Houston, we have a problem
The problem is this: if we, human beings, don’t stop the complicated cascade of effects on our climate that are indefinitely caused by humans, this will lead to a complete collapse of our environment. The big blue marble we call Mother Earth will survive -no doubt about that- but mankind will not. Maybe some humans will survive the apocalypse, but civilization as we know it today will inevitably come to an end. It may happen in our lifetime and most certainly it will have a devastating impact on the lives of our children and grandchildren.
We can’t just let this happen. We need to face it: sustainability, decarbonization, zero impact, cradle to cradle… are not invented to grow market share, not as a USP, not even to save the planet. They are here to save the next generations from complete disaster. This is about nothing less than saving the human race. But are we not too late?
Can we still fix it?
The first part of the answer is simple: if I would believe that we are too late, I would not even bother to write about it and I would not even dare to ask you to read 3599 words about an inevitable doomsday. I would shout out loud to stop reading and to party like it was 1999 and I would party with you. Our Titanic would be going down, the vast ocean would be freezing cold, the lifeboats would have gone and there would be no help in the neighborhood, so we would get drunk and we would party like it was our last day.
I am using my precious time writing these words and I hope you are still reading, so the answer is “No, I hope we are not too late. I hope we can still change the future. But that means we should no longer party like we used to party back in 1999, when we were screwing up the planet and didn’t know any better. Or pretended we didn’t know.” We should start to dramatically re-design the way we deal with food, water, mobility, but above all, the way we produce and consume energy.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tammy Ma, one of the bright people that were involved in what is maybe the most important research in the history of humanity ever: creating Nuclear Fusion. Star energy. Humans that create eternal energy would most certainly save humanity. Nuclear Fusion is the Holy Grail of the energy transition, no doubt. Tammy Ma and the team have proven it can be done: they have generated the first glimpse of star energy in an experimental environment. That proof was what humankind needed to shift huge money streams into the right direction, she hopes, because the road to scalable nuclear fusion is still long and will take loads of money. Tammy however was managing expectations very clearly: even with shiploads of money available, scaling nuclear fusion will take up to 50 years at least. I asked her what we needed to do in the meantime. “The answer”, she said, “is pretty simple. First and foremost the energy transition needs to happen fast: we need to decarbonize the world at high speed, because otherwise star energy will come too late. Secondly, we need that transition to be the first steps on the way to create a world that is ready for nuclear fusion; fast forward full electrification is the way to go.”
As a final conclusion, she shared that redesigning energy and decarbonizing society is not something that one single industry or country will be able to do all by itself. It will need global solutions and above all the engagement of people. In other words: we all need to work together. Like an ecosystem. The next big thing will be a lot of small connected things. The solution is us. All of us. That seems like extremely good news.Connected people can be a gigantic powerful brain.
“Senators, we run ads.”
However, the theoretical good news turns out to be bad news in reality. The way we connect -the www- has been stolen by the platforms we are using to communicate in this exciting brand new universe of mass two-way communications. These platforms run our connections using algorithms. Most unfortunately, those algorithms are not instructed to make us work together, create big things and solve the challenging problems ahead of us. They are being designed to collect our data so the platforms can sell our preferences to companies that use the same platforms to sell us the products we may be looking for. By definition, those algorithms are not optimizing the full potential of humans being hyper connected. Not at all. Due to their nature, they are creating quite the opposite. Instead of the www being the canvas of a global brain, it has become the catalyst of hyper fragmentation and deep polarization. As a result we are closer to global civil wars than we are to a solution for our climate disaster.
One of the most popular quotes of our times, “Houston, we have a problem”, is not what was actually being said when the Apollo 13 crew on their way to the moon was being confronted with “a problem”. The words actually spoken, initially by astronaut Swigert -and not as the movie Apollo 13 suggests, astronaut Lovell- were “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here”.
Only a few minutes before that ‘problem’ was reported, the astronauts had called it a day and went to sleep. It had been a perfect and smooth, almost boring mission so far. And now there was ‘a problem’. Did Swiggert run out of toilet paper? Did he forget to phone his wife? Did he forget to take his favorite pillow on his journey and did he find it hard to sleep now? Houston wanted to know.
After being prompted to repeat the meaasage, it was Lovell that responded this time with “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.” That sounds like somebody that is still half asleep and not like a big issue. It is my type of conversation before I have had my first espresso in the morning: “uh”.
That must have been the biggest understatement in human history so far. There had been an explosion in the tin can containing 3 human beings somewhere in space, halfway to the moon. The ‘problem’ was as follows: the 3 astronauts were most definitely going to die. They knew it and they just needed to wait for the end. “Houston, we are going to die”, would have been a more accurate message. Instead they called it ‘a problem’. We will soon find out why.
“Houston, we are going to die” is more accurate
In the unlikely event that your oxygen tank explodes on your way to the moon you have the right to say that you have a problem -however big the understatement- and inform Houston about it. But one doesn’t just inform Houston to inform Houston. This phrase suggests something more and that is key in my longread: even when we are 99,9 % sure we are going to die, we still hope that Houston is going to find that 0,1%that we need to survive and come up with a solution to this impossible problem. That is the connotation: Houston, we are doomed, there is no chance we are going to make it home, but we hope you are going to do the impossible. We hope for a miracle. Houston is the “Deus ex Machina”, that we all know from the traditional Hollywood movies. When everything is going south, we know that there will be this expected unexpected moment when out of the blue there is this tipping point that solves all problems and brings the long awaited ‘happily ever after.’ That is how it is supposed to happen.
Yes climate collapse is a serious problem, but no worries, Houston will take care. Just like the astronauts, we are going to solve that climate issue and we are going to live happy ever after. For the record: the astronauts made it home.
Let me take you back to 1969. I was 6. Mankind had just set foot on the Moon that summer (yes I stick to the theme) and a few weeks later I was taken to the movies to go and see Bambi. Hooray. Not. Bambi changed my life forever. I don’t know whether that was the intention, but it was the very beginning of the end of my naive childhood. Bang. BANG Bambi confronts the innocent viewers with one of the most devastating scenes ever, especially when you are a 6 year old: the killing of the mother of Bambi.
For the 3 people amongst my readers that have not seen this traumatizing movie, I need to describe how a few scenes have impacted a 6 year old for life. I don’t even have to re-watch the movie, because even after 54 years, the scenes are still vivid in my memory.
The movie starts with cute little Bambi, his mommy and his little friends in a perfect paradise. It is like the first couple of hours of the Apollo 13 flight: cute but boring. Not the type of scenario that is material for a Hollywood movie. Something was bound to happen, Paradise ends when Bambi is experiencing his very first harsh and hostile winter. There’s hardly any food to eat in the endless snowstorms and the 6 year old me and poor little Bambi (we had become friends by now) find ourselves longing for the warmth and greenery of the perfect paradise to return. “Houston, we have a problem”, was not invented yet, but that is more or less what we said what we said, Bambi and me: “Mama?” Mother promises that spring will come soon, and hey, one can believe mommy, no. Houston is Mommy and Mommy is Houston and Houston will take care.
Sure enough, one day Bambi and his mommy find the first shoots of spring grass peeking up through the snow. Hooray. So far so good. As a kid you think the worst is over, you start breathing again. Mother Houston was right. You can trust her. Now they are going to live happily ever after.
Bambi thought me two harsh lessons;
- You haven’t seen anything yet when you think the worst is over
- One day you will find out you are left on your own. There is no Houston anymore.
Back to Bambi and the happily ever after that the 6 year old me hoped to see. That harsh winter was over. No sooner did Bambi and his mom start eating that first fresh grass, when some very disturbing music entered the scene. I was holding my breath and didn’t know why. Little Bambi obviously didn’t notice the invisible danger that his mother seemed to feel. She told her son to run for safety! “Run! Run Bambi run!”
I now need to introduce the evil character in my story: our crocodile brain. Our crocodile brain has got but a few very strong basic emotions and fear is one of them. When there is danger the croc brain takes the lead and urges us to either fight the danger or to run away. I was 6. I just wanted to run. Mommy told us to run and so I was running with Bambi. This is where the scene began to become very disturbing for a 6 year old. While we were running for something that seemed to be life threatening, Bambi turned to look back at his mother and heard these – we didn’t know that yet- last words “Faster, faster Bambi! Don’t look back! Keep running, KEEP RUNNING!” My crocodile brain ran and ran and ran.
Bang. We had already dodged one gunshot, and just after Bambi’s mother disappeared offscreen, I heard it: BANG. A solid gunshot indicating a hit.
We ran. I guess the 6 year old me did not realize the potential consequences of that BANG and I kept running with Bambi, not realizing anything had happened. Finally Bambi reached the thicket, turned around and realized…his mother wasn’t there. Not yet, we hoped. She would be there. Soon. Mommy always shows up. The pain in the moment when Bambi went from happiness (“We made it mother!”) to questioning (“Mother?!”) was heartbreaking.
That moment my soul was being damaged forever.I was 6 and I didn’t quite understand what had happened to Bambi’s mother. Neither did Bambi. He was in denial, we both hoped for the tipping point in the scenario that would miraculously bring back mother and there would be a happy ending. After a long search through the dark forest in a snowstorm, Bambi encountered his father, the Great Prince of the Forest, who told him “your mother can’t be with you anymore”.
In other words: you are on your own.We should have known. If the Apollo 13 crew would have died, which would have been only normal given the mess they were in, the phrase “Houston we have a problem” would have had a very different connotation. Unfortunately, today we use it to not take any responsibility because we simply hope some Houston is going to help us. We are like this 6 year old me.
Who killed Houston?
There is more we can learn from Bambi, the movie. Just think about this: who is the invisible monster that killed Mother? In other words, who killed Houston? The answer is simple: Mankind.
We hope for Houston to solve the devastating issues that we have caused, but we should realize there is no Houston, because we have killed whatever Houston might have been. Let me recap: we have caused both the apocalypse that is going to be our end and we have killed the only thing that might have saved us. Remember the algorithms in between us and the global collaboration needed to reverse climate collapse.
Let’s continue with Disney and let’s have a look at the amazing classic movie called Fantasia in which the apprentice sorcerer finds the magic hat of his master and immediately starts to use that power to get his hard work done by controlling objects like broomsticks and buckets of water. He falls asleep and starts to dream of all the fantastic things he could realize with those magic powers. He dreams of himself as the master that is in control of the universe, but wakes up in a chaotic storm of broomsticks and buckets of water that are completely out of control and he tries to reverse his magic in vain.
We are the apprentice sorcerers that have been given the most powerful weapon ever developed in nature: our human brains. We started to use it to make our lives easier. We invented fire, agriculture, the wheel, flying, the computer, the internet… We cheated on nature. Species survive because they adapt to changes in the environment but humans simply use their superpowers and change the environment. Drastically. Humans started to steal from the planet and later they started to steal from the next generations as well. That seems stupid, but it was our evil crocodile brain that is to blame. Again. It used and abused our human brain (the sorcerer’s hat) to satisfy basic crocodile emotions: greed and instant satisfaction.
Our crocodile brain can’t deal with things that are complex of which the impact is distant or indirect. The fact that our human actions cause climate change, global warming and in the end climate collapse, is a complex, non linear cascade of effects. Stopping and reversing this disaster may even be more abstract, complex and nonlinear. On top of that it will affect us. We will need to change our lifestyles, which sounds t like ‘danger’ to the crocodile brain that will either run or fight. Croc brains will not solve climate collapse.
Houston, we have a very serious problem.
We are destroying our environment by our very own behavior and because our croc brain doesn’t really want to understand what is happening and how to reverse the catastrophic consequences of our actions, we deny what is happening, we deny our own responsibility, we refuse to adapt and we hope that science and the next generations (aka Houston) will solve it all. That is why “Houston, we have a problem” is wrong. Let’s face it: Houston, we have caused the problem and there is no Houston to save us. It is up to us. We are Houston.
Yes we can.
We are this gigantic connected brain, aren’t we. If we all pull together, we can solve this. We have to rethink food, water, energy, mobility, production,… There are plenty of resources, we only need to optimize how we use and re-use those resources. We just need to connect and share what we have available.
No we cannot.
Now, there is another problem. We are connected, but instead of working together and being this hyper connected gigantic brain, we are more polarized, divided and fragmented than ever before. Remember those algorithms that are instructed to maximize the data collected.
Guess what: it was our crocodile brain that trained them. The span of online attention is about 3 second. A tweet has become the equivalent of a longread. When things go fast, our crocodile brain takes over and it wants instant reward, it is looking for simple messages and it is looking for kicks. When what our inner crocodile reads seems to be long, complex (more than a headliner) the croc gets bored and ignores whatever content. So we have trained the algorithms to not promote aspirational messages: way too abstract and not leading to instant satisfaction. We like short messages that confirm our beliefs or we fight all that makes us afraid. We -yes we- have trained the algorithms to create echo chambers and flame wars. It is the ideal climate for populism and populists that deny climate collapse.
Populism, the definition.
Populism refers to a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”. It is frequently associated with anti-establishment and anti-political sentiment. Populists strive to appeal to people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.
When in April 2018 I was asked for a keynote in the same line-up as Alexander Nix , former CEO of former company Cambridge Analytica, I not only had a long backstage conversation with him, but I also witnessed his keynote and so did 5000 others. That keynote was fascinating, revealing and devastating at the same time. The audience was left speechless. Nix explained how populism was being supported by the algorithms: the clue was to know exactly what makes people afraid. Algorithms would confirm and enhance these fears and would confirm that “the establishment” was the cause of all fears. The recipe was simple: feed the fear of individuals using online social media and call ‘the establishment’ the source of all evil using mainstream media. The establishment being Hillary Clinton, the mainstream media, the scientists, the intellectuals,…Populism is growing fast worldwide and the correlation with the influence of the data collecting algorithms can’t be denied. People have stopped to believe in central authorities.
Populists have hacked climate collapse.
Climate collapse is frightening, complex,non linear, it will impact the way we live and the positive effects of whatever difficult choices we make will not be visible immediately, but may take decades. Hence, there is no better topic to fight all things establishment and win popular votes than climate. So populists started to call the denial of climate collapse “climate realism” and all other points of view very simply “climate hysteria”.
We are (not) doomed after all.
Are we doomed? No, we are not. We need to bypass the croc brain and connect to the human one.
How do we do that? The answer is not even that complicated. What is that makes us human, what makes us compassionate, curious, creative, inspired? Storytelling. Since we evolved into humans, we have been using stories, legends, myths, fairytales to make complex and frightening problems digestible.
Storytelling is going to save humanity.
What is it we should not do: be complex, be boring and frightening. What we should not do is to reduce stories to simple, snackable bites for the croc brain.
What should we do:
- Share the compelling reason to change the way we live and use the planet before it is too late. We should however realize that this emotion is negative and non directional and is necessary but dangerous.
- Share the big challenge; together we are going to save the planet however complicated, because we can. People like big challenges. Big challenges unite, create purpose and drive. They are positive and give direction.
- Share well defined first steps people can take. Nothing will happen without those well defined first steps that motivate people to start today and see the result tomorrow.
- Share all this in a storyline that people can remember and can easily share as their own. We have learned how to stop a virus: isolate people. We should do the opposite: connect people.
And we most definitely need to do something about the platforms and their algorithms, but that is for another longread…
This article was originally posted on Rik's personal website.
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