Sunday, December 20, 2009

Technology will save us...or not

Technology will save us--it's the mantra heard around the world when it comes to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and myriad other environmental and resource challenges. But, that mantra rarely comes with the proviso that technology often has unintended and even perverse consequences.

"Yes, yes," you will say, "we know that." Then, why, may I ask, is this almost never mentioned in the same speeches, op-ed pieces, and journal articles that tout the efficacy of one or another technology to definitively solve or at least help solve critical environmental and resource problems? It is because these pronouncements are polemics, or more properly, sermons meant to instruct us in the supposed invincibility of our technology.

Let us take just one example of a technology that is so ubiquitous that people rarely even think about a world without it: the automobile. The automobile was probably the signature technology of the 20th century, one that shaped culture and in turn shaped so many other technologies that serve our automobile-based culture. If humans had understood ahead of time that automobiles would result directly or indirectly in the following, would society have chosen to allow their widespread use?

  • Climate change
  • Health problems and mortality due to air pollution
  • Pollution of groundwater from decrepit gasoline storage tanks
  • Urban sprawl
  • Hollowing out of many American cities
  • Massive traffic jams
  • Dependence on unreliable foreign sources of oil
  • Serial military conflicts involving access to and control over oil
  • Paving and development of prime farmland and forest
  • Mass death and disability due to accidents on the world's highways
  • An obesity epidemic related to loss of walkable living environments
  • Massive public expenditures for roads, parking and other purposes related to automobiles (to the exclusion of other priorities)

I have not tried to be exhaustive. But, I think this list outlines just how deleterious the automobile has been not only environmentally, but also socially and economically. Now, of course, it would have taken exceptional clairvoyance to have foreseen all the perverse consequences I list. But that is just the point!

What allows those who are so confident about the salutary outcomes for their favorite technological fixes to pretend that there will be no perverse and even fatal consequences related to them? How can the technological optimists be sure that their solutions will not lead either to the opposite of what they intend or to other problems perhaps even more intractable than the ones they purport to solve? Perhaps the most readily obvious example is the notion that energy efficiency will result in a reduction of energy use. But the Jevons Paradox tells us that just the opposite happens by making energy cheaper due to a reduction in demand and thus subject to greater demand as more people take advantage of the lower prices.

The technological optimists seem to be unaware of how complex the energy, climate, forest, and other systems with which they propose to tinker are. They do not know the ecological dictum that you can never do just one thing. Each action ramifies outward into any complex system resulting in multiple unforeseen and often unwelcome effects.

But, all of technological optimism can be summed up in one desire: The desire not to have to change any of our current behaviors. And, yet it is our behavior that most of all needs changing. To be sure, even changes in our behavior can have unforeseen and sometimes perverse consequences. But I would venture that these unforeseen consequences would be far less troublesome than those related to new technologies provided that any changes in behavior are guided by two principles: 1) To increase the long-term resilience of human society and 2) to increase the margin of safety in the way in which we exploit the environment. For example, we could decide that the target for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be 350 ppm--below where it is today--as some advocate, instead of taking a chance that a much higher reading could put us past the tipping point that will lead to runaway global warming.

It is hubris to believe we can easily and precisely calculate the limits of extraction and pollution and then move right up to our artificially calculated limits and still achieve sustainability. Instead, we should take a path of much greater humility that acknowledges that we must build greater resilience and wider margins of safety into our physical infrastructure and our everyday practices.

Ultimately, I believe, we will be forced to live in a much lower energy society. And, that means that the set of behaviors that need to change most will be those that currently lead to overconsumption.


Henry Warwick said...

Agreed in general, disagree in detail.

Agreed - there are no great inventions. I wrote about this in 2001 (see: The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2000 Yeards, editor John Brockman). They are all wonderful, they are all terrible.

Therefore, no technology will save us.

However, even with an accounting for Gaussian untended consequences (basically everything under as much of the curve as possible) some technologies are better than others. There are material technologies and there are conceptual technologies. There is the automobile (material). There is the alphabet (conceptual).

The conceptual technologies are actually much more powerful than material technologies. Example: we can talk about transplanting a heart, but without germ theory, no transplant patient would survive more than a few days, regardless of the machinery.

I would submit that germ theory is as powerful a reason for our present overshoot as oil. If we had all the oil, but we were still dying of minor infections at young ages, I would submit that our numbers would only be linearly more than in 1875, not geometrically.

Jevon's Paradox only holds with a consistent supply and price of fuel. Once fuel availability declines, Jevon's goes away, as the only way you can MAINTAIN at ZERO is through increased efficiency that matches depletion. Therefore, the only source of profit can be through massive conservation to propel production BELOW the energy production curve, freeing up excess energy, which then gets eaten up by Jevon's and the profit motive.

Ultimately, I believe, we will be forced to live in a much lower energy society. And, that means that the set of behaviors that need to change most will be those that currently lead to overconsumption.

Absolutely correct. The question is how do we transition from one society to another, and how do we mitigate the damage? And that is where technology can be useful. It's not a question of solutions: there are none. However, once you give up on notions of solutions and start looking at mitigation practices, things look a lot better. It's not a question of it "working out" - it's not. However, there's a big difference between living a full and colourful life of work and love at one end of the spectrum, and finding yourself dying alone of exposure in a refugee camp in Eastern Oregon as the tent flaps in a howling frigid wind.

That's where technology (both material and conceptual) make a difference.

Derek Deighton said...

We are failing to grasp the reality of the One Planet World and its underlying equation – speaking as if we are undermining the Planet, when we are only undermining ourselves.

The OPE is only a mind model and it masks the unfair distribution of resources, 2 Billion can die and it will make very little difference to the resources being consumed, as the ones that will die first will not be the ones consuming the most resources.

This sounds callous, but Gaia has probably already decided this as part of the rebalancing we have made necessary – that is why organisations such as Rotary need to rethink their strategies – they won’t have enough resources to fight Gaia – they need to work with her – and that means working to reduce the Resource Intensity of Society (RIoS)

I put on the front cover of the Sustainability Policy of the College, where I am course tutor on the BSc(Hons) Business and Construction Sustainability

‘This College, as a Centre of Learning Excellence within the community exists to liberate the creativity in our stakeholders that will enable them to continually reduce the resource intensity of society, whilst working ourselves to continually reduce our resource intensity of learning’

I feel this states the position we are in, clearly and explicitly.

We are at the beginning of a great adventure if we could but see it that way.

Derek Deighton

WwoofBum said...

I'd argue that you are missing a significant motivator of technological change: people hate to sweat. I think that if you look at the history of technological "advancements," you will see that almost all of them, intentionally or not, make it easier to avoid physical exertion. I suspect that most folks would rather sit for hours in traffic jams (with the air conditioning on) than suffer the embarrassment of "tell-tale underarm dampness."

disillusioned said...


How much of the Jevons Paradox is a consequence of the present consumerist culture?

Note that our culture is not an accident; consumerism is a deliberate construct, devised and used to sell ever more.

The realisation of this means that the aware can escape the Palovian (trained) response go out and spend. So, why expect efficiency promoting technology to run foul of Jevons Paradox - given an aware population?

What I'm more concerned about is that the present monetary system does not reflect the worth of the resources embodied in "money" and "products". Fiat economies can always invent more $$$ by declaring it exists - not a real-world model for resources at all.

As far as I can see, money has no connection to resources. I see that as the root problem.

RDatta said...

Technology will indeed continue to save us - as it has since the first proto - human chipped out the first stone tool. Even if we have to revert to that siage.

Peck's Bad Boy said...

Interesting since I was having a discussion just the other day about what problem the technology of the automobile solved. My understanding was the problem was horses and that you had to feed and maintain them and deal with their waste. I certainly agreed that it has gotten out of hand but that certainly happen incrementally. Interesting the problems associated with the automobile seems to have their root in the the original problem (racing and waste products) We would have a lot less problems if we had limits on the speed of the automobiles. People seem it is their right to travel 65+ mph between on off ramp and another.

Anonymous said...

Some of the things you cite were problems of the horse-and-buggy culture, and automobiles were perceived as an improvement.

* Air Pollution/Contamination of Groundwater: Manure piled up in the streets and was tracked into homes and businesses in wet weather. It blew into people's eyes, homes, and food on dry windy days. There was a lot of polluted water in the old days, too. The result was cholera and typhoid.

* Urban Sprawl: The poor lived in tightly-packed squalor where disease and fire spread rapidly. The rich moved farther and farther out to get away from it all. The middle class aspired to have their own suburban plot of land!

* Massive Traffic Jams: Traffic jams were a problem of the horse days, too. There were no traffic lights and the pileups of all those horses, trolleys, and pedestrians in the major cities could be horrific, and much more dangerous than our own. "Down the Asphalt Path" by Clay McShane is a good resource on this topic.

* Paving and development of prime farmland and forest: This wouldn't have been considered bad a hundred years ago, when city folk longed to see their muddy streets paved. Love of green space was in its infancy and there was a perception that there would always be enough forest and farmland farther west.

* Mass death and disability due to accidents on the world's highways: An Edwardian would've compared this to death and disability caused by horse-related accidents, and might have also looked at the flies and muck caused by horses, and the long, uncomfortable trips by horse-drawn vehicle. The highway might've seemed an acceptable risk. That same Edwardian would've insisted on very low speed limits, though, since thirty miles per hour was considered dangerously fast.

* Massive public expenditures for roads, parking and other purposes related to automobiles: Check out "Down the Asphalt Path." People used to have to pay for their own paving. It was the hodge-podge of roads of uncertain quality that led to road maintenance gaining widespread taxpayer support as a public function. Our ancestors voted for road taxes because they believed it improved quality of life.

The point I'm trying to make is that these consequences we perceive as negatives were once thought positives.

We don't need for there to be unforeseeable negative outcomes to the new technologies in our lives; the outcomes we can already see, and think we'll welcome, may prove nightmare enough.

Econdemocracy said...

"But, that mantra rarely comes with the proviso that technology often has unintended and even perverse consequences. "

This applies to pharmaceutical drugs; not only are the benefits often exaggerated or even not there, but even when they do help with X, the fact that their long-term use may harm your body in areas Y and Z are almost never mentioned. One should always try the simpler, less sexy, milder interventions first, be they diet, lifestyle, relaxation exercises etc. And something very analogous to the last statement applies to environmental problems and sink/source issues (climate, peak etc) - the right solutions are less sexy and take more mental and emotional courage, but are more likely to work with less side effects.

Not that a major fix is possible for the worlds problems until we address the economic systems (US or China or any other) of the modern world, which demand exponential growth ad infinitum..The "path of humility" won't happen under the current economic regime. To stay silent on the need to change to a steady state economy and later to grieve that we went to the "artificially calculated limits"(if not beyond) is like saying nothing about the pet tiger and later grieving that is attacked humans or animals. The tiger -including the corporate economic system that demands growth forever and ever- must go.

mattbg said...

The best comment above is the one by Anonymous about the improvements over horse-and-buggy culture.

I am getting a bit tired of the assumption that people are always stupid and don't do things for rational reasons. There are often rational reasons when the context is correctly understood, and many of the criticizers would have made the same decisions when presented with the same circumstances.

We laugh at the idea of white flight from cities, but maybe it was completely rational that you would want a life for your children that didn't involve frequent violence and dirty, grimy surroundings.

Is the idea that we will not invent anything in case it has unintended consequences? Do we want to raise a generation of kids who are afraid to do anything at all? We are getting there.

The only way I see to address your concerns is to stop inventing things, and that won't happen. We will always see inventions that solve current problems and then realize their own problems some distance down the road. Most people won't want to live like the Amish or old order Mennonites do (although I think they have the right idea... but I'm not about to suggest we dictate that way of life to a society).

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell said...

You criticize one-sidedness, but forgot to mention the benefits of the automobile.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell said...

Summary of your position:

"Based on my predictions about future technologies future growth is not sustainable."

That probably would have been true in 1900, 1800 and 1000, too.

Kurt Cobb said...

Mr. Mitchell mischaracterizes my position and pretends that he is quoting from my piece which he is not. He is quite wrong that I would have made the same observations in 1800 or 1900 or 1000 since human population was far below the carrying capacity of the Earth. Now that we have overshot that capacity, our technology will not save us since it cannot replace the living systems that it is destroying and upon which we depend for our survival. This is why I point to the need for behavioral changes.