The sun has now set on another intriguing gathering at the TED conference. This year, I leave with a strange sense of fatalistic optimism.
A very sobering tone was set early on, with multiple speakers showering the audience with an alarming array of data. A sample:
- It is now projected that within 200 years, CO2 fueled global warming will result in the disappearance of every mountain glacier, along with Antarctica. Oceans will eventually rise by more than 200 feet. By the turn of the next century a significant percentage of what is currently the state of Florida may well be under water. In just the last four years, projections have grown increasingly dire.
- Within 100 years, all thriving species of large ocean fish will have been eliminated (in just the last 100 years, commercial fishing has decreased large fish populations by more than 90%).
- Within 10 years, entitlements will grow to 100% of the current US federal budget.
These statistics are incredibly sobering. But mixed among these revelations were some extraordinary sources of optimism:
- Scientist Bonnie Blassler shared that her understanding of how bacteria communicate with each other may soon lead to our ability to simply turn specific bacteria off.
- Jose Antonio Abreu showcased the remarkable success he has had in building El Sistema, a program to help poor Venezuelan kids learn classical music, with far reaching social impacts.
- A former Nobel prize winner revealed that he has now successfully demonstrated a method to systematically seek and destroy harmful bacteria in the body (e.g. 100% survival rates among anthrax infected rats).
- Shai Agassi updated us on the stunning progress he has made in his quest to break the world from its fossil-fuel habit, having now secured $200 million in funding and begun execution of a plan to shift the entire country of Israel (and others) to a transportation system fueled 100% by renewable energy.
- Herbie Hancock celebrated the pure inspiration of music, while Paul Simon, Quincy Jones and Peter Gabriel watched in awe with the rest of us.
Thus, I leave with numerous contradictions circling in my head. A bouillabaisse of hope and despair, inspiration and inevitability. That with action, anything is possible. That without action, everything may be lost.
"It's too late to be pessimistic!" one of the speakers proclaimed. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. I can only hope that our aspiration and ingenuity will not be trumped by our ambition and arrogance. That progress and technology will allow us to extend our time on this planet, not circumvent it.
That we may never see a day when a hand is raised in triumph having discovered a cure for cancer, only to be swallowed up by an earth unwilling to release us from our consequences.