Feature

A Chorus of Solutions

There are no easy solutions. We may have to try them all at once.

Humankind now confronts two new, intimately entangled, and unprecedented challenges: supplying enough energy as the world’s reserves of cheap petroleum contract, and preventing catastrophic climate change. Without aggressive action, we’ll face repeated and increasingly serious energy and climate shocks that will cause enormous disruption to agriculture, industry, and people’s general well-being. In time, they will severely erode the prosperity and political stability of societies around the world. Unfortunately, there is no single answer to this energy-climate conundrum. And, though our energy dilemma is the most vexing problem we face, we must stop looking for — and promoting — single ideas to solve it. New research into the behavior of highly adaptive systems such as forest ecologies, immune systems, and markets has proven that, as a system’s problems become more complex, its solutions must become more complex as well. The world’s most adaptive systems achieve this complexity by engaging in a huge amount of diverse local experimentation. Lots of things are tried at once to find out which things — and which combinations of things — work.

To meet the challenge of the Earth’s dwindling energy resources and rising temperature, we’ll have to deploy a number of technologies and economic policies simultaneously, some of which haven’t even been conceived of yet. We’ll put solar panels and windmills on the roofs of our buildings at the same time that we pull heat energy out of the ground underneath them. We’ll experiment with electrolyzing water and shipping hydrogen by pipeline at the same time that we gasify coal and pump millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the Earth. We’ll try carbon taxes, cap-and-trade markets, and carbon-offset standards. Some of these things will work, and each one that works will make a bit of difference. None will be decisive. But together, they might be enough.

After all, some of humanity’s biggest successes in recent decades have come from multiple policies, often experimental and often implemented simultaneously without any overarching plan. The rapid drop in population growth in many poor countries since the 1970s resulted from a synergy among increased contraceptive availability, higher female literacy, women’s increased economic power, and spreading cultural norms of modernity. Even the most optimistic demographers didn’t anticipate that this combination of factors would have such a dramatic impact on fertility rates.

It is much the same with our environmental conundrum; we’ll learn what works faster if we experiment with synergistic "clusters" of solutions matched to particular sets of problems in particular times and places. So, take heart. We don’t have to choose from the list of excellent ideas in this special section. We just might have to try them all.

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