Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Reasons for Optimism and Concern: Can Technology Save the World?

== Can we save the world?  ==

TechnologyHopeI cannot recommend too highly an excellent article that appeared in The Guardian -- Technology as Our Last Best Hope -- about the concept of ecological modernism, which sees technology as key to solving big environmental problems.

"The prophets of ecological modernism believe technology is the solution and not the problem. They say that harnessing innovation and entrepreneurship -- coupled with a strong overall goal of efficiency, sustainability and moving toward a smaller human footprint -- can save the planet and that if environmentalists won't buy into that, then their Arcadian sentiments are a problem, not a solution," writes Fred Pearce.  This, by the way, is exactly the choice offered by my two "Gaian mother" types in my novel, Earth - one of them driven by nostalgia and primitivist mysticism and the other by a science-driven wish to save the world by a different route… by humanity growing up.

Pearce continues, "The modernists (e.g. Stewart Brand) wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanisation and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change. They say they embrace these technologies not to conquer nature, like old-style 20th century modernists, but to give nature room. If we can do our business in a smaller part of the planet — through smarter, greener and more efficient technologies — then nature can have the rest."

The article is thorough, thoughtful, and well worth your time.

EnergyTrendsAnother important piece - by Amory Lovins - suggests that progress is possible. His three major energy trends to watch include accelerating improvements in efficiency,  and in renewables,  and in distributed power.  The last of these three is of particular importance, if we want a robust civilization that can roll with many coming shocks. (So I tell folks in Washington, once a year, every year, for 25 years.)

Excerpt from Armory Lovins: "The business of installing solar modules is booming. Germany took it to scale -- 8 GW a year -- and installed more photovoltaics in a single month in 2011 and 2012 than the U.S. added all year. That volume also cut the German installed system cost to half our costs, even though we all buy the same equipment. If the U.S. did that too, it'd have really cheap solar power, because Germany gets about as much sun as Alaska and far less than the mainland U.S. But even so, U.S. solar prices are now low enough that photovoltaics on your roof, financed with no down payment, can beat your utility bill in over a dozen states. In fact, solar accounted for 49 percent of new electric capacity installed during the first quarter of 2013 and all new utility electricity generation capacity added to the U.S. grid during March, according to SEIA and FERC."

All of these signs of tech-propelled improvement have been fought tooth and nail by the mad right… and quite often by a smaller, but genuinely unhelpful political cult, the mad-far-left.  Somehow, amid political lunacy, science has pushed ahead, spurred by both government and market forces along with simple common sense on the part of real people.

In other words, humans and their civilization may save the world, almost despite ourselves.

== And more cause for science optimism ==

Then there is… N-Fix is a naturally occurring nitrogen fixing bacteria which takes up and uses nitrogen from the air. Applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular) via the seed, it provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix nitrogen. Plant seeds are coated with these bacteria in order to create a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship and naturally produce nitrogen.

Wow, do you have any idea how much would be saved -- in energy, fossil fuel pollution and digging and waste -- if most of our crops could be self-fertilizing in nitrogen?  Now add efficient algae-culture and tasty vat-grown meat, please?

==Technological solutions ==

SwedenGarbageSweden’s waste management and recycling programs are so good only four percent of the nation’s waste ends up in landfills.  (In contrast, over half the waste generated by U.S. households ends up in landfills). Yet, Sweden needs trash to fuel the waste-to-energy factories that generate electricity for a quarter of a million homes and provide 20 % of the entire country’s  heating. As a result, Sweden must now import trash from the landfills of other European countries -- and those countries are now paying Sweden to do so. Alan Pierce writes, "You read that correctly, countries are paying to get rid of a source of fuel they themselves produced so that Sweden can continue to have the energy output they need. You don’t have to be an economist to know that’s one highly enviable energy model." And an example of efficiency that is an inspiration for a more sustainable future.

In parts of the developing world, anemia is a serious problem -- affecting 44% of Cambodians, and two-thirds of the children. Chris Charles, a Ph.D. student developed an Iron Fish (the Cambodian symbol of good luck), which can be added to cooking pots, to offer relief from anemia.

Technology has made a difference to quality of life in the developing world: Examples include introduction of widespread bicycles, inexpensive off-grid lighting, low-cost water purification systemswireless internet accesssolar ovens for cooking, refrigeration for vaccinescommunity radio, and so on...but access to reliable electricity remains a major problem.

Over at Debate.org, the question, Can Technology save the world, is under consideration, and the responses are running 50-50.
In Abundance, The Future is Better Than You Think, X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis and journalist Steven Kotler, write, "Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, women and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them....Abundance for all is within our grasp."

== Oh but for every bit of good news… ==

There have been mistakes -- and setbacks -- as Silicon Valley sets out to defeat global poverty and improve the quality of life in the poorest countries around the world. In ForeignPolicy, Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur detail how some revolutionary ideas, such as the highly-touted Soccket ended up as failures in the real world.NASA image shows a nearly ice-free Alaska on a clear day.

Disturbing reflection on our priorities: Who is the highest paid public employee of each state? In 27 states, the highest paid employee is the football coach, in 13 it's the basketball coaches, and in one state, it's the hockey coach. The other states include five college presidents, a medical school chancellor, a medical school department chair, a medical school plastic surgeon, and a law school dean. (That gets you to 51 positions because Minnesota’s football and basketball coach are each earning $1.2 million.) All earn more than the states' governors.

Oh, but sometimes cartoonists distill truth perfectly.  Here is one example.

And ammo against grouches, from xkcd.


Anonymous said...

I strongly believe that technology to solve our problems but with one caveat: the law of unintended consequences.

One small example. The kudzu vine was introduced into the South as erosion control vegetation. It has since grown out of control.

Remember this one small example next time you want to geohack the climate.

Lorraine said...

I appreciate technology more when it's advancing the envelope of possibility than when it's saving the world. That being said, I'd rather live in a world saved by technology types (even if they're also corporate types like your Eng) than by military types.

The question is, can technology be pried apart from "technocracy," or is that one of life's package deals?

AJ Snook said...

I love this: "the choice offered by my two "Gaian mother" types in my novel, Earth - one of them driven by nostalgia and primitivist mysticism and the other by a science-driven wish to save the world by a different route… by humanity growing up." Can't wait to read "Earth"!

Has there ever been any criticism that these guys like Diamandes are more interested in marketing their brand than changing the world? Not accusing, just curious if this has been written about.

Lorraine said...

To my ears Bright Greenism reads more like PR. The marketing division, that's Green Consumerism (or as I call it, oxymoron).

Ian said...

There are in fact valid reasons for a proportion of retirement savings to be investing in shares but attempting to explain that will just result in me getting shouted down yet again by the proudly and willfully ignorant, so why bother?

Rick Maltese said...

Very important question. It is my belief that nuclear energy can save the world. There will be those that are immediately put off by such a statement. The problem of too much CO2 and pollution from coal plants can be solved by replacing them with nuclear. So the "can" in your question is very different than "will technology save the World?" Leaving technology decisions that can save the world to democracy to handle is a long shot. We need to fix the sick part of an ailing democracy first.

LarryHart said...


The question is, can technology be pried apart from "technocracy," or is that one of life's package deals?

Be careful what you wish for. I've seen that dynamic at work in the business world for the past 20-30 years. When I began working in Information Systems (as it was called at the time) in 1988, people who knew how to work computers did anything that needed doing on the machines--replacing disk drives, connecting printers, and the like as well as our main job of designing and coding business applications.

In the intervening years, industry has imposed all sorts of rules defining separation of duties, so that application developers can't be testers and those who support the functioning of business applications in the production enviromnent can't actually develop code. I see it as executives demonstrating fear and mistrust of the skills of the tech-savvy. The business imposes tight controls on what the techies are allowed to do in hopes of harnessing the techies' abilities, but they end up killing the golden goose. The best techies have multiple skills, and the business in effect constrains them to only do one thing.

All by way of saying, be careful what you wish for.

LarryHart said...

AJ Snook:

Can't wait to read "Earth"!

I envy you. By sheer coincidence, I am reading it right now, but it's my third time.

matthew said...

There is something about the tone of The Guardian article that I dislike, even though I support the idea of ecological modernism. It has to do with some of the sneering at contemporary ecological movement. In truth, a lot of the boogiemen of the ecological movement have been proven to be true - the nuclear industry was willing to overlook huge design flaws in order to get plants built (see Fukushima, Diablo Canyon, Chernobyl). Monsanto is sloppy with untested release of GMOs (see http://rt.com/usa/gmo-wheat-oregon-mystery-275/) and uses terminator genes to maximize profit (which will bite us in the ass in the event of any supply-chain catastrophy). The article sneers at organic farming techniques that are proven to be just as effective as high-fossil fuel farming once you factor in the ecological cost of the fossil fuels.
I believe in Technology as the only device to support seven to eight to more billion humans on this planet, but I do not trust blindly. And I am quite sure that the "Arcadian" influence on environmental issues is needed. This article that our host holds so highly sneers at the very forces that would keep technology in check, by a movement that has a very good track record of calling out the lies of government and industry.

Anonymous said...

Solar arrays in orbit in near space could both block some of the sunlight and collect energy to operate a space elevator. We could be sailing the methane on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to Mars on sails made from the carbon that threatens to kill us. If a greenhouse gets too hot, a shade cloth is used. We could be doing the same with the planet, at the same time collecting energy that would have absolutely NO downside to it, including another Fukushima or Chernobyl. It would be a bit of a shame if doing that were hindered by the need for individual people to become ridiculously wealthy from it, though. I still think the easiest way for Humanity to ease their harsh impact on the planet is just to breed less. Dave

Tim H. said...

Really don't think we'll see much of space-based solar until the incumbent energy interests find a way to own it.

locumranch said...

Technology can and will save the world, assuming that (1) we control our inner demons, (2) we discard our regressive attachment to ecological idealism (aka 'Arcadian Sentimentality') and (3) we accept that we must make do with much, much less.

Egypt is the perfect antithesis of (1) right now: A festival of violence, liberty, looting, church burning, explosions, repressed urges and a settling of scores reminiscent of a bacchanalia, a Watts Riot or the 'Return of the Archons' Star Trek episode. Perhaps they should reference Pinker in this regard.

In terms of (2), I ask you what rude nature has ever done for you & yours without generations of human toil, irrigation systems, Mendelian seed selection, industrial farming techniques, animal husbandry, pesticides, herbicides, land clearing, swamp draining, over-fishing, antibiotics, vaccination & water purification plants.

Are you an ecological idealist who plays at the Pastoral Ideal like the 17th Century French Aristocracy, frolicking in shepherd & shepherdess costumes under the assumption that food falls like manna from heaven while the common peasants starve? Or, are you a realist who lives in an agricultural community as I do? In this regard, the Guardian doesn't go far enough.

The 17th Century Pastoralists are to the average ecologist as the purveyor of nostalgia is to the Ecological Modernist. Stop living in the past, wishing for the return of a cool world that used to be. The way forward is not the way back. Push forward, ever forward, never back. We need to level up on the Green Revolution, become more audacious at GMO, exploit our elevated CO2 levels for higher crop yields, beat our deserts into submission with Israeli irrigation techniques and commit ourselves to in vivo aquaculture on a Mediterranean or even a Transatlantic scale.

And, finally, we must commit ourselves to doing more with less. That is the nature of technology. More with less. The Smart Cell Phone system replaces the television, the home computer, the stereo, the cinema, the home phone, the classroom, the library, the voting booth, the lightbulb, the landline, the switchboard, the wire and pole (etc), so why build or maintain such outdated static infrastructures? Less planes, less schools, less cars, less electricity, less industry, less travel, less luxury and less people with individual dreams, personal hopes, private homes or isolated ambitions.

Less can improve the quality of our lives (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/9728.php) if we can stand it and less can save our world if we can tolerate its creeping collectivism. We could move back to the city, occupy our designated compartments, consume our allotted rations and warm ourselves with our LCD screens when the weather cools and fan ourselves with our screen protectors when the weather warms. Assuming we can resist the allure of (1) Festival; Life; Ambition; Personal Expression; Individualism; Excitement; Excess; Joie de vivre.



Duncan Cairncross said...

More loonie rantings from Locobranch

"if we can stand it and less can save our world if we can tolerate its creeping collectivism. We could move back to the city, occupy our designated compartments, consume our allotted rations and warm ourselves with our LCD screens when the weather cools and fan ourselves with our screen protectors when the weather warms. Assuming we can resist the allure of (1) Festival; Life; Ambition; Personal Expression; Individualism; Excitement; Excess; Joie de vivre.

Does this guy not grow up!
Definitely NOT a science guy with his total lack of understanding of the calculus and any physics

ThemadLibrarian said...

Locum was doing fine until he hit part 3, the 'more with less' rant. Then he went off the rails. He can be very well reasoned, but frequently needs to be pursued with butterfly nets.

osvept: winds induced by global warming, often emanating from Parliament, Congress, et. al.

Doris said...

David wrote: "...Germany gets about as much sun as Alaska..."

Is that in the summer or winter?

Lorraine said...

I'm guessing point 3 of the LocomRant is meant ironically. The target is the reader who reads the first 2 statements as corporate PR but sees the 3'd as hope this this LocumRanch is only 2/3 or a tool PR tool. Then he hits them with the sucker punch. Brilliant, in a nakedly polemical way.

Paul451 said...

Recent video footage (and animated gifs) of meteors exploding in the atmosphere and leaving a puff of dust or shockwave condensation or something. I don't think anyone has captured this before...


I never said...


Chernobyl, sure. Bad design. Except that it preceded and generated much of the Green fear of nukes - not really an indicator of prescience by Greens.

Diablo Canyon - a few black marks on their original safety level due to under-estimating potential earthquakes, and some of the safety upgrades weren't done quite right. But no disasters due to poor design or management. Doesn't really seem to fit in your list - or at least the Greens have been wrong about it so far.

Fukushima - Sure, it blew up - when the entire region got flattened by an extreme outlier tsunami. They had pretty reasonable safeguards in place. And any harm from what radiation got released is far less than that of the tsunami itself.

(But I do hope nuclear plant designers have finally figured out that hydrogen is generated in a melt-down and tends to explode if you let it accumulate, creating mushroom clouds that scare the pants off of people and throw radioactive stuff around. Need to fix that one, guys.)

Monsanto? Greedy and not afraid to show it. But that "untested" GMO wheat escape you point to was actually tested in that same field for about 6 years. And other than the harm created by fears inspired by Green ranting against GMO, can you point to any actual harm from that incident?

Jerry Emanuelson said...

I would strongly disagree with the assertion that there were pretty reasonable safeguards in place before the Fukushima nuclear accident.

An major earthquake and tsunami of a similar intensity occurs in that region about once every 1000 years. That's is about an 8 percent of such an event occurring during an ordinary human lifetime.

The tsumani barriers were irresponsibly low. It was inexcusable that the standby generators weren't placed on terrain or on mountings that were high enough that the generators would still run if the the tsunami barriers were breached. The standby generators should also have been in reasonably tsunami-proof buildings.

The United States (and most other countries) do much worse, though. If there is a possibility of a great catastrophe of any kind occurring once every 150 years or less, it is considered not worth worrying about, even though this is a 50 percent probability of the event happening in an ordinary human lifetime.

Jumper said...


Acacia H. said...

I think Dr. Brin might be interested in this article about the Wizarding World in Harry Potter as it reflects several things he's said in criticism of the fantasy genre in general.

Rob H.

No one ever said...

@Jerry Emanuelson

Hindsight analysis is wonderful and can dredge up all sorts of retroactive "proof" of failure to adequately prepare. Since the disaster has already happened, we now know that anyone who gave advice that might have prevented the disaster was correct and should have been listened to.

So let me recommend to everyone reading this, that you move out of your current residence, because there is a high likelihood that sometime in the next 1000 years it will burn down or collapse or be flooded. When it happens, you will know that you should have listened to me. I will have been the expert you obviously should have listened to.

The tsunami killed about 18500 people. The power plant disaster killed about...zero. So where was the far, far, vastly greater failure to provide adequate tsunami safeguards?

But thanks to the Greens and the fear-mongering media, most of the focus and censure was on the nuclear power plants and the failure to anticipate and prepare for an unlikely event that the country had prepared for far less well everywhere else.

Acacia H. said...

The tsunami also killed a lot of people in the area, and the rest were evacuated as the true scope of the disaster unfolded. As for fatalities from the disaster at Fukushima I do believe at least one worker who has gone into the plant to work on it has died though if it was radiation or something else I don't know. The disaster is also still going on.

Personally I think we're doing nuclear wrong. We should be researching Thorium reactors and the fission-fusion hybrid reactors that can eliminate most radioactive wastes while producing small amounts of electricity.

And hopefully soon we'll see how a hybrid solar/wind plant will do in Arizona.

Rob H.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Hindsight analysis is necessary when problems occur, but foresight analysis can make most hindsight analysis unnecessary.

I have spent most of a long engineering career trying to imagine everything that could go wrong and doing the hindsight analysis merely as a "thought experiment."

Sometimes things go wrong because of lack of foresight or something that truly could not have been predicted. More often, though, they go wrong because of Putt's Law: "Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand"

Jerry Emanuelson said...

In the case of the Fukushima nuclear incident, hundreds of people have been certified by various Japanese government entities to have died or suffered serious chronic health problems as the result of the Fukushima incident. None of the casualties resulted from radiation. Most died or were incapacitated as the result of stress and fatigue. This has been a special problem among the older workers at the nuclear plant. Many people in nearby hospitals died because of delays in medical care.

What are NOT being counted are the premature deaths due to lack of electricity (with rolling blackouts and very poor control of building cooling and heat). The tsunami and nuclear accident resulted in both severe shortages of electricity and higher electricity cost. Most of the lost nuclear capacity is being replaced by greatly increased use of fossil fuels.

NHK English, which is one of the most objective sources of news in the world, still has regular reports on the aftermath of the tsunami and nuclear accident.

Paul451 said...

Rob H,
Re: Harry Potter universe:
"All of this culminates in a totalitarian society that uses coercion, ignorance, brainwashing, misinformation, isolation, and reconditioning to provoke a sense of community and national pride. Basically, they're North Korea with wands."

So the Hermit Kingdom is actually the Magic Kingdom?

[Be an interesting story actually. A la Thor Meets Captain America. I recall seeing a film in the '80s that used magic as a metaphor for communism in Hollywood in the '50s.]

locumranch said...

By referencing Putt's Law, Jerry begs an interesting question: What is the purpose of technology?

Does it exist to serve man, make tasks simpler for humans to perform and allow us to do more with less, or does it merely serve to manage our time, impose technological order and create subservient men?

And, of course, our current technology is faultless in this regard. After all, it did not create our current dilemma (pick one) and it cannot and will not save us from a dilemma of our own creation (sic) because the fault lies not in our technology but in ourselves.

Technophiles are servants, followers and/or suitors by definition.


Duncan Cairncross said...

"Technophiles are servants, followers and/or suitors by definition."

No Technophiles are human beings - they USE their environment

"People" like Locobranch are actually "animals" - they allow their environment to use them

Please evolve a bit - you know you can do it

locumranch said...

The term 'technophile' refers to a technology "lover", devotee, idoliser or suitor rather than a "user" of the same.

The term 'love' implies an emotional response akin to enjoyment, affection or devotion as in "I love ice cream, my new Iphone or my spouse.

The term 'use' implies a mechanical act akin to exploit, employ or consume as "I use my Iphone, my spouse or my toilet".

To the detriment of his spouse or significant other, Duncan seems to confuse these terms, confusing 'love; lover; loving' and 'use; user; using', but he is not alone in this regard.



matthew said...

"The fault lies not in our technology but in ourselves." - locumranch
I'll try a few counterexamples to show the fallacy in this argument.
A) Polio sufferers before Dr. Salk. I guess you could say that the fault was in their bodies, and not in the lack of a polio vaccine. Ok, point to locumbranch.
B)Seatbelts in our cars. Once again, it is the fault of our bodies for not evolving to provide us with a means to survive a 25g stop. Point to lb.
C)Third-world students before Google + smartphone. Yes, it is definitely the fault of those born into poverty that they cannot access 99.98% of human knowledge at the push of a button. Point to lb, ignorance is bliss.

So, locumbranch wins. His statement is hereby proved true.

Now for my statement:
Anyone who is NOT a technophile is an ingrate that does not understand that we live in the most fortunate time, EVER, in which to be a human. That is, until tomorrow, which will then be the most fortunate time to be a human.