Like any good student with a tinge of practiced insomnia, I sometimes like to look through my old class notes while lying in bed and waiting for sleep. It is cathartic in a way, a form of self-reinforcement in the mission and the methods I have chosen to gain knowledge and better my career. Often I recall the lectures associated with a day’s worth of scratches with surprising clarity, but at times the notes and asides seem to outweigh the professor’s narrative, and my peculiar, personal rabbit holes pull me into a page. Sometimes, the writings I find most arresting are simply phrases or questions hurriedly written to be resolved at a later date – often with limited context to serve as anchor.
On January 29th, 2013, I wrote one of these rabbit-hole questions in my notebook: “Why do big ideas matter?” Some context is present. I know that we were discussing William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden. Easterly is a developmental economist – and he doesn’t see a lot of efficiencies in the way we are currently addressing international development. He takes particular offense with the Millennium Development Goals – a UN construct consisting of eight, grandiose, undeniably ambitious targets designed to be addressed by the development community at large and to engage citizens around the globe. Easterly’s criticisms are clear and well-illustrated: The status quo of development is failing because it is too cumbersome, remote, and out-of touch to truly serve the needs of the world’s poor, and large scale statements about “Eradicating Extreme Poverty and Hunger” (Millennium Development Goal No. 1), don’t help put food on the tables of those who need it most. When I first read The White Man’s Burden, I was taken aback by William Easterly’s cynicism; I was worried he might also be right.
Regardless, just below my question I had stubbornly penned the beginnings of a rebuttal:
We do not celebrate completion of a marathon as an admirable feat strictly for its distance – 26.2 miles is nothing more than a curiosity of history, an arbitrary number. We celebrate the running of a marathon because we are inspired by the audacious acceptance of a challenge, the perseverance required to get up every day and train, and the conviction that must be held when progress is often immeasurable. The quest to reach an ambitious goal for human development follows the same principles – progress matters more than achievement.
Now, two and a half months later, the question of whether or not big ideas matter has been brought to the fore of my consciousness once again. Recently, four other students and I entered a contest called Thought For Food, one of the increasingly popular “Big Idea” competitions aimed at inspiring out-of-the box thinking where conventional wisdom has come up lacking. Thought For Food poses a question that demands foresight if we are to have any hope of success: How do we feed the planet’s anticipated population of 9 billion in the year 2050?
The trouble, of course, is that feeding the world’s population is a far more dynamic and complex goal to attain than running a marathon. Somewhere along the way, the finish line began to move remarkably fast. Previously unfathomable numbers of people began crowding onto the planet. Periodic flares of panic began to appear, as doomsayers latched hold to the realities of exponential population growth and told the world that we would never be able to grow enough food to support one billion people. We grew more food. The second billion arrived…then the third…then the fourth. Still, we grew more food. We sailed it by ship and we shipped it by rail to the far reaches of the globe. When we failed – when for whatever reason our desires and demands of and for the earth came up lacking, we flung ourselves into the pursuit of technology. We cut off bottlenecks at which the sea was hemmed in by land and blazed trails across deserts and mountains to reach the areas of import that water scarcely reached. We pulled nutrients – food of our food – from the earth until technology allowed us to comprehend ways in which we could take it from the air. The fifth billion arrived. Like Icarus and his wings of wax, we became giddy upon apparent success. The world became a much more open and accessible place as we moved beyond the atmosphere and began using information passed through outer space, but we also began to truly grasp the follies of our extractive ways. Six billion. At this point we’re averaging a billion person population growth every 14 years, and the world begins to feel small – somehow limited where just years before the resource pool had seemed boundless. We continued to rely on technology to achieve necessary production increases, but information became the unofficial currency of the world. Cell phones and credit in the hands of the poorest led to increasing levels of equity in certain, previously neglected areas of the globe. Those who had once been systematically ignored even by those who came offering help now have ways to speak out. Other areas continued to languish in poverty traps, while our previous habits of consumption began to take a toll in the form of extreme weather – extended droughts and punishing storms. Population persevered. As the target date for achievement of the Millennium Development Goals draws near in 2015, we have surpassed a world mark of seven billion people. A billion continue to grow hungry every day.
To many, to those like Easterly, our marathon has been going on far too long without completion. The goal has lost its tethers and seems to be racing away faster than we can respond. How would a runner respond to this disparagement? She too, may stop and ask if the completion of a marathon – the chase after a big idea – is worth all the effort? Let us, then, treat the feeding 9 billion by 2050 as a marathon-like goal – steadfast in its scope and undeniable in its impact. Our global community has the tools and resources necessary to feed 9 billion people. We have proven ourselves capable in measures of ingenuity and innovation. Perhaps, along with the incremental steps toward betterment, this is where one can find the value of a big idea – if it strikes a balance between audacity and practicality – it inspires in ways that incremental gains never do. Have you ever met anyone who ran 26.2 miles or more if they weren’t training for a marathon? I haven’t. Well-proportioned and definitive goals can give us the added motivation we need to make a difference.
So it is that five students and one faculty mentor came to be sitting around a table asking each other questions about how 9 billion mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters could possibly be fed and what skills and resources we can utilize to turn the grandiose and detached into the pragmatic and effective. I think we have struck on a big idea. More on that to come.