Jonathan Ledgard Believes Imagination Could Save The World

What it is about?

This is an amazing portrait of Jonathan Ledgard, who was the East Africa war correspondent for The Economist. He then turned to work on speculative projects for a more equitable, sustainable future that ranges from practical and humanitarian to fanciful and abstract. The world, according to Ledgard and his collaborators, might stand a chance if cargo drones delivered goods in the roadless areas of East Africa; if sentient robots were curious about the natural world; … if plants and animals could pay people for the cost of their preservation.


On the natural catastrophy

According to a United Nations study, humans have “severely altered” two-thirds of the earth’s marine environment. Each decade, we lose ten per cent of the world’s sea-grass meadows and dump some four billion tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other industrial wastes into the world’s waters. “If this was happening in a science-fiction world we would see it clearly for what it is, but we don’t because it’s happening here and now. It’s obscured by the money someone is making off it,” Danielle says. “If man had a sense of proportion, he would die of shame.”

Ledgard saw a brief window for radical changes in sustainability and governance—a couple of decades, perhaps. After that, it seemed clear that no previous conflict or migration would compare to the hell to come .

Feedback loops would be set in motion...

that would transform the earth into an irradiated planet. Already, humans are expected to force more than a million species into extinction, and, by 2050, to fill the oceans with a greater mass of plastic than there is of fish. In interviews, Ledgard started pressing politicians, consultants, businessmen—anyone with power—to devise strategies for a more equitable, sustainable future. “But I just wasn’t getting any answers,” he told me.

Autistically Scientific

In 2012, Ledgard quit his job, moved to Switzerland, and began a fellowship at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, one of Europe’s best research institutes. “It was very important to me to be in an almost autistically scientific environment,” he said—not “hanging around with political scientists or economists or anthropologists and having the usual conversations, learning nothing.” He pinned photographs of a Nokia 1100 and a Kalashnikov next to his desk, as reminders of why he was there. (Kalashnikov is one of the most common guns there. Nokia 1100 is the most popular model of the phone there)


On the task to bring drone industry to Africa

Most roads in Africa were built by colonial powers, for the extraction of natural resources, and so they connect villages to capitals, and capitals to ports, and hardly take into account the desire of a community to trade over the next hill. Only half of the population live within a mile of a functional road. Deliveries of blood to rural health centers are slow and unreliable; refrigerated medicines go bad before they arrive.

An answer, Ledgard thought, was drones. Commercial drones can’t carry payloads of more than a few pounds, but that will soon change. Ledgard worried more about designing the infrastructure for what he calls droneports, from which cargo drones could one day be charged, loaded, launched, and repaired

On the Bio-friendly Super AI

The best hope for the natural world might look something like Nick Bostrom’s paper-clip problem, but morally intact: that before we render the earth completely uninhabitable we will create a superintelligent entity that recognizes the value of life itself, and so begins to ruthlessly prioritize the preservation of life in its most essential forms—the microbes, the fungi, the flora, the jellies and salps pulsing in the oceans’ blackest deep. A digital intervention to mitigate the Anthropocene. Another chance for earth, without us.

On how plants or animals could pay people for the cost of their preservation

Many species are at risk of local extinction because they have no independent means to change their financial value,” Ledgard explained. The goal, he said, is to “pick a local species that is threatened with extinction, give it some financial agency in the world, and then work out how the value that it holds can be distributed to the local human community.” He named the project Linnaeus, for the Swedish botanist who devised the taxonomic system.

Essentially, what you want is for these communities to start realizing that they have significant, positive financial value from living next to a biodiverse area,” Ledgard replied. “But to do that you would have to provide more value than they’re presently getting from short-term, day-to-day activities, like cutting down trees for charcoal,” or killing gorillas for meat. If Linnaeus were implemented, he explained, “very large numbers of humans would give small amounts of money into a mechanism which then apportions it hyperlocally, to species that need it most”; as an endangered population grew in health and number, so, too, would the amount of money distributed to the local human community.

There’s a significant minority—or maybe a majority—of human beings who are biophiliac. They like living things. And that hasn’t been priced correctly.”