Innovating for the Impossible

Here’s a fun thought experiment: imagine what innovations would be necessary, feasible, or useful if the fundamental biological or physical restrictions of our world were different: not generally, but in a specific area.

For example, let’s say that the hair on our heads grew not at the rate it does now - approximately 0.5mm/day - but at 1m/day. It seems clear that hairdressers, as least as they are currently organised, wouldn’t be able to keep up. Either we’d need hairdressers to be everywhere and very efficient, or, more likely, we’d need some form of automated haircutting machine - perhaps with one installed in every bathroom. Brides-to-be would struggle to look just-so at the right moment, so there’d need to be an emergency hairdresser on standby.

Another example, perhaps even more far-fetched, but nevertheless pertinent - what if rubbish expanded in volume in an unbounded way after being disposed of - at a modest rate of, say, 10% a year? We’d already have had to have found a way of either vastly cutting down on rubbish disposal or offloading it to other planets - or perhaps, more sinister, cutting down on the population generating it.

Both of the above scenarios are clearly nonsense given our current understanding of science, but they help in jogging the brain into thinking in a more open-minded mode, and they clarify the consequences of our actions (although rubbish doesn’t expand, we are using more landfill space every year - the scenario merely amplifies the logical conclusion).

Here’s some more to try:

Is this a new technique? I’ve never come across it anywhere.


"although one of the great benefits of the market is enabling billions of minds to be tapped to think out of the box and solve that problem, rather than just a few. Let’s hope that the freedom to do that is present where it matters most." AMEN!!
Right, in which case, we are in agreement. We probably won't ever totally run out of oil. But we will, most likely, have to vastly decrease our usage. There's still a problem to be addressed in finding an alternative energy source - although one of the great benefits of the market is enabling billions of minds to be tapped to think out of the box and solve that problem, rather than just a few. Let's hope that the freedom to do that is present where it matters most.
Sorry - should have made myself clearer. What I mean is that many people seem to have this notion of a big reservoir of oil that we're slowly tapping and which, one day, will just be empty. And then we'll be screwed. In reality, the situation is somewhat different and I feel relatively confident that it is safe to say that we will *never* run out of oil. (Perhaps this is what the Economist story was saying) As you suggest, as supply from cheap sources begins to reduce, prices will rise and it will stimulate people to start producing from areas that would have previously been uneconomic (e.g. tar sands or wherever). So, at some point, the price may well rise to the extent that complete alternatives to oil become attractive and take over. The point is that the switchover to "something else" will happen long before the "oil runs out"
Thanks. The tax rate I'm with you on. But the oil I think you're going to have to lead me through slowly. Aren't we pretty much at the state where we know there's a low amount in the ground? Sure, there are arguments and FUD about precisely how much (10 years? 50 years?), but economics doesn't debunk the notion that there's a finite (and decreasing) amount of oil :) Isn't it feasible that new information about decreasing supply is contributing to the price hike over the last few years? I'd be interested to know what you're alluding to. This page contains data relevant to the discussion: You might also find this Economist story interesting: I'd certainly like to see Econtalk discuss this one - I might suggest it.
Nice idea! I suspect it could also, if turned on its head, be used to debunk the absurd notions people have about economics ("we'll have soon run out of oil!"... "increasing taxes always increases government revenue"....). In both cases, appealing to the extreme demonstrates the fallacy (e.g. a 0% tax rate generates no revenue. An effective 45% tax rate (of GDP) generates a lot (as the country is currently discovering to its cost). But take it further..... does anybody seriously believe the tax take would be greater than it is today if the rate were increase to 100%?). Therefore, tax revenue is not an increasing function of tax rate... but something more subtle. Similarly with oil.... imagine what would happen if we woke up tomorrow to find out there were only a billion barrels left anywhere in the world.