We live in challenging times. The aftermath of the corona crisis is visible. Inflation is skyrocketing. People have less to spend, companies are going bankrupt and governments are running budget deficits. There is a high probability that an economic recession is coming.
The recurring economic crises do not make things easy for the past hundred years. The very rich get richer. People struggle in poor countries for pittance wages, while more and more capital goes to the richest one per cent.
There are also crises that have been looming for some time. The climate crisis is the most obvious one. Think of the disappearance of ice at the North Pole. By extension, all sorts of persecutions threaten. Think of crop failures, many floods or just water shortages, climate refugees, terrorism, new diseases, etc. Not to mention the wars in Ukraine and other parts of the world, among others.
Still, I believe we should be reassured. Despite the difficult times, we may be more optimistic. The fact is that humanity has experienced several major turning points in its history, where it had to make a very hard landing, and was saved by innovation.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that humanity was doomed to starvation. The available resources would soon be surpassed, he said, and this was inevitable because the number of people would always increase in the short term.
History considers him to have been wrong, but there was little he could do about it, given the circumstances of the time. He could not fully foresee the amazing transformations brought about by the industrial revolution. The ability of machines to increase hundredfold the amount of useful work that could be done – it changed the equation and saved humanity from the fate he had imagined.
There was another turning point at the beginning of the 20th century, when there was a crisis in farmland productivity. Famine again loomed darkly on the horizon. Humanity had grown in numbers and we began to deplete the land through overexploitation. An inescapable barrier?
Not so. German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch created the first artificial nitrogen fertilisers, beginning the transformation of agriculture and saving humanity once again.
It is not surprising that some look at that history and assume that humanity would not survive much longer. But I believe innovation will come to the rescue, even when it comes to climate change, wars and economics.
Perhaps, without warning, there will be another amazing breakthrough. And if not, what is in the current pipeline for the technologies visible in the distance? Can they take us where we want to go?
The answer is “yes”. Our biggest challenge is sufficient, reliable, secure and sustainable energy and a scaled-up food production system that is adapted to and resilient to climate change; provides adequate protection and restores nature.
So what are the innovations that can best help us achieve such results? Well, the full mix of energy alternatives will remain, with cheaper renewables advancing. But many agree that they will have to be supported, at least in part, by more energy-dense “always-on” sources.
Of those sources, fourth-generation nuclear power is the most promising. The reactors currently being tested in China are designed so that when operation is interrupted, they can be safely shut down instead of melting down. They also produce significantly less waste – and even use waste from earlier generations as fuel. Small-scale nuclear reactors – such as Rolls Royce’s Small Modular Reactors – also have potential.
As for food productivity, two things offer hope in the short term. The first is the use of GPS-guided artificially intelligent technology to manage agriculture much more efficiently. Such technology works most powerfully on a large scale.
The other is the development of genetically modified crops that are more productive or better adapted to the climate extremes we can expect. Drought tolerance, disease resistance, higher yields, resistance to soil salinity and weed suppression – all areas where advances in technology will help.
At this point, we can begin to recognise a pattern. While at first glance it is clear what pragmatic contribution these innovations can make, they raise many people’s concerns.
This is to be expected. Those earlier historical innovations also came at a price, and provoked a reaction. From the people who wrecked the machinery of the Industrial Revolution to the campaigners currently bitterly opposing nuclear reactors. This is not unusual for a change process.
But those earlier developments were supported and implemented without much hesitation by the governments of the time. Even if these innovations were not completely finished, and there were obvious problems to be solved, they were viewed through the lens of their potential.
Of course, there are always those who oppose any change, preferring to argue that it is unnecessary. There are always those who consider that there needs to be a complete transformation of social and political systems.
But the question of whether innovation can save us, in my view, is not there. It is rather a question of which technology will work and which will be adopted. I do sometimes wonder whether our very different, ideologically divided, risk-averse society retains the capacity for the leap of imagination needed for progress.
The current moment in time opens up opportunities to solve global problems such as poverty, wars and climate change. But how badly do we want it? One thing is clear: it will certainly not happen if we simply keep saying ‘no’ to every possible innovation.