Hey, Geoengineers. A Word of Warning. Schlimmbesserung

            You know how sometimes when you put your foot in your mouth and say something really stupid, you try to recover but only stammer out something even dumber and you wind up making it worse? That’s schlimmbesserung.


            You know how scientists replaced flammable and poisonous refrigerants with less dangerous chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs), only they leaked out and helped erode the ozone layer that shields life on earth from deadly UVb and UVc radiation? Yup. Schlimmbesserung.

            You know how kudzu was introduced in America to prevent soil erosion (in Pennsylvania, 1876), only now it’s spread across 7 million acres in the Southeast, destroying power lines, buildings, and smothering native vegetation? D'OH! Schlimmbesserung.

            Schlimmbesserung is the German word for ‘a solution that tried to make things better but ended up making things worse’. We do it all the time, in all sorts of ways. We jump to the solution that we think will work, in the arrogant belief that we’re smart enough to figure things out, only to discover later that we weren’t as smart, or as careful, or as prescient, as we wish we had been. The geoengineers considering massive tinkering with the earth’s natural systems as a way to combat climate change should all be sent big red SCHLIMMBESSERUNG stickers to put up at work. A schlimmbesserung with the biosphere could be an all-time whopper, with potentially existential consequences.

            There is research into spraying microscopic particles of sulfur or aluminum oxide into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and keep it from heating the earth. This is how large volcanic eruptions occasionally cool the climate, most recently Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, which cooled the global climate about a degree centigrade for the following two years. What could go wrong with that, right? Oh. Turning the oceans more acidic than vinegar when the stuff rains out of the sky!? OOPS! Schlimmbesserung.

            There is talk about cloud seeding, also to reflect sunlight away from the earth’s surface where some of it is absorbed. What could go wrong with changing the precipitation patterns of the entire earth? That one’s got schlimmbesserung written all over it.

            So do schemes to suck all the extra human-made carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, so it can’t heat things up, by fertilizing wide swaths of the ocean so more algae grow (plants consume CO2). I mean, what could go wrong with messing with the food chain of the oceans, right?

            There are all sorts of other geoengineering ideas; stirring up part of the Pacific Ocean to bring deeper colder water to the surface, thickening the arctic ice cap so it doesn’t melt and it’s whiteness reflects more radiation back into space, even the idea of creating a ring of particles around the earth, out in space, like the rings of Saturn, kept in place by a fleet of spacecraft, that would dim the sunlight hitting the earth. Honest to God! Smart people have seriously proposed all of these geoengineering ideas, and more.

            To be fair, most of these are theoretical suggestions as we grope for any ideas that might stave off the potentially cataclysmic effects of climate change. And to be fair, lots of smart people have said that most of these ideas are, well, dumb. And when research on these projects even gets close to reality, the public fear of schlimmbesserung rises up and puts a stop to things. Some British researchers wanted to float a trial balloon, literally, to test a method for ultimately spreading particles into the stratosphere. They didn’t even get to launch their balloon. (They probably shouldn’t have called their project SPICE, for Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering)

            But the larger point isn’t just about geoengineering. It’s about the human arrogance that leads to schlimmbesserungs all over the place. Ethanol from corn as a source of fuel for vehicles? Oops. How’s that going for the price of food? Introducing voracious asian carp to clean the bottoms of aquaculture ponds in the South? The U.S. and Canadian governments are now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the asian carp that escaped from those ponds from spreading into and decimating the natural habitats in the Great Lakes. Environmentalists opposing nuclear power, ostensibly to encourage more solar and wind generation, but contributing instead to the expansion of coal power? How’s that climate change thing going, eh, Greenpeace?

            Time and again we try to solve our problems but end up creating new ones, or try to undo our mistakes in ways that turn out to be mistakes all by themselves. We do this because we think we’re smarter than we actually are, and that we can figure things out more than we actually can. We think we are more powerful and more in control than we actually are. Hubris = schlimmbesserung.

     Climate change is a huge, complex problem that will require novel and daring solutions, and some of those solutions will undoubtedly have negative consequences of their own. Business as usual is unacceptable. But given all the evidence we have of how many times we’ve made things worse as we’ve tried to make things better, and all we have learned in the past couple decades about human cognition and the limits of our ability to reason, we better hope that the geoengineers keep two words of warning in mind as they ponder potential climate change solutions; humility, and schlimmbesserung.

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Lumina Foundation and Big Think have partnered to bring this entrepreneurial competition to life, and we hope you'll participate! We have narrowed down the competition to four finalists and will be announcing an audience's choice award and a judges' choice award in May.

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Finalist: Greater Commons - Todd McLeod

Greater Commons, founded by Todd McLeod and Andrew Cull, is an organization that helps people live happier, more successful and fulfilling lives through agile learning. The current education system is inefficient and exclusionary, in which many students who end up earning a degree, if at all, enter a career not related to their field of study. Greater Commons solves this problem and gap in post-high school secondary education in a variety of ways. Passionately and diligently, Great Commons helps others obtain skills, knowledge, wisdom, motivation, and inspiration so that they may live better lives.

Finalist: PeerFoward - Keith Frome

PeerForward is an organization dedicated to increasing the education and career success rates of students in low-income schools and communities by mobilizing the power of positive peer influence. PeerForward works with partner schools to select influential students as a part of a team, systemizing the "peer effect." Research in the fields of sociology of schools, social-emotional learning, adult-youth partnerships, and civic education demonstrates that students can have a positive effect on the academic outcomes of their peers. PeerForward is unique through its systemic solutions to post-secondary education.

Finalist: Cogniss - Leon Young

Cogniss combines technology and best practice knowledge to enable anyone to innovate and share solutions that advance lifelong learning. Cogniss is the only platform to integrate neuroscience, through which it solves the problem of access by providing a low-code platform that enables both developers and non-developers to build sophisticated education apps fast, and at a much lower cost. It addresses the uneven quality of edtech solutions by embedding research-based learning design into its software. App creators can choose from a rich set of artificial intelligence, game, social and data analytics, and gamification to build their perfect customized solution.

Finalist: Practera - Nikki James

Practera's mission is to create a world where everyone can learn through experience. Today's workplaces are increasingly dynamic and diverse, however, costly and time-consuming experiential learning is not always able to offer the right opportunities at scale. Many students graduate without developing the essential skills for their chosen career. Practera's team of educators and technologists see this problem as an opportunity to transform the educational experience landscape, through a CPL pedagogical framework and opportunities to apply students' strengths through active feedback.

Thank you to our judges!

Our expert judges are Lorna Davis, Dan Rosensweig, and Stuart Yasgur.

Lorna Davis is the Senior Advisor to Danone CEO and is a Global Ambassador for the B Corp movement. Lorna has now joined B-Lab, the non-for-profit that supports the B Corporation movement on an assignment to support the journey of large multi nationals on the path to using business as a force of good.

Dan Rosensweig joined Chegg in 2010 with a vision for transforming the popular textbook rental service into a leading provider of digital learning services for high school and college students. As Chairman and CEO of Chegg, Dan commits the company to fulfilling its mission of putting students first and helping them save time, save money and get smarter.

Stuart Yasgur leads Ashoka's Social Financial Services globally. At Ashoka, Stuart works with others to initiate efforts that have mobilized more than $500 million in funding for social entrepreneurs, engaged the G20 through the Toronto, Seoul and Los Cabos summits and helped form partnerships with leading financial institutions and corporations.

Again, thank you to our incredible expert judges.

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