How to prevent us heading for a world of scarce resources, unfair competition, and geopolitical battles? Merge U.S. and Canada!
What is your big idea?
The United States and Canada should merge. Unfortunately, the reverse is happening. They share geography, values, and a gigantic border, but the two countries are on a slow-motion collision course—with each other and with the rest of the world.
Since they signed a free trade agreement in 1987, the U.S.-Canada border has become more clogged than ever, hurting trade and tourism. While both countries wrestle with their internal and border problems, emerging economies, using a state capitalism model of development, flourish. By 2018, China’s economy will be bigger than that of the United States, and Asian economies will be bigger than the U.S., Canada, Germany, Britain, Italy, France, and Russia.
A merged United States and Canada would have an economy larger than the European Union’s. The two would be an economic superpower, bigger than South America in size, with more energy, metals, minerals, water, arable land, resource potential, and technology than any other jurisdiction, all under U.S. military protection.
Welcome to the future of life: synthetic life, that is. Craig Venter talks about his new book, where he argues that our genetic code is becoming interchangeable with digital codes. The implications will revolutionize our world.
What’s your big idea?
The worlds of the genetic code, the chemicals A, C, G and T, are becoming interchangeable with the digital world, the ones and zeroes of computers, and we did this first with learning how to read the genetic code and converting the A, C, Gs and Ts into the computer code, and now we’ve been going the other direction, starting with ones and zeroes, re-writing the chemical code and then using that to create new life. So it’s a concept of the rapid interchangeability of DNA and digital information, the applications of that are we can now send life at the speed of light; send electromagnetic waves through the internet for example and recapitulate it at the other end, so in the future you’ll actually be able to download living things from your computer.
So you would be able to then create a life form that has been beamed, let’s say from Mars?
Yes, so part of the implications, and I use that for example if we had a DNA sequencing robot on Mars and we drilled down deep into the water layer and discovered micro-organisms, we could sequence the DNA and then send that back in as little as 4.3 minutes versus having a multi-billion dollar rocket go up and try and blast off from Mars, fly back, and try and safely land on Earth. So very different to do it as digital information versus having to move physical entities.
Are we headed for a world of scarce resources and environmental catastrophe, or will market forces and technological innovation yield greater prosperity? Yale historian Paul Sabin, author of the new book ‘The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future,’ draws on an iconic story to examine the clash between environmentalists and their conservative critics.
What is your big idea?
Our current stalemate over climate policy has important roots in earlier battles over population growth and resource scarcity. Many dire predictions made a generation ago about disastrous food shortages and running out of oil have not come true, at least not yet. This poses a challenge for environmentalists, who are gravely concerned about global warming. Earlier failed prophecies help fuel conservative opposition to current concerns about climate change, even though the science is different and the threat is real.
I argue that we need to probe these earlier clashes between different legitimate viewpoints to better understand how to communicate with each other and to develop successful policy solutions.
‘The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future’ by Paul Sabin. 320 pp. Yale University Press. $28.50.
Should you monitor your child’s Facebook? Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of the new book ‘The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,’ answers some questions about parenting in the social-media age.
What is your big idea?
When children and families see me privately, often in a crisis or when a child’s situation has become more than they can manage or ignore any longer, parents’ responses are always a significant factor. What we say and how we say it matters to our children.
In therapy, at parent talks, and in my travels and interviews sharing The Big Disconnect, one of the most common questions parents ask is: Should I monitor my child’s Facebook? The more important question is not whether you should have access but what you do with it: How do you react to what you see or read there?
The Alaska pollock is said to be the largest remaining source of palatable fish in the world, used in the Filet-O-Fish sandwich at McDonald’s and by many other fast food chains. Some 1.5 million tons of it are caught in U.S. fisheries every year. But that’s a harvest level as close to the bone as we can cut. Kevin M. Bailey, the author of the new book ‘Billion-Dollar Fish,’ says the stock could be in danger of collapsing—and it could take its ecosystem down with it.
What is your big idea?
If you talk with a fisheries scientist about harvest management, it usually ends with them drawing a curve and then a line. Where they intersect is an exact solution, the Maximum Sustainable Yield, the largest long-term average catch that can be taken without impairing the population’s reproducibility. By this engineering solution, the complexity of a whole ecosystem gets flattened onto a sheet of paper.
Engineering solutions to fisheries problems in the United States took hold in the 1880s. Rather than put restrictions on harvesting and destructive mining practices, the government advocated producing more fish from hatcheries to buttress declining stocks. Salmon hatcheries on the West Coast proliferated. The fish releases are one of the major causes of declines in native salmon runs. Often engineering is not the solution, it becomes the problem.
‘Billion-Dollar Fish: The Untold Story of Alaska Pollock’ by Kevin M. Bailey. 288 pp. University of Chicago Press. $25. (Dan Parrett/Corbis)
The internet has broken down borders and connected the world, so why do nations still deal with each other through outdated institutions? Oxford professor Ian Goldin says there needs to be a radical overhaul of global systems.
What’s your big idea?
For the first time in humanity’s history, citizens around the world share the same information. Since the end of the Cold War in 1990, physical barriers have come down, but so too have virtual barriers. This is great news as the more rapid sharing of ideas and opportunities has been associated with the fastest improvement in life expectancy and rise in incomes in human history. It is also the source of growing threats to the planet and society. One risk is rising inequality, as poor people and poor countries do not have the infrastructure, education or access to modern ideas to benefit from the extraordinary progress of recent decades. The second is cascading and systemic shocks that arise from the pace of change in incomes and technologies and the growing blizzard of complexity associated with hyper-connectivity.
Interdependence is escalating and the failure of the global system to respond is a source of growing instability. Globalization is not being managed. Financial crises, pandemics, cyber attacks, fisheries depletion, climate change, antibiotic resistance and other global threats are the underbelly of globalization. The more connected we are, and the higher our incomes, the more our actions have spill-over impacts on others. Interdependence is the consequence of globalization. This means we urgently need to empower our governments to create more effective national and global institutions.
The sale of a single tuna earlier this year for $1.8 million reflects the free market’s response to growing scarcity of natural resources. Markets alone will not ensure the sustainability of our fragile planet. Rising incomes and population growth mean we need to accept a greater role for regulation and coordinated management at both the national and global level.
As the NSA scandal shows, data is being collected on every aspect of our lives. This can be used to improve our experience, particularly in cities, or it can be a way to strip us of our privacy. Leo Hollis, the author of ‘Cities Are Good for You,’ warns us of the good and the bad.
This month, Microsoft made the headlines for two very different reasons. It was revealed that the company had allowed the National Security Agency access to the entire cache of users’ Outlook, Hotmail, and skydive data. Earlier, the software giant announced that it was getting into the “Smart City” business, launching a new project, CityNext, that promises to deliver the latest software and technology to grapple with the challenges of urban life. These two news stories are a reminder of how the major software companies are entering into every corner of our lives, and why we might need to be forewarned about the possible consequences.
A Google employee diagnoses an overheated computer processor at Google’s data center in Oregon. (Connie Zhou/AP)
For many urban thinkers the city has become a computer; the dense collection of bodies, buildings, wires, cables, and waste has been transformed into an “Internet of things.” Buildings form the hardware, while all the life between buildings constitutes the ever-changing software flow. In this view the metropolis is the most powerful information network ever created, a big data set that contains the sum of urban life. Where once the city was powered by steam or electricity, things now run on data. The same thinkers announce with certainty that this notion of the smart city will influence the way the metropolis is transformed over the next decades, just as the railway influenced the 19th century and the car the postwar era.
The smartphone in your pocket connects you to the city in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago. GPS makes it impossible to be lost anymore; there are apps that can provide data at any moment, connecting you to the urban mainframe. As well as transforming the city into a spatial network, there are now even Apps that can short-circuit this connexity, making sure that you don’t bump into people you are trying to avoid. The smartphone collapses the traditional boundaries of the city: Starbucks is now the new Wi-Fi factory. Data sets of Instagram usage show how differently tourist and locals use their phone cameras, creating a ghost map of the metropolis. As announced in The New York Times, stores now track customers as they meander through the shop floor. Google Earth is already influencing the way people design cities: the Palmyra Islands in Dubai, designed to look like a splayed palm reaching into the Gulf waters, is meant to be seen from the air. In Greece, the government is using Google Earth to see who can afford a swimming pool in their back yard, and then matching that against tax records.
Politicians reluctant to cut emissions are tempted by an easy fix, but Clive Hamilton says what we actually need is not less politics in the geoengineering debate—but more.
What is your big idea?
President Obama’s long-awaited plan to cut U.S. carbon emissions was met with a sigh of relief by those who get climate change. But the truth is the planned cuts, along with those promised by other major polluting nations, will not limit warming to 2ºC, the agreed safe limit.
The earth can be saved, at least according to Clive Hamilton. (SSPL/Getty Images)
On the contrary, we are heading for warming of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius, perhaps as soon as the 2060s, which will be catastrophic by any measure. After all, at the peak of the last ice age, when New York was a mile under ice, the globe was on average only 5 degrees Celsius cooler than in the 20th century. Already with human-induced warming of only 0.8 degrees Celsius, we have turbocharged the climate system. A 4-degree world doesn’t bear thinking about.
Climate change is a political issue, and needs political solutions. But diplomats are focusing on national interests, and the interests of the world’s ordinary people are being shunted aside.
What's your big idea?
Climate politics, and the policies that result from it, should be designed to promote human wellbeing. This goes without saying, unless one is a misanthrope. Nevertheless, climate politics has instead been about something quite different, namely promoting short-term interests of actors with close connections to governments, leaving almost all of us worse off and devastating the lives of millions of people in the future. So my idea is simple: let’s focus climate politics and policy on making all of us better off. What’s nice about this idea is that even the climate deniers and their backers in the fossil-fuel industry cannot disagree, at least openly, that it’s what we should be aiming for.
Why is climate politics deadlocked?
Foreign travel has doubled in less than 20 years, but ‘Overbooked’ author Elizabeth Becker says our unsustainable summer trips are destroying the places we most love—like Venice, Cambodia, and the Taj Mahal.
What is your big idea?
The travel and tourism business deserves the recognition, respect, and regulation as one of the world’s biggest industries. We have to stop thinking of our vacations and getaways as a break from real life and see them as part of an economic behemoth that can make or break countries. It is already the world’s biggest employer, providing jobs for one out of 11 workers. It contributes $6.4 trillion to the global economy. If it were a country, travel and tourism would be the fifth biggest polluter. This explosive growth is recent. Since 1995 foreign travel has doubled and last year reached the historic number of 1 billion trips.
All that travel is rapidly transforming cultures, countries, and societies, sometimes for the better and often times not. France is a model for using tourism to nurture a culture. As part of their tourism industry, the French have protected their villages, historic cities, farms, arts, and landscapes. Tourists go there to feel French for a few weeks, and they have made France the most popular destination in the world, beating out the U.S. In turn, tourism is France’s biggest economic driver.
However, left unchecked and without proper regulations, tourism can destroy the places we most love. Exhibit A is Venice, an open-air masterpiece. But in the past decade the city of less than 60,000 inhabitants has been swamped with over 20 million visitors each year. The tourism boom is driving out the locals. They can’t afford the higher rents propelled by foreign demands and the authorities turning a blind eye to illegal renting and leasing. Now souvenir shops and high-end foreign boutiques are replacing local artisans and essential local services from schools to clinics to bakeries and green grocers. The United Nations says that Venice is in greater danger of being drowned by tourists than water. Locals call it the hollowing out of the city into an empty theme park. On some days, the crowds at the Taj Mahal are as thick as the first day of after-Christmas sales.
Summer’s here, but if you’re going to the beach this weekend, you might find swimming increasingly hazardous as jellyfish blooms are becoming more and more common. The culprit? Climate change caused by humans.
What's your big idea?
Jellyfish, of all strange things, are turning out to be the unexpected and unwanted consequences of human impacts on our oceans. Jellyfish form large populations (called blooms) as a normal part of their life cycle, but our actions in the name of progress are giving them the perfect conditions to do more of it than probably ever before.
A giant jellyfish drifting off Kokonogi in western Japan. (Junji Kurokawa/AP)
Who would have thought that the lowly jellyfish could cause so many problems, materializing almost completely out of left field as a major contender in changing ecosystems? Almost all of the things we are doing to intentionally or accidentally manipulate our oceans either directly favor jellyfish or put so much stress on other species that jellyfish are often the last man standing.
Did the ACLU’s involvement in the ’60s Greenwich Village scene help American courts strike down draconian sex laws? Leigh Ann Wheeler, the author of ‘How Sex Became a Civil Liberty,’ on how civil libertarians invented sexual liberties.
What’s your big idea?
Sexual rights are new.
Indeed, in the past 100 years, United States sex laws have prohibited individuals from lecturing about birth control, jailed them for practicing nudism, prevented them from purchasing sexually explicit novels, prosecuted them for using contraceptives, criminalized their efforts to obtain abortions, and imprisoned them for engaging in oral sex.
The 1960s Greenwich Village scene is legendary for its sexual experimentation. Above, four people resting on a bed in a Village apartment, circa 1950s. (Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/ICP/Getty)
How do we measure and predict the human cost of climate change? Andrew T. Guzman, the author of ‘Overheated,’ on how dangerous global tensions could get much worse.
What’s your big idea?
We have all heard of climate change. In fact, many people are tired of hearing about it. Despite all the talk, the most important aspect of climate change has not been made clear: how serious it will be for human beings.
Emergency personnel walk through a severely damaged neighborhood after a tornado hit Joplin, Missouri in 2011. That year the United States saw one of the busiest tornado seasons in generations: nearly 1,700 tornadoes and 553 related deaths. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
The news notes facts about the physical world: the ice sheets in Antarctica are melting, seas are rising, coral reefs are jeopardized, 2012 was the hottest year ever in the United States. But we don’t live in Antarctica, a sea rise of a few feet seems like nothing to panic about, most of us have never even seen a coral reef, and 2012 did not feel like the end of the world.
The charismatic doctor and social activist, known for his work in Haiti and co-founding the organization Partners in Health, talks about why the American health-care system is not working, and what advice he has for the new crop of college graduates entering the real world. His commencement speeches have been collected in the new book 'To Repair the World.'
What is your big idea to impart on college graduates?
The big idea that I underline for medical students would be different from, but related to, a big idea I would share with college graduates. Let me give it a try. It may not sound like a big-enough idea.
Jacob Edwards, a resident-in-training physician, examines Lerner Medley, 1, at the Children’s Health Center in Washington, D.C., in February 2012. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post, via Getty)
I look at American medicine, and I look at how much money we are investing in health care—more than any other country in the world. And you see some of the wonderful possibilities that come out of it, when you have good research linked to care delivery. I would even mention the Boston Marathon bombing. There’s a reason that no one who was injured and made it to a hospital died—because we have really good hospitals in that city, as much as any city. I work in one of them, the Brigham. It is a pleasure to be in a hospital where there are thousands of competent, compassionate people working together for people who are sick or injured.
The animal-science pioneer and autistic activist looks inside her own brain to learn about the latest research on autism—and discovers that she’s quite face-blind.
What’s your big idea?
That there are three kinds of thinking. The traditional way of describing different kinds of minds is to say that some people think visually and some people think verbally. But “visual thinker” doesn’t really describe that part of the population well. I think in pictures, but I found that other visual thinkers don’t think like me at all. They think spatially. The more I asked people how they think, the more convinced I became that picture/object thinking and pattern/spatial thinking were as distinct from each other as the old visual and verbal categories. But did my hypothesis have any basis in scientific fact? To my delight, I discovered it does. Research by a neuroscientist named Maria Kozhevnikov has convincingly shown that not only do different parts of the brain correspond to picture-object thinking and pattern-spatial thinking, but that a brain that’s really good at one of those ways of thinking is usually weak in the other. They truly are different kinds of thinkers. Which makes sense. If you look at scientists and artists, they’re both visual thinkers, but they don’t think the same way.
What does neuroimaging of your own brain tell you about the causes of autism?
It tells me that when parts of the brain depart from the norm, it shows up in the real world. I have an abnormality in the circuits for language output, and sure enough, as a child I had trouble getting language out. I have an oversized amygdala, which is a part of the brain that’s associated with processing fear and other emotions, and I’ve always been prone to high levels of anxiety (which I control through antidepressants that I started taking in the early 1980s). When a control subject and I were studied, we found that our brains responded similarly to images of objects and buildings, but not to images of faces. My brain showed a lot less activation. And you know what? I’m so bad at recognizing faces that I have to remind myself, “He’s got a goatee” or “She’s wearing black glasses.” The book has some of the actual images from my brain scans. I should also say that neuroimaging is going to be a great diagnostic tool for targeting therapies.
Scholars and writers tell us what their big idea is.
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