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Science and Technology - Federico Pistono

Venus Project and Zeitgeist movement

Federico Pistono

Technology advances at an exponential rate, however, our living conditions are not improving at the same rate. Society seems to be paralysed by something that holds it back. What can the everyday person do in order to contribute to society and make life better for everyone? How is it possible to solve the problems that humans have? Here’s a brief analysis of the future of the species and how you can change it.

I’m here to tell you that the economic system kills true innovation and the development of human culture, and that we should base all our activities on the planet’s resources, living in harmony with it, instead of destroying it.

That was it. We can go home now.

I came here to share with you a few very simple ideas with you, but that we for some reason we seem to forget. Some studies have suggested that the perfect talk is 20 minutes long and it has only one graph. Very well, this is the only graph I will show you.

This graph represents the exponential growth of technology. What does that mean? Linear growth means that as time goes by I add a number, if instead I multiply by a positive number, the growth is exponential. Many people confuse this law with Moore’s law, according to which the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. This is a mistake. The human species has increased its technological advancement constantly, doubling every 14 months or so for more than 100 years, without interruptions. It started long before Gordon Moore was even born, and it’s not just about transistors. From the industrial revolution to mass scale production, from vacuum tubes to integrated circuits, from transistors to DNA sequencing, the reverse engineering of the human brain, the number of inventions and discoveries, nanotechnology, mass communication, and the ability to store information... all these aspects and many other more have experienced an exponential growth. It’s not easy to think in exponential terms, our brain is not used to it, it hasn’t evolved with this purpose. When we had to escape from a predator in the Savannah 30,000 years ago, it was useful from an evolutionary point of view to create projections of the immediate future, where will that tiger be and if it will eat us for lunch. But this evolutionary inheritance is not very useful now, if we want to understand how the world works.

I’ll give you an example: suppose I have a cup, and in this cup I let a colony of bacteria reproduce. Every minute the colony doubles. After 60 minutes, the bacteria reaches the top of the cup, exhausting all available resources for reproduction, and it dies. What percentage of the cup do you think the bacteria reached after 55 minutes? Almost all of it? Half? 3.125%. For 55 minutes the bacteria has doubled for every minute that passed, but whenever you double very small numbers, the result seems irrelevant. 3% in 55 minutes. In the last 5 minutes the colony fills the remaining 97% and die. This is what exponential growth means.

Thanks to this amazing exponential growth, we can all benefit from the comfort of modern life. Medicine, computers, cellphones, the Internet, films, airplanes, power stations, everything. Technology allows us to do amazing things. But in the end, I ask myself one thing. What is relevant? What gives meaning to my life? All the marvels of science and technology, are just so many millions of tons of junk, unless they enhance the lives of the people. Technology should be used to liberate people from heavy, monotonous and degrading jobs, and to elevate them to a state where they can realize their full potential. Sure, technological advancement in civilisation is growing at an incredible pace, but is that really all that we need? I think that this graph is incomplete, and that we have to add another curve, the zeitgeist, the cultural spirit of the society in history.

The culture line, the zeitgeist, is not keeping up with technology. We can see that every day Infinite economic growth is not only unsustainable, but also ecologically irresponsible. The market system is not based on the intelligent management of the limited planetary resources, instead it’s based on the continuous exploitation of those resources, just to make a profit. Infinite growth, finite resources. It’s that simple: sooner or later one of the two has to stop. Every day we pollute our land, the rivers, the oceans, and above all the minds of the people, for one simple reason: we forgot what is relevant.

The only economic model that has a chance of success in any society is based on the management and the conservation of the resources, not on money. This is what I learnt from the Zeitgeist Movement and the Venus Project, and it’s for that reason that (i) I decided to become Italian chapter coordinator.

The question is: how do we go about and bring this curve to the level of technology, avoiding collapse? I think the answer lies behind a single word: education. And this is where the Zeitgeist Movement comes into play. It is a social movement that aims to bring about a value shift on a global scale, to elevate the Zeitgeist, the cultural spirit of a society, to a more human and sane level, one that is based on the resources of the Earth, on our scientific and technological understanding, and on the liberation of people, who can finally realise their potential. This is relevant.

Almost all the problems that our species is facing have a technical solution. There is no doubt about it, ask any scientist who has done a little research. The energy problems would be irrelevant if we didn’t have a paralysing system that invests in non-renewable energies. We have nanophotovoltaic panels that are efficient and cheap to manufacture, the production of solar energy has been doubling every 24 months for the past 20 years. Google and Kurzweil have calculated that we are only 8 doubling away, in 16 years we will produce more than we need for the entire world, just with solar. Installations of off-shore wind farms are becoming more and more a reality, and they repay themselves in a few years. Portugal and the United Kingdom are already installing wave power plants. A 2006 MIT study proved that with current technology we could already produce more than the total request for energy for thousands of year, using geothermal energy alone, which is renewable and with a minimum environmental impact. Many people tell me: how can we produce food in abundance for everybody?

Well, if we just stopped eating like pigs... just kidding. Anyway, it wouldn’t hurt to eat a little bit better, and to eat less meat. As I was saying, technically, it’s not a problem. A combination of hydroponics/aquaponics/aeroponics in a controlled environment, using vertical structures, reduces the ecological footprint, does not require pesticides and herbicides, mostly derived from oil, and allows the earth to go back to its original state, with all its biodiversity that is needed for the survival of the species. I could go on, but I’ll stop right here. There are books, videos, publications, it’s all free, you can find all the technical details there.

The problem is that people don’t have the slightest idea that the solutions exist. All these technological possibilities are at everybody’s hands, so why are we here? How did we get to this precipice? According to the 2010 UN World report, every five seconds a child dies of hunger.

Another one just died.

Now, think about what that means. We are able, today, to feed the world, but we don’t do it.

Why? Because of profit? I ask myself again: what is relevant, what gives meaning to my life? There are multinational corporations like Monsanto, that have patented life forms. They sell sterile seeds to the farmers, and these farmers find themselves in a trap between lawyers and patents, and if they don’t play the game, they are finished. Now, this is stuff that people should know about.

To solve this problem, certain conditions are necessary:

1. you have to know that a solution exists
2. you have to identify the solution
3. you have to find an adequate number of people dedicated in solving this problem

Only after these conditions are met we can start doing “practical” things. The first step is to overcome “mental scarcity”, and this can only be achieved through education. Many people tell me: but the Zeitgeist Movement is only concerned with education, nothing practical? When will you start building the first pilot city? When will you collect some money and do something?

Those who ask these questions haven’t really understood anything. Imagine to take an Australian Aborigine and bring him to Manhattan centre. He would be like an animal in a zoo.

The same goes for a person who defends today’s monetary/economic mentality: they wouldn’t resist a week in a Venus Project city. Before doing something, you have to understand why you are doing it.

As I see it, we have two choices:

Possibility zero: keep status quo going. What type of world will that be? By studying the trends from the past, we can envision an oligopoly of multinational corporations that control everything.
They will have patents on ideas, inventions, technologies, drugs. On life itself. Technology will grow at such a rate that the average person will not be able even to comprehend what’s happening. The gap between this line and this other line will grow substantially, making us incapable of changing what’s happening to the world. In 20 years we’ll have microchips as big as a blood cell, advanced nanotechnologies and the power to modify matter at the molecular level. The problem is: who is going to control these technologies? A bunch of corporations, whose sole purpose is profit? The military? All knowledge is shared in good science. If it isn’t, it’s bad science, and it’s a kind of tyranny. Centralised power, destroyed resources, ruined minds, all because of the profit motive and the inability to see what’s really relevant. Finally, possible extinction of the species, due to the inability to live in dynamic equilibrium with the environment.

Possibility one: let’s start a process of cultural evolution, adequate to our technological advancements. Let us apply the scientific method, let us gradually abandon irrelevant superstitions and paralysing dogmas. Let us reconfigure our activities based on what the planet can offer, and not on what we wish to take. All knowledge is shared, everything is transparent, everyone has access to resources and knowledge. Open Source, free access, free knowledge, informed people. It’s physically impossible to prevent wars, terrorism, criminality, if we do not change the conditions that generate them. Abundance of resources, a sane planet, a high quality education, and an elevated standard of living for everybody, not one excluded. Not one excluded.

I am very positive about the future. Why? First of all, I don’t see any other choice. As far as I am concerned, I can only accept possibility one. But I am also very positive because I remember. Yes, I am young, but not that young. I remember what happened around me, and the social changes throughout the years. Go back in time a little bit. Imagine. I imagine if I went to my first economics professor, an Englishman, Simon Foley, if I went to him 10 years ago and said, “Professor, I’ve got this amazing idea for a business model. Here's how it works: you get a bunch of people around the world that are doing highly skilled work, but they're willing to do it for free and volunteer their time – 20, sometimes 30 hours a week.” He's looking at me somewhat skeptically now. “Oh, but I'm not done! Then, what they create, they give it away rather than sell it. It's gonna be huge!”

He would have thought I was insane. But you have Linux and BSD, free and open source operating systems, powering many servers of the world. You have Apache powering more than the majority of web servers. You have Wikipedia, the biggest encyclopedia in the history of humanity, more accurate than Britannic ad Microsoft Encarta. What's going on? Why are people doing this? Why are these people, many of whom are technically sophisticated, highly skilled people--who have jobs, they have jobs, they're working at jobs for pay doing sophisticated technical work – and yet, during their limited discretionary time, they do equally if not more technically sophisticated work, not for their employer, but for someone else for free! That's a strange economic behavior, don’t you think?

In just a year, the Zeitgeist Movement has reached half a million subscribers, produced two films, two books, dozens of recorded conferences. There are hundreds of activist groups in over 100 countries all over the world, who translate the material in their own language, organise conferences, public film screenings, discussions, create podcasts, articles, music, art. All distributed freely on the web, all done by voluntaries. The Italian Movement has about 10,000 contacts and we grow by the day.

So that old belief according to which people only work for profit, and that without an economic incentive nobody will do anything, maybe that’s not true. It’s difficult to escape from the old beliefs, we are accustomed to them, because we are prisoners of common sense. It’s not easy to realise what we take for granted, and the reason is... Well, that we take it for granted. We are used to believe that to make sense of our lives we need to work to make money; that some people are born evil, or competitive, and that it’s part of human nature to fight each other. I don’t think that’s true, and I say that because the most recent scientific studies draw precisely this conclusion. In our brain we have mirror-neurones, we feel emotions and empathic distress in response to what we see on others. It’s part of our biology. We are programmed by natural selection to be empathic, cooperative, curious; and not competitive, destructive or lazy. But we forgot that, We need to extend our sense of identity to all the people of the human race and the other creatures that are part of our evolutionary family, and to the biosphere as our community.

In the words of the great Carl Sagan, we are one planet. What this conference celebrates is the gift of human imagination, the ability to see a different future. As Sir Ken Robinson said: we have to be careful now so that we use this gift wisely, and that we avert some of the scenarios that we've talked about. And the only way we'll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are. If we really are an empathic society, let us bring out our true nature. If we can avoid being repressed in our creativity by the educational system and the institutions, we can really start a dialogue, let us start it form here, from the foundation of a new civilisation. Let us start to rethink the role of the human species on this planet, a cooperative society is much more efficient than a competitive one, together we can put the bases for a new civilisation, empathic, sustainable, in evolution, human.

Thank you.


Tester, Jefferson W. et. al. (2006), The Future of Geothermal Energy, Impact of Enhanced Geothermal Systems (Egs) on the United States in the 21st Century: An Assessment
Monsanto patents
Movimento Zeitgeist
Peter Joseph, Jacque Fresco, Roxanne Meadows,
Activist orientation guide
Ray Kurzweil,
Law of accelerating returns:
United Nations 2010 report
Jeremy Rifkin,
The empathic civilization:
Daniel H. Pink,
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

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