Innovation Earth: The World As It Could Be

For three years, I wrote the green advice column for this page. As a lifelong environmentalist, penning my previous column, Eco Etiquette, was cathartic, since I had often struggled with ways to get the people in my own life to consider how their actions were harming our world. On paper I was able to come up with thoughtful plans of attack for dealing with global warming naysayers and I got to "tell off" inconsiderate houseguests for carelessly contaminating the recycling bin with wet paper towels.

Of course, I covered bigger-picture issues too, such as how to avoid genetically modified food in one of the only industrialized nations with no labeling laws (ahem, ours), as well as how to overcome the paradox of obesity and poverty. But ultimately, the pieces I penned were about personal choice. And while I hope the information was helpful and some eco-skeptics were swayed, during those three years exploring the nitty-gritty of how to go green, I realized something: I was often preaching to the choir.

This is not meant to disparage you, Green readers, since I still truly believe in the power of individual action -- that people who care can serve as messengers for ways to collectively move toward a more sustainable future. But it is becoming more apparent every day that sustainability alone will not be enough. On a planet of now 7 billion people, with nearly 3 billion more expected in my lifetime, what we're talking about here isn't merely sustainability. It's survivability.

The truth of the matter is that we're polluting our planet so profoundly that it's now visible from space. The latest estimates show that if emissions continue as they are, sea levels could rise 3 feet by the end of the century. The fact is, we are a world on the brink, and it's going to take monumental breakthroughs -- and getting the whole world on board with them -- to bring us back.

I now see two Earths before us: The first is a Loraxian wasteland. The second, however, is the world as it could be -- a world where mankind's ingenuity brings us not just beyond the industrial era, but into one of shining innovation. A world where man-against-nature evolves into man-with-nature; a world where the clean energy technologies we've developed are so sophisticated that we not only halt our ecosystem destruction, but bring our ecosystems back into balance.

If all of this sounds too abstract for you, think back to Steven Spielberg's 2002 film, Minority Report, in which technologies like smart homes and ear-piece cell phones seemed so futuristic to us. Now, just a decade later, they are commonplace. What we should take note of, however, is the scene in which John Anderton (Tom Cruise), framed and wanted for murder, narrowly evades the police to hide out "someplace safe" with precog Agatha (Samantha Morton) while he figures out a way to prove his innocence: Given the automated, ultra-high-tech world they live in, you'd think all vestiges of the natural world would have vanished. But speeding away in a fuel-cell Lexus, as the two leave behind the slick
chaos of talking hologram billboards and automated superhighways, what we see is the countryside beyond, pristine and untouched. The trees and sunlight surrounding the house where the two seek refuge breathe and shimmer in a land that breathes just as it would have in 1954, not 2054, the year the story takes place.

Of course, Minority Report is just a movie (based on the 1956 science-fiction short story by Philip K. Dick), and the notion that we could continue to advance technologically while leaving the earth intact seems too good to be true. But already, all around us is the kind of brilliance and innovation that could see us into such a future: Waste-to-energy plants in Norway heat homes while clearing landfill space. Vertical skyscraper farms allow food to be grown locally on a grand scale while eliminating the carbon cost of transport. High-flying bikeways may one day make urban pedaling not only a viable option, but a safe one, too.

Certainly, these types of innovations will require not just technological experimentation from science and business, but the forward-looking support of local and regional governments, especially -- many of which are already getting on board and eagerly adapting to help stem the tide of climate change and the havoc that has already visited so many of their corners of the globe.

This is the Innovation Earth that I will be covering, here, in my new column, where you'll find the most eye-opening concepts, works already in progress, business and government partnerships for a healthier planet, even outrageous new ideas looking for champions with vision. Importantly, Innovation Earth is the forum in which you, our thought leaders of tomorrow, will find your platform through me. So reach out to me at as I scour the globe for the Next Big Thing. The future may be daunting, but as Agatha says in the film: We still have a choice. I'm looking forward to opening the world of possibility with you.

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