All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.
Bobby Kennedy undoubtedly wasn’t thinking about global warming when he made this statement all those years ago, but what he said applies today as much as to what was happening back then. After spending parts of Thursday and Friday at the Climate Change Think Tank: Transportation’s Impact and Solutions at UMass in Amherst, MA I came away with the gnawing feeling that perhaps, just perhaps we could innovate our way out of the problems we are facing and that our current crisis represents not only a threat, but also a substantial opportunity.
Just as innovation led to the development of the internal combustion engine, so could technology and innovation provide us with the solution to the global warming crisis we most assuredly now face as a result of all that innovation during the Industrial Revolution.
Congressman John Olver, who has served the first congressional district in Massachusetts for many years was the keynote speaker. Olver cited many statistics during his speech such as the fact that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population and produces 20 percent of the green house gasses (and that percentage would be higher if it were not for the increasing industrialization of China in recent years).
He also suggested that we bear considerable responsibility for the problem and that if we don’t meet the problem head on, there is not going to be a solution. But Olver also looked at technology somewhat pessimistically when he suggested, that we can’t science and engineer our way out of the problem, there are no quick fixes, that such things can take years of R&D.
On this point, I must part ways with the good Congressman because I believe it is possible to innovate our way out of this, and I believe our scientists and engineers and programmers could lead the way. But it will take a total and complete commitment on the part of the government (something the current one is clearly unwilling or unable to do).
In the early ‘60s, John Kennedy challenged the nation to find a way to fly to the moon within 10 years and we succeeded. If we could get to the moon in less than a decade with 1960s technology, I can’t see why, if we put our entire intellectual, political and moral authority behind global warming, we couldn’t come up with a way to deal with the crisis in a similar timeframe. What makes this a more difficult nut to crack is that, unlike the moon landing, this is not a single goal or problem. It is a series of problems about energy, transportation, housing, food, recreation; touching virtually every aspect of our lives.
Yet I still believe if we put our whole heart and soul into this issue as a national imperative, as though our lives depended on it (certainly an argument could be made that they do), we could come up with some pretty cool ideas. We certainly can’t wait for Congress to do it for us. They recently passed new fuel standards with the pathetic goal of 35 miles per hour by 2020. (I’m guessing consumers will be demanding much higher standards in a much shorter timeframe.) Congressman Olver pointed out that as of today, 98 percent of US transportation relies on oil and we are long past the point of that being acceptable.
Yet even today, technology is helping solve the problem through more intelligent road and traffic signal systems, evolving hybrid technologies, better communication protocols for cars that could help improve traffic flow and so much more. Governments can reduce the amount of pollutants by planning cities around public transportation systems and by charging high fees to come into the city by auto during peak travel times (something Sydney, Singapore and other major cities are doing today). Technology can help by monitoring traffic and giving officials real-time data about changing traffic patterns. When you combine the technological solutions with smart planning, green building, local organic food production and other initiatives you can begin to turn the tide and in the process improve the quality of life with cleaner air and less noise and traffic congestion.
Whatever happens moving forward, you can be sure that those smart people who come up with the winning ideas will be the leading companies in the coming decades. The heads of these companies will be the new Captains of Industry. Just as John D. Rockefeller, JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie ruled the early days of the Industrial Revolution, so will these men and women lead ours.
The words of one humble scribe don’t add up to much, but I do know this much, that whoever is out there working in large corporations and small private labs, across college campuses or perhaps in someone’s garage to bring our intellectual power to bear on this problem and generate the technologies to deliver reliable, safe and clean energy sources (or even just solve a small piece of the problem), recognizes what Bobby Kennedy understood all those years ago, that this difficult and perplexing problem is filled with opportunity. The question is: who will seize it?