Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sustainable Sustainability

Last night at the WPI Venture Forum, Jim Matheson of Flagship Ventures gave a fantastic overview of the opportunities and challenges in the “greentech” or “cleantech” space. This emerging area is of tremendous importance to the future of our planet. Although I don’t believe that climate change is quite the doomsday that many believe it is, I do agree that it human activity has had a significant impact on the global environment, and it ain’t gonna get any better on its own. Many of these new technologies provide real promise for solving some of our short-term energy problems.

I long for those carefree days before seatbelts when gas was cheap, engines were big, and nuclear power was being promoted as a safe energy source that would produce electricity in such abundance, it wouldn’t pay to meter it. But those days are gone forever, so we better start looking for solutions to the problem of increased demand on diminishing resources.

As a VC, Jim’s mission is to look for venture returns on capital invested in technological solutions to societal problems. However, the concern for me is that we are all missing the point. I grew up as a biologist, so I tend to view the world through that lens. If you put some cells in a Petri dish with a nutrient, assuming they’re not cancerous cells, they will continue to grow and multiply until the nutrient becomes scarce, and then the real competition begins. We can observe plenty of these behaviors in our own back yards. Literally. Just watch what happens in a stand of trees over time.

But isn’t this the situation we humans are in? No matter how efficient we make our transportation and minimize our energy demands, our exponentially increasing numbers are all still making demands on resources with a natural limit. Jim predicted 10 billion people in our lifetimes. Ten billion! So isn’t the real issue how we limit our own growth? I’m not sure there’s a opportunity there with VC returns, but it seems to me that we’re not going to really solve any long-term sustainability problem with a more efficient automobile or air conditioner. The real focus should be on how we manage the population explosion that has been rising like a mushroom cloud since we first figured out mechanical advantage.

As usual, I don’t have the answers; only the questions. My mother told me they’d get me in trouble…