The Last Man on the Moon

You would think the last words spoken on the moon would have been something inspiring like “God willing, we shall return.” However, the actual last words spoken on the moon by a man were “All right, let’s get this mother out of here and go home.” That was forty two years ago in 1972. There were just six brief manned moon landings in the Apollo series, and then nothing. How come we didn’t continue this incredible technological journey?

Why has certain technology progress stopped? Why, for that matter, did it start when it did, in the dying embers of the Second World War? Conflict spurs innovation and the Cold War also played its part. We would never have gotten to the Moon when we did without it. But someone has to pay for everything. The economic boom came to an end in the 1970s with the collapse of the 1944 Bretton Woods trading agreements (the gold standard) and the oil shocks. So, that ended the last golden age of innovation.

Lack of money is not the reason that innovation should stall. What we do with our money might be, however. Capitalism was once the great engine of progress. It was capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries that built roads and railways; steam engines and telegraphs (another golden era). Capital drove the industrial revolution. Now, wealth is concentrated in the hands of few elites. A report by Credit Suisse last October found that the richest 1 per cent of humans own half the world’s assets. That has consequences according to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

When money begets money more than at any time in recent history, wealth accumulates so spectacularly by doing nothing; there is less impetus to invest in genuine innovation. As success comes to be defined by the amount of money one can generate in the very short term, progress is defined not by making things better, but by rendering them obsolete as rapidly as possible so that the next iteration of phones, TV’s, cars or computer solfware can be sold to a willing market, incrementally. Thus the purpose of the iPhone 6 is not to be a lot better than the iPhone 5, but to make aspirational people buy a new iPhone (and feel better for doing so).

Risk-aversion has become a potent weapon in the war against progress on many fronts. In 1992, the Swiss genetic engineer Ingo Potrykus developed a variety of rice in which the grain, rather than the leaves, contain a large concentration of Vitamin A. Deficiency in this vitamin causes blindness and death among hundreds of thousands every year in the developing world. And yet, thanks to a well-funded fear-mongering campaign by anti-GM fundamentalists, the world has not seen the benefits of this innovation.

In the energy sector, civilian nuclear technology was hobbled by a couple of mega-profile ‘disasters’, including Three Mile Island (which killed no one), Fukushima (which killed no one) and Chernobyl (which killed only 47, mostly firefighters). These incidents caused a global hiatus into research that could, by now, have given us safe, cheap and low-carbon energy. The climate change crisis, which might kill millions by the next century, is one of the prices we are paying for the last 40 years of risk-aversion.

Mirroring the incremental changes seen in technology, social progress all too often finds itself down the blind alleyways of political correctness. But it could have been so much better. If the pace of technological advancements had continued after the 60’s, we could be living in a world where Alzheimer’s was treatable, where clean nuclear power had ended the threat of climate change, where the brilliance of genetics was used to bring the benefits of cheap and healthy food to the bottom billion, and where cancer really was on the back foot (look that term up). Forget colonies on the Moon; if the Golden Quarter had become the Golden Century, the battery in your smart phone would definitely last longer or not needed at all.

Apollo couldn’t happen today, not because we don’t want to go to the Moon, but because the risk would be unacceptable. There are several Nations where risk is acceptable and now they are in the lead position for most technologies, while the US is definitely struggling to hang on to its leadership of the past. Our next group of political leaders must define a new innovative technology policy based on science, not politics. We invested in the National Labs back in a prior golden age (40’s – 60’s) and have the infra-structure in place to do it again. What is missing is the leadership and policy to get it done.

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