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anecdote or some kind of desperate search for a narrative through-line for the chaos of today’s world—or on what’s been called “the perverse joy of apocalypse.”
Why would anyone find joy in disaster? Many a religious cult has taken comfort and meaning from the idea that end times are approaching. And as the conservative writer Rod Dreher has pointed out, “apocalypticism…is by no means only a religious phenomenon.” In fact, he thinks climate change believers fall into this pattern. “Today you will find few more apocalyptic secularists than those whose minds are seized by the prospect of a global warming apocalypse,” Dreher writes. There may be a little bit of truth in this thesis. If the prospect of catastrophe didn’t produce a small frisson of excitement, dystopian science fiction like the Terminator and Matrix movies wouldn’t be so popular.
But nobody enjoys a constant state of terror. I would be perfectly happy to live in a world where nuclear weapons had never been invented, extremists couldn’t shoot down passenger planes or fly them into skyscrapers, carbon dioxide wasn’t a greenhouse gas, and we’d learned how to live in balance with the planet’s natural systems. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in, and it isn’t confirmation bias to note these dangers are real.
I think fear is a useful emotion for innovation, as long as it’s based on truth. In fact, the threat and the experience of disaster can foster the unity of public opinion needed to bring about major shifts in policy. That’s what my MIT PhD dissertation was all about, back in the mid-1990s. I drew my evidence from major technological disasters of the ‘70s and ‘80s like Three Mile Island, Bhopal, and Chernobyl.
But you don’t have to look to history for signs of technology’s unintended consequences. Just glance at a map forecasting the impact of sea level rise and you can see that an increase of just 5 feet would permanently submerge large areas of our coastal cities, including the parts of southern and eastern Cambridge, MA, where I live and work.
Scientists tell us that this kind of increase is quite plausible by the year 2100, especially if the accelerated ice melting being reported in Greenland and Antarctica continues. In that 5-foot scenario, we’d also lose 7 percent of Manhattan, 20 percent of Miami, and 88 percent of New Orleans. If fear of this kind of loss and destruction isn’t enough to motivate the technology and business community to find ways to slow greenhouse-gas emissions, pull carbon out of the atmosphere, and start adapting to the irreversible changes already underway, then I don’t know what else will work.
Perhaps the reason that so many great entrepreneurs and innovators are still working on comparatively inconsequential problems like social/mobile apps and better ad-targeting technologies is that the reality hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe we’ll have to lose an entire city or region to a future superstorm—the big sister to Katrina and Sandy, aimed at a low-lying place like Charleston, SC—before we really wake up. If that were to happen, I think we’d see what a large role entrepreneurs and innovators can and should play in driving political change and moving us toward sustainability. If innovators can create new transportation systems like the Hubway bike-sharing system here in Boston, and spend time lobbying for new conveniences like Uber and Airbnb, surely they can mobilize to support bigger causes like cutting carbon emissions, enacting a carbon tax, and making renewable energy cheaper.
I do know that the power of fear is real. It gave me the chutzpah, as an 18-year-old, to lecture a town full of conservative Midwesterners about nuclear weapons. The line between healthy fear and paranoia can be blurry—but even the paranoid are right sometimes. As Dreher writes of his apocalyptic secularists, “Just because they’re terrified of [global warming] in ways many of us don’t understand doesn’t mean it’s not real; perhaps they see something the rest of us don’t.”
Indeed. In the old Greek myths, Cassandra couldn’t shut up about the coming calamity of the Trojan War, and her people locked her up rather than listen to her annoying prophecies. Today’s Cassandras, myself included, have the whole Internet at our disposal, and we will be harder to silence.
[Correction, 8/2/14: An earlier version of this essay indicated that there were seven valedictorians in the Charlotte High School Class of 1985, which is unbelievable enough. In fact, there were eight, plus one salutatorian, as several of my classmates have reminded me. I regret the memory lapse.]
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