What Individuals Can Do
You’ve likely never heard of Stanislav Petrov. But you may be alive because of him. We all may be.
When he was the duty officer in charge of the Soviet Union’s nuclear early-warning system one day in late September 1983, satellite signals indicated the U.S. had launched a nuclear missile at the Soviet Union. Satellites quickly reported five more missiles had followed. Protocols required that Lieutenant Colonel Petrov report the warnings to his superiors immediately. That requirement was even more pressing because of heightened concerns related to the Soviets’ shooting down of a Korean passenger jet that strayed into Soviet airspace weeks earlier, killing 269 passengers and crew; there was fear the U.S. would retaliate.
But something didn’t sit right with Petrov. He reasoned that, in the unlikely event the U.S. launched a strike against the Soviet Union, it wouldn’t just launch six missiles. It would launch hundreds. So, breaking protocol, the lieutenant colonel withheld information from the generals, knowing he had taken his career—and perhaps his life—in his hands.
Soon enough, a malfunction in the Soviet satellite system was discovered. The U.S. had launched zero missiles. Petrov’s caution and rational thinking saved the world from what could have been a massive Soviet “counterattack” that would have produced a nuclear holocaust.
You likely haven’t heard of Leó Szilárd, either, but the Manhattan Project wouldn’t have happened without him, meaning the conflict in the Pacific in World War II might have lasted years longer. Szilárd was known in the pre-war community of physicists for his eccentricities—he typically began his day by soaking in a bathtub for two or three hours, thinking. But he saw the potential for nuclear fission before anyone, in 1933. An immigrant to the U.S. from Hungary, he wanted to warn President Roosevelt about the potential of an atomic bomb but didn’t have the cachet to get through to the president. However, Szilárd did have a friend named Albert Einstein. Szilárd drafted a letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 and showed it to Einstein, who, being Einstein, immediately saw Szilárd was right. Einstein signed the letter, which got through to President Roosevelt, who launched the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb.
How about Hedy Lamarr? You may well remember her as an actress from the 1930s and 1940s, when she was sometimes described as the most beautiful woman in the world. But what do you know about her work on the side as an inventor? At the outset of World War II, she co-developed a predecessor of spread-spectrum technology by engineering a way (based on the rolls used in player pianos) to have a radio signal hop around within a range of assigned bandwidth; the idea was to keep Axis powers from jamming signals that controlled Allied torpedoes. Spread-spectrum technology, essentially taking a concentrated signal and spreading it across the available bandwidth, appeared in early versions of Wi-Fi and survives in Bluetooth to this day.
We aren’t suggesting everyone can be a brilliant inventor like Lamarr, a physicist the likes of Szilárd, or a level-headed hero like Petrov. But we do want to dramatize the effects that individuals can have, well out of the public eye, even in ways that couldn’t reasonably be expected.
Rosa Parks was a seamstress on her way home from work when she set off a social revolution by refusing to move to the back of a racially segregated bus. Greta Thunberg had no idea her local activism in Sweden at age 15 would vault her to international fame and make her a leader of the movement to counter climate change. A friend of ours had no reason to expect a book he wrote with his daughter, called The Power of Half, would catch Melinda French Gates’ eye and help her formulate the idea of the Giving Pledge. That pledge has encouraged more than 200 wealthy individuals to promise to donate half their fortunes to charity; pledges currently total more than $600 billion.
Surprises are out there. Individuals can do a lot, often more than we think we can.
We see five main ways we can all drive change as individuals: as citizens, as consumers, as employees, as investors, and as influencers. Not all roles will fit each of us. Some will make us more uncomfortable than others. Even when we try a role, we may fail at it. So, we leave the right approach to you. We’ll just lay out the possibilities.
As a Citizen
We’ve seen the potential of activism through figures such as Greta Thunberg, Howard Jarvis, and Stacey Abrams. When Abrams lost the race for governor of Georgia in 2018, she took the lessons from that loss and built a voting rights organization that likely tipped the state to Joe Biden in 2020. Her work was also considered crucial in the victories by two Democrats in Georgia for seats in the U.S. Senate, giving the Democrats control of both houses of Congress, as well as the White House. Jarvis drove the anti-tax revolt in California in the 1970s that culminated in the collection of more than 1.5 million signatures and the passage of Proposition 13, which dramatically capped property taxes. His legacy endures: California voters in 2020 defeated Proposition 15, which would have undone some of the earlier limits.
We realize plenty of people wish that Thunberg hadn’t achieved fame and that Abrams and Jarvis had failed. We’re not making statements here about the merit of their causes. We’re merely underscoring the power of their activism as citizens.
So, what can you do?
You can make calls, write letters, and attend town halls. You can march in the streets or launch a movement and make clear to those in power that an issue affects our votes. Look at the Million Man March, the Women’s March, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party. We, your authors, are old enough to remember some of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and know how powerfully they shaped public opinion. Public demonstrations provide political encouragement and support for those willing to take on big problems and drain support from those who aren’t.
Don’t just look at national politics, either. Yes, our national representatives have more leverage than their local counterparts do, but lots of key decisions happen at the local level. Mayors and city/town councils will have a huge amount to say about building codes and other issues that will determine how municipalities prepare—or don’t prepare—for higher sea levels, stronger winds, fiercer wildfires, and other effects of climate change. Local utility boards, while even more obscure than town/ city councils, will play a major role in determining whether the grid prepares for the Law of Zero for energy and allows for all the potential benefits we described in the chapter on electricity. Local school boards tend to wind up in the news as battlegrounds where people fight over what version of history our kids will learn, but there’s another, maybe even bigger issue at play: Will children be taught strong enough critical thinking skills? Will they be able to separate truth from disinformation and comprehend the kind of exponential growth that the Laws of Zero describe (and that, unaided, the human mind really isn’t designed to process and plan for)? Without the right local leadership, huge opportunities will fall by the wayside.
You can do a lot of good by working to persuade local officials to move in the right direction and prepare the way for a Future Perfect. Heck, you could even run for office yourself.
As a Consumer
When you look throughout history, you see innovators celebrated. Rightly so. Without the Alan Kays and Steve Jobses of the world, we wouldn’t have our iPhones and a host of other technologies and products we value. But innovators are only one side of the equation. They’re the supply side of innovation. There’s also a demand side. Consumers. We consumers buy innovations and give them the momentum to expand and shape our worlds—or we don’t. Our decisions to buy or not buy shape what innovations catch on and, thus, will play a key role as we collectively invent the Future Perfect.
Most of the time, we place the onus on the innovators: They have to find ways to entice us buyers to purchase their products. Loads of books have been written on how, for instance, to help innovations “cross the chasm,” which means jumping from a small market of early adopters to a group of customers who, in time, could be shaped into a mass market. The responsibility is, in general, placed correctly. Markets sort out winners and losers. But we consumers have agency. We can decide what criteria we use to make our purchases. We don’t just have to be driven by how cool or useful something seems and by what it costs. We can be early adopters. We can incorporate Future Perfect considerations into our purchases.
In particular, we can decide how much extra we’d pay for zero-carbon alternatives to what we buy today. That may mean looking at electricity, where we can see what premium (if any) our local utility charges for participating in a “green” electricity program. That may mean looking at what it would cost to retrofit a home to reduce greenhouse emissions. That may mean buying an electric vehicle, even though the up-front price is higher than for a car with an internal combustion engine.
More generally, consumers can pay attention to externalities related to the environmental regulations, labor practices, human rights, and other social implications of the manufacturing processes that produce the goods we buy. We’re already seeing these sorts of decisions in the beauty and clothing industries. A small but growing number of consumers are committed to buying sustainable clothing that’s made by people making a living wage in safe conditions, using ethical, natural fabrics that are non-pollutants. Brands are reframing the question from, “How can I afford a $50 T-shirt?” to, “How can we not afford a $50 T-shirt?”
As an Investor
Investing is another way of essentially voting with our dollars; it just focuses on stocks and other securities, rather than consumer goods. If investors shun, say, companies that have poor equity track records or no net-zero strategies, companies will get the message almost as quickly as entertainment networks see that few are watching their shows or movies. And companies don’t stick with duds for long. Likewise, companies that invest in, perhaps, grid-scale batteries, may see, based on market performance, they have a blockbuster on their hands and will keep pouring money into it.
On reading an early draft of this book, a friend started to assemble what he dubbed a “Laws of Zero portfolio,” where he’d invest in companies that were making smart choices and avoid those that weren’t. Way at the other end of the net-worth continuum are the billionaire members of the Breakthrough Energy initiative, but their strategy is the same: Take a long-term (rather than a quick-win) view of investing to finance companies working on problems that’ll take a long time to scale up but can make a big difference (and can make you a lot of money) if investors are willing to wait.
You might wonder how any one investor can make a difference, but you’d be joining a tidal shift. A survey by financial services giant Allianz found a growing number of investors are making decisions based on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.185 This holds true across age groups—64 percent of millennials, 54 percent of Gen Xers, and 42 percent of baby boomers said they want to participate in socially responsible investing. Another survey found 77 percent of investors globally upped their sustainable investments in 2020. This broad interest has already captured Wall Street’s attention, and a competition has ensued to create more ESG funds and to push corporations to be more socially responsible to be included in such funds. In the spring of 2021, The Wall Street Journal reported that investing in environmentally friendly businesses appeared to have passed a tipping point. Global funds investing in such businesses reported $2 trillion in assets in the first quarter, and investors were adding $3 billion a day. Meanwhile, $5 billion of loans and bonds were being issued each day, meaning trillions of additional dollars for green initiatives even if the trends just continued through the end of 2021.
Money talks—and companies listen.
As an Employee
While individual employees might feel powerless, they are, in many ways, citizens of a corporation who can apply leverage on executive leadership in much the same way voters can pressure government. Employees actually have many more tools for exerting pressure than they’ve ever had, via social media and corporate review sites like Glassdoor. A longtime colleague of ours who came out of retirement to help lead a revival of The Los Angeles Times said he learned he had to court “the consent of the governed” in ways he’d never seen in a newsroom before. In 2018, Google employees successfully pressured the company to drop a contract with the U.S. military that troubled them.
We’ve been around the halls of business and government enough to know most big ideas and breakthrough changes stem from three key groups within those massive organizations. There are the individuals willing to think big—they could be great researchers or someone on the front lines who sees a big problem and has the insights and tenacity to imagine how to fix it. There are the great managers, the ones who recognize the value of the big idea and organize the resources and processes required to make it happen. And there are the sponsors, usually higher up in the organization, who champion the effort and guide it through the labyrinth of organizational hurdles that always rise up against such ideas.
Alan Kay, summarizing his experience on how breakthrough invention happens, tells us: “Great managers are scarcer than genius researchers, and the rarest birds are the executives who have the foresight and courage to give the funds to great managers and genius researchers.” You could be any one of those.
As employees, we can also all vote with our feet (and our brains) and gravitate toward working for companies that support Future Perfect values. Companies know they’re in a war for talent, so they have to pay attention to what employees are thinking. Even many oil companies are starting to promise a carbon-free future. Businesses don’t last very long if the talent walks out the door.
As an Influencer
This is the most nebulous of the roles, but it highlights how, often, it’s the individual outside the walls of corporations and governments who can push massive organizations to use the tools at their disposal.
Take Alexander Sachs, a Russian-born economist, student of world affairs and, importantly, the friend of President Roosevelt who delivered the famous Einstein-Szilárd letter to the president. With war beginning in Europe, President Roosevelt had no time to entertain letters from even the world’s most famous scientist, but Sachs, who had met Szilárd through a mutual friend, was able to get a personal meeting with the president to deliver the letter and press the issue. At the end of a follow-up meeting the next day, President Roosevelt declared, “This requires action.”
Continuing on the World War II theme, Vannevar Bush was a former MIT professor and president of the Carnegie Institute when he presented a single-sheet-of-paper plan to President Roosevelt in 1940 to reorganize and coordinate the country’s military research. The president approved the plan within 15 minutes. Bush went on to establish and lead the Office of Scientific Research and Development and directed the research and development of key technologies for the war, including radar, antibiotics, better artillery and explosives, blood substitutes, and, yes, the atomic bomb.
You could even write a book. Rachel Carson was a scientist and writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was well-known for her work on conservation and natural resources. As she grew increasingly concerned about the wide use of synthetic pesticides, she changed her focus to writing about the long-term effects of misusing them. Her 1962 book, Silent Spring, captured public attention, ignited the environmental movement, and spurred congressional and regulatory action.
You don’t have to be a friend of the president, an MIT professor, or a best-selling author to be an influencer, especially in the age of social media. Ten or 15 years ago, the notion of a social media influencer barely existed, but, today, influencers in the lifestyle realm can earn $10 million in a year via social media, and those numbers are just from the early days of TikTok and Instagram. But for every Aimee Song or Emma Chamberlain at the high end of the numbers for influencers, there are thousands of would-be influencers who have given up. Our recommendation is that we all start out thinking we’ll be Song or Chamberlain and then see what happens. We should look for every opportunity to spread our Future Perfect ideas via posts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. We should get creative—if we’re remotely creative—on TikTok and other, newer video-based media. We can even get creative about where we’re creative, like how the Biden presidential campaign bought “yard signs” in a multi-player video game in 2020.
The worst that happens is that we educate a few friends. The best that happens is that we develop the sort of following that Greta Thunberg has.
Live By A Third List
Basically, we recommend coming up with and living by a “third list.” The first list is filled with any urgent, attention-needing items for that day. That sort of to-do list is pretty common. The second list is a weekly list, filled with crucial things to do that week. That list is as far as most people go. The third list—the key one—contains the biggest, most ambitious 20 or 30 long-term goals. This list isn’t just for wishful thinking; it focuses on the things that must be accomplished to materially advance the big goals.
We hope that we all as individuals will carry at least a metaphorical third list with us, so that we’re always looking for ways to push toward the Future Perfect in our varied roles as citizens, consumers, investors, employees, and influencers.
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