We could be on the verge of our most momentous evolutionary shift. For, as a species, we no longer need be subject to the primitive competitive instinct.
As animals this drive may have compelled us to compete for control of what hindsight indicated to be the scarce resources we needed to survive, without serious concern for our effects on the wider world.
But as intelligent, self-conscious beings we certainly do have a choice. We can be content to provide for ourselves, our nearest and our dearest by consuming the world’s resources to its tragic detriment in the expectation that we will continue to survive and perhaps satisfy our desires. Or we can hope to provide through endeavouring to enhance the world’s resources and thrive and even find fulfilment.
Until now it was not clear that we had any reason to place our hope in such an apparently idealistic and impractical notion. However thanks largely to those dedicated pioneers, guided by foresight, who did so endeavour, we have many invaluable advances in a wide array of fields that now give us ample reason to hope.
By creatively integrating these advances we could affordably utilise disregarded inexhaustible and recyclable resources in place of every key scarce resource. The futility of competing to control scarce but no longer key resources, with all the counterproductive consequences that pervade our lives and institutions, would then soon become obvious. Instead the great benefit of collaborating to help each employ their individual talents to make best use of resources to enhance their world for all to thrive would inspire the establishment of a new way forward.
The immediate challenge therefore is to make this critical evolutionary shift very rapidly. As there is still hope that we can mitigate the worst long-term effects of our animal instinct’s dominance, such as those from catastrophic environmental degradation, highly destructive wars and gross inequality, and so soon move to strong, secure growth for the benefit of all.The first step is to establish.
The first step is to establish feasibility of this hitherto unforeseen future.
To this end it may be helpful to indicate how it is already possible, by integrating just a few of these advances, to thrive even in a dessert, as the implications of this alone are very far-reaching.
The key area of advance is in solar optics by which we may use the full solar resource inexpensively. When incorporated in the building envelope the energy generated and saved is around 10 times that generated by standard roof-mounted solar panels.
When combined with recent greenhouse developments, instead of fields with solar panels, even arid land can yield high quality produce with the same amount of electricity available for the local community. In this case the fabric of the greenhouse is a static optical configuration based on the work of Warwick University and proven in an Innovate UK project. It effectively splits the sky into the part in which the sun travels during the year and the rest. Photons from the former are focussed onto efficient PV cells, whereas photons purely from the sky supply the photosynthesis needs of the plants, whilst the interior is shaded from the detrimental effects of direct sunlight.
Parallel developments in solar desalination with the Fraunhofer Institute in an EU project have led to a way of using the cogenerated heat of this translucent PV system to take water out of desert air. When combined with low water use horticulture, enough water can be generated so that a greenhouse complex, without using soil or pesticides, can supply the community with food, water and electricity for its own use and to export to its neighbours. Aeroponics, pioneered by NASA, with its exceptionally high yields and ultra-low water consumption, usually thought not to be cost-effective, is particularly profitable with this approach.
The building envelope no longer just protects the interior from the elements outside but also is the means to use those elements for life within to thrive. This has a number of major consequences.
Firstly the scarce resources of oil, soil and freshwater will lose their importance.
Secondly, the sparsely populated areas where land is cheap and sunny will be a good place to earn a much better living from one’s own initiative than the average wage in the Developing World.
Thirdly the benefits of more space for a better quality of life will reverse the seeming inexorable move to urbanisation. And only those who want to live in a town for social and cultural reasons, rather than just to get a job to survive, will do so.
However of even more importance for our future way of living will be the realisation that the more we help each other better use such inexhaustible resources as sunlight and water in the air, evaporated by the sun from the oceans, the more prosperous we will all become.
This is where advances in information technology that enable collaboration, provide real benefit. For thereby we can learn about and work together to better employ, the wonderful advances that so many devoted workers across the globe are willing to make readily available to us.
One such advance that will facilitate collaboration is another application resulting from the many hundreds of millions spent on solar optics research. It allows 10Gb per second of data, or in under 30 seconds a high definition movie, to be sent by a beam of light at extremely low cost. This is the subject of a current Innovate UK project, in particular to hasten affordable high bandwidth rural broadband access.
These are a few of the projects in which I have been fortunate to be involved. But there are many other advances and in fields as diverse as medicine and finance. They are often lying idle, having failed to cross the innovation world’s ‘Valley of Death’, and are just waiting for us to integrate creatively to make a real difference.
The message of our time is therefore very simple. We have already provided for ourselves the means by which we can radically improve the conditions for all. However we also see more clearly today that we cannot rely on established institutions to integrate and make full use of these outstanding opportunities. It is therefore up to each of us individually to embrace this completely engaging challenge by taking responsibility for collaboratively making best use of these advances, not primarily as consumers of our world’s resources but as enhancers of the future for all.
Any comments would be most welcome.