Already I have embraced my disreputable status. Already I have acknowledged disagreeing with most of my friends about the direction that our society should be heading. Already I have assured you that I’m willing to be drummed out of the corps for holding dissident views. Now it’s just a matter of continuing to identify the ways in which I hold defiantly unpopular views. I’ve spelled out the first few points: my rejection of equality as a proper goal; my belief that it is more promising to change social institutions than the attitudes and behavior of individuals; my acceptance of capitalism and of globalization. Now let me turn to items five and six:
5) Technology is more a blessing than a problem. Our future depends on encouraging and managing technological development.
6) Global warming cannot be stopped solely by reducing individual consumption but requires mainly structural, especially technological, innovations.
Opposition to technology has become a facile shibboleth, especially among intellectuals. It’s part of a general lifestyle that prizes the natural, the small, the homey and unpretentious. Actually, that lifestyle mostly appeals to me too. I certainly don’t crave ostentatious belongings or fashion. But technology is a different matter; I view it mainly with enthusiasm. In its linkage with science, it tends inherently toward elegance and simplicity. As Mark Kingswell stated in a column today in the Globe and Mail, there’s a tendency to judge in terms of Ockham's Razor. A mathematical proof that is shorter is better than one that’s longer. A machine with only four moving parts is better than one with five (assuming, of course, that it accomplishes the same objective). In science and technology alike, simpler is better.
But Kingswell also points out that technological innovations are not always for the better. He mentions computer systems, for example, as susceptible to changes that complicate rather than simplify. Microsoft Word is a perfect example. I used to do everything useful with it, using techniques that any normal human being could master. Now I cannot use half of its functions properly, and I cannot even turn off the little bully who pops up on my screen to offer his advice on how to write a business letter.
So technological “improvements” do not necessarily improve. And we’d be better off if we could steer clear of such complications — which we cannot do because other new softward that’s coming up now cannot interact with our old applications, so we have to keep upgrading even if we dislike the changes.
It bugs me too. But then, when I compare what I can accomplish today with what was possible a decade ago, I realize that even these stressful changes have paid off. I can produce Peace Magazine, for example, with perhaps one-fifth the amount of work that used to be required. And where I had to run around southern Ontario wasting gas, scrounging for photos and having them made into screened PMTs, which then I would slice up with a T-square and paste onto boards with hot wax — well, the time, money, and environmental impact of current technology is vastly superior than that of even fifteen years ago. It’s worth the effort required to master these new programs.
The generalization is this: there is an enormous and continuing decrease in the amount of physical stuff that goes into producing a magazine. But what makes up for it is the increasing amount of know-how that’s required. Knowledge uses very little energy and raw materials; and pollutes not at all. For example, I bought a new program that makes crossword puzzles for the magazine. I downloaded it, paying with my credit card on-line, so they didn’t send me anything physical at all. But it was really hard to learn. This morning, at least six months after I bought it, I think I have figured out how to use it for the January issue of Peace. Until now, I’ve continued using the old program, which took me all afternoon to create each puzzle. Now that I know how, this new program will do it for me with five minute’s work.
This is absolutely a normal change in today’s world. It’s not just Peace Magazine that is undergoing such changes. Ours is increasingly a knowledge economy. We need to realize that today’s economy is not primarily one involving the manufacture or transportation of physical stuff. We can sit at home in our pajamas, reading policy papers and writing blogs that make more difference in society than do the workers who handle material products.
But those manual workers are also caught up in the process of technological change. Lots of their jobs are being exported overseas, and the ones staying here involve increasingly efficient means of production. Trade unionists complain, and one has to worry about the young people who flip burgers for low wages. Those who don’t keep up will be in trouble, just as I am because I haven’t spent enough time learning Microsoft Word’s new stunts.
But of course a magazine is a physical item, made of paper and ink. It still has to be hauled around, and it fills up garbage dumps when people toss it out. Magazine publishers kill trees. Obviously, the thing to do is switch to on-line magazine publishing. Peace Magazine does put its contents onto our web archive, but there is room for improvement. So far, readers have not liked the little portable machines that have been produced to allow us to read books, magazines, and newspapers on-line. My assistant Ken does read whole books on his Palm Pilot while riding the subway, but very few of us would do the same. What we really need is a great new technological breakthrough that will produce an electronic device that we’ll enjoy handling as much as we like our paper publications. (See photo.) I hope that will happen soon — and I trust that it will, probably within a decade.
So stop being so snooty about technology. We need it. That’s the only way we’re going to survive as a society, for at the rate we’re going, we will use up all the raw materials and drown in the debris we are creating. Technology can make production more efficient, thereby saving forests, gasoline, and all the rest. And, as Amory Lovins and his partners have shown, this is possible. In their book Factor Four, they show that it is possible to double the output of goods with half the amount of material inputs that we're using now.
As I showed with a graph on a previous blog entry, the worldwide price of commodities has been declining for centuries, despite the growth in human population and of capitalistic production. Why? Because technology keeps getting more efficient, using materials that are more readily available. That’s the result of capitalism. Manufacturers depend on price signals to tell them when to look for cheaper means of production. When the price of copper goes up, for example, the telephone companies switch to fiber-optical cable (made from sand, basically) and then to wireless. You can count on capitalism to drive this trend toward efficiency. So be grateful to these greedy capitalists!
What that also means is that we need to use price-signaling more effectively to introduce changes that we will not carry out, as individuals. The modern state subsidizes all kinds of production as a boon to private interests. For example, the nuclear industry does not have to charge consumers the full price of electricity, for accidents are not insured against catastrophe, and the costs of dismantling the nuclear plants and disposing of the waste are also not covered by the price of the electricity. If these “externalities” were included, consumers would quickly realize that certain renewable forms of energy are cheaper than they appear to be now.
You can pretty much bet on this: Individuals will not change their lifestyles voluntarily enough to reduce global warming. I try, but I’m not even getting close. The best way to force us to change is by using price signals on a big scale. A carbon tax will do so — though any politician will have to swallow hard before coming out in support of such a mechanism. If we switch away from paying income taxes and start paying for the full costs of energy and pollution, the changing incentive structure will make immense, but disagreeable, changes in our consumption habits. That will also send a message to the capitalists who plan ahead, so they will quickly search for new and more economical sources of energy and natural resources.
Changing your own lifestyle is a great thing, if you will do it. And if everyone else will do it. But that means that you can’t fly around on airplanes anymore, say, or eat meat from ruminants. Are you going to stop doing those things this very day?
I didn’t think so.