Winter Talk with RethinkX

posted 15 Dec 2020 5 mins

Our virtual Winter Talk on Tuesday, 15 December, Rethinking Humanity, lived up to its bold promise as our speaker, Jamie Arbib, set out his radical vision for the coming decades.

Jamie is co-founder of RethinkX, a not-for-profit think tank focused on the potential – good and bad – of disruptive technology. In conversation with Rennie Hoare, he argued that to bring about positive change, we must first understand how disruption works:

‘Across society, we need better data about the possibilities that are emerging. Every sector of the economy – food and agriculture, transport, energy – will be disrupted over the next decade or two at a fundamental level. No one really sees it coming, no one sees the speed of transformation, but more importantly, no one understands the processes of disruption. When we want to forecast the future, we tend to look back in time; we draw a straight line to today, and then we extrapolate trends into the future. Those linear forecasts might be a reasonable approximation for the future in a period of equilibrium, but when you are in a period of rapid transformation and disruption – as we are now - they’re woefully inadequate.’

A former investment analyst, Jamie has produced a complex systems model that acknowledges the cascading consequences of change.

‘Most mainstream models look at one part of the system. We’re aware that a change to Variable A causes Variable B to change. But we make the assumption that all else is equal and, in the real world, that just doesn’t hold. In fact, it’s often the second-order and third-order effects that drive the greatest change. We’re trying to capture some of that. So, when we look at the energy sector, for instance, we start with the cost and capabilities of technologies, because if something’s much cheaper and much better than the old technology, it will disrupt it. Over the last 10 years, solar energy has dropped in cost by 80%, wind energy by 45% and batteries by 90%. In most parts of the world today, unsubsidised solar photovoltaics is the lowest-cost form of electric power we can produce and we’re on track for similar cost reductions over the course of the next decade.’

A surplus of cheap power, Jamie predicts, will be literally world-changing:

‘It’s not just that we’re going to replace gasoline vehicles with electric vehicles, or gas power stations with solar power stations. We are talking about a change in the architecture of the system. By 2030 we can build a 100% solar, wind and battery system. Market forces will drive that. But we will need to build a massive over-capacity of solar to get us through the dark winter months, which means we will have a superabundance of energy that is essentially free. And this will disrupt sector after sector of the economy; we’ll be able to use that free energy for things like desalination, heating and cooling buildings, maybe to produce hydrogen. Transportation will be transformed by fleets of autonomous electric vehicles – we have seen battery producers who are already able to produce a million-mile battery, and that’s game-changing. In cities, we might see free transportation because the cost is so low, just a couple of cents per mile and, through that, other business models will evolve. So in the same way that Starbucks currently gives away free wi-fi to get customers into their shops, we might see a fleet of Starbucks vans offering people free rides just to sell them a coffee.’

On the issue of climate change, RethinkX offers a root-and-branch reappraisal of current thinking:

‘It’s actually a much worse problem than we perceive it to be. Even if we meet the targets of the Paris agreement, we only have a 70% or so chance of not triggering runaway climate change. And this is a problem of both stock and flow. Not only do we need to turn off the tap of carbon emissions – which is where we’re focused now – we also need to empty the bath. We need to deal with the built-up stock of emissions already in the atmosphere and we can’t possibly do that through behaviour change. One of the big things we hear about is that we all need to give up consumption to solve climate change. But’s that’s absolutely the worst thing we can possibly do. Because if we drop consumption to the kind of levels we need to see to solve climate change, there is going to be enormous human suffering. We’ll also have such economic hardship that we’ll destroy the capital we need to build out the new transport and energy systems.’

For Jamie, technology offers the only path to sustainability: ‘We have the technologies we need to disrupt the food system, and the disruption of animal agriculture will free up more than 50% of the land currently used for pasture and to grow food for animals. If we were to reforest just a fraction of that land, we could offset all emissions from agriculture. If we were to reforest the whole of that land, we could offset emissions from all sources. And that’s just one possibility. We might also develop technologies that use that superabundance of energy to essentially suck carbon out of the atmosphere. So we do have the potential to solve these problems. However, there is also a real risk that the medicine we prescribe is worse than the disease itself.’

As ever, there was an opportunity to put questions to the speaker, and the C. Hoare & Co. hive mind was soon engaged, buzzing with the uplifting thought that the future may be brighter than we imagined.