Raining fire: It’s time for a tech reckoning

This article is adapted from GreenBiz’s newsletter VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here

I’m finding it difficult to write, let alone think, about much other than the climate catastrophe ripping its way across Australia right now. It’s literally raining fire (and vegetables); a billion or so animals have been killed or displaced, reports estimate; carbon dioxide emissions from the fires already exceed more than 100 nations combined; all exacerbating the climate crisis globally.

Meanwhile, as uncovered in my rabbit hole of reading — a largely futile search for signals of a meaningful response from the private sector — Jeff Bezos is getting slammed for a borderline thoughts-and-prayers-esque donation of $690,000 to Australia’s wildfire recovery efforts. That’s less than he personally made every five minutes in 2018, say critics.

It got me wondering: What will it take for the 2020s to be the decade that the tech industry finally reckons with and steps up on climate?

This is a question — and aspiration — that will fuel our own work this year, as VERGE moves back to the heart of the Silicon Valley (mark your calendar for VERGE 20, Oct. 27-29 in San Jose). VERGE, after all, is rooted in the premise that technology has a critical role to play in transforming the world’s pressing problems into opportunities; and Silicon Valley has long been the self-proclaimed global epicenter of tech innovation. (Although that’s changing.)

That’s why, with all due respect to our friends and neighbors in Big Tech and the Bay Area more broadly, it feels important to name the elephant in the room: that few of the Silicon Valley’s world-changing companies and achievements have had a material impact on addressing the climate crisis. 

In fact, as Derek Thompson argues in a great piece worth reading in The Atlantic, the pervasive emphasis on selling ads, apps and cloud space have resulted in a downright spectacular failure to create societal benefit or remake much of anything in the material world.

“Decades from now, historians will likely look back on the beginning of the 21st century as a period when the smartest minds in the world’s richest country sank their talent, time and capital into a narrow band of human endeavor — digital technology,” Thompson writes.

The humorless irony, of course, is that much of this digital technology has resulted in environmentally and socially destructive outcomes. The rise of the so-called platform economy — think Lyft and Uber for rides, DoorDash for food, TaskRabbit for errands — has, in the name of convenience and profit, done more to increase congestion, undermine resources for public transit and ingrain urban inequality. This, of course, on top of degrading everything from human rights to humans’ attention.

Despite Silicon Valley’s global allure and lauded reputation for fostering innovation, the venture capital model that funds these innovators has done virtually nothing to create or accelerate markets for climate solutions. Of course, there’s a short-but-growing list of people and firms doing the heroic work to create a new paradigm for venture capital — folks such as Andrew Beebe and his colleagues at Obvious Ventures; Matt Rogers, who co-founded Nest, and has doubled down big on investing in carbon removal solutions; and Y Combinator, which had its own come-to-Jesus on climate.

But the cleantech boom and bust of the early 2000s left many investors seemingly traumatized, and startups hoping to fight climate change continue to struggle as other tech companies cash in. That’s why, as Henry Mance provokes in a great piece in the Financial Times, there remains such a disconnect between what the world needs and what Silicon Valley is producing. “At this rate, parts of the world will gain access to multiple food-delivery apps just as they lose access to clean water. Alexa, tell me why it’s 100 degrees outside.”

What if investors and big tech companies alike were to focus in the coming decade on understanding and solving for what the world actually needs? What if the human ingenuity and financial prowess of the region and its tech behemoths focused instead on building products to help us reverse global warming and increase the resilience of our businesses and communities? What if the 2020s were defined by a shift from software services to the ecosystem services on which all life and all businesses depend?

To be clear, our friends in Big Tech aren’t operating with their heads in the sand. And, in the spirit of extending credit where credit is due, some of the most ambitious clean economy activity we’ve seen to date is happening in the Valley and the tech sector more broadly. Pick your player:

While greening up products and cleaning up operations is essential, it’s no longer enough. It’s time for tech — and, by extension, business at large — to step up. To look beyond the sphere of what you make and how you make it, and towards the opportunities for broader influence. To move from action to advocacy; to embrace some if not all of what the World Economic Forum maps out as 12 actionable ways the tech sector meaningfully can address climate in the next 12 years; and to act as if we’re in a climate emergency, because we are. 

It’s no longer acceptable for the world’s most innovative region to treat the world’s most existential crisis as tangential. Nor is it acceptable to equate sustainability efforts with clean economy leadership while enhancing the exploration, extraction and production of oil

As employee activism in the region is on the rise, so too must executive leadership from the C-suite. Heck, the seas are rising and much of the valley itself very well may be underwater by the end of this century. A climate-changed future is knocking at Sandhill Road’s proverbial door. Who will answer?