How Would You Spend A Trillion Dollars?

16:37 minutes

an illustration of an arm in a suit dropping a large gold coin into an earth with a coin slot at the top, with a starry background
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Imagining what you might do if you won the lottery or received a huge inheritance from a long-lost relative is a classic daydream. But in a new book, journalist Rowan Hooper imagines spending a trillion dollars—not on fancy dinners, sparkly jewels or mega yachts, but on tackling ten global challenges. While a trillion dollars can’t solve every problem, he estimates it would go a long way towards tackling disease, combating global warming, protecting biodiversity, or even establishing a moon base.

Hooper joins Ira to talk about his book, How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars: The Ten Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix, and to daydream about where and how an infusion of cash might do the most to accelerate solutions to some of the planet’s problems. 

Read an excerpt of How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars: The Ten Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix.

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Segment Guests

Rowan Hooper

Rowan Hooper is a journalist and podcast host at New Scientist, and author of the book “How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars: The Ten Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix” (The Experiment, 2022).

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re a regular listener to the program, you have heard me ask researchers the question I call “the blank check question.” Imagine I gave you unlimited resources, a blank check, to spend on your research. How would you use it? More people, better technology, some costly ingredient or supply?

OK, so let’s narrow it down just a bit. What if the price tag wasn’t unlimited, just really high? And what if the result needed to be making the world a better place?

That’s the question asked by Rowan Hooper. He’s a journalist with New Scientist and host of their podcast, and author of How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars– The 10 Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix, recently out in paperback from The Experiment. You can read an excerpt from the book on our website, sciencefriday.com/trilliondollars. Rowan, welcome to Science Friday.

ROWAN HOOPER: Hi, Ira. Great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Let’s begin with some context here. Numbers this big start to lose their meaning, right?


IRA FLATOW: How much is a trillion dollars?

ROWAN HOOPER: It’s $1,000 billion. So if you think about it as the richest people in the world, it’s either Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, and they’ve got about $220 billion. So it’s a fair deal more than them. And it’s about the same as some of the biggest companies, like Apple and Amazon. But in terms of the amount of money that’s out there, if you look at just private equity firms, the amount of money they have before they invest it– they call it dry powder– in 2020, at the start of 2020, they had $1.45 trillion of dry powder, cash, just sitting around. It’s 1% of world GDP, is another way of looking at it.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so we have a little bit of reference here. Now, I think if you asked people what they would do with a trillion dollars, a lot of them would say, first off, cure all human disease. And that’s one of your options. Is that really possible, even with a trillion bucks?

ROWAN HOOPER: Well, I mean, if you ask Mark Zuckerberg, he says it is, because his stated aim– so him and Priscilla Chan, his wife, started the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And their stated aim is to cure all disease and to extend human life to age 100 on average by the end of the century. They say they’re going to put in all their fortune of around $60 billion by the time they die into this project. So they think it’s doable.

I don’t think it’s doable on a trillion dollars because there’s just so much that needs to be done. And most of all is basic health care globally would cost a lot of money. But you could do a huge amount of good tackling various diseases– of course you could– with a trillion dollars.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you certainly could. You focus on all sorts of options in your book. And one is to settle off the planet, to set up a colony on the moon. That could cost us under a trillion bucks? Kind of cheap.

ROWAN HOOPER: Yeah, it’s actually surprisingly cheap. I say cheap, you know, but to get to Mars, it would take all the trillion, I think. But to settle on the moon, you could do it in under a trillion dollars, yeah. And the good thing is there’s a lot of projects already going to the moon that you could piggyback on or you could augment and speed it up. There’s a lot of research going on already. But yeah, to go to the moon, to go to the South Pole, build a base there, start mining water, put up some solar panels– you could do that relatively cheaply, with, say, a few of hundreds of billions of dollars.

IRA FLATOW: And you don’t want to just stop at the moon.


IRA FLATOW: Because you have another option, and that is to cure cosmic loneliness. Are we really cosmically lonely? By that, I mean finding life outside of our planet.

ROWAN HOOPER: Yeah. I think we are lonely. Ever since we’ve kind of evolved, we’ve been looking up to the stars and wondering if anything else is out there. So the question of, are we alone in the universe, or even in the solar system, is a massive question. And literally, if you could throw some money at it, throw more money at it than we do now, you might be able to answer that question.

Now, I have to caveat that by saying that you might only find that we’re not alone because there’s a bacteria living on Enceladus or on Europa out in the solar system. But still, I think an alien bacterial life form found in this solar system would be a truly sensational discovery. And it’s something that you could do. I mean, NASA have got projects going out to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. And they only cost in the order of tens of billions of dollars each. So I think you could speed that up, or you could augment that, and really start looking for life forms out in the solar system.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. You’re not talking about intelligent life. Even if you just found some bacteria or something.

ROWAN HOOPER: Yeah, I think that would be awesome enough, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s focus on clean energy for a moment. I recently did work to winterize my home. I added some solar panels, and it was not cheap. How far can a trillion dollars take you there?

ROWAN HOOPER: Well, globally, it won’t get us to carbon zero. It won’t get us to a carbon-neutral state at all. That is going to cost around $100 trillion in investment by 2050 to get us, globally, to zero carbon emissions.

But what it could do is– the ball is already rolling towards carbon-neutral energy, right? Towards renewable energy. And what we need to do is push it faster, get it rolling faster. So I think putting lots more money into what we’re already doing in terms of wind power and solar, especially, but also nuclear, would help just speed up that process of the transition to a carbon-neutral economy, to a carbon-neutral state.

IRA FLATOW: I want to explore that a bit more, because you have all kinds of ways to spend the money, but in your conclusion in the end, you narrow down the projects to the most important areas that you think should be recipients of the money. And the first one is half a trillion to spend on transitioning the world to renewable energy. How could we do that?

ROWAN HOOPER: Well, what I would do is give a lot of money, a few hundred billion, to countries like India and China, especially, and basically stop them developing more fossil fuels by giving them money that says, use this to develop renewable energy, and don’t use coal. Keep the coal in the ground, because at the moment there’s still too much coal-fired power stations being used– being built, even– in those countries. And so we really need to shut that down. And so I think I would, as you said, use half a trillion dollars on projects like that to speed the transition to renewable energy around the world.

IRA FLATOW: And then you say half a trillion to massive biodiversity renewal and carbon drawdown scheme. Talk about that.

ROWAN HOOPER: Yeah. I really like this idea because you effectively get twice the bang for your buck, because if you invest in areas of rich biodiversity or areas that are vital for biodiversity, they also tend to be areas that are vital for carbon storage areas. So you protect those, you end up drawing down more carbon or protecting carbon sources and preserving areas vital for biodiversity. So interestingly, this is what Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund is doing– on a smaller scale than a trillion dollars, but still, they’re doing it on a very effective scale by purchasing land that is both vital for carbon stores and for biodiversity. So you get double your money. And that’s what I’d like to see on a much bigger scale.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so my question is, how do you get people to commit this kind of money? Are you targeting governments? You’ve mentioned a couple of philanthropists and billionaires. Are you targeting them? Where are the low-hanging fruit, I guess I’m asking for, on this?

ROWAN HOOPER: Well, I think the lowest-hanging fruit is unpaid tax in the United States, which the Treasury estimates at $7 trillion by the end of the decade. So by 2030, there’s $7 trillion in unpaid tax in the US. So how about cracking down on that unpaid tax a bit, freeing up a few trillion dollars.

Probably the second lowest would be quantitative easing, just get some– I say just get some governments to print some more money. But they do that a lot. They’ve been doing it a lot recently with the pandemic. That would be another way.

Or some sort of universal treaty, like we had with the ozone layer. If you could get a treaty, get countries signed up into an Earth Fund, you could perhaps start with trying to save the Amazon or the Arctic. And you could raise the money like that. But the book isn’t so much about raising the money. It’s about how to spend it. I think I’m better at spending it.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re not thinking a big GoFundMe campaign here.

ROWAN HOOPER: Well, you know–

IRA FLATOW: Although who knows? Maybe people would want to chip in for something on a large scale.

ROWAN HOOPER: Yeah, it might be worth doing. A few people have suggested that. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. All right, let’s talk about where to spend the money, because you have some other ideas. Do you have one of your favorite ideas, besides what you think where we should spend it, one that you would like to spend it on, just maybe for fun?

ROWAN HOOPER: One of the fun ones I’d like to do is– I call it the Terran Alliance, which is effectively a space agency for the world. I would give a few tens of billions of dollars to some of the smaller space agencies, especially the African Space Agency and some of the ones in smaller countries other than the US and China, and make a Terran Alliance that would elevate other countries up into space so that it’s not just dominated by the US and China. And I think that would be– actually, now I say it, it sounds a bit like Star Trek, doesn’t it? Like the Federation. But it makes it more equitable.

And when we do get to the moon and start building on it, if you have an alliance, a true alliance of peoples, then I think it would be better for humanity. It would work better. And it would be just a beacon of hope. It’s like we’ve had with the International Space Station. We’ve been working there, different nations working together for years up there. But do that again on the moon on a bigger scale.

IRA FLATOW: When you decided on the 10 problems, did you have to sit down and think about, gee, what problems can we actually fix?

ROWAN HOOPER: Yeah, I did. I mean, one of the criteria used to select them was that they were actually fixable problems, right? There was lots of other cool things I’d like to do, like create an interstellar starship. But that’s not something we can do anytime soon. So they have to be problems that we can fix. And they have to be ones that we can do right now, effectively, but that money is the thing that’s been holding us back.

IRA FLATOW: So there are things that we could not do even if I gave you my blank check question. There are just some things out of reach.

ROWAN HOOPER: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. They’re technologically out of reach. You couldn’t build a solar shield around the planet to deflect sunlight away, because it’s technologically not possible. You couldn’t build a particle collider that’s within the orbit of Mars that would allow us to really throw particles, collide particles together with such velocity that you’d be able to really probe the structure of reality much more than we can do with the Large Hadron Collider. So there are things that people think about that are still very, very far off.

IRA FLATOW: OK, well, speaking of that being very far off, you have an option you call “discover a new reality.” And that is– let me read from the book– “to break or fill the gaps in the standard model of particle physics to understand the missing 95% of reality.” So it’s just a matter of having enough money to do that?

ROWAN HOOPER: Well, it is, although that’s funny, that chapter, because big physics problems don’t actually cost that much. I struggled. To spend it on experiments that are doable now would only cost in the order of billions or tens of billions of dollars, which doesn’t really add up to– I couldn’t spend the whole trillion in that chapter.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Rowan Hooper, author of How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars– The 10 Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix. Is it a question of money, or is it a question of new ideas? And can money spur these new ideas about what the universe is made of?

ROWAN HOOPER: Yeah. I mean, it’s a really good point. People are wondering now if science is slowing down, right? That the ideas haven’t been coming. I do think, though– I have to be an optimist about it– that if you throw money at it, if you make some really big new experiments, that you’ll start to see little cracks in the standard model. You’ll find places where something looks funny, and then you can go and theorize about what’s happening. And then you’ll get new ideas, and the thing will start rolling on.

So I do think that money has been holding us back. It’s certainly been slowing us down. If you look at the James Webb Space Telescope, it’s only just launched. It’s, what, 10 years late? It’s going to be incredible when that’s up.

But if we had our blank check, we could have got a whole load of projects up and running. We could go to the far side of the moon and put a space observatory there, a science observatory on the far side of the moon. I think that would be something really worth doing, because then you get this pristine view into the galaxy, into the universe, that we simply can’t do on Earth. We could do loads of observations of dark energy, dark matter. And I think that might start to move us to a new understanding.

IRA FLATOW: An idea you have is called second genesis, to develop a machine with human-level intelligence, a machine you would agree is as conscious as you and me.


IRA FLATOW: Is that the singularity we’re talking about here?

ROWAN HOOPER: Yeah. That is, actually, what the singularity is, isn’t it? It’s a machine with human-level intelligence. The reason I’ve written that chapter is that there’s billions of dollars being invested around the world in the race for artificial general intelligence. And again, it’s being dominated by China and the US, in particular. And I think that the consequences of a single power or corporation getting there are so, so incredible that, ideally, I would love to spread out the benefits of that wider across the world, just so that we don’t end up with one corporation or one entity, one state, really dominating the rest of us if they do get to this breakthrough kind of AI, or a breakthrough kind of quantum computer as well.

IRA FLATOW: What was your original goal with this book? And how did it actually wind up?

ROWAN HOOPER: The original goal was to daydream, you know? It was like, oh, what would I do if I had all this money? And then I just started thinking, you know, there is a lot of money out there. Let’s see what you could do with it. And the goal is not to show how we can get the money, because I’m only a journalist, so I don’t have to get the money, but it’s to offer solutions.

It’s to show that– there’s so much pessimism and doom out there, especially around the climate change and the biodiversity crises. I want to show that we can solve a lot of this, and what’s holding us back, actually, is just investing wisely. So I just wanted to show that there are solutions out there, and we can do this. And yes, the problems are massive. But we can tackle them bit by bit. And we can get there, and we can solve this problem.

IRA FLATOW: Rowan, we could all use a little bit of optimism these days.


IRA FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us today, and good luck with your book.

ROWAN HOOPER: Thank you, Ira. And let’s hope it brings me in a few more hundreds of millions of dollars.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Absolutely. Rowan Hooper, journalist with New Scientist and host of their podcast, and author of How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars– The 10 Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix, recently out in paperback from The Experiment. And you can read an excerpt from the book on our website, sciencefriday.com/trilliondollars.

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