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Peter Thiel: we must stop fearing the future

The co-founder of PayPal, Facebook board member and hugely successful venture capitalist is disappointed in the future. He doesn’t think we’re ambitious enough.

The Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel – a co-founder of PayPal, Facebook board member and hugely successful venture capitalist – is disappointed in the future. He doesn’t think we’re ambitious enough.

Someone living in 1964 might have imagined that in 2014 we’d be enjoying jet packs and moon hotels. Instead, we have to make do with Instagram and Segways. What’s worse, according to Thiel, is that our “financial and capitalistic” age is not bothered that we’re not doing as well as we should. The premise of his new book, Zero to One: Notes on Start-ups, or How to Build the Future, is that the most advanced economies of the world have been experiencing a four-decade lull in innovation – and that is because we’ve stopped daring to dream big.

Thiel’s ambitions for the 21st century are unusual – he’s an avowed libertarian and wants to build floating cities in the Pacific where businesses can work free from government regulation. As a member of the so-called “PayPal Mafia”, he is friends with the Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, but lacks Musk’s charisma. Some journalists have compared Thiel to a robot, which doesn’t seem fair, though he was dry and serious when we met at a hotel in central London to discuss his book.

Zero to One is adapted from a class Thiel gave at Stanford in 2012 and is primarily a business text. His theory is that monopolies are good and capitalist competition is bad. He defines success for start-ups as creating a product, industry or science that nobody else has thought of, instead of just besting a competitor.

“As a founder you want to build a new monopoly,” he said. “It may not last for ever but if it lasts for a few decades that’s pretty good. ” He cites Steve Jobs’s launch of the Apple iPhone as a success story.

Free capital: a winning design for one of Peter Thiel's floating cities. Image: Andras Gyorfi

The larger picture Thiel paints in his book is that western society lacks “hubris” and is suffused with a psychological malaise he calls “indefinite pessimism” – a sensation in which “you generally have no idea of the future, but it’s vaguely the same to worse”. He believes that people are not only unsure of what the future will bring, they are scared of it.

“You look at the science-fiction movies that Hollywood makes, and they all show technology that’s destructive – it doesn’t work, it kills people,” he said. “I saw Gravity recently, and you’d never want to go into outer space; you’d want to stay on a muddy island somewhere.”

This lack of a coherent vision is holding everyone back, he argues. Unlike many other libertarians, Thiel believes that governments can be a source of innovation, but he bemoans modern bureaucracy and says none of the US government’s previous successes, such as the Apollo space programme, could be repeated today. “Now,” he told me, “a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room.”

He has a blind spot, however, when it comes to considering who should benefit from a hi-tech future. Although he points out that many successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are “white men”, he doesn’t believe this is because the likes of Bill Gates have social and economic advantages. “Luck is just an atheistic word for ‘God’,” he says, a catch-all that “covers up the laziness in our thinking”.

Thiel is a unique figure in Silicon Valley because he doesn’t care so much about making things faster or bigger: he wants to make them better. Although management texts often pose as works of philosophy, Zero to One is a serious read. Above all, it offers rare insight into how one of the few titans of 21st-century capitalism thinks. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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Meet the evangelical Christian persuading believers that climate change is real

Katharine Hayhoe's Canadian missionary parents told her science and God were compatible. Then she moved to Texas. 

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, alarm rose with each mention of climate change. Denial, dismissal and repeated chants of “hoax” left no doubt as to his position.

Now President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has been seen as a seminal moment in the fight against climate change - one which many fear could lose the battle ahead of humanity.

But one scientist has been fighting a war of her own on the ground, against those who typically doubt the facts about global warming more than most - the evangelical Christian population of America.

And to make matters even more unusual, Katharine Hayhoe herself is an evangelical Christian who lives in the indisputably "bible belt" of Lubbock, Texas.

The atmospheric scientist has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and one of Politico’s 50 thinkers transforming American politics. Now she is using her considerable heft to speak to those who are hardest to convince that there is a manmade problem that threatens the Earth’s future.

I meet her at the science and music festival Starmus in Trondheim, Norway, where she is to address the attendees on Thursday in a talk entitled "Climate Change: Facts and Fictions".

Hayhoe was born in Canada, to missionary parents. Her father, a former science educator, showed her that there was no conflict between the ideas of God and science. However, it was something of a surprise to her when she discovered her pastor husband, whom she married in 2000, did not feel the same about climate change. It took her two years to convince him.

What started as a conversation became an organised project when she moved to America's South in the mid 2000s. 

“Moving to Lubbock was a culture shock," she tells me. "When I moved there I wasn’t doing much outreach, but it moved me in that direction.

“Lubbock is very conservative. It’s small and isolated.

“I would say the majority of people in Lubbock are either dismissive or doubtful about climate change. I was surrounded by people - neighbours, parents of friends, people at church, colleagues down the hall in the university - who weren’t convinced.”

So Hayhoe, who works as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, set to work. She began to collect the responses she was seeing to the climate change discussion and prepare her counter-argument.

“When I talk to people who are doubtful, I try to connect with the values they already have," she says. “The greatest myth is the myth of complacency - that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me’.

"But I would say that the second most insidious myth is that you only care about this issue if you’re a certain type of person. If you’re a green person, or a liberal person, or a granola person."

The stereotypes mean that people outside that demographic feel "I can't be that kind of person because that's not who I am", as she puts it.

Hayhoe convinced her husband using data, but rather than repeating a formula, she tries to find out what will resonate with different people: "For many groups, faith is a core value that people share.”

Whether she’s speaking to city planners, water company managers, school kids or Bible believers, Hayhoe says her hook is not the facts, but the feelings.

“I recently talked to arborists," she says. "For them, trees and plants are important, so I connect with them on that, and say ‘because we care about trees, or because we care about water or what the Bible says then let me share with you from the heart why I can about these issues because it affects something that you already care about’.

“My angle is to show people that they don’t need to be a different person at all - exactly who they already are is the kind of person who can care about climate change.”

Hayhoe came to public attention in the United States after appearing in a Showtime series on climate change. She has appeared on panels with Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and launched a web series. As well as plaudits, this level of fame has also earned her daily threats and online abuse. 

“My critics think they’re coming from a position of religion, but they aren’t," she says. "They’re actually coming from a very specific political ideology which believes that the government should not have control over people’s lives in any way shape or form - very libertarian, free market, free economy, Tea Party."

She believes that in the United States, faith and politics has been conflated to the point "people can no longer tell the difference". 

“Now it’s conservatism that informs religion," she elaborates. "If the two are in conflict - like the Bible says God has given us responsibility over everything on this earth - then people say ‘oh, we can’t affect something as big as this Earth, God will take care of it anyway’."

Around half of those who attack her on social media identify themselves as Christians, she notes, but almost all call themselves conservatives. 

As a scientist, she’s been preparing data herself - naturally - on her online attackers, with depressingly familiar results.

“As soon as you stick your head out of the trench, you get it. There have been papers published showing that white men disproportionately form up that small group of dismissives. They’re almost all men. When I track my social media comments, I would say that 99.5 per cent of them are white men.

“Out of 1,000 negative comments, I have maybe five from women.”

After the climate change argument moved up a gear - following the Paris withdrawal - Hayhoe admits that she and her fellow scientists are concerned, although she pays tribute to the businesses, cities and states from the US that have committed to following the Paris agreement themselves.

On the subject of the chief white male denier, Trump himself, Hayhoe says she has a discussion point which she feels may convince him to think carefully about his role in the fight against global warming’s impact on humanity.

“I would attempt to connect with the values that he has and show him how acting on this would be in his best interests," she says.

“One guess would be ‘what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be known as, the man who destroyed the world, or the man who saved it?’”

Katharine Hayhoe is speaking at Starmus on Thursday June 22. For more details, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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