Wildfires ravaged California in recent weeks forcing hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes. Many were without power as the utility companies cut electricity to contain sparks and further damage.
It’s the same story year after year.
And yet, California is the hub of some of the smartest and richest people in the world: Silicon Valley.
For the most part, they’ve been off the radar when it comes to investing in technology that might help with a problem raging in their own backyard.
This week, CBC’s Wendy Mesley and her team probed the question: why isn’t Silicon Valley investing more in climate change technology?
She spoke with David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor of New York Magazine and author of the New York Times bestseller The Uninhabitable Earth. He says it’s time for tech titans to stop talking about their escape bunkers and future colonies on Mars and start putting their minds and money toward fighting climate change.
Q: You’ve said that you’re kind of puzzled that the plutocrats of Silicon Valley aren’t doing more to fight climate change.
These are people who like to see themselves as world historical figures. They see themselves kind of operating entirely outside the realm of even the normal economy.
You would think that people like that would respond to a crisis like this by trying to deploy their power if only to gratify their own egos and make themselves feel more powerful and more of use.
But while they pay lip service here and there to the climate crisis, and some of them in their philanthropic work do donate some of their money to climate-related causes, generally speaking, their orientation and their business practice has been to turn entirely away from the crisis.
Q: Do you see that changing now that now we’re seeing the flames jump across the highway? Is this a turning point?
Those images are so striking so gripping, and I think that awakening is happening in Silicon Valley. But I think there are also some particular obstacles in the tech community having to do with the fact that many of these people are temperamentally and by training engineers. They tend not to think of problems that they can solve that require something other than a coding solution.
But I think it also has a lot to do with the structure of venture capital, which has really organized the entire entrepreneurial activity of Silicon Valley now for several decades. That’s to say these are investments made very early on in very small companies that are dependent or predicated on the idea that those companies could grow incredibly rapidly with almost no marginal cost at all.
We’re gonna need new kinds of planes. We’re going to need a new electric grid. We’re going to need wind turbines and solar arrays.
These are much more expensive capital investments, which venture capital doesn’t really have a way of funding.
As a result, Silicon Valley as a whole, I think, has turned away from that kind of engineering and focused instead on a much more profitable method that they’ve developed over the last few decades of turning out apps and programs, which can work seamlessly and cost loosely and represent therefore a much more immediate profit-seeking opportunity.
Q: Your book is called The Uninhabitable Earth. Elon Musk was telling Stephen Colbert the other day that he’s going to make Mars habitable.
I’m all for space exploration, but this is a really basic and problematic mistake that Elon has made, and a lot of people in Silicon Valley have sort of fallen in line with him no matter how bad the planet’s or the Earth’s climate gets.
It will be so much easier to engineer a livable system here than it would be for us to do that on Mars, which is so different from anything that humans have ever lived on before.
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