When it comes to problem solving, it's easy to get overly concerned with novel solutions. We become fixated on shiny new things, assuming that newness alone is enough to guarantee the success we're looking for.
Which isn't to say that innovation isn't a good and right thing. Sometimes 'new' is the only game in town. But we need to recognise that other times it is just snake oil. And in focusing on the glitzy or exciting as ends in themselves we can mistakenly overlook the obvious answers and simple solutions because they are, well, maybe a little dull and done. Easy wins are still wins though, and can deliver results both cost effectively and immediately. So when these simple, often practical and pragmatic solutions are presented you need to grab them with both hands, rather than reject them out of hand as old news.
This applies not just to our everyday challenges, but also the big issues we face in the world today. Like the fight against the currently unfolding climate catastrophe.
Addressing the crisis of climate will not be easy. And technological innovations will play a hugely important part in this. But we can't rely on new tech alone to protect our future, as we don't know what viable solutions will emerge or when. Particularly killer apps like carbon capture, which are fundamental to environmental sustainability. As even Microsoft have acknowledged, it's not enough to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, we have to take back what's already there.
Which brings us back to simple, practical solutions and a recognition that, alongside step-change tech, we can also learn from the old ways when it comes to creating the clean, green future we're looking for
A great example of this: sowing farmland with rock dust. Sexy stuff!
This is something that already happens in many places around the world because of the agricultural benefits it brings, with rock dust added to soil to reduce acidification (a problem affecting 20% of arable farmland) or to improve fertility and crop yields.
But spreading rock dust (of the right kind) can also help with carbon capture according to research just published in the Journal of Nature. This found that 'enhanced rock weathering' (ERW) could potentially remove 2bn tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year. That's equivalent to the combined emissions of Germany and Japan, so not an insignificant amount.
How does it work? The chemical reactions that degrade the rock particles lock greenhouse gasses into carbonates within months. Much of this will then eventually wash into the ocean, ending up as limestone on the ocean floor in a natural, permanent carbon sink.
And the simplicity of this is a gift that keeps on giving. Because the best rock for capturing CO2 is basalt. It contains the calcium and magnesium needed for carbon capture, but also silica and nutrients such as potassium and iron, often deficient in intensively farmed soils. Making it an easy win for farmers to buy into as an evolution of existing behaviour.
On top of this, basalt is an abundant resource: it's the most common rock type in the Earth's crust. This means basalt dust is already a byproduct of mining as well as cement and steel manufacture. So potentially huge stockpiles already exist of a material that no one wants, and would otherwise have to pay to dispose of in some way.
The icing on this particular cake? researchers also found that the world’s biggest polluters (China, the US and India) have the greatest potential for ERW, as they have large areas of cropland and relatively warm weather, which speeds up the chemical reactions. And we all know the power of farmers in the States.
So that's some good news for once in the climate fight, where everyone leaves the party with a balloon. Which is often the power of simple solutions, and a lesson we could learn from and apply in all areas of life.