The future is open road

Less than one per mil of the world’s population lives above the 60th parallel. According to estimates, up to half of them are Finns.The challenging, northern climate conditions, our exceptional geopolitical location and odd language have built the Finnish success story. According to research, Finland is the most stable and safest country in the world with the least amount of organised crime, best administration and the most stable banks, as well as a top-class educational system and freedom of the press. Finns are very modest. Some might even call us pessimists. ‘Don’t lick a drop until it has dropped,’ loosely meaning the same as ‘Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched,’ is a very Finnish proverb. Amidst all this grew Esko Valtaoja, a writer and a Professor Emeritus of space astronomy, who thinks that humanity itself is a success story.

*Based on the Finnish Science Barometer, according to which Finns are only able to name one living researcher, Esko Valtaoja. Due to this, a campaign called Vaihtoehto Eskolle (‘an alternative to Esko’) was organised on social media in late 2017 with the purpose of highlighting Finnish scientists. The campaign brought up nearly 2,000 different researchers. The face of the campaign was, naturally, Esko Valtaoja.

Fix it though it’s not broken

We meet with Valtaoja at the Museum of Technology. In these surroundings, almost everything looks like it could be from the science fiction movies of the 60s and 70s; an era when everything seemed understandable and predictable. An era when people believed that cars would fly by 2018.

– It is a good thing that people have an in-built streak of competitiveness in them. When a person jumps over a hurdle, they set the bar even higher, ready to break a new record. If not for this, we would have been content with steam engines and would not be able to use drones to fly medicine to the secluded, hard-to-reach villages of Tanzania.

During the interview, Valtaoja inspects the control board of an electrical substation from the 1940s. This gives me the perfect opportunity to ask what is, in the scale of the universe, the significance of a company that makes the world’s best vertical copper casting systems.

– I can see how the company continues to refine and recycle the matter in good ways. The elements were created amidst the chaos of supernovas and asteroids, and only on Earth were people able to refine these natural resources. And even though the Club of Rome, for example, keeps warning us about the limited nature of natural resources, copper is an excellent example of how they can be recycled almost perfectly, used again and again in new and innovative ways.

The museum exhibits dozens of items that have clearly seemed great ideas at the time. Standing by an electronic mail delivery car invented 40 years ago, Valtaoja shares an easy definition for innovations that become breakthroughs.

– If an idea is presented in a publication of a technical field, it is often just utopic. When it is introduced in a popular vlog or a women’s magazine, it can be considered a true innovation. In the 70s, an electronic sauna heater was developed in Finland, which could be switched on by telephone, calling it for example when leaving work.

The idea did not become a hit. But it was the first sign of the Internet of Things, which is everywhere right now.

Oceans are drowning in plastic, but it’s alright

Valtaoja has sometimes been criticised of being even too positive. When cries of alarm have been raised due to global warming and polluted oceans, Valtaoja has tried to calm these voices by stating that we will pull through this:

– We already know how to stop climate change, now only political commitment and actual implementation are needed. We know how to cut down the amount of plastic waste and we are well in our way to changing people’s attitudes. We have better resources for success than ever before. The people on Earth are healthier, wealthier and more educated than ever. The world is more democratic than ever. We have more problem-solvers and resources than ever before in the world’s history.

The eyes of the 66-year-old Valtaoja shine. His positivity is something intrinsic to him. In public discussions, the doomsayers are often given more space.

– The gloomier you are, the wiser you are thought to be. Sometimes, people have even accused me of being an optimist. I take it as a great compliment. I am a top expert of my field, and people do not achieve that if they fall in love with their own beliefs. You need to have extensive knowledge about matters, but be able to explain them in plain language. It is often said that ‘that was a very wise expert, I hardly understood a word of that’. Did the expert get their message through? Even if you face the future with an open mind, opponents are also needed. You need both gas and brake pedals in cars, too. But first and foremost, you need a clear direction.

So no end of the world?

I am familiar with Valtaoja through the media, but now I have the chance to talk with him face to face. I listen to and look at Valtaoja, almost enchanted by him. He is optimistic and positive, but he is also a realist. A few years ago, in an interview with school pupils, he gave the young people three rules to live by: know instead of believing, make the world a better place and have fun.

– The world can also be made better through joy. We Finns live in the midst of coldness and darkness, and if we were denied our flights to the sunny south or warm breakfast porridge in the name of fighting climate change, I have a hard time imagining that we could commit to something like that. The world is in better shape than ever before in its history. In a few decades, it will be even better. We should walk into the future full of joy and fresh energy. The solution is ours.

As success stories of humankind, Valtaoja brings up the improved status of women, the major improvements to literacy, increasing life expectancy and education levels, new medication and new, cleaner ways of producing food and energy. All this has led to a wealthier world and a rapid decrease of poverty. The UN is even attempting to completely eradicate absolute poverty by 2030. When I ask Valtaoja whether it is right that the 85 wealthiest people of the world own more than the 3.5 billion poorest put together, I receive an answer that is very typical to the man:

– What harm has Bill Gates, for example, ever done to you? He has made the lives of hundreds of millions of people better, collecting a fortune that he is donating to charity.

Thank you, Esko, for this answer, too. Indeed, Bill Gates has donated 53% of his fortune, worth nearly a hundred billion euros, through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for such purposes as preventing infectious diseases and promoting education in developing countries. Gates has reported that he plans to donate almost his whole fortune to charity.

Knowledge is pain

A space astronomer has a longer perspective to the world than most, but I cannot help but ask for advice from a man that wrote ‘The Handbook of Everything‘ (Kaiken käsikirja). What should I do to become wiser?

– Leave social media. Read a book. Decide to build a better future. The entertainment in social media is interesting, but it also opens up the world of alternative truths. Still, this alone does not make social media bad. When Gutenberg invented the printing press 600 years ago, it wasn’t used just for printing bibles; the prophesies of Nostradamus were the most popular texts. They were the porn and violence of their era. I predict that the entertaining predominance of social media will soon disappear and people will return to facts. That would be more than desirable. People often say that knowledge is pain. That is the most idiotic proverb I have heard. Ignorance is what brings pain.

You predict the future and you mostly see positive things in it. What makes it so hard to predict the future?

– People. We don’t believe that the future is in our own hands. The future is not written in stone. In the end, we will do the right thing after trying other options. Remember that the future is an open road. Understand that humankind is a success story. •

”The world is in better shape than ever before in its history. In a few decades, it will be even better.”

”Copper is an excellent example of how natural resources can be recycled almost perfectly.”