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Write Now with Scrivener, Episode no. 15: Rowan Hooper, Science Writer

Rowan Hooper is a science writer, and is author of How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars.

Rowan Hooper is a science writer, and is currently podcast editor for The New Scientist. His book, How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars, looks at ten big problems in the world and how they can be solved for a trillion dollars.

Show notes:

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Rowan Hooper is a science writer, and is author of How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars.

The title of Rowan Hooper’s book is different in the US and in the UK. The UK title is How to Spend a Trillion Dollars, and in the US the title is How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars. The difference is important. He explained that, "It was always obvious what I was trying to do with the book, and it was too when I discussed it with my publisher in the UK. But when you come to it completely cold, a title like How to Spend a Trillion Dollars doesn't really tell you what the book is about. So the US publisher said, let's just cut to the chase here, not leave any ambiguity around it. And it's How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars."

This is a book with a mission. Hooper picks ten areas where a trillion dollars could make a difference, and explores how this level of investment in each of them could change the world. This isn’t science fiction; every single idea discussed already exists, but just at a very small scale. Some of them are at the stage of development. Some of them are already applicable, but they haven't scaled up yet.

At first, a trillion dollars seems like a lot of money, but when you look closely, it really isn't. "Jeff Bezos is predicted to become a personal trillionaire by 2026, And maybe Elon Musk will get there around the same time."

It wasn't trillions of dollars that give Hooper the idea for the book. "I heard winners of the lottery saying, "it's not going to change me. I've got these millions of dollars, or millions of euros, and it's not going to change me." And it was a sense of frustration. It should change you, it would change me. I know what I'd spend the money on right away. And then I thought, it's a nice pipe dream, isn't it? What would I do if I had this giant lump sum of money? So I chose a trillion dollars, because it’s a nice round number."

A trillion dollars - that's $1,000,000,000,000 - sounds like a lot, but Hooper points out that it's not that much. "It's around 1% of world GDP. And it's an amount that we hear a lot about these days. Governments toss up their budgets in trillions. It's a number that comes into play when you want to do something massive. So I chose a trillion dollars, but what could be done if you had control of that money? That was the starting point."

When I began reading the book, and looked over the ten topics in the table of contents, it seemed that climate change was the most important. Hooper told me, "I actually thought the same thing halfway through writing it. I put my head in my hands thought, this book should just be about climate change and the biodiversity crisis, because if we don't solve those, the planet might break down."

Nevertheless, he focuses on other topics, such as curing all disease, settling off-planet, turning the world vegan, redesigning the planet, and even finding aliens. "They are all being worked on in different ways, and with different amounts of funding. But we can go much further with a bit of extra money. I agree that finding aliens is not one of the biggest issues that we face, but for $10 or $20 billion, you could send some really detailed missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and really explore those places. And I think there's not a bad chance of finding something there, to find a breakthrough that would be finding alien life. It would be such an incredible thing. I think it's worth spending a few billion dollars on."

Hooper's approach to writing this book was different from the way many writers work. He created a Scrivener project with each chapter heading in the Binder, and added lots of research. "And then, as things start to really snowball, I started to make separate projects for each chapter, because there's so much research. Anything even slightly interesting, I chuck it in there. I use it like a giant scrapbook. I'm a bit of a hoarder of information, and it's great to be able to shove everything in there." As he wrote and edited, he then put finalized versions of each chapter into the master project file.

One important point about spending $1 trillion is that the money is not lost. "This is not money we're spending, it's money that we're investing now to save us having to spend much more money in the future. I didn't really grasp this at first, but with many of the problems I'm talking about - solving poverty, tackling global health, climate change, biodiversity issues - if you tackle these problems now, you save far more than in the future."

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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