xi's moments
Home | Specials

Our greatest challenge: Preparing the planet for 10 billion by 2050

By David Wallerstein | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2019-12-02 16:06

David Wallerstein [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

We live in exciting and challenging times. Information flows rapidly to our connected devices from anywhere in the world. Ideas and priorities fly across our screens at the speed of light. There are social challenges, entertainment options, and new experiences begging for our attention. These opportunities and the excitement driven by our technological era are often juxtaposed against the more mundane responsibilities of our everyday lives: Working, taking care of family, earning enough capital to pay for our daily needs and so forth.

It can often seem that between the challenges of meeting the basic needs for providing for our everyday livelihood, and enjoying the exciting entertainment offerings of our era, there is little time to consider even more challenges and issues happening around us at a higher level: Planetary scale challenges.

We can often forget about the natural, planetary forces evolving around us, being shaped and altered by our every day actions.

For many urban dwellers, now at 55 percent of our planet’s 7.7 billion human population, and rising to 65 percent by 2050, the natural world can sometimes feel a bit distant. The urban dweller may experience a more powerful connection to nature when a storm rushes through their city, when the air quality doesn’t seem great, and, in some incidences, when water levels rise, or water access is curtailed, as experienced by Cape Town, Mexico City, Perth, and other parts of the world in recent years.

For many of us wherever we may live, it could be argued that our direct connection with nature has been diluting, with all of the demands on our attention, responsibilities and occasional spoils of everyday modern life.

Unfortunately, there are powerful trends occurring on Earth that threaten the modernization that has led to varying quality of life improvements since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Even though we may all have many ideas and priorities on our plates, fundamental shifts in the “planetary ecology,” such as climate change, water stress or endemic polluting practices in our economies, beg all of us to pay attention.

The challenge now is for us to further build on the scientific and technological advances humanity has made over the centuries, but to do so with a far enhanced architecture that is resilient. A resilient architecture is one that:

• Can provide for its function without negatively altering the natural ecosystems around it.

• Can continue to provide its targeted function with potentially exponential scalability. The solution can work well with 10 billion human population and up to 15-20 billion. It does not engender greater risks with scalability.

• Can therefore be a solution for humanity for many thousands of years.

• Can allow humans to realize intended goals (e.g., have electricity, have heat, have fresh food) without negatively affecting the ability for another critical resource area to function. For example, if you use contemporary fertilizer for agriculture, you will likely pollute precious water sources - one solution in a critical needs area negatively impacts another critical needs area.

Therefore, the key goal for our era should be stated as:

Preparing the planet to meet the needs of 10 billion humans, in a way that is resilient, and sustainable for thousands of years.

Establish a global infrastructure now on Earth that can be the foundation of how we meet our needs going forward as homo sapiens on Earth.

Human Needs: The Importance of “FEW-SHES”

It may seem that with all of these new technologies emerging around us every day, that human beings are evolving rapidly, and that the technologies are struggling to keep up with our rapid evolution. But this is NOT the case. The most basic needs to support human life over the millennia have continued to remain remarkably consistent. There’s very little evidence of evolution in human physical characteristics for the past few thousands of years. Certainly not since the industrial revolution that ushered in our modern era. Therefore, charting the specific survival needs of humans remains relatively simple and understood. We are now solving for the scaling requirements to meet the basic needs of all human beings as our population numbers grow.

A lot of the things that we think we need every day, in the modern world, are actually arbitrary from a pure human survival perspective. If we focus on pure human survival needs, we can narrow them down to a few simple categories. I believe the following categories below are most important and fundamental:

1. Food
2. Energy
3. Water
—that is, “FEW”
4. Safety, Security: Trust in our community and neighbors
5. Health: Maximizing our bodies’ health and performance potential
6. Environment: Clean air, land, sea, ecosystems
7. Shelter

I have written and discussed FEW elsewhere, but now I extend the FEW concept more broadly to “FEW-SHES”.

Take away the stability of any one of these FEW-SHES factors, and you have a recipe for human disaster. Take No 6, safety and security: If you suspect that you're going to be attacked or subjected by another people, then you prepare to defend yourself, and the conflict can escalate with huge consequences. Take away No 1, food, and you have starvation and malnutrition, conditions that still affect over 2 billion people on the planet today, and those numbers could grow significantly in the coming years. The list of examples can go on and on.

The challenge now is to establish new architectures that provide all humans on Earth with the necessary access to the 7 FEW-SHES factors above, in a resilient way for thousands of years on earth, potentially even growing to a 15 billion human population and beyond. If we state it more grandly, we can solve the future fundamental needs of mankind if we get this current transition right.

We can shift our current status quo from the situation of endangering our planet every day, to being able to live here sustainably for the rest of imaginable time.

And many of the technologies and solutions we need to foster are within our reach right now!

Our current planetary dilemma: An overview

Many of us have heard terms like “climate change” or “pollution” and aren’t really sure exactly what it means. Sometimes we can’t see it with our own eyes, so we don’t know if it’s real. Some people don’t believe that there is really greenhouse gas out there, because they can’t see it.

The problem with much of our modern architecture today, from everything from our coal-fired power plants, to our gas powered airplanes and cars, to our fertilizer, to our modern plastic, is that these solutions were:

• Never designed to scale for many billions of people using them around the planet
• Never simulated to imagine what the ecological effect would be if the solutions did scale to current human populations numbers, and beyond
• Developed with weak understanding of the negative ecological or even planetary scale side effects.

And, their creators and initial backers probably never imagined that the solution could be so successful

This is something that technologists in the modern era can understand. Consider the internet. In the early days, internet entrepreneurs felt the internet could evolve into something meaningful and ubiquitous, but we weren’t certain, and the idea that the

internet could become more core to everyday life seemed like an impossible dream. We wanted new users to enjoy an internet experience, but it was hard to imagine hundreds of millions of people using it. Then, within a few years, rapid growth happened and we needed to catch up with market demand. It’s simply impossible to accurately simulate all of the market impacts, technological growing pains, and opportunities - all of the various issues that you’ll need to deal with as you scale a new business. To survive, you must structure teams to rapidly respond to both identified and anticipated problems, and even better if you structure teams to deal with the inevitable problems that you don't know will happen yet. As an entrepreneur in a fast-moving space, you must assume that new challenges will come up daily, and you must identify and deal with them before they become a larger issue. Moreover, at every step regulators are watching for any perceived missteps, and the media is quick to amplify any issues that occur in the market.

Just imagine if the plastics industry faced the dynamics of the modern internet industry and embraced this kind of product development and market response approach to their fundamental mission: “We keep things fresh, clean, easy to transport, easy to segment as a unit, and help our customers appreciate those products to help do their core business.” If the plastics industry could proactively stick with their mission, but anticipate and search for challenges and problems, they would like have introduced new types of plastic substitutes a long time ago, finding new plastic substitute solutions that don't become micro plastics, polluting Earth’s ecosystems, using various toxic chemicals and fossil fuels. Fortunately for them, until recently, the government-related backlash globally has been muted and the unsuspecting public has been docile. It seems harder to have a personal opinion on chemicals, toxins and planetary ecological impacts than it is on content, emotions, and ideas.

When plastics were first introduced, they probably didn’t seem like much of a threat. Modern plastics seemed like a nice solution at a more modest scale, but then become an ecological game changer at the massive global scale that they affect global commerce today. A lot of our current global challenge areas involve the introduction of a technology, a solution or an architecture that initially solved an important problem at small scale. However, at massive global scale, the solution actually started to poison the Earth.

Part of the further challenge is in trying to use validated science to first identify a problem with an existing practice or solution, getting a global consensus that there are harmful effects and significant risks, then getting the public and political leaders to be willing to take any action. The polluting or risky status quo behavior, which is the outcome of historical investments in sub-optimal architecture, continues to wreak damage as society tries to determine what to do next. As we know from our modern day climate change debate, the process of determining what to do next can take decades. During this soul searching time, the pressures and risks to humanity continue to mount.

Can we simply characterize the key planetary challenges on Earth?

With all of the activity occurring by 7.7 billion people per day on Earth, how do we upgrade to a resilient architecture? How do we provide for “FEW-SHES” for all, and stop creating new problems for other aspects of the FEW-SHES equation? How do we do this in a way that meets the needs of everyone on earth, for thousands of years into the future. Factors like climate change make it even more complicated to provide for FEW-SHES, and the complication may only grow in the future..

The current global focus has fortunately shifted to climate change. With every year we wait to do something about it, the problem compounds as the global population adds massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions to the planet every day. The amounts are really hard to imagine. How does one try to conceptualize a new 37 billion tons of CO2 in the sky each year? That’s just CO2. So if you figure that an average compact car is roughly 1 ton then imagine 37 billion new compact cars floating around in the sky each year. And that’s just one kind of new car floating around each year. There are other greenhouse gasses beyond CO2. The scale of modern day human atmospheric transformation has become astounding.

We accept this because we have existing sub-optimal infrastructure that we’ve scaled up to operate and this infrastructure requires the emission of greenhouse gases as a side product of their operation. That is, the default outcome of operating these outdated designs is that they produce dangerous by-products for humans and the planet, like pollution or greenhouse gasses.

However, it is now clear that we do not need gas burning in an engine to move on wheels on the ground, and that the performance of a Tesla or NIO can exceed those of traditional gas powered cars. If you think you need to move massive amounts of coal and water through a power plant to produce electricity, watch a simple windmill turn in the wind and realize that both are producing a flow of electrons by a turbine turning.

One solution uses the pressure of water vapor, and the other uses the natural forces of the wind. Just different ways of getting the same final result. One way has a huge impact on the chemical composition of the planet (e.g., using coal to create water vapor, and turn the turbine), the other way is planet neutral, using the force of naturally occurring wind, and can be scaled beyond our current imagination, with significant benefits for providing FEW-SHES.

Time Sensitivity

The key time-sensitive challenges to be addressed on Earth are the following. They relate to Food, Energy and Water (FEW):

Food: Global agriculture is a moving target. If your climate is changing, that means that certain weather behavior in your region may no longer apply to your assumptions. When your farm was established, you had certain rainfall, temperatures, wind and sunlight, that may not apply anymore. This is being experienced more and more around the world. Furthermore, as the planet’s climate becomes dynamic due to the changing composition of the atmosphere — a process that takes decades to play out, according to scientists — farms may not have a “new normal” to adjust to for some time. That is, each year, for the next few decades, could see some new variance in conditions. We are likely to keep shifting between new reality to new reality, as the Earth adjusts to the changing atmosphere. We will likely not reach a new normal until we stop changing the earth’s atmospheric composition, and the planet has decades or hundreds of years to readjust and achieve a new balance.

We need to assume that due to water stress and climate change, our plants are going to face more stress in our traditional agricultural regions. We can expect that in some years there won’t be enough rain in an important agricultural region, or too much rain, heat and frost, and farmers will need to develop a new playbook for taking care of their plants that doesn't currently exist.

Place these forecasted stresses in the context of the human population growing to 8.5 billion by 2030 and 10 billion by 2050, and the challenge is truly daunting. Everyone wants to eat.

But I’m oversimplifying. To help our plants grow, we are very dependent on modern fertilizer, which for all of its benefits, has some nasty side effects in poisoning our waters and the topsoil that is already under stress. Fertilizer has been a powerful solution for feeding the planet past 2 billion people at the time it was developed in Germany in the 1910s — we’ve had a terrific run on Earth growing more food since then—but over time the polluting effects have become very clear. Add further to our modern agricultural challenge, there is the high dependence of modern agriculture on other chemicals and pharmaceuticals - herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics and other methods - of ensuing that we have a safe food supply. We can see that the “Food” challenge on earth has a vast, complex scope.

Agriculture needs to be reimagined as a critical priority. Maintaining the current level of agricultural productivity around the world will be a challenge for the coming decades.

Indeed, it is a daily challenge already for many people on Earth: Two billion people on the planet are currently starving or malnourished.

The problem is further compounded by meat. That is, our “food” that needs to eat a lot of “food” to grow up to become our “food.” Relating the challenges of meat to the issues mentioned above, just consider that as the human population grows, if the proportion of meat in human diets continue, then the amount of meat demanded will grow considerably, as all of those “human food animals”—the cows, the pigs, the chicken— will need their own food source. The challenging dynamics mentioned above regarding growing the agricultural productivity on Earth are further compounded by trying to meet the challenge of “feeding our food.”

Energy: Shifting global architectures away from emitting greenhouse gases that create pollution, demand water resources, and require fuels sent at considerable risk and expense from far away countries. This is both for power generation, as well as

Transportation: This includes providing heat and cooling for living spaces, and hot water, which for many countries, these two areas alone contribute up to 40-50 percent of the national energy budget. Much of our human energy needs are just to keep our spaces and water comfortable for our bodies.

Water Scarcity and Pollution: Our daily activity on earth is steadily polluting our water sources and climate change shifts rain patterns in numerous ways. Water scarcity and quality is therefore an area that is immediately made more complicated by human activity and climate change.

Water is absolutely central to key survival functions, like hydration, sanitation and of course agriculture. But it is also in conflict with current energy needs, as the main thermoelectric power generation sources are totally dependent on the existence of abundant fresh water. So water needs often face a “tug of war” for demand between agriculture, urban needs, industry and energy.

When we solve intelligent water use on Earth, we are immediately addressing factors related to availability for agriculture, urban areas and industry, and hopefully reducing the dependence on water for power generation, except in those parts of the world where water is abundant.

David Wallerstein is chief exploration officer of Tencent. 

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

Global Edition
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349