact is that they’re both right, for certain values of right.

    On the one hand, Diamandis is certainly correct about the basic fact that between ideas “having sex” and accumulating, our capacity to make stuff and share information will never be any worse than it is today.  Simultaneous to that (and contrary to some skewed popular vision that says we cheerfully skipped through all the ’70’s doomsday predictions) the best modelling anyone has cared to do has thus far borne out predictions that we will be skirting (or are presently trampling upon) our ability to provide resources that we have some evidence to believe are not trivially replaceable.

    By the same token, change isn’t exponential- it’s logistic, and while it’s vital to remember that some changes happen at stunning rates, it’s equally important to remember that it’s foolish to expect a given rate of change to continue ad infinitum- or even necessarily to the abstract physical limits, when there are a half-dozen other sorts of factors that are “in the way.” And, of course, the odds that any given breakthrough that ignites a logistic takeoff occurring is basically stochastic, because those sorts of breakthroughs are dependent on new natural science, and we can’t honestly make those classes of predictions about the nature of bits of as-yet-untested reality, or else, well, we’d already know it. Add on a few more bits of weirdness- the demographic transition, where apparently getting rich and smart deters whole cultures from breeding (though, of course, that’s just a logistic function and thus ought to be expected)- and the well documented, quite robust trend for modern people to treat each other better in aggregate, even through nasty periods of history- and the resulting soup gets fractal and bizarre.

    In the novel of “2001,” Dave hears news about the US instituting WWII-esque “meatless Mondays,” while he’s in a nuclear powered spaceship, babysitting three cyronauts and being babysat in turn by a strong AI. In Robinson’s Mars trilogy, asteroid mining and terraforming and all that gee-whiz stuff are happening simultaneous to resource and climate shocks on Earth, because it turns out that exporting a seed of civilization is considerably harder than mailing back all of its fruits- or exporting all the trash. Steel production went through a Moore’s Law explosion for a while, and so did food, and they both cooled off. What happens in a world where there’s a surplus of compute cycles and a shortage of calories? Or calories, but no gas? Or calories and gas, but the Maldives are underwater and tornadoes wander through the midwest every hour? Or alternately, what happens when computers are as ho-hum as steel and something else weird is blowing up all around us? Or if the finite amount of resources in the world to make stuff can be made into stuff with a minimum of human labor, and we have no shortage of goods and no means to pay for them (which some suggest is part of the present delayed jobs recovery?) What does it look like when we have a common cultural perception that we’re going to be okay- just not today? Does our expanding niceness include a willingness to move gobs of capital from the rich to the poor, because the poor might not get a shot otherwise? Does that constitute a failure? Is there a painless way? How the hell does the demographic transition work when we’ve been counting on growing workforces on the one hand and living in fear of Malthusian population catastrophe on the other- does that constitute a win?

    Absolute stories tend to be wrong stories. But balancing two apparently opposed forces isn’t always about them equilibriating- sometimes they wrestle and convolute instead. Does it make me an optimist or a pessimist if I simultaneously believe that we have the capacity and the occasionally manifested tendency to crash the section of ecosystem that includes ourselves, and lots of other awesome bits, and believe that the people who will, and have, inherited those tendencies and that world are the most cooperative, smartest, best informed, and most technologically enabled generation of organisms in the history of life?

  13. I don’t see the two talks as being contradictory. Gilding says at the end that human ingenuity is likely to resolve the issues, Diamandis explains what forms that resolution may take.
    The difference is the economic crisis that Gilding says must happen to prompt the change in behaviour. 
    Of course, reading between the lines, Diamandis is outlining major economic problems as well. What happens to the utilities industries when people are able to create power from their roof-tops and use it to extract water from the air? How many people will be put out of work in retail and manufacturing when 3D printing hits its stride? What will happen in the Middle East when the countries lose their only income, the developed world loses interest in maintaining stability?
    Look at what is happening to the recording industries to see what the likely response will be from the soon-to-be obsolete business models.
    Yes, the world will be better for most of us but there will be a lost of angst and stress along the way (as usual for such massive upheaval). It is encouraging that the least impact may well be in the developing countries such as in Africa. They don’t have the same entrenched industries and infrastructure and should be able to leap-frog the resource hungry approaches that are causing trouble in the West.

Comments are closed.