Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy

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An Interview with Ramez Naam ’90 About His New Book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet

Ramez Naam '90 is an author with a background in computer science, working for 13 years at Microsoft leading teams that worked on email, web browsing, search, and artificial intelligence. He won the HG Wells award for his 2005 book More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. Naam, an active IMSA alumnus, was honored with IMSA's Alumni Trailblazer Award in 2007 and was the featured speaker at IMSA's 25th Anniversary Gala in 2012.

Naam's new book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet posits that though man-made climate change looks to be a dire situation, it can be surmounted if humanity properly motivates and fosters innovation. Naam draws extensively on historical examples of global threats that have been largely overcome because of human innovation, and delves into the promising future of many technological solutions to global warming.

Q: How did you decide to write The Infinite Resource? How much research was involved?

A: It’s been a five year project.  I really started down this road in 2008, when I was swimming off a beach in the Yucatan region of Mexico.  It was stunningly beautiful there, yet the beach was also covered with litter.  I decided that day I wanted to really dig into research on the current state of the environment and understand my own responsibilities there.  I didn’t realize that would be a book at the time, but five years later, it is.

Q: You speak a bit about your own life being born in Egypt, immigrating to Flora, Illinois at a young age. What effect did IMSA have on your interest and future research into the topics you explore in your book?

A: IMSA was an incredible impact on me.  It’s a place that really encourages self-starting, that gives positive feedback to the asking of big and hard questions.  That’s impacted me my whole life.  And it certainly imparted a belief that if I wanted to know about something, I should just go learn about it, and that if I had something that I thought was important to say on a big topic, I should just find a way to say it.

The Infinite Resource wouldn’t exist without IMSA. None of my books would.

Q: This book gives a thorough and convincing argument that with the right market incentives, the power of innovation will bring more efficient and effective solutions to our energy and climate crises. Which innovations are you most excited to see develop in the near future?

A: Carbon-free energy is the key technology area.  We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.  One the one hand, we have the reality of human-driven climate change, which poses a huge risk to all of us. On the other hand, the world needs energy.  And in particular, the developing world needs energy to rise out of poverty.  Some look at this and say we’re doomed – we have to ‘power down’ our society or we have to just acknowledge that the pie of global resources is going to shrink.  But I don’t see that as either realistic option or a desirable one.

Energy is key to all of this because, with sufficient energy access, you can solve a lot of other problems – you can get more raw materials, you can desalinate water, you can build infrastructure, you can even boost crop yields.  So if we can find ways to increase the world’s access to energy, and to actually make it cheaper than it is today, while at the same time halting the release of greenhouse gases, that would be a tremendous step.

And it looks like we’re getting there.  Solar power is dropping in price exponentially.  You can buy twenty times as much solar power for a dollar today as you could in 1980.  That makes it cost competitive in sunny areas like the southwest.  More importantly, if the trend of price dropping by half every decade or less continues, then in 20 years we’ll have solar throughout most of the world that is cheaper than grid power today. And similar trends are happening in batteries and energy storage so we can use that power at night and in our vehicles.

That’s what I mean by the power of ideas to grow the pie even on a finite planet.

Q: Climate change remains a politically divisive issue. You have much hope for our market’s ability to innovate, but how much hope do you have for us to be able to enact the climate change measures you talk about?

A: We have to innovate in our economic system as much as we do in technology.  Pretty much every environmental problem you see is a ‘market failure’. They almost all stem from situations in which the market looks at a resource and sees zero value – because no one owns it, no one is buying or selling it, no one is setting a price on it.  That’s the ultimate problem with climate change.  If a factory or powerplant emits CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and that in turn makes a storm like Sandy or a drought like the one we had last year more likely, then real economic damage is being done by those emissions.  In fact, in the US, last year we suffered about $100 billion in damage from climate-linked events.  But the market doesn’t associate that very real damage and the actions that are causing it.  So there’s a breakdown in the system.  A more rational market would put a price on emitting greenhouse gases, equivalent to the amount of damage they do.

Now, there’s huge opposition to making such a change.  But I’m hopeful.  Why?  Because we’ve done it before.   Remember the Ozone Hole?  Or acid rain?  Those were environmental problems we had at one point.  And in both cases, we passed laws that protected the common resources that were being damaged.  We signed something called the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-destroying chemicals called CFCs.  And we created a newfangled market system called cap-and-trade to limit the emissions of sulfur dioxide, which is the chemical that causes acid rain.  And both of those laws have worked.

In both cases we waited longer than we should have. There was huge opposition from industry and from some political corners. But eventually the situation became so clear that we acted.  I think we’ll get there with climate change and the other issues we face today as well.

Q: Sometimes in this book you take a cautiously supportive stance towards controversial topics such as nuclear power, genetically modified foods, and population growth. In researching this book did you end up changing your views on any of the topics or issues you wrote about?

A: I came to this book really uncertain how I felt about nuclear power and GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms], and fairly convinced that population growth was the root of all environmental problems.  What I found surprised me.

On nuclear power, one thing that popped from the research was the relative death toll of nuclear vs. coal.  Nuclear power releases almost no CO2, so from a global warming perspective, it’s far better than fossil fuels.  But is it really dangerous?  It turns out that air pollution from coal-fired power plants kills at least 100,000 people around the world each year.  Meanwhile, if you sum up all expected deaths from all the nuclear disasters that have ever happened, you get an expected death toll of maybe 50 people per year.  So, until solar and wind and batteries come fully of age, would you rather be burning coal or using nuclear?  Even on radiation release, I was surprised.  For equal-capacity power plants, the fly ash from a coal-burning plant releases orders of magnitude more radiation into the environment than the nuclear plant does.  It was really eye opening.

On GMOs, I didn’t come to the book particularly frightened of them, but I was surprised to learn just how large an environmental benefit they’ve already been.  When you look at reports from the National Academy of Sciences and other organizations, they’re fairly clear that adoption of GMOs in the US has led to the replacement of old, highly toxic pesticides with newer, far more benign ones. It’s led to less runoff into rivers and streams.  And farms that plant genetically modified crops don’t have to till to destroy weeds.  Those no-till farms use less fuel, emit less CO2, have healthier soil, don’t have to irrigate as much because they’re not losing soil moisture, and have more diversity of life on the fields.  So again, my eyes were opened.

On both of these points, by the way, a number of environmentalists have changed their views as well.  Stuart Brand, who helped start the environmental movement, now believes that both nuclear power and GMOs are technologies that are big wins for the environment.  Mark Lynas, who once tore up GMO crops in protest, has been convinced by the science that they’re good for people and the planet.  George Monbiot, one of the best known environmentalists in Europe, has become pro-nuclear.  So there’s a wave of environmentalists who’ve looked at the data and had their minds changed.

Population growth is probably where my mind was changed the most.  Too much population growth certainly is problematic, but when you look at the numbers, we’re on track for a population peak in 40 years or so, and then a shrinking of population from that point on.  A tremendous swath of the world is now below the ‘replacement rate’ of two babies per woman per lifetime.  Europe, China, Russia, Japan, and even places like Brazil and Iran are at the point where the average woman has less than two children per lifetime.  And even in the poorest countries, population growth rates are dropping rapidly. So the era of rapid population growth is coming to an end.  Down the road we’re going to be much more worried about the graying of society and wondering how we can encourage people to have more kids rather than less.

Q: In his recent commencement speech, IMSA’s president, Dr. McGee, asked the graduating Class of 2013 the following question, which is analogous to themes throughout your book: “will you be able to compete to survive, when all the animals around the water hole are wondering, ‘is there enough water for me,’ while you are thinking, ‘how do I assure there is enough water for all?’” How should talent development best and most efficiently, as IMSA’s mission states, advance the human condition?

A: Ultimately, the human mind is the source of all new wealth.  It’s the most valuable resource we have.  And yet a lot of minds don’t get nurtured to their full potential.  Helping unlock that resource is probably the most valuable thing we can do for ourselves and for future generations.

Q: The Infinite Resource explores solutions to climate change that were unthinkable 20, 30, and 100 years ago, but we’re also dealing with problems that were similarly unthinkable from that time period. As the author of Nexus and Crux (coming out September 2013), two novels that deal with the near-future, what do you see as humanity’s next global threat, if we’re able to survive climate change?

A: Our biggest threat is still ourselves, and will be for quite a while to come.  The threat from nuclear weapons has dissipated with the end of the cold war, but we may be facing it again in twenty or thirty years.  Bioweapons aren’t yet really viable as large scale killers, but bio research is getting easier and easier all the time.  The biggest challenge for humanity, in many ways, is learning to regulate our own behavior.