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One to Zero: Eliminating Negative Externalities
Peter Thiel, in "Zero to One," outlines the process of creating something new and going from a state of non-existence to creation.
"Zero to One" refers to going from nothing (zero) to the first step of creating something unique (one), a groundbreaking innovation or a new market.
"One to n" represents scaling (deployment) or making incremental improvements on existing ideas, essentially replicating what's already been done.
Thiel argues that true progress and value come from "Zero to One" innovations, as they reshape industries, create new markets, and drive significant economic growth. As is wont from a multi-billionaire high on his own sauce, he is a bit wrong on this. While Zero to One is of course necessary, it is not sufficient. The value comes not just from product creation and the acquisition of the first customer, but also from deployment (scaling) so that it serves the whole market. This takes time, is not as “exciting”1 but like maintenance and operations vs. capital investment, is really important. But that’s not what I am about to talk about.
"One to Zero" is an inverse concept that emphasizes the elimination2 of existing problems or negative externalities. Instead of creating something new, the focus is on retracting and reversing adverse impacts that have arisen from past innovations or practices.
From One: Industrialization brought about the burning of fossil fuels, leading to increased carbon emissions and, consequently, global warming.
To Zero: We need to not only reduce carbon emissions but achieve real zero emissions.3 This can be done through elimination of fossil fuels and the adoption of renewable energy sources, primarily electricity. Negative emissions (reversing previous carbon loading) can be achieved through things like carbon capture technologies and afforestation. For instance, companies are investing in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it safely. I too am skeptical of CCS and Direct Air Capture (DAC) efficacy (the amount CO2 elimination per dollar and megawatt spent), and note that it has been used for “greenwashing,” but think we need more research and time before we can write it off entirely.
From One: The invention of automobiles revolutionised transport but greatly expanded the number of crashes, serious injuries, and fatalities.4
To Zero: We know how to largely eliminate road deaths. Finland and Norway have excellent records in this regard. The technology to do a lot better is available now, and has been for a long time. This includes lower speed limits on many roads, but not motorways. Autonomous vehicles, if done right and universally deployed, will further reduce, if not eliminate, traffic-related collisions. For example, autonomous vehicles, equipped with sensors and AI, can make real-time decisions better than human drivers, reducing human error-related crashes.
Innovation in Eliminating Externalities:
Eliminating negative externalities from existing systems requires a paradigm shift in thinking. Instead of accepting these externalities as inevitable, the "One to Zero" approach challenges us to reimagine systems without their associated downsides.
Achieving "One to Zero" demands interdisciplinary collaboration, taking difficult political decisions, advanced technologies, and a reconsideration of deeply ingrained habits or societal norms. When successful, this approach doesn't just mitigate problems—it erases them.
“Zero” is the proper goal, even if harder to achieve than a simple reduction or mitigation, because it is simply unacceptable to say our goal is for one person per 100,000 to die from traffic or a 1 meter rise in sea level.
[I have views on “exciting” coming soon, I think the whole idea is a bit pernicious.]
Not merely “significant reduction”, actual elimination.
Not just “net zero”, which still permits emissions so long as they are offset.
People were killed on roads by vehicles before cars, from horse and carriage, or just horse, as well as highwaymen and bicyclists. The death rate from late 19th century trams (streetcars), e.g., was surprisingly high (not as high as automobiles reached I don’t think, but still high). See this article from Dictionary of Sydney.