That something happened to humanity’s capacity to solve big problems is a commonplace. Recently, however, the complaint has developed a new stridency among Silicon Valley’s investors and entrepreneurs, although it is usually expressed a little differently: people say there is a paucity of real innovations. Instead, they worry, technologists have diverted us and enriched themselves with trivial toys.
The answer is that these things are complex, and that there is no one simple explanation.Sometimes we choose not to solve big technological problems. We could travel to Mars if we wished. NASA has the outline of a plan—or, in its bureaucratic jargon, a “design reference architecture.” To a surprising degree, the agency knows how it might send humans to Mars and bring them home. “We know what the challenges are,” says Bret Drake, the deputy chief architect for NASA’s human spaceflight architecture team. “We know what technologies, what systems we need” (see “The Deferred Dreams of Mars”). As Drake explains, the mission would last about two years; the astronauts would spend 12 months in transit and 500 days on the surface, studying the geology of the planet and trying to understand whether it ever harbored life. Needless to say, there’s much that NASA doesn’t know: whether it could adequately protect the crew from cosmic rays, or how to land them safely, feed them, and house them. But if the agency received more money or reallocated its current spending and began working to solve those problems now, humans could walk on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s. We won’t, because there are, everyone feels, more useful things to do on Earth. Going to Mars, like going to the moon, would follow upon a political decision that inspired or was inspired by public support. But almost no one feels Buzz Aldrin’s “imperative to explore” (see the astronaut’s sidebar). Sometimes we fail to solve big problems because our institutions have failed. In 2010, less than 2 percent of the world’s energy consumption was derivedfrom advanced renewable sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels. (The most common renewable sources of energy are still hydroelectric power and the burning of biomass, which means wood and cow dung.) The reason is economic: coal and natural gas are cheaper than solar and wind, and petroleum is cheaper than biofuels. Because climate change is a real and urgent problem, and because the main cause of global warming is carbon dioxide released as a by-product of burning fossil fuels, we need renewable energy technologies that can compete on price with coal, natural gas, and petroleum. At the moment, they don’t exist.