The World’s Biggest Challenges

November 16, 2022
Richard Smalley

Richard Smalley was a brilliant thinker, a Nobel Prize winner, and a professor at Rice University. He and his team discovered buckminsterfullerene, nicknamed the bucky-ball, a very complicated chemical structure with the formula C60. The name of their discovery honors Buckminster Fuller, the futurist, architect, and early environmental activist, who designed houses shaped like geodesic domes and coined the phrase “spaceship Earth.”

Fuller brought fame to the concept of sustainability, so Smalley’s recognition of Fuller with the bucky-ball was a sign of Smalley’s own shift in focus from chemistry to the importance of resource management. He spent the last ten years of his life giving influential speeches around the world titled, “Top Ten Problems of Humanity for the Next Fifty Years.” Smalley presented his list of problems in order of importance to society, beginning with energy and moving through water, food, environment, poverty, terrorism and war, disease, education, democracy, and finally population.

Richard Smalley’s first five challenges: energy, water, food, environment, and poverty.

Smalley carefully considered the order of the problems. From Smalley’s perspective, securing and managing energy and water provide the ability to solve each successive problem and enable all other aspects of society. For example, because democracy fails without an educated populace, education eclipses democracy. Resource constraints and poverty often trigger war and terrorism. Although solving challenges will not immediately bring peace to Earth, tackling these problems removes some contributing factors to global strife and unrest.

Abundant sources of clean, reliable, and affordable energy enable an abundance of clean water, through the construction of massive freshwater transport projects, deeper wells, and advanced desalination plants. An abundance of clean water advances food production. In turn, solving the world’s energy, water, and food problems opens the door to tackling other societal challenges, from preventing environmental degradation and down the list to overpopulation. In Smalley’s model, solving one grand challenge leads to a solution to the next challenge on the list.

Energy and water resources are at the top of the list and share deep connections in beneficial and risky ways. Society uses energy for water and water for energy. In the United States, about 13% of all energy is used to heat, treat, pressurize, chill and transport water and steam.1Kelly T. Sanders and Michael E. Webber, “Evaluating the energy consumed for water use in the United States,” Environmental Research Letters 7 (2012), accessed August 25, 2016, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/034034. About half of all water withdrawals in the United States is to cool power plants. Hot water appliances and fixtures in our homes such as taps, shower heads and dishwashers use more energy than light bulbs, and light switches and electric outlets use more water than taps. The good news is that water can improve our energy system and energy can improve our water system. But the bad news is that because water is so energy-dependent and energy is so water-dependent, water constraints can become energy constraints and vice-versa.

Solving the dilemma of how to manage these two interconnected resources requires new policies that integrate energy and water solutions and innovative technologies that help to sustain one resource without draining the other. Water-lean energy options and energy-lean water options can combine with embedded information systems to enable wiser consumer choices.

In the end, better decisions about these precious resources require holistic thinking that recognizes these resources as interconnected and a systems-level approach that acknowledges how a change to a water system in one state could impact an energy system five states away. Most importantly, we need long-range thinking because the effects of our energy and water decisions last decades to centuries, so it’s imperative that we get them right. While the challenges are difficult and the risks are great, new thinking and clever innovation with long-term sustainability in mind can manage these problems for a better future.

Power Trip: The Story of Energy, Courtesy Alpheus Media

Image Credits: Brad Sauter/

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