5 Simple Solutions to Global Problems

How to combat global warming, malaria, hurricanes, and save the polar bears too.

October 22, 2009, 12:46 PM

Oct. 23, 2009— -- What if the answers to global crises -- from devastating hurricanes to the malaria epidemic to global warming -- were simple and relatively inexpensive?

Journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt, the authors of "SuperFreakonomics," say that throughout history, "cheap and simple fixes" often solved the world's biggest problems.

Take the medical crisis that more than 50 years ago endangered every American child and nearly crippled the American health care system. The problem was polio, and the solution was not more hospitals or more efficient iron lungs that would make breathing easier. The answer was a vaccine.

"Polio's just one of thousands of examples like that, where a simple solution will prevent so much heartache going down the road," Dubner said.

The "SuperFreakonomics" duo argue that it's no different in modern times. "We love to think the world is terrible and difficult, and that it's much worse now than it's ever been. But the fact of the matter is that's almost always wrong," Dubner said. "The world is actually better now than it ever was and all the unsolvable problems that keep cropping up keep getting solved."

Intellectual Ventures, or IV, a company in Bellevue, Wash., has been in the business of solving problems since 2000. The self-proclaimed invention company harnesses ingenuity from some of the smartest scientists, mathematicians, software engineers and patent experts in the world, including Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft and co-founder.

"Our only job is to invent. And so we try to swing for the fences and try to solve really big problems. And sometimes we do!" Myhrvold said.

Although their ideas are sometimes wacky and outrageous, IV currently ranks in the top 50 among companies that file patents worldwide. Myhrvold said the key components are "simple, and cheap and effective. And when you're lucky and when things are going all right, you can come up with an idea that's all of them."

So, with the help of technology, innovation and "SuperFreakonomics," here are five simple solutions to global problems.

1. Problem: Hurricanes.

Solution: Wave-powered vessel that cools the surface of the ocean.

IV believes that it can simply -- and relatively inexpensively -- control hurricanes, which account for thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damage in this country alone. Warm water on the ocean's surface fuels hurricanes, making them more powerful and deadly. Using "hurricane suppression technology," the goal is to reduce the storms' power by cooling the ocean's surface and mixing it with the cold water sitting 100 to 300 feet below.

The device they've created is a floating inner tube between a hundred and several hundred feet wide, connected to a flexible cylinder a few hundred feet deep. The force of the waves crashing over the tube pushes warm water from the surface to the bottom of the cylinder, thereby lowering the ocean's surface temperature. "If you wanted to eliminate hurricanes or to reduce the strength of hurricanes, you would have to deploy a few thousand of these in, for example, the Gulf of Mexico," Myhrvold said.

Solution: A garden hose. Bonus: Saving polar bears from extinction.

IV has taken a cue on how to cool the earth from Mount Pinatubo's eruption in 1991, when the volcanic event spewed tons of sulfur dioxide into the earth's stratosphere. "All those particles reflected just enough light that Mount Pinatubo dropped global temperatures by one degree," said Myhrvold. "That's about the amount that global warming has affected us so far."

IV believes they have invented a cost-effective -- albeit "outside-the box" -- solution for cooling the earth, and it involves a 2-inch diameter hose. Myhrvold proposes pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere by stretching a garden hose straight up into the sky. By IV's calculations, one very long garden hose suspended in sections by hundreds of balloons, would be enough to bring down the earth's temperature.

"In our computer simulations, it is more than enough to stop the melting of the Arctic and stabilize the temperature in the entire Northern Hemisphere," he said. Myhrvold even said it would prevent Arctic species, like polar bears, from going extinct. "As crazy as it might seem, using this hose to the sky, we could dial back the temperature of earth to anything you like. So we could eradicate global warming, we could take it back to preindustrial levels."

The authors of "SuperFreakonomics" praise the work of Myhrvold because they say IV has reframed the climate change debate. "It's not about how much carbon there is. It's not about behavior change. It's about cooling the earth," Dubner said.

But are the geniuses at Intellectual Ventures crazy or just ahead of their time? "It sounds crazy just as a pill or a shot that you could give that would eradicate polio sounded crazy 50, 80 years ago," Dubner said. "But really, getting all those people to change their behavior on a daily basis? That to me seems a lot harder than the idea of putting a garden hose in the sky and cooling the earth."

Solution: Lasers.

Each year up to 500 million cases of malaria occur worldwide, and over 1 million people die -- most of them young children. Female mosquitoes transmit the disease. So IV developed a plan for targeting the infectious pests -- the photonic fence.

"As crazy as it sounds, we have a system that finds mosquitoes in the air ... we find them optically and through radar," Myhrvold explained. Once identified by their wingbeat frequency, a sensor will then "lock on [mosquitoes], target them and shoot them out of the sky with lasers." The idea is adapted from the "Star Wars" missile defense technology of the 1980s, which President Ronald Reagan initiated to protect the country from nuclear weapons.

4. Problem: Preserving vaccines in remote villages.

Solution: A vaccine superthermos.

Need a box to keep vaccines cold in the jungles of Africa without electrical power? No sweat. The brains at IV have created a superthermos that could keep vaccines cold from six months to one year no matter what the weather conditions. The storage temperature of vaccines is essential to the immunity agent's effectiveness. Too warm and the vaccine will lose its potency and its ability to prevent disease. IV hopes its prototype for a cost-effective refrigerator for vaccines will save thousands of lives every year.

Solution: Eating kangaroos.

Dubner and Levitt have written some counterintuitive points about global warming. You may have heard that buying locally grown produce is better for the environment because the closer your food, the smaller the carbon footprint. But according to Dubner, buying locally sourced food doesn't necessarily cut down on greenhouse gases.

"If you do the numbers, you find that food that's imported from halfway across the world has a much smaller carbon footprint than locally grown food, because ... big farms are more efficient," he said. "Something like 85 percent of the energy that goes into producing food is in the production phase, not the transportation phase."

In fact, Dubner says we spend too much time worrying over what comes out of the back of our cars, and not enough on what comes out the back of some farm animals.

"If you really are worried about greenhouse gases, you should be worried about something like methane, which is about 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. And if you're really worried about methane, then you should really worry about, let's say, cows."

Cows and other ruminants, he says, release methane every time they exhale or pass gas. "So, if you drive a Prius to the grocery store and then you buy some hamburger meat, you're canceling it out 25 times over. You wanna eat more kangaroos," Dubner said.

Why kangaroos? Because they don't emit methane. (It's worth noting that while methane is more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, there is less of it in the atmosphere. Methane's overall climate impact is nearly half that of carbon dioxide.)

CLICK HERE to read an excerpt from "SuperFreakonomics."