News from the Future

There are times when news is light.  There are times when it is off the charts.  Over the last few weeks, we have seen populist uprisings sweep the Middle East and China, an earthquake and tsunami level Japan, multiple nuclear meltdowns and over the last few days, the entrance of the US into the Libyan conflict, eight years to the day after President Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.  At first this avalanche of news might seem to have no common theme. In fact, however, as a presentation at the recent Cleantech conference by Kleiner Perkins partner, John Denniston explores, there is a central reaon:  stress on the world's ecological balance that is now having immense political as well as economic effects.

While many causes have no doubt contributed to the unrest roiling the Middle East--and China, including technology and envy of Western freedoms, a key factor, Deniston convincingly shows, is soaring food prices.  As NDN's Jake Berliner noted at the time, the spark that ignited the Tunisian and Egyptian uprising was announcements of higher food prices by the government.  And food prices have played a role in the Libyan and Bahrain uprisings as well.  Less well known is the cause of soaring crop rices that sparked riots in Indonesia, Africa and many places crowded out of the news cycle.  That cause is the highest level of extreme weather events ever recorded, according to data maintained by the insurer, Zurich Re which tracks weather for insurance reasons, leading to crop failures in the Ukraine, India and elsewhere.

Whether or not one believes in man made climate change, the demonstrable global impact of last year's weather illustrates the sensitive balance of man and nature as global population continues to grow.  The spike not only in food prices but other commodities from copper to oil to rare earths illustrates the precarious and highly complex interplay in the global economy between population, available resources and the financial markets that mediate between them.  While the US and much of Europe remain in a quasi recession, developing countries such as China, India and Vietnam are booming this year, spurred on in part by the very liquidity developed countries have supplied to address the financial crisis.  While some of the high prices of commodities may have to do with so-called correlation in commodities markets, tight supplies are providing fuel to political unrest not only in the Middle East but in China and across the developing world.  Since the financial crisis began, India has added 60 million people, Indonesia, 11 million, Nigeria 20 million people, China, 15 million and even , closer to home, Mexico 5 million new people.  And, indeed, China has announced plans to shift from a one to two child policy.  Rising population is putting ever increasing strain on the world's resources. To meet the challenge of providing for a growing global population, there is only one answer: techology.  The question is--as it has been since the days of Malthus--will the technology come quickly enough to avert crisis or will the world go through major dislocation while waiting on that technology.

Turning to the second major recent event in recent weeks, the Japanese earthquake, here, one might say is an event that is outside human activity.   However, while the earthquake was exogenous, the repercussions of the disaster also reflect the fragile relationship between man and nature.  Just as the Mid-east crisis highlights our relationship with oil, the meltdown at Fukushima and resulting release of radiation testifies to risks we have undertaken to power the modern economy.  Taken together, these events as Chairman Ed Markey observed yesterday constitute a powerful rationale to rethink our relationship with energy, in particular, dramatically accelerate a shift to clean and sustainable, renewable technologies.

At the Cleantech conference, Mike DeWoskin of Deloitte and Touche parsed the 12th Chinese, 5-year plan that ironically commits China to huge investments in the same information and communications technology it has recently silenced to quash the Jasmine revolution.  Indeed, the Chinese story is central to understanding Cleantech.  Only a blip on the screen when John Doerr and John Denniston laid down the gaunlet to the technology community to reinvent energy five years ago, China has now passed the US in both wind and solar production and is not slowing down but pulling ahead.

The good news for the planet is that fantastic new technologies abound if we can find ways to put them into service.  At the Cleantech conference, Elon Musk, the driving force behind Tesla, Solar City and Spacex described Tesla's new 4 seater electric car that will have a range of 300 miles and discussed plans for its successor, an inexpensive, high volume electric car.  In what is really a milestone in space exploration, Spacex's Falcon rocket will soon begin resupplying the space station, marking a transition from government to private space travel.  The French company Veolia has built a model of innovation that involves outsourcing technology from numerous startups.  Legendary Caliornia energy advocate and scientist, Art Rosenfeld who championed low energy refrigerators explained how higher standards can actually cut costs by inspiring innovation and new assembly lines.  Green builder, John Picard who helped create the Leeds system of building described how LEEDS has gone from an idea to standard operating procedure for new buildings.   More positive news came from Kleiner's Denniston who spoke about the declining cost curve of solar that will place solar below the cost of fracked gas in some markets this year.  Numerous new energy storage (air, battery and fuel cells), solar energy, plastics to oil conversion and other technologies can reinvent energy, particularly as the cleantech industry embraces data.

While there is much to be optimistic about on the technology front, the challenges are also daunting. particulalry to US firms and the US economy. Silicon Valley is waking up to the fact that clean technology is a very different market than software and information technology.  It is huge, so that solar is already as large an industry as online advertising.  However, in many ways, energy has more in common with agriculture.  Energy is a strategic industry that produces vital but low margin commodities under the umbrella of government protection.  Hence the formidable incumbents.  The US is unlikely to match European countries or China in government subsidies of favored technology.  Rather, our shot at catching up will arise only if we play to our strength, rolling out innovation.  Rather than compete with China in subsidies we will do better to create open, scaleable platforms like the Internet where our ability to innovate can shine.

Already the lack of scaleable platforms for energy has claimed casualties such as the Google Power meter which after receiving considerable attention, did not won wide acceptance because consumers did not gain access in the recent smart grid deployment to their data.

In short, the explosion of news in recent days is in large part about how to provide for a rapidly growing population in the developing world.  In the wake of the Japanese nuclear meltdown, stocks in cleantech companies involved in renewable power rocketed by over 20%.  Wall Street recognized quickly that renewable energy may not be merely be the most attractive option to powering the future, it may be the only one.   To meet the Malthusian challenges of the 21st Century, technology wil be the answer.  But how quickly that technology comes on stream, relative to needs, will determine how much news and what kind of news we live through.