07/01/2013 02:34 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Q&A With Ramez Naam: Dialogues on the Environment

In this ongoing series, I talk with thought leaders about ideas in my book Nature's Fortune and trends in the environmental movement.

Next in the series is my conversation with computer science and technology expert Ramez Naam, whose latest book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, looks at the power of innovation to overcome natural resource and environmental challenges.

You have been a Microsoft executive, a tech entrepreneur, a novelist and an author of two non-fiction books. What has that varied experience taught you about the best approach to solving environmental problems?

It's been quite a ride. Really those experiences have given me three core lessons that I bring to thinking about the environment.

The first comes from management. When you're managing a large number of people, you learn that incentives matter tremendously. You really want people to be rewarded for doing the right thing for the customers and the organization. If your incentives are set up wrong -- if for some reason you reward people for behavior that's actually bad for your customers or your organization -- then you're going to encourage that behavior.

The same is true when it comes to the environment and natural resources. If the incentives are aligned right -- towards better preservation and restoration of nature and natural resources -- then you'll see a tremendous amount of activity in that direction. You'll see individuals making choices that are better for the planet. You'll see businesses doing the same. You'll see entrepreneurs trying to start new businesses and innovate in new technologies that are good for the planet.

Sadly, today, our incentives aren't set up well -- you can make a lot of money burning fossil fuels, digging up wetlands, pumping fossil water out of aquifers that will take 10,000 years to recharge, overfishing species in international waters that are close to collapse, and so on. So when it comes to trying to manage how our entire planet-wide market and all the people and businesses in it deal with nature and our natural resources -- we first and foremost need to change the incentives.

The second lesson comes from technology -- both as it manifested in my career in corporate environments and in writing science fiction. Technology is incredibly powerful. And in many ways, the sky is the limit in terms of what you can actually accomplish with the right science and the right technology. But to get there, you have to actually invest in R&D. And often that means you have to be willing to spend an awful lot in that R&D phase before you see the benefits. When you look at the companies that have really won customers over in technology -- say, Apple and Google -- you find that they spend billions of dollars on R&D each year, often spending that much on a product before they ever make a dime back in profits. Unfortunately, in the environment, I don't see as much willingness to invest heavily in R&D as I do in consumer technology. And that's a pity.

The third lesson comes from being a writer. And that is that people want stories. People respond to the concrete much more than to the abstract. You can say that the IPCC projects 4 degrees Celsius of temperature change by 2100, and it means nothing. You can show graphs all day long, and most of your audience won't really feel it. Then you can show one picture of a glacier that's melted to nothing, or tell one story of people's lives disrupted by Sandy or by last year's drought, and you get markedly higher response. So we're going to see public attitudes switch not in proportion to scientific findings or graphs, but in proportion to the stories they hear, the people they know whose lives have been touched by climate change or some environmental calamity. That's what really changed public opinion.

You are remarkably optimistic in The Infinite Resource. You argue that we can all live better while doing less harm to the environment. How is that possible?

There are really two kinds of optimism. There's the complacent, Pollyanna optimism that says "don't worry -- everything will be just fine" and that allows one to just lay back and do nothing about the problems around you. Then there's what we call dynamic optimism. That's an optimism based on action. It's a viewpoint that says "yeah, we have problems, but we can beat them, if we hustle, if we make the right choices."

That second kind of optimism is what I argue for. How? Well, we've done it before. In the late 1960s, the Cuyahoga river that runs through Cleveland was a mess. The river was so polluted by oil and chemical runoffs and garbage that virtually all the fish species that lived in it had already died off. And in '69, a train crossing a bridge over the river threw a spark from one of its wheels and actually set the river on fire. Well, things are better now. Most of the fish species in the Cuyahoga are back. The river's clean enough you can drink from it. The oil and chemical runoff and garbage are gone. And that hasn't happened because we ended economic growth. The average income in Cleveland is triple what it was in '69, but the river's clean. What happened was the we created new rules and new incentives. Between 1969 and 1973 we created the EPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. That didn't happen by itself. It took people rallying and saying "enough is enough." But when we focused, we solved the problem.

The same is true with the Ozone Hole and with Acid Rain. You don't hear much about either of those any more. We made huge strides against those problems. And we did it in every case without impacting economic growth.

You've written a lot about technology and particularly the fear of new technology. What do you see as the proper role of technology in addressing problems of the environment and human development?

Technology is vital. We have to have development in new technology if we're going to solve these environmental problems without throwing humanity back in poverty. Think of it this way: Today we have climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from human power and transportation infrastructure. At the same time, we have 2 billion people who live in energy poverty. And between now and 2050, population will grow by another 2 billion people, and people in low-energy countries like China and India will be wanting more energy than today.

So, if you had no new technology, and you powered society as we do today -- mostly by fossil fuels, you'd have only two choices: Doom yourself to horrific climate change by burning all that carbon and releasing all that CO2. Or power down society, reducing total energy usage around the planet. One leads to ecological collapse. The other is a reversion, in many ways, to poverty.

So you're between a rock and hard place. What can you do? The only real solution is innovation in new technology. You have to be able to generate usable energy without greenhouse gas emissions and you have to be able to do it cheaply if you want people to choose that approach. That means new technologies. New technology lets you grow the resource pie, which is the only way you can get out between that pincer of rising consumption (as we end poverty) and environmental and natural resource depletion.

The same is true in water, in fishing, and in farming. Agriculture is the #1 source of deforestation. By some estimates it accounts for 80 percent of the forests chopped down in the tropics. Obviously we want to stop deforestation. Yet when you look at the trends, you see that over the next 35 years we're going to need to grow about 70 percent more food to keep up with population growth and richer diets in Asia. So if you want to feed the planet and keep the forests we have, you need to be able to grow roughly twice as much food per acre around the world. How do you do that? New technology.

Now in the food case in particular, one of the technologies that could help there -- genetic technologies that could create better crops with higher yields and less need for water and fertilizer -- is tremendously feared. Very little of that fear is scientifically grounded. And even worse, in my opinion, is few of the people who propagate that fear think about the ecological imperative to save the planet's forests.

All of that said -- as powerful as technology is, it has to be paired with policy. Today we don't have good global policies in place for climate. We know the incentives are off. Just like you could dump oil into the Cuyahoga in the 60s and let someone else foot the bill, today you can pump CO2 into the atmosphere and let the whole world foot the bill. So we have to innovate in technology. But often we need to use policy to level the playing field, or to be sure that a technology is managed in a responsible way.

I argue in Nature's Fortune that focusing on nature as investment opportunity can do a lot of good. It can get people who may have been viewed as opponents of the environmental movement on our side, provide a source of capital and an opportunity to scale up. What risks and opportunities do you see in this approach?

You've been incredibly eloquent in your book and in person on the way that businesses can be taught to save money or boost their profits by investing in nature. I love your examples of protecting natural watersheds as being a cheaper approach than building a large concrete water treatment plant, or of investing in wetlands restoration as being both cheaper and better than building concrete sea-walls. That, to me, is a kind of brilliant environmental ju-jitsu -- using the energy of the market and the profit-motive to get businesses to invest in preserving and improving natural systems.

So my first view is -- let's do more of that! As a direction for The Nature Conservancy it's a great one. And it's a very spreadable idea. So I hope thousands of business people read your book and I hope it gets taught in business schools.

My main concern isn't about a risk, per se, but a limitation. I think the approach you've outlined is going to work extremely well in many cases where an ecosystem is really proximate to a business that benefits from it. But for environmental issues that are more diffuse -- where the harm of environmental depletion happens very far from the source of the damage -- I'm not sure it's going to scale. I'm thinking here of climate change or even of ozone depletion. Ozone and climate are global issues, and it's hard to find a way in which the benefits of shutting down carbon emissions are going to pay for themselves for any given power-plant, say.

Fortunately, it's not an either-or world. I think the lessons of Nature's Fortune are going to apply in thousands or tens of thousands of local situations. And at a more global level, we can pair them with better management of global environmental issues.

From your vantage point, what is the environmental movement doing well? Where do we have room for improvement?

I think the environmental movement is now so large and diverse that it's hard to talk of it as a single entity. You see a spectrum, from a deep green side that is at times fairly anti-technology and which is even skeptical of markets, to a more eco-pragmatist side that is willing to do whatever works. I'm certainly more in that eco-pragmatist camp. And I can't see how the rest of environmentalism will thrive without a more meaningful embrace of science and markets.

If you had my job leading TNC, what would you make your top priorities?

From my perspective, you're already doing an amazing job. By focusing on teaching businesses about the ROI they can achieve by preserving and investing in nature, you're expanding the scope of the impact you can have. TNC was once limited by the resources it could directly marshal to buy land. But teaching people a new idea is incredibly more scalable.

So if I had to suggest one thing, I'd say -- how can you take that to the next level? Can ecosystem-savvy accounting be something that you can educate even more people about? Is it something you can persuade top business schools to start teaching in their curricula? Is it something you can create more instructional information about? Is it something you can teach business consultants to do?

Often an idea has impact far larger than the person who originated it. And I think you may be in one of those situations now. So the more widely you can spread this notion of achieving ROI by preserving and improving ecosystems, the better.

Looking back, what important matter have you been wrong about in the past and how does that change your thinking today?

Mark, it's a very very long list. :)

On almost every environmental issue I care about, in fact, I've been wrong at one point or another. I used to think that climate change was no big deal, that most environmental problems were massive exaggerations, that oil reserves were effectively unlimited, and more. I was much more of a naïve techno-optimist than I am now. I still believe that technology can help us come out of this situation with a richer humanity with less impact on the planet, but now I think it has to be paired with effective policy in order to achieve that.

What all of those lessons have taught me is to go to the facts. There's a very real tendency in human decision making to base our beliefs off of emotions, off of old habit (I've always believed this, so I should keep on believing it), or off of our affiliations (well, everyone I know thinks X, so I should too..). All of those are invalid. I decided five years ago that I wanted to truly understand, for myself, what the state of the planet was, and when I dug into it, what I found was quite different than I'd imagined.

So that main lesson for me is: Whatever my current beliefs are, on any topic, they're all open to being changed by the right facts and the right evidence.

Ramez Naam is a computer scientist who spent 13 years at Microsoft, leading teams working on email, web browsing, search, and artificial intelligence. He holds almost 20 patents in those areas.

He is the winner of the 2005 H.G. Wells Award for his non-fiction book, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. He's worked as a life guard, has climbed mountains, backpacked through remote corners of China, and ridden his bicycle down hundreds of miles of the Vietnam coast. He lives in Seattle, where he writes and speaks full time.

His new book on innovating to solve environmental and natural resource shortages is The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.