Let’s Innovate

This is a popular solution to the challenges that the world will face in the coming decades. I could dismiss it as wishful thinking but let’s analyse innovation anyway.

We are good at it; we have a history of it; we’ve done a lot of it. No-one could deny all that. What we do deny is that there’s a cost to innovation. We may not see the cost but there’s no such thing as a free lunch in this corner of the Universe. You don’t get something for nothing, never have.

As an example, today I saw the news that the UN has provided 2 billion people with clean water. That’s an innovation. Hidden further down the article is the less desirable information that they’ve failed to hit their target of reducing species extinction; in fact it’s still accelerating. That’s a cost (not one that’s admitted by industrial civilisation though). I can think of several chains of cause and effect that link the two stories: maybe the UN simply had a bigger purse for the clean water. The point is that innovation has a cost; the budget has to balance.

So, we can pay this cost in one of two ways: up front, which would be smartest; or in the future. Up front in the clean water case could be by reducing the amount that the wealthiest people use. Yeah, we’re all sniggering at that one. Of course our preferred option is not to pay now, sometimes because we don’t even know how but usually because this is our modus operandi. Ever since we invented lending money at interest, we’ve bought everything from the future.

This has worked for thousands of years while our scale was small or local, although civilisations have fallen nonetheless – 100% of ’em so far! The Industrial Revolution changed all that. The rate of innovation went up as did its scale. It went global. And still on the model of paying later. As I’ve said: this may have been unwitting for the first 150 years but not so for the last 60. That was when the likes of Rachel Carson and the James Gang (Hansen and Lovelock) began to work out the cost and the debt we were running up.

We ignored them and carried on innovating. Now the debts are really hitting home and must be paid. Or innovated out and remortgaged still further on top of our mountain of debt. Does this sound familiar? Like the lead-up to the banking crisis of 2008? I’m not a financial expert so I wouldn’t care to draw the parallel too far except to say that smart money knows where to go. And not much of it is going into the future to judge by sluggish stock markets.

Back to innovation: both the financial system and Planet Earth will need heaps over the coming years. How about this time paying the costs up front, huh? And paying off all our old debts? We won’t like it but we’ll like the ultimate cost even less.

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