Brilliant Minds?

| 23rd May 2019
Greta Thunberg
Wikimedia
Brilliant Minds' “Fluxability Quotient” conference in Stockholm is a dangerous mix of cliches and verbiage. Greta Thunberg should ditch it.

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Fifty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the richest 10 percent of the world's population.

This represents the real ecological scandal (and danger) of our age: the fact that most of the world’s worst polluters think they are on the right side of history merely by virtue of their being appalled by climate change and its consequences. 

American tech barons, socialites, celebrities, media moguls and other captains of industry are subject to this delusion. Swathes of them are about to cross the Atlantic first class or aboard private jets to attend the modestly-named Brilliant Minds conference in Stockholm in June to celebrate “Fluxability Quotient” (sic).

Futurist verbiage

The conference’s homepage is an improbable mix of clichés (“symphony of big picture thinking”), pseudo-spiritual jargon (celebrating “the power of conscious evolution”) and outright mumbo jumbo (“blazing your own path over and over ad infinitum”).

According to the organisers, “Fluxability Quotient” measures people’s ability to “move, shift, change, progress and flow strong with the current of the future”, as well as “sustainability in the art of constant transformation.”

The core values celebrated? Equality, transparency, social responsibility and “a harmony of land and humankind.” 

This might sound slightly clueless but ultimately harmless. I wonder. It is symptomatic of a trend that worries me far more than climate change denial.

Climate denial has become a remarkably marginal phenomenon, except in certain parts the US, where it a symptom of kakistocracy more than anything else. Of much greater concern is the more pernicious denial of the laws of physics, pervasive among politicians, self-styled humanists, economists and cognitive elites—the people who run the world—which underpins the above-mentioned futurist verbiage and the baseless optimism that accompanies it.

Apocalyptic thinking

This kind of language explains why so many of us continue to dance on the proverbial volcano, why we manage to sleep comfortably at night.

“The market,” technological innovations and ever-improving efficiencies will allow us to maintain a civilisation that still uses more coal every passing year (and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future), and is 80 percent fossil fuel-powered; business-as-usual - better managed and fine-tuned - will save the day. 

But it won’t. We need the people at the top of the pyramid and on the good side of history (which the participants in Brilliant Minds fundamentally are) to acknowledge this and act on it instead of behaving like people who smoke but warn their children against it.

Responsible, decisive action in our day and age requires at least a measure of apocalyptic thinking. Not the intellectual equivalent of running around Times or Trafalgar Square with a sign warning of impending doom, but an at least a passing awareness of the second law of thermodynamics.

In short, this law relates to the fact that entropy, the amount of energy unavailable to do work, always increases in the universe.

Bunker mentality

We hit peak oil in 2005 for conventional reserves (80 percent of global oil reserves) and will hit peak oil for the remaining 20 percent in the next decade. Taken together, this suggests serious rationing lies ahead. Not in some undetermined future but in the coming decades.

This will be painful for the poor in rich countries and even more painful the poorest half of humanity. The question is not “if". It is “when".

In reality, my sense is that a growing number of us in wealthy countries are actually aware of this, at least at the subconscious level. The result is an emerging bunker mentality which leads some of us to behave like the first class passengers on the Titanic, discretely gauging on a regular basis whether there are seats left for us on the life rafts. 

The maths is depressingly simple. A barrel of oil - three full tanks of the average car - represents the same quantity in energy measured in joules as that generated by the physical work of your average human in 12 years.

Think of it this way: to build the maelstrom of technology and infrastructure we call modern civilisation - from our factories, planes and cargo ships to our cell phones, laptops and cars - we have relied on an army of invisible humans working tirelessly to produce all this magic.

Invisible army

We recently reached 100 million barrels/day in global production. This means that to maintain and expand this thermo-industrial civilisation of ours, we contemporary humans each have on average 500 invisible humans working for us 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to power our lifestyles.

Of course in reality, those of us in rich countries have much more of this symbolic kind of manpower working for us while half of humanity doesn’t have any of it at all.

Yet we can’t seem to wrap our head around the fact that this invisible army, rather than the three-pound brains we are so proud of, is what allowed us to get where we are.

No technological innovation our brains will come up with can change the fact that we are beginning to run out of the fossil fuels which started forming 500 million years ago, but which we will have squandered in a few centuries.

Typically, such arguments elicit answers like “well, no one would have believed we’d ever set foot on the moon at the turn of the twentieth century.” Indeed. But there is a big difference between technological innovation - planes and rockets - and energy - oil.

Economics

We can and do constantly develop new technologies, sometimes very fast, but as the Nobel Laureate in Physics Hans Bethe pointed out, no form of energy—from the draft horse, to coal, to oil, to nuclear power—ever became a fuel for commonplace technology in fewer than fifty years.

Some people criticised Greta Thunberg, the young founder of the Friday school strikes movement, for her decision to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) last January.

There is arguably merit in this criticism. We live in a world where the models of 99 percent of economists don’t take into account the material preconditions of our civilisation - dwindling non-renewable energy resources  and its effect on climate change.

Among those who do, we celebrate the wrong ones. William Nordhaus  was awarded the Nobel laureate in economics in 2018. Yet his calamitous take-down in 1973 of The Limits of Growth - Dennis Meadows’s seminal work on the consequences of overshoot for our planet - was never retracted.

Added to this, his aberrant, irresponsible stance that a 10 percent contraction of global GDP would be the most central feature of a world where global temperatures would have risen by 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.

The most basic understanding of complex dynamic systems (like Earth) tells us that beyond a three degree rise, there is simply no way to know just how bad things might get - beyond the fact human life as we know it would be radically threatened. 

Global economy 

It took me more than a decade attending the WEF as an underling to come to the conclusion that, despite its tagline - 'Committed to Improving the State of the World' - Davos is committed above all to economic growth in a world where we don’t know how to grow without burning ever more fossil fuels.

It took the vision of serious ecologists like Wes Jackson and Satish Kumar (founder of the Resurgence Trust, which owns The Ecologist), the passion of Greta Thunberg and the activism of the Extinction Rebellion folk to convince me that what we call “global economy” constitutes perhaps the most dangerous oxymorons of all times. 

If the word 'economy' derives from  'management of the household', we are burning down the house. 

I understand and respect Greta’s decision to go to Davos: at least there were experts, policy makers and representatives of international institutions and NGOs present.

In contrast, next month’s event in Stockholm sounds a bit like the Oscars of the cognitive elites: a party intended primarily to make them feel good about themselves, when we need them to feel crappy and alarmed about the state of the world instead.

Awareness or action

I don’t blame Greta Thunberg for agreeing to take part in Brilliant Minds. Barack Obama’s decision to do so is arguably more troubling.

Given Obama's iconic status and historic stature, the 44th President of the United States has a sacred responsibility to the so-called “purpose generation,” Generation Z, which Ms. Thunberg so powerfully represents.

As she has rightly pointed out, we live in an age when people confuse awareness of climate change and doing something meaningful about it.

Parroting the words “climate change,” “species extinction,” “environment” or “sustainability,” let alone “fluxability,” doesn’t help. If you cross the Atlantic in a jet to do so, it can even be worse than saying/doing nothing at all.

Climate change deniers in the US and elsewhere who don’t fly around the world to mingle and sip champagne with peers don’t pollute as much. They also don’t believe that they are part of the solution.

Scathing indictment

A new Zeitgeist is in the air, made up of purpose, humility, frugality and community. It has come about in no small part thanks to the vision and courage of Greta Thunberg.

Her logic for going to Davos was to influence the rich and powerful assembled there. Cancelling her participation in Brilliant Minds could prove a more potent weapon still.

I have no doubt that attendees will be impressed by the scathing indictment of decision-makers she will assuredly deliver should she maintain her participation. But at the end of the day, the thrill of hanging out with Barack Obama, tech icons and Hollywood celebrities is likely to trump all other emotions among delegates.

Her cancellation, on the other hand, is more likely to lead them to precisely the kind of introspection the world needs them to engage in.

Cancelling would send a powerful signal well beyond Stockholm and Hollywood about the change in Zeitgeist and might even draw President Obama to revisit his speech, if not his decision to attend. What a powerful signal indeed if the two met in a vegan restaurant instead of a five star Palace! 

Land Institute 

Since I’m mentioning food, here’s one thing Brilliant Minds participants—and everyone else—might want to ponder.

We won’t make anything on this planet truly green and sustainable until we are able to feed ourselves in a green and sustainable way. Yet the current investment in plant breeding and genetics research in soil-eroding, fossil fuel- and chemicals-intensive annual grain crops stands somewhere in the vicinity of 10 billion dollars a year, while for perennial grain crops the figure is a measly 10 millions dollars.

The Land Institute, Jackson’s brainchild in Salina, Kansas, set out in the 1970s to invent an agriculture based on perennial polycultures and has been working with plant breeders and geneticists worldwide to do so. 

They all met earlier this month in Lund, in the south of Sweden, to share their findings at a very low-key event.

It wasn’t perhaps as brilliant as the upcoming meeting in Stockholm promises to be, but my two cents is that the greenhouse gases generated by the Lund gathering were more worth it: the tireless efforts of this bunch have led to the emergence of the first new perennial grain crop to see the light of day in 4200 years (Kernza), possibly the single most under-publicised revolutionary event in our history.

The time has come for all those of us who like to think of ourselves as “environmentally conscious” to stop just professing our commitment to the ecosphere and actually put our money where our mouth is.

If you want to save the world, you might want to consider giving to institutions like the Land Institute.

This Author 

Felix Marquardt used to produce rap, host fancy dinners and advise a variety of individuals and entities, governmental and non-governmental, including a few unsavoury ones. His forthcoming book, The New Nomad, is part reportage, part memoir and part primer for the unaware on the timeless virtues and the future of nomadism, coming from Simon & Schuster in the spring of 2020.

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