Earth Treasury Plan

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(Comments and volunteers welcome. Originally posted to BytesForAll mailing list.)

I propose that we create a network of networks encompassing a billion children and their teachers, families and friends--nearly all of the poor people in the world, and most of the rich. They can network for educational, social, business, and other purposes. I leave those choices to them.

In order to accomplish this, we clearly have to get computers and Internet connections to every poor village in the world, along with the cities and towns. We are told that the XO-2 computer from One Laptop Per Child will cost $75 in 2010. That may or may not be, but let us use the numbers we are given for our first rough calculations. Let us also suppose that the political will and the money can be found for all of this, so that when we discuss installing Internet connections, we can assume the existence of a program to install a local electricity supply, and so forth. We can come back to these assumptions after we run the first set of numbers.

Renewable energy comes in many forms: solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, hydro, biofuels, animal power, and child power. The prototype OLPC XO had a hand crank, which was removed on further consideration. (And after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan broke one off in a demo.) Now it can be run on anything close to 12 V, which is to say anything that can charge an automobile battery. XOs run at an average of about 5 W. Say that children need 10 hr/day, a generous allowance. That comes to 50 w/hr/child/day, or 50 × 1E9 × 365 Whr/year. 18 TWhr per year. At 10 cents/kWhr, which is low today but evidently doable in the future, that would be $1.8 billion annually. We have to do a bit of engineering to determine the most cost-effective systems for every inhabited terrain and climate, but the installation and running costs would be well within current aid flows, if we can train people locally to install and maintain the equipment. This is an education project, so I am going to assume that also.

The following table from Wikipedia gives a sense of where we are on renewable electrical generation technologies.

2001 Potential future
energy cost energy cost
Wind 4–8 ¢/kWh 3–10 ¢/kWh    
Solar photovoltaic   25–160 ¢/kWh 5–25 ¢/kWh    
Solar thermal 12–34 ¢/kWh 4–20 ¢/kWh    
Large hydropower 2–10 ¢/kWh 2–10 ¢/kWh    
Small hydropower 2–12 ¢/kWh 2–10 ¢/kWh    
Geothermal 2–10 ¢/kWh 1–8 ¢/kWh    
Biomass 3–12 ¢/kWh 4–10 ¢/kWh    
Coal (comparison) 4 ¢/kWh

WiMax broadband wireless costs about $10 per person to install, and is then good for decades with modest operational and maintenance costs. The computers, switches, routers, etc. to run the network will cost rather more, but can be upgraded as demand increases We need about $40 billion worth, overall. Some of this will come from commercial developers, such as Sprint in the US, which has been engaged in trials on small but growing scales. Some will come from governments such as Pakistan, which has a contract in place. Some will require aid.

Electricity, Internet--Yes. Now we are ready for computers with Free Software and Free Digital Textbooks. Let us say that children get an XO in first and fourth grades, and put secondary education aside for the moment. That's $25 annually per child, less than printed textbooks in most countries. So the $12 billion or so for computers each year for elementary schools will be offset with an unknown but quite significant amount of savings at some point. It would be in the interests of governments, NGOs, and aid agencies to fund textbook development so that point comes sooner rather than later.

Now we are ready for education, except for teacher training. There are courses to train teachers to use one-to-one computing, which I would encourage all schools of education to adopt. Several countries have created in-service training programs for teachers, which need to be more widely used, but can fit into the existing training systems. I will leave the debate on Constructionism to the side for now, and simply note that we are talking about education for _every_ child with resources that were until quite recently unthinkable. This will have large economic consequences. To the extent that Constructionism works, we can expect larger consequences. But that is not all.

Now stir international microfinance into the brew. Not just loans for purely local businesses, or artists and makers of other products selling on the Web. Let us talk about mountains full of coffee-growing communities that can partner with someone in the business to get roasting equipment, packaging equipment, processing equipment, and with someone in major language and culture areas to manage branding and distribution. Not just $1.50 a pound (Fair Trade price) for green coffee beans, but a share in $10-$15 a pound for premium coffee products. Taking fruit, kola nuts, and other agricultural products that rot on the ground for lack of modest capital and skills, and making significant businesses out of them at home and in other countries nearby. (For example, Nigeria grows lots of kola nuts, but has no local brand of cola drink. It imports all of its cola syrup.) At the other end of the global economic spectrum, let us talk about teaching children IT skills, and creating outsourcing in ever more countries. I cannot run through all of the possibilities, but I can assure you that they exist everywhere, except for the interference of governments and would-be governments: corruption, civil war, absurd economic policies, international trade barriers, and other factors. I have hopes that a network of citizens can do something about many of these issues, but it will take time.

[Added later: Use microfinance to put in the electricity and Internet as local businesses, and repay the costs by charging other local businesses a reasonable rate for using them.]

What we are looking for here is some tens of trillions of dollars annually in sustainable new economic activity over a generation, on the part of four billion or so poor people. Eventually, a hundred trillion dollars or more. So we have to make renewable power cheaper than coal, and go into cradle to cradle design in manufacturing, and into information businesses rather than cutting down major forests for agriculture or chopsticks. We have to let fish stocks and other wildlife regenerate. And so on. We have to come to a more reasonable way of allocating water, instead of the hodgepodge of historical rules and customs.

There are a number of questions to be raised about this plan. Note that whether the world can afford it is no longer one of them. There are many millions of points where we cannot assume that we know the answers, but must test our knowledge and at the same time ask the locals whether they know of a better way.

Now we can come back to the network of a billion children plus everybody else. This is Web 2.0 to the max. Maybe Web 3. If we (that is all of Us and all of Them, for any given values of Us and Them) get this right, it will improve education, politics, economics, and the arts of sustainability in a manner that we cannot well foresee.

But it won't make anybody happy. Comfortable, certainly, for the great majority. Happiness, you must understand, necessarily means happiness with what you have. Not resignation to having only that, but willingness to work with it gladly to improve things further for the benefit of everybody else. Meaning that we get to tackle the hard problems next.