Nine billion people… living well on the real world? For that, we need an innovation infrastructure.

This is the last in our three-part mini-series on how our growing numbers can buy time for ourselves and for our planet, its atmosphere and oceans, its landscape and its ecosystems.

You know we’re going to talk about innovation. The way in?

… the carbon tax of the previous post. Energy is the key to sustainability. Food and adequate supplies of fresh water? Absolutely essential. And we don’t want the food problem to be any more of a challenge than necessary; that’s why it was the starting point. But with sufficient energy, we can purify salt water into the fresh water we need over and above that supplied by the hydrologic cycle and by conservation. With sufficient energy, we can add fertilizers to soil and irrigate where needed to grow the crops we require. These measures can buy margin

Why do we need innovation in the energy sector? After all, we seem to have fossil and nuclear fuel sources that should keep us going for centuries. So what’s the hurry? Simply this: the hang-up with energy is the accompanying pollution. With fossil fuels there’s a lot. Some of it is a problem locally and regionally: all those acid-rain precursors. Some of it – the CO2 – is a problem globally. With nuclear, there’s not so much waste…but what there is, is nasty. With renewable sources such as wind and solar, there seems to be less. A carbon tax is a twofer. It provides fiscal resources every country needs in today’s world. It taxes behavior we want to change (different from alcohol and tobacco taxes only in terms of scale) and motivates us to innovate.

Innovation? Two points.

First, we count on it, but we can’t conjure it up on demand. We’ve been blessed throughout the history of humankind; innovation has always seemed to come naturally to us. And innovation has always arrived just when we’ve needed it. [A well-worn expression captures this: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”] Think the transition from wood to coal, and from coal to petroleum and natural gas. Harnessing electricity. The invention and development of information technology. The Green Revolution. Biotechnology. And more. All of these have arrived in a nick of time. Imagine today’s world struggling to operate without IT, for example.

But future breakthroughs can be neither scheduled nor assured. We can never guarantee that progress will be quick or easy or inexpensive. And we have particular reasons for concern when it comes to energy science and technology. [What if Necessity practices birth control?] So if we aspire to sustain our historic success, we should also control our appetites, build up margin, give ourselves plenty of time to see problems emerging and cope with them. This need for conservative behavior is at war with our natural profligacy. We love stuff and we live to the hilt and we tend to hold nothing in reserve. [And that’s the better off among us. The desperately poor have nothing in reserve for a different reason.]

In this respect, reliance on innovation has some similarities to our reliance on evacuation as a tool for coping with natural hazards such as hurricanes and floods. Our experience with disasters tells us that evacuation is a poor first line of defense. Instead, we should be focused like a laser on land use, building codes, and engineering, and on reducing the amount of evacuation needed in the face of any hazard to a bare minimum. But in real life we don’t live that way. We build on the beach, even out into the surf zone. We build on the floodplain. We build on the earthquake fault zone, and we build on unstable hillside slopes – all in the name of beautiful views. Because those views are expensive, we build cheaply, we cut corners, and then we find at the first sign of inclement weather, or the slightest ground shaking, and we have to flee. And then the family flees not in one vehicle, but two or three.

Another example? Go back to diet, rest, and exercise – lifestyle –as the tool of choice for good health. The healthy lifestyle is cheaper, more reliable, and leads to better outcomes than stomach stapling, liposuction, stints, and coronary bypass surgery. Yet which path do we follow?

Bottom line: if we conserve energy, food, and water wherever we can, then the task of innovation to reach sustainability will be that more manageable.

Second, as we’ve often said, sustainability is an oxymoron. To keep the human race going, we need continual innovation. To innovate continually requires an innovation infrastructure.

That infrastructure includes an educational component. Society has to challenge each new generation of young minds to question established order, to develop their analytical skills, to acquire a love for problem-solving. We have to give them (ourselves) the tools they (we…we’re all in this together) need; the instrumentation, the computing capability, etc. We have to build social networks and communities that include scientists and engineers but aren’t limited to these – that instead allow them to play a contributing role in larger communities of social scientists, practitioners, politicians, journalists, teachers, and more. We need to shake up the established order continually lest we grow complacent and lapse into mere caricatures of our earlier, more creative and positive selves.

And, finally, because this innovation infrastructure is critical – no less important to our futures than energy, food, water, etc., we need to ensure it a measure of stability, especially with respect to steady versus intermittent funding, and we need to prevent its disruption, from whatever cause.

Two observations in closing. First, we hear much these days about stimulus measures to reinvigorate the U.S. and the world economy. As Chris Edwards warned in Sunday’s Washington Post, in using stimulus dollars to build critical infrastructure, our judgment can be flawed. He didn’t say it this way, but he could have said that we make a big mistake when we choose in merely knee-jerk fashion to maintain or refurbish the infrastructure for yesterday’s needs instead of taking the time and thought to identify the infrastructure needed for tomorrow. The infrastructure that never goes stale in this way is the critical infrastructure supporting innovation. We need to invest generously, to the point of obsession, in that.

Second, the critical infrastructure that arguably is most time-critical in this respect are Earth observations, science, and science-based services. Accelerate this work – get this right – and we give ourselves the best chance at a future on this finite planet where nine billion of us can do more than survive.

We can enjoy each other’s company.

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