The Next Big Problem Facing the World

On Friday 14 June 2013, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, stepped onto the stage at the G8 Innovation Conference in London, and made a short speech in which he said two things. He said that as host of the G8 summit Britain gets to set the agenda, and the theme of that agenda would be innovation. He then announced that in order to stimulate innovation in Britain the government were offering a money prize of a million pounds for the solution to the next big problem facing mankind. Unfortunately, he didn’t know what the problem was, so to win the prize you would first have to identify the problem and then find the solution.

During his announcement, he repeatedly combined innovation with the word entrepreneurship. Seven times in his twelve minute speech he said, “innovation and entrepreneurship,” demonstrating that in his mind the two concepts are linked, and in doing so he was also linking them together in the minds of his audience in a way intended to
persuade them that these two concepts are synonymous and interdependent.

He then introduced the competition, “let’s challenge the public and challenge the scientists for which is the great problem we want to crack,” he said. “Let’s get the nation engaged in what the biggest problems are in science and in our lives.” The suggestions he came up with as examples of the, “biggest problems,” we might want to crack were, “a cure for dementia, solving the problem of diabetes, having a flight from Britain to New York that’s carbon-free,” so he’s obviously talking about a global problem, a problem that affects considerably more people than just our provincial corner of north western Europe. A big problem that affects all of mankind.

Other speakers at the conference were Rt. Hon., David Willetts MP, the Minister for Universities and Science, who suggested that the big problem facing us might be antibiotic resistance, and in the context of some of the other things I am going to say it might be worth thinking for a moment about why antibiotic resistance might be a problem for us in the first place.

Richard Branson was at the conference and spoke about his innovative idea of charging people a quarter of a million pounds a time to fly them into space. It is not immediately apparent how that solves any of the world’s problems, or helps anyone other than Richard Branson come to that. It seems to me a very good example of how technology might not actually be the answer to our biggest problems at all. I think it is probably worth considering whether technology, particularly when it is used in ways that benefit only a very tiny minority of people, might actually be one of our biggest problems.

Tamara Rajah, a management consultant, spoke exclusively about innovation as capital, she even called it Innovation Capital, and she quoted statistics showing that productivity growth was delivered by investments in Innovation Capital. She speculated that, “when times are tough,” we must prioritise, “the human capital element.” Which seems to be a very narrow concept of what the word innovate means and she completely failed to acknowledge or even to mention that times might be, “tough,” all the time for the two billion people with insufficient food to eat, or for the approximately 1.4 billion people around the world who survive on less than $1.25 per day. I can’t help wondering whether any of the two billion people without access to clean water think of themselves as being the, “human capital element,” of Ms Rajah’s Innovation Capital equation for solving productivity growth.

Ron Dennis, Executive Chairman of McLaren Group, was also given a platform. He represents a company dedicated to building little metal boxes that go round and round in circles at 200 miles an hour for no obvious advantage to anyone other than themselves. When we determine what the world’s big problems are, I think you can be assured that the solution will not be found in the seat of a Formula 1 racing car. Whatever the intention, Formula 1 racing is a spectacular example of how technology can be used to benefit a very tiny minority of people who are totally oblivious to the rest of the world going by outside their highly insulated bubble, a bubble that totally distorts their view of a world in which billions of very real people have serious problems that significantly affect their quality of life. In the context of solving the worlds next big problem, Formula 1 motor racing is not so much fiddling while Rome burns, it is thinking about changing the G-string on your fiddle, so that you can get it out of the box and then fiddle while Rome burns.

Then we had three, “experts,” presenting a concept called UnGrounded. This was, basically, some people got together to discuss some rather mundane ideas. As an example of their, “solution without an identifiable problem,” approach to innovation, I present their idea to put a sticker on my mobile phone so that I will know what technology is inside it. Given the time to think about it I doubt I could have come up with anything less useful; ashtrays and motorbikes come to mind but not much else. The only marginally different thing about this non-idea is that their workshop took place in an aeroplane flying from San Francisco to London. And the carbon footprint for this was?

Whatever the number of tonnes of CO2 they spilled, it was completely unnecessary. Far from being an example of innovation deserving of a place on the world stage, real innovators are laughing at them. In case these three “experts” hadn’t noticed, you can now have a face to face conference call over Skype without even leaving your own bedroom. UnGrounded is not innovation, of any kind, it is a perfect example of total non-thinking that is stuck right inside the same tiny, limited box from which the conference was supposed to be encouraging people to break free.  Just ask yourself, who paid for the aeroplane, and who got free advertising at a meeting of world leaders?

What these examples show, very clearly, is that, in the minds of those people currently considered by the UK Government to be innovators, the word innovation means exactly what David Cameron said it was right at the beginning of his speech, entrepreneurship and economic growth. Not one of the presenters (other than David Willetts) mentioned anything remotely connected to the problems facing the world. They talked about new ways for a small minority of rich people to make even more money. What I would like to invite you to do is to consider that nothing they spoke about has anything to do with true innovation, and certainly was not connected, even tangentially, to finding or solving the biggest problem facing the world.

There are, in fact, four identifiable problems with the Prime Minister’s whole presentation.

1. The Prime Minister was announcing a competition to identify and then solve the biggest problem facing the world. Yet in his mind not only is innovation synonymous with economic growth, he actually thinks the big problem facing the world is economic growth. He used those specific words, “If we think about what the world needs most of all right now it is growth,” he said. According to him, the solution to the problem, whatever that problem turns out to be, is going to bring economic growth. Imagine, if you can, a mathematician taking the same approach. “Whatever my next problem is, and I don’t yet know what that problem is, but whatever the next big problem is, the answer is going to be an even number.” If he took that approach you could pretty much guarantee that he would not solve the problem. In fact, if he took that approach he would not be a professional mathematician very much longer, but our Prime Minister does the self same thing and earns the applause of a room full of supposed innovators and thinkers. Anyone, in any field of endeavour, who presupposes to know what the answer to an as yet unidentified problem might be, is going to be wrong pretty much most of the time.

2. From his speech, it should be obvious that the Prime Minister is not clear in his own mind exactly what the prize is going to be for. Discovering and then solving the next big problem facing the world is one thing. Innovating to stimulate economic growth might actually turn out to be something completely different. The solution to the world’s big problem might not actually make anyone any money at all. There is no guarantee that it will involve the invention of a thing for sale or the provision of a service or a process that can be bought. It might just be something that makes the lives of millions of people better in some way. In order to be truly innovative, we need to divorce innovation from growth, we need to discard preconceived notions of money, capital, entrepreneurship and business and we need to start thinking not just outside the box, but in such a way that the very notion of box no longer applies. That is what it means to truly innovate.

3. The Prime Minister spoke about the next big problem for the world, but it was not obvious from his speech how far in the future he was looking. Is he talking about a problem that is affecting his generation, the solution to which will make our lives better? Or is he talking about a problem lying in wait for future generations, his children, or his children’s grand children, for example? He didn’t say. Is it possible, for example, that there might be a problem that we can confidently predict, that will affect every single person on the planet, which we can start solving today, but from that solution no one currently alive will benefit, and, most importantly, that no one will make any money from it at all? If such a problem existed, would that qualify as David Cameron’s, “next big problem for the world.”? I would like to think so.

4. The Prime Minister did not say or imply this, but the other presenters certainly gave the impression that the solution to the world’s next big problem will involve some form of technology. That’s what Richard Branson and his space rocket were there for, that’s why Ron Dennis and his racing cars were there. Their specific role in the presentation was to advance the untested notion that big problems require big solutions which in turn require technology. Naturally, almost anything can be considered to be technology. A fire is technology, folding a leaf to carry corn is technology, tying a stone to a stick to make an axe is technology, but these people were not talking about these kinds of local technologies, passed on from mother to daughter, taught round camp fires and honed by long hours of practice. They were talking about having my household appliances networked together and connected to the internet so that when I microwave a steak and kidney pie for my supper my computer connects to my supermarket account to order a replacement. And when the man delivers it on Thursday morning while I’m at work my burglar alarm recognises him and lets him in to the garage so that he can put my shopping in the freezer for me. On my way home from work, I can access my house from my iPad and based on the contents of my freezer and my previous choices it can suggest a menu for my evening meal for me that balances with the other nutrients I’ve already eaten that week. And all this, of course, is powered by solar panels on the roof so that I can persuade myself I am a Green consumer.

That’s what they mean by technology, something that makes jobs, something that makes money, something that stimulates the economy, and makes that enigmatic concept that David Cameron calls growth. Well what if the solution doesn’t require any of those things? If you are genuinely interested in innovative thinking, might it be worth considering, just for a little while, that the solution doesn’t involve any of those things at all? Isn’t it at least worth considering that thinking along those lines, starting out with those preconceptions, making those untested assumptions, might actually be part of the problem waiting to be solved?

Supposing that anything I have said makes sense, I would at this point have to suggest what the world’s next big problem might be. After all, snatching the table cloth from under David Cameron’s tea party would not be acceptable unless I had something to bring to the table in return. So I would like to tell you a story.

Pale Blue Dot
Monday, 5th September, 1977. Launch complex 41, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Just before one O’clock in the afternoon, two LR87-11 engines burst to life and lifted a Titan III rocket weighing as much as eighty double-decker buses off the launch pad and into the sky. The payload on board the rocket was a craft the size of a small family car. It was called Voyager-1. As the rocket lifted off and prepared to propel Voyager on a journey that would ultimately see it leave our solar system, seven hundred miles to the west, just outside Cocodrie, Louisiana, Hurricane Babe, with an eye over twenty miles across and winds moving at over eighty miles an hour was just making landfall, having come across the Atlantic and swept up through the Gulf of Mexico in less than a week.

That rocket can be viewed as a symbol of man’s ability to overcome, to use our brains, to solve problems, to create tools, to achieve objectives way beyond anything any other living being has ever imagined. The hurricane, occurring at exactly the same moment, can be viewed as a symbol of how utterly feeble we really are, of how puny we are in the face of nature and of how we owe our continued survival to the caprice of forces beyond our control.

Voyager-1 went on a journey that almost defies comprehension and yet is as simple to understand as walking up a hill to see what’s on the other side. Man is an adventurer. We have an innate need to know where we are and what lies around the corner, what’s up that mountain, or down that river and although every speck of the surface of our world is now available to view on Google Earth, our capacity to wonder is undiminished. Voyager-1 was sent to explore the outer reaches of our solar system, to fly past Jupiter then on to Saturn and to pass through the orbit of Pluto and ultimately to travel beyond the gravitational field of the sun. To see what’s there, to have a look at things that no man will ever see, and there really can be and need not be any better explanation for it than that.

Voyager-1 carries various instruments to record its surroundings and even today, thirty five years after it was launched, it continues to send readings back to Earth every week. It is also equipped with a camera that has taken many stunning photographs that are now available on the web for anyone to see. The camera has been powered down now, the software downloaded. The final series of photographs was taken on Saint Valentines Day, 14th February 1990. Voyager was turned around to take one last look back at where she had come from and to take a series of pictures that have come to be known as the Portrait of the Solar System. One of those pictures is an apparently featureless, grainy wash of magenta with several lighter bands across it. If you look really carefully, in the brighter of the bands you might just be able to make out a tiny blue dot. Taken from six billion miles away, so far away that at the speed of light it took five and half hours for the picture to be sent back to earth, that tiny blue dot, almost lost in the vast expanse of space, is planet earth. As far as we know, that blue dot is the only place where life has ever existed. Everyone you ever knew, or ever will know, or ever can know calls that insignificant speck of blue their home.

The first man in space was a Lieutenant in the Russian air force called Yuri Gagarin. In April 1961 he circled the Earth precisely once and parachuted back safely to land near Engels, on the Volga River in southwest Russia. Eight years later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and within three years eleven other Americans had followed him. The last man to have a foot on the moon was Eugene Cernan, who left there on 14 December 1972. In the forty years since that day men and women from over thirty countries have gone into space. They have flown in the Space Shuttle, travelled to a number of orbiting space stations and performed a wide variety of scientific experiments. They have built things, carried out repairs and walked in space, taken startling pictures, learned amazing things both about themselves and about us and for the most part returned safely to Earth. We have sent landers and rovers to Mars, launched space telescopes and sent Voyager on a mission to leave our solar system, but manned space flight remains an activity undertaken by only a few. As of January 2013 less than six hundred people have been in space including about fifty five women and three men who have flown in space as paying tourists. We know where space is, we know how to get there and back but our exploration of it has barely begun to scratch the surface and our ability to do so is diminishing. The United States, who once sent men to the moon, is no longer capable of sending a vehicle to the International Space Station and they rely on Russia to put Americans in space. China is currently the only other country able to put a man into orbit.

The television series Star Trek described it as, “Space, the final frontier,” and despite the depiction in numerous science fiction stories in books, films and on television our ability to colonise another planet is no nearer to reality today than it was in 1903 when man first learned how to fly. We do not even know of another planet where it could be possible for us to live let alone have the technology to get us there. Which adds up to one inescapable conclusion. Ideas of boldly marching off into the cold darkness of space might work well as the precept for a work of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells fiction, or for a novel by Isaac Asimov or a Hollywood blockbuster movie, but the cold hard facts are difficult to ignore. If Homo sapiens is to survive as a species, this tiny and insignificant pale blue dot is where we are going to do it.

There are about eight million species of living things on Earth, but it has been estimated that over 95% of all life has become extinct. Which means that the huge diversity of life we see around us is but one tiny fraction of all the life that has ever been. Statistically, living is quite a rare thing and becoming extinct is much more common. Species go extinct all the time for a variety of reasons. In the past there have been four huge extinction events, times when a large proportion of the life on Earth became extinct through a single massive event. The most well-known of these was a little over two hundred million years ago when most of the dinosaurs died off. The ice ages will have seen species become extinct with their habitat lost under tens of feet of ice. Meteorites have plummeted to earth. Volcanoes and earthquakes can destroy in a few moments the results of millions of years of evolution. New species naturally come along that are more adapted to the environment and supplant the residents who are forced to adapt or die out. Habitats themselves change as the land is eroded by wind and tide, trees are blown down and die, storms damage delicate ecosystems and torrential rains flood river banks, deltas and bayous.

Some species are more prone to this than others. In 1952, San Benedicto Island, a tiny volcanic island off the Pacific coast of Mexico, erupted, and within an hour the San Benedicto Rock Wren, a small bird endemic to the island, became extinct. Among the birds, rails have a tendency to lose the ability to fly when they inhabit islands or become isolated. They have this tendency because, although they migrate, they are not strong fliers so are easily blown off course and are consequently a geographically diverse group found on every continent and in almost every island group around the world. In their new location they often find they have no need to fly, and since flight requires larger muscles and more energy and therefore greater food supply it can be advantageous for them to not fly, and many rails prefer to run in thick vegetation anyway. Once they can no longer fly they become susceptible to predation and unable to adapt or move elsewhere when their location becomes inhabited by man and gradually they become extinct.

In addition to these natural extinctions, we have made other species extinct through our own actions, and there is nothing in nature that makes us immune to our own stupidity. The earliest record of a sighting of a Dodo is dated 1598 and within sixty five years there was not a single one of them left outside of a museum. The fact that the bird had become extinct was not even recognised for over 100 years.

Steller’s Sea Cow was first described in 1741 by Georg Wilhelm Steller, chief naturalist on an expedition led by the man who gave his name to the Bering Strait, Danish explorer Vitus Bering. The sea cow was a slow moving, vegetarian, marine mammal that could not completely submerge and fed mainly on kelp which meant it required kelp beds close to shore where the water was not too deep. This left it prey to whalers and sealers who prized its skin for boats and its fat for smoke free and odourless fuel that could be kept for extended periods without spoiling. The last known population was at the remote and uninhabited Commander Islands, to the west of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the northern Pacific Ocean. The whalers eventually found them there and by 1768, a mere 27 years after it had been discovered, Steller’s sea cow was extinct.

The Great Auk was a majestic, flightless seabird that nested on rocky, inaccessible, barren and windswept islands in the cold waters of the north Atlantic where it achieved an almost mythical status as it evaded being hunted for its downy feathers. As the population declined it became more and more valuable and museums vied to obtain specimens until the only known nesting colony was Geirfuglasker, off the coast of Iceland. The island had un-climbable rocky sides over seventy metres tall and the birds were safe there on their inaccessible eyrie until in 1830 a subterranean volcano erupted and the island sank into the sea. The birds moved to nearby Eldey Island which had one side that gives access to the top and in 1835 they were discovered there. Museums fell over themselves in the rush to obtain a specimen and in July 1844 the last pair were found nesting with a solitary egg. The adults were strangled to preserve their skins and sold to a museum and the egg was smashed under Ketill Ketilsson’s boot.

In 1810, the Passenger pigeon was probably the most numerous bird in the world and accounted for approximately one quarter of all land birds in North America. In 1866, just one flock of Passenger pigeons was so vast that it took fourteen hours to fly past and was believed to be 300 miles long and to contain over three billion birds, but by September 1914 they had been hunted, trapped, netted, skinned, plucked and eaten into extinction and there was not a single one of them left alive.

In July 1877, one of only two known specimens of a hummingbird known as Brace’s Emerald was shot on New Providence Island in the Bahamas by a bird collector called Lewis Brace. In 1945, James Bond, the ornithologist who gave his name to the fictional spy, showed that it was distinct from the similar Cuban Emerald, and in 1982, in a cave on the same island, ornithologists William Hilgartner and Storrs Olson found the fossilised remains of the other specimen which confirmed both Bond’s work, and that the now extinct species had existed since the Pleistocene era. It is believed to have become extinct not because Brace shot the last one, but because, after two million years of island seclusion, human agriculture had denuded its habitat to the point where there was only one of them left.

Elk are the largest type of deer, and there used to be several species of them in the United States. The Eastern elk inhabited the northern and eastern United States and southern Canada, while the very similar Merriam’s elk lived in the south western area of the country. As the human population in these areas grew and man encroached on their habitat and hunting for recreation became more popular the Elk populations declined and by about 1906 these two species were both extinct. There are many more such stories, but not all of them have bad endings. There were once an estimated half million Tule elk in the central valley of California but by 1875 there was just a single breeding pair left. Remembering the recent demise of the Great Auk, measures were taken to preserve them and today there are more than four thousand Tule elk in California.

A termite mound stands in the African savannah, an open plain of grassland shared by wandering herds of grazing animals, gnu, zebra, gazelles, wildebeest, a few groups of giraffe, some water buffalo and their predators, a pride or two of lions. In the middle of the termite mound is the queen, an insect so important that without her none of the other animals, including the lions, would be there either. Each evening at dusk, the queen’s five million workers leave the mound and go out onto the plain where they collect dry grass and bring it back to the mound. There are so many of them that between them they harvest more than all the other grazing animals put together. The grass they bring back to the mound is piled up in storage pits where other workers break it down and send it deeper into underground galleries where it forms a compost on which grows a white fungus, a fungus that fuels the entire ecosystem of the savannah. Every termite eats it, the queen transforms it into brand new termites; new builders, new harvesters, new soldiers. As the termites dig tunnels and collect grass, they mix nutrients from the compost into the soil. Around the mound, where the nutrients are, the grass grows, the grass feeds the grazing animals and the grazers feed the lions.

Everything depends upon something else, and just as the river bank or the foreshore are ecosystems and the cloud forest, the savannah and the woodland floor are ecosystems the planet where we live, that tiny blue dot that Voyager photographed, is an ecosystem too. It is a delicate balance of needs and wants, of pressures and abilities.Everything we do affects that balance and everything we do has consequences. The Auk and the Dodo and the Passenger pigeon became extinct precisely because our actions have consequences and the Tule elk survive in California only because our actions have consequences and what those examples all show us is that we have the ability to make choices that make a difference.

It is probably easier to say what evolution is not than to say what evolution is. It is not a directed process. There is not a vision of the future towards which evolution is moving in tiny, incremental steps, and it is in this sense that scientists describe it as an undirected process. Unlike a runner who is moving towards a fixed target, evolution is a continuous adjustment, a perpetual fine tuning of life. Modern humans are more adapted to their environment than the humans of say, 100,000 years ago, but the environment itself has changed in that time too, so there is no sense in which we can be described as being better than them. We are different to them, we have evolved, but we are not better.

Surprisingly, much of the rest of science can also be seen as an undirected process in exactly the same sense. We can, for example, view the invention of vaccines as a wonderful thing and a definite plus for those people lucky enough to benefit from them, but in the same way that evolution is not making progress because there is no target towards which it is progressing, it makes no logical sense for us to consider that vaccines on their own represent progress. They are an adaptation, an adjustment to our current situation, but for us to consider them to be progress we would first need to stand back and consider all of the consequences from a wider perspective.

Developments in health care, at many levels, not just vaccines, have contributed to an ever expanding population to the point where food and water supply lines are being strained in many countries, millions of people live in abject poverty on not much more than a dollar a day with no access to clean water, huge programs for delivering food aid to millions of people are struggling to keep pace with the need. Vaccinating people to protect them from diseases and operations to replace heart valves and other health interventions undreamed of by previous generations are marvellous, life altering events for the individual concerned, but there is a sense in which these things are also making life harder for millions of others. I am not, to be clear, suggesting that we wipe out ten million people to make the problems easier to solve, I am suggesting that just as we view evolution to be an undirected process that we stand back and consider life on earth from a wider perspective before deciding what exactly we mean by progress. When we say we are making progress, we should consider that from the perspective of all mankind rather than simply from that of the lucky few in the west who are experiencing incremental adjustments to their health care.

Take, for example, the internal combustion engine. In the early nineteenth century, John Umfreville, one of my ancestors, was an officer in the coastguard serving at a place called Gorran Haven, on the south coast of Cornwall. He was a young man, married with two young children, a boy and a girl both under five years old. His wife, Jane, was pregnant with their third, a boy they would name Samuel. In 1825 John was sent to join the coastguard station at Cromer on the north Norfolk coast. At the time, Cromer was a small town of around 700 people. The train service from London wouldn’t arrive for another fifty two years and the motor car wouldn’t be around for about thirty years after that, so to make the long journey from Gorran Haven to Cromer John and his family would have had to load their household goods onto a couple of carter’s wagons and make the journey to Norfolk by stagecoach.

In 1784, a mail stage covered the 120-mile run from London to Bristol in 17 hours, but the regular passenger stage was not anywhere near as fast as that. The stage could normally do about five or six miles an hour and would travel for ten to twelve hours per day, so it could cover approximately fifty to seventy miles per day. John’s journey from Gorran Haven to Cromer is a distance on modern roads of about four hundred miles which would have taken them five or six days. Today, in a motor car on modern motorways, I can drive that distance comfortably in about ten hours including snack and rest breaks. But in order to do that we have not only had to invent the internal combustion engine but also to develop the oil industry, so whether or not we have made any progress depends on how you feel about vehicle pollution, about carbon footprints and the environmental effects of programs like the Alberta tar sands.

Once upon a time you could, metaphorically, stick a pin in the map and oil would come spurting up from below in immeasurable quantities. Today, the oil reserves are starting to run out and in order to source new supplies the oil companies are forced to take slightly more drastic measures. In 1963 there wasn’t even a gravel road into Fort McKay, the first Nation reserve in Alberta, Canada. Access was by boat up the Athabasca River or in winter by dogsled. The Chipewyan and Cree Indians who lived there were largely cut off, self sufficient, and wanted nothing more than to be left alone. They hunted moose and bison, they gathered cranberries from the forest, they fished the streams and rivers for salmon and whitefish, and for money they trapped beaver. Fort McKay was a trading post, they used it solely to trade their beaver pelts. There were no phones, no gas, no electricity and no running water. The people who lived there didn’t need or want any of those things and the people who supplied them had no way to deliver them nor any incentive to do so.

Jim Boucher is a Chipewyan from Fort McKay. He, his father, and his grandfather before him, and generations of his ancestors before that for thousands of years had set traplines at Mildred Lake. Jim was at the traplines with his grandfather one day in the summer of 1963 when they came across a clearing in the forest. Without warning, without discussion, without any kind of notice the trees had been stripped away and their remote wilderness had become an open strip mine. First the trees were hauled away and then the peat on which the trees grew and then the sand beneath that until they exposed the tar sands.

Using machinery with buckets the size of a three storey house they dug out the tar sands, boiled it with caustic soda to liquefy the bitumen then filtered off the crude oil and set all the waste aside while they went back for more. The waste water, called tailings, is collected in huge open ponds. The tailings seep into the ground, poisoning the land and the local water table, and migrating birds settle on the ponds, mistaking them for freshwater lakes, and they die. To collect each barrel of crude oil they must remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt, then a further two tons of sand and heat several barrels of water for the stripping and upgrading of the oil. Production is currently forecast to reach 3 million barrels of oil per day by 2018. You do the maths.

The tailings pond for just one of these mines covers more than fifty square miles. Two of the three largest dams by volume in the world are sand dykes holding back tailings ponds in Alberta. There are now twelve different oil companies extracting tar sands in Alberta over an area of eighteen hundred square miles, that’s about the same as the English counties of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire combined or about three quarters of the US state of Delaware. But that’s just the start. After tar sands there’s shale oil, where the oil molecules are stuck to the shale and have to be stripped off the rock using huge quantities of steam in a process called fracking. The tar sands and shale oil beds in Alberta cover 147,000 square miles, an area bigger than England, and they don’t plan on stopping any time soon, because despite the huge cost of these operations, more than $20 billion in 2008 alone, they expect to make money on the deal with the price of oil forecast to rise to over $120 a barrel by 2030.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why the price of oil is forecast to go up? The price of oil does not go up just because a law of nature says it will, it goes up because the oil companies charge more for it. It goes up because consumers are going to be paying more for the oil boiled out of Alberta’s tar sands than they did for the oil drilled out of Texas, Alaska and Saudi Arabia precisely because it cost more to get it out of the ground in the first place. So when the oil companies say, “we think the price of oil is going up,” what they mean is, that they are going to be charging us more for oil in future. When you’re the one setting the price it isn’t that hard to forecast that the price is going up.

What that means is that consumers are the ones paying for the destruction of the Alberta wilderness. You paid the oil industry to tear down a forest the size of two English counties. You paid for the destruction of Jim Boucher’s grandfather’s cabin in the woods. You paid for the tailings ponds and the dead ducks, and you paid for the massive sand dykes that keep it all in check. So I can drive from Gorran Haven to Cromer in ten hours rather than the six days it took my ancestor by stage, but to do that, apart from polluting the atmosphere with vehicle exhaust, we have had to rape the environment, destroy a massive area of natural wildlife habitat, and end forever the way of life of the Chipewyan people that had endured for thousands of years. There is no longer any fishing for salmon on the Athabasca River. Is that really what we mean by, “better”? Is that really the sort of thing you have in mind when you talk about making, “progress”?

“…each and every year, we become more, not less, addicted to oil – a nineteenth century fossil fuel that is dirty, dwindling, and dangerously expensive.”

Barack Obama – Las Vegas, Nevada, 24 June 2008

Whether you are prepared to see the wilderness destroyed for the utility of being able to drive to work, one thing that cannot be ignored is the basic reason why the oil industry had to explore the tar sands in the first place. Places where oil can be found in accessible reserves have all gone. The oil is not yet run dry but there are no new reserves to be easily had. In the Gulf of Mexico, BP are currently drilling 3km below the sea bed to get at oil reserves they have known about for twenty years. It was not previously, “economically viable,” to drill them. That’s an industry expression that means they couldn’t have charged us what it cost to get it out, and still make a profit. The tar sands are the same, they were discovered in 1848 but they can be exploited only now because finally the price is right, it is worth it to the industry to eliminate a forest, to obliterate a lake, to drag away all that sand and boil it in caustic soda because they know they can charge enough to get their money back and still make a profit.

Getting at the oil is harder, and more expensive, because it is a finite resource. There is less of it now than once there was and it is not being replaced as we use it up. One day, there will be no more oil. One day, the oil will run out. One day there will be no driving to Cromer, or air conditioned limousines, or mechanical diggers with buckets as big as a three storey house. One day, the tailings ponds in Alberta will seem as strange as the Pyramids at Giza seem to us today and the children of the future will sit round the fire in the evenings asking their parents why they built those massive ponds of poisonous water and their parents will just shake their heads and sigh.

It isn’t going to happen in my lifetime and it won’t happen in your children’s lifetime, but one day, there will be no more oil and the question of whether or not we are actually making progress will not seem quite so stupid as it probably sounds to you today. Estimates vary, but not by much. In their annual statistical report published at the end of 2011, OPEC estimated total oil reserves of a little over 1.4 trillion barrels of crude oil. Today, in June 2013, we are using oil at approximately 80 million barrels of oil per day. It’s not hard to do the maths and arrive at a figure of November 2063. If we continue to use oil at the same rate we are today, there will be none of it left by the time your children’s grandchildren are growing up.

The question facing us then, is this: What are you going to do when the oil runs out?

The Abyssal Plain
The abyssal plain is the flat expanse of ocean floor that lies between the continental plain and the mid ocean ridge. All oceans have them and they account for almost fifty percent of the earth’s surface. Despite their size, and despite them being among the flattest and smoothest regions on earth, they are also among the least explored. The ocean depths are a mysterious and dangerous world where few men have ever been. In fact, more men have walked on the moon than have been to the ocean floor. Star Trek, it would seem, had it wrong. Space is not the final frontier after all. The final frontier is the more than two miles of salt water between us and the sea bed.

In March 1968, the K-129, a Soviet Golf-II class ballistic missile submarine went missing while on patrol in the Pacific. The Russians sent out a massive air and sea search party and spent several weeks looking for her but eventually they gave up. The US Navy have a string of acoustic listening posts strung across the Pacific in what they call a Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). Review of the signals received on this system allowed US intelligence to determine the probable location of the lost submarine and in August 1968 she was located about 1,500 miles northwest of Oahu at a depth of over three miles.

The Americans were keen to recover the K-129 without the Russians finding out about it, so rather than launch a massive military operation they put the CIA in charge and spent $350 million building a ship specifically for the purpose. The CIA didn’t want anyone to know they were in the ship building business so they solicited the help of the eccentric American billionaire Howard Hughes. On paper, Hughes built the ship, named Hughes Glomar Explorer, for ocean exploration and manganese mining. The cover story for the seemingly impossible salvage of a Soviet submarine from three miles down in the Pacific ocean was the marginally less fantastic idea of plucking manganese nodules from the ocean floor.

This story, which sounds more like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel than real life, is largely credited with bringing the idea of deep ocean mining to wider attention and subsequent surveys have revealed that nodule mining isn’t such a fantastical idea after all. A survey of just the eastern Pacific Ocean estimated that there are approximately 27 billion tonnes of nodules lying on the sand, waiting to be collected. And it isn’t just manganese, either. Those nodules, they vary in size from a potato to a basketball, are estimated to contain around seven billion tonnes of manganese, 340 million tonnes of nickel, 290 million tonnes of copper and 78 million tonnes of cobalt.

As of 24 May 2013 the price of copper on the world market was US$7,240 per tonne, so the copper alone lying down there is estimated to be worth over two trillion dollars. Although there is much less cobalt, its price is over $28,000 dollars per tonne so that is another two trillion dollars in trinkets waiting to be picked up. Unsurprisingly, mining companies are queueing up for the rights to take the risks involved, to spend whatever is required for the chance to get access to the untold riches lying down there, because, hey, the price of copper is going up, right?

But minerals are not the only thing down there. There is life down there too, interdependent ecosystems just like the termite mound on the savannah, where everything is dependent on something else. There are vents down there, bubbling geothermal gasses from the centre of the earth into the ocean heating it to hundreds of degrees and there are bacteria that live in those vents. Unlike plants, that rely on sunlight to create energy through the process of photosynthesis, the bacteria in ocean vents use hydrogen sulphide to create energy and make organic material from sulphur compounds that bubble up in the gasses. Credible speculation suggests that these vents might even be where life on earth was born, and they are without doubt the root of the ocean food chain. Tiny amphipods and tube worms feed on those bacteria and in turn crustaceans and snails feed on them. The bacteria make algae on the surrounding rocks and krill feed on the algae and many creatures including whales feed on the krill. The mid-ocean vents are the source of life in the seas and without them, much of the teeming life we know, the fish we eat, the dolphins we love, seals and ultimately the polar bears that feed on the seals. All of this life depends on those deep ocean vents and this fragile ecosystem will be destroyed by the mining companies who care for nothing but their shiny trinkets.

Like all the other metals lying on the ocean floor, copper is a natural resource, which means that by definition there is a limited supply of it. There is only so much copper on the planet and once we’ve harvested it all there is no more to be had. As we saw with the Alberta tar sands, resource scarcity and rising prices makes more ambitious exploration economically viable. In order for mining companies to continue to trade and to continue to make a profit they are more or less compelled to explore more difficult and dangerous ways of harvesting the world’s resources.

But where does it end? When does the world the rest of us want to live in become more important than the need for mining companies to make a profit? Is there a point at which the survival of mankind as a species is considered to be more important than a few people holding some shiny metal tokens? Why is the future state of our ecosystem, that pale blue dot that Voyager photographed from six billion miles away, decided solely by those who seek to exploit its abundance?

Professor Rachel Mills of the University of Southampton carried out some research for Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian firm preparing to mine the ocean floor. She can, therefore, be supposed to have considered the appropriate questions. In response to questions from the BBC she said, “Everything we are surrounded by, the way we live, relies on mineral resources and we don’t often ask where they come from,” and she added, “We need to ask whether there is sustainable mining on land and whether there is sustainable mining in the seas.”

She’s right, of course, the way we live does rely on mineral resources. People talk about future energy requirements and they say we have nuclear energy and they say, oh, cold fusion will be online by then, or we have solar and we have wind and wave power. Which are all true (except maybe cold fusion, I’m not sure about that). But oil isn’t just the juice you put in your car to make it go, and oil isn’t just the fuel for electricity generators. I would bet half the clothes you are wearing have fibres in them derived from oil. Is there nylon or terylene or polyester or rayon in any of your clothes? Or what about the elastic in your underwear, or the strap on your watch?

What about the screen on your mobile phone, that’s not actually made of glass you know, it’s made from a plastic that is manufactured from oil. Are your windows uPVC, then they’re made from oil. When the oil goes it isn’t just a case of putting corn oil in your car and carrying on as normal, three quarters of your consumer goods will cease to exist and the remaining quarter will be so expensive you will need to be a very rich man to afford them. We can generate electricity from nuclear power, but there is nothing else that can replace the million and one other things you handle on a daily basis that are made from oil.

Have you used a credit card recently? It’s made from oil. The screen on the cashpoint machine, that was made from oil. As were the buttons you pressed your pin number with. Shirt buttons, those little tags on the ends of your shoe laces, the plastic covering every inch of wiring in your house, biros, your window frames are likely made from oil. Your mouse, practically every visible part of your computer monitor, your desk fan, tap washers, sunglasses, your refrigerator, anaesthetics, guttering, umbrellas, skis, insect repellent, paint, sticky tape, bicycle tyres, lipstick, glycerine, guitar strings, contact lenses and hair spray. All made from oil.

The coins in your pocket are not actually made from oil, but the minerals they are made from cannot be mined without huge machinery, that itself cannot be manufactured without oil. You can put gas from horse manure in the fuel tank but you still need oil to lubricate the gearbox and the hydraulic fluid for the suspension is made of oil. You can run a mill press or a lathe with electricity but you still need oil to lubricate the moving parts. When the oil runs out it is not just a case of standing on the side of the road with a car that won’t work, life as you know it will cease to exist and you will have to find a whole new way of living.

If it were me, I would be asking a much harder question than whether or not there is sustainable mining. Professor Mills’ trivially irrelevant question masks a huge assumption. Since the way we live now relies on mineral resources, she assumes that the only way to proceed is to continue to live that way, and that therefore the way forward is to continue to exploit mineral resources at the cost of everything else. Considering the “progress” we made with the tar sands isn’t it at least worth asking whether or not that is a valid or even an acceptable assumption?

We know, to a moral certainty, that the mining companies will not stop until there is not one speck of mineral left for them to exploit. They don’t care about the ecosystems around mid-ocean vents, or polluted tailings ponds or the vanished Chipewyan Indian culture. All they care about is more and more shiny tokens until every speck of mineral resource has been used up. Like a child with a packet of biscuits, they will eat and eat and eat until it makes them physically sick as long as no one else can have any of the biscuits. Just like the men who obliterated the last flock of Passenger pigeons, who knew it was the last flock but killed every single one of them anyway. Just like the man who stomped on the last Great Auk egg. They will not stop until it is all gone. They will not stop until there is no more of David Cameron’s growth to be had. They will not stop until they have finally collected all the shiny tokens into one big glittering useless pile. What are we going to do then?

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

Matthew 5:5

sources:
1. David Cameron’s speech at the G8 Innovation Conference

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