Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Small and Inadequate — or Big and Risky?

There’s a profound conflict going among today’s . To some extent it’s internal—within each person’s heart – but mainly it’s between different individuals who take opposing sides. The dispute has barely been articulated, but it is implicit in several familiar debates. I myself have been in a painful conflict with one of my dearest friends over precisely this issue, and I will try once more now to identify the issue that divides us.

There are two antithetical perspectives on the confronting us today. I continued defending my own analysis in most of the blog entries of September. Let’s call my approach “technological.” I believe that the only way we can move forward, rather than collapse into a preindustrial-level way of life, is by fostering radical technological innovations.

My friend, on the other hand, is horrified by approaches. Instead, she believes that the so-called “” reflects certain fixed, immutable limitations imposed by nature itself. It is not only the impending loss of new sources of oil that worries her — though she and other Peak Oil believers do expect that the earliest threat to human survival will not result from climate change but from the decline of cheap fossil fuels.

However, even if oil were endlessly abundant, she believes that the delicate and wonderful balance of nature is being destroyed by human activities of all kinds. Whatever we do, we do on such a scale that nature can no longer repair itself. Everything that human beings produce requires the “through-put” of material resources. If there were only a few million human beings, our economic productiveness would not exceed the capacity of nature, as a self-sustaining system, to regenerate itself. But now we are killing the biosphere, and we can’t even predict the dire consequences of our risky new technological innovations.

In her opinion, the only way to protect the Earth is to simplify our way of living. We can survive only in small, rural communities, confining ourselves to the homespun lifestyle that uses the least possible amount of natural resources. Thus she and her husband are going to one of the most remote areas that they can find, where they will build “cob” houses from pounded earth, with dirt floors and building materials that are available on the spot. A already exists where they are going, and they will join it and live “humbly,” in harmony with nature, raising their own food and working with their hands.

This “experiment,” my friend believes, will invent new solutions to the problems that the remaining members of humankind are bound to encounter within a few years, for most of us must perish as cheap energy is depleted, as the ecosystem is disrupted, and as global climate change brings the inevitable collapse of urban civilization. But their experiences will provide a legacy for the few who survive.

Who dares criticize this touching, romantic vision of ? After all, hundreds of other remarkable persons, including Thoreau, Rousseau, and Gandhi, have also pursued wisdom by periods of rustic living, or by emulating an imaginary “Noble Savage.” Still, their insights, however great, were not derived from nature.

As for more ordinary people, countless utopian farming communes have been founded in the past, usually by a visionary preacher or social theorist. So far as I can discover, these rural have contributed no new innovations that humankind at large has deemed useful, and few of them have survived more than a couple of decades. Perhaps the communards’ souls were purified by the experiments, but no one today feels grateful for what they have given us.

Many people half-share the perspective that my friends have so fervently accepted. There is surely much truth to the notion that human beings on this planet are stumbling around blindly, doing things whose implications we cannot foresee. Everyone would prefer to know clearly when we are about to harm — or, for that matter, when we are about to make any irreversible mistake whatever. Unfortunately, such is the human condition. We cannot be sure of the outcome of our actions. We must act as responsibly as we can, and if we make a mess we must try to clean it up. But with the best will in the world, we will inevitably make mistakes. Living more simply will not keep us from moral catastrophe.

Indeed, on the contrary, the choice to leave modern urban society and live with less material complexity is likely to have more harmful effects than staying at home and working on the same issues that we city dwellers must address. There’s no escaping our challenges. Human evolution proceeds as a ratchet; every time it moves up a notch, built-in constraints arise, making it impossible to return to an earlier level of development.

This ratchet-effect primarily results from the tendency of populations to expand insofar as the means of subsistence permit it. And the means of subsistence increase whenever the population increases. Historically, technological innovations have taken place only when it has become necessary because of population pressures. As Malthusians claim, we run into the limits of the land’s “carrying capacity” – i.e. we may briefly even exceed our “ecological footprint.” And then someone has to get clever and invent a solution.

My friends have reified the “” idea – treating it as a fixed, finite limit that cannot be exceeded very long. In fact, the concept is meaningless except in relation to a particular level of technology. It is precisely when a human population is in dire straits that innovation takes place. For example, hunting and gathering tribes never took up farming voluntarily. They hated it, by and large, because of the hard labor it required. Only when the game and wild food became scarce did societies resort to farming — and in doing so they increased the carrying capacity of the land by orders of magnitude. was probably the first scholar to establish the power of as a prerequisite for .

My friends are going back to the land, planning to reduce their living conditions to a level that they could sustain by themselves after urban civilization no longer exists from which they can obtain convenient goods. In effect, they will return to the developmental level of our grandparents and previous ancestors.

But all our grandparents had very low levels of productivity. With luck and good health, my Oklahoma sharecropper grandfather was able to support his wife and children, if they worked hard too, but there was no surplus with which to fund universities, hospitals, theaters, publishing houses, or foreign travel. If his radio broke down, Grandfather could not have repaired it. The carrying capacity of his farmland was far less than it is today – but vastly more than it had been at the outset of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the human population has multiplied six times since the mid-1700s, while the living standards have also multiplied many times over. , education, access to food, water, shelter, and medical care are all vastly higher because of the technological changes that were prompted by the expanding population.

So the ratchet effect is this: we cannot go back to simpler technological levels because we really would exceed our “ecological footprint” if we stopped growth and development. The land would not support more than a few million human beings at such a level of technology — possibly up to one billion, but no more — so that five out of every six human beings would die. The only way to support us all is to move forward, developing technological innovations even faster than before.

And this we are doing. I am thrilled to be alive at this moment in human evolution, when we are on the verge of enormous breakthroughs beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined. Life forces us to be courageous and inventive. Hallelujah!

My friends realize that their rural “experiment” cannot be useful to the billions of people who now inhabit cities. They acknowledge, when pressed, that they do not believe a population of this size can be sustained. Premature death, in one form or another, is in the cards for most of humankind. But they are not thinking about how to prevent that catastrophe. Instead, my friends have apparently given up any prospect of making a difference to those of us who are alive. They seek instead, only means of subsistence that can be handed on to the few who survive the looming disaster. What a terrible prospect!

However, there will be certain satisfactions for my friend. Though she does not look forward to the hard work and deprivation of her new lifestyle, she loves the beauty of nature and likes to believe that she can protect some part of it. And she tells herself that her experiment will benefit humankind as well, for our high-tech creations will destroy us all, and she will be saving a little haven for a few of our descendents.

That’s her choice: to sustain something small that is totally inadequate for humankind. My choice is to foster big innovations that will enable humankind to survive and prosper — even though they entail unknown risks.

Most urban people are not curtailing their polluting habits voluntarily. I doubt that they will, as individuals. Yes, they will change their light bulbs, but much more is required. Only structural changes can save us – legislation that impose carbon taxes, for example, or that refuse to build new runways at airports, so that air travel cannot grow. But there are wonderful new brilliant proposals as well — ways, for example, of removing the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The BBC has been showing a series of visionary technological innovations —“five ways to save the world.”

One is ’s “” that removes CO 2 from the atmosphere for storage underground permanently. I love this idea. For $1 trillion or so, we can reverse the worst of the greenhouse gas mess for good. Lackner is building a prototype already.

A second idea is ’s plan to enlarge the areas of the ocean where can live, for they, like trees, take carbon dioxide out and give us back oxygen. Jones would spread granular urea over the desert areas of the ocean that lack phytoplankton, fertilizing them so they can be great carbon sinks.

A third proposal is ’s idea: to put a million thing glass flyers into space where they can block about two percent of the sun’s rays, thereby reducing global warming. (Unfortunately this scheme would cost $4 trillion and take thirty years to complete. It’s not my favorite proposal among the five, mainly because it sounds completely irreversible. )

Fourth, there’s ’s idea of launching rockets to create a high in the stratosphere to counter global warming. Crutzen already won a Nobel Prize for helping to explain how the ozone layer is formed and depleted. His new plan is based on the notion that aerosols block the sunlight (e,g. the eruption of ) and cool the planet somewhat. Launching hundreds of sulphur rockets into the stratosphere would do the same thing. Unfortunately, no one knows what other consequences might result from this. Only in thirty years or so, when the crisis of global temperature becomes critical, are we likely to attempt such a project.

Fifth is ’s plan to pump fine sea water up, making clouds and thickening them to reflect more of the sun’s rays. This idea, like Crutzen’s, is based on the notion of “.” If we can increase the reflectivity of clouds by about three percent, the cooling will balance the global warming called by greenhouse gases.

All five of these plans offer potential ways of saving the world. They are all expensive. No one knows how risky they may be. To my friend, these wild ideas are abhorrent, but to me they all offer potential partial solutions to the worst crisis facing humankind. I would definitely support experimenting with these ideas on a small scale. Do a little of each while there is still time, for otherwise — as in the New Yorker cartoon where the prophet wears a sandwich board — “The End is Near.”

My friend would prefer a small, inadequate solution that basically writes off the opportunity to save six billion human beings. I prefer taking certain unknown risks that may move humankind forward into a new era.

Oddly, my preferences seem to resemble those of (see photo), the ex-hippie New Age guy who founded the . In the September 8 issue of The Economist, there’s an article about Brand, whom they describe as a “pioneer of both environmentalism and online communities.” Decades ago he was the popularizer of small-scale technologies to enable individuals to reduce their impact on the biosphere. Yet today he supports several “environmental heresies.” For example he accepts genetic engineering, urbanization, and nuclear power. He claims (and I agree with him) that mega-cities are increasing the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans. Surely it is easier to save energy by living in high-rise buildings near subways (as I do) rather than in the countryside. Cities are also the sources of innovation.

Brand believes in genetic engineering because that’s how to feed humankind. I interviewed recently, the father of the Green Revolution for India, and his slogan is: “.” He is developing such plants as rice that can withstand salt water (they contain genes) so that when southern India is flooded by the rising ocean levels, food can still be grown. He needs to make haste, since climate change is coming up quickly, but he needs to go slowly enough to check for potential negative effects.

That’s a good suggestion in general. Make haste slowly! Because human evolution is a ratchet system of progress, we have to move forward by developing ever more and better technological inventions. Yet there are always possibilities with each new innovation that we will make a mess.

That’s life. You move ahead because you can’t stop unless you’re willing to let humankind perish. Yet you have to expect mistakes — maybe big ones — and plan to clean them up as you go forward. What a marvelous adventure! I’m a real coward about physical risks. I won’t ski or even roller-skate. But this kind of thrill is magnificent. We have to take chances because life requires it of us.

I don’t know that all these risks are equally worth taking. I wouldn’t send a million glass disks into space to shade the sunshine, and I am not ready to accept nuclear power. (In ten years, if the other technologies aren’t working well enough, I may accept nuclear energy temporarily.) Brand’s friend is not willing to take the nuclear risks yet — and he, more than anyone else, has shown how far we can go in developing more efficient new technologies that can enable all six billion of us to fulfill our long life expectancies.

But the other ideas sound worth exploring. Big and risky is better than small and inadequate. Definitely.



Anonymous rex said...

Let's all (individually) do our best to come up with solutions that might work for all of us. But let's not do anythng that cannot be undone if it doesn't work the way we hope it would work. We must never forget that we are all moving forward into an always unknowable future! Let's seek consensus on our plans (to minimize our human limitations) & withhold action as long as possible! If it becomes necessary to act before we have reached a general consunsus, let's continue to seek consunsus until a general consensus has been reached (so we can see that general consensus is possible!) But we must still be careful not to do anything that can't be undone (before it kills us!), because even general consensus can't guarantee success!

10:25 AM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

I agree completely, Rex. I wouldn't withhold action as long as possible, but I'd try to start pilot projects that are not likely to cause runaway problems. You're right, though: the future is always unknowable.

11:35 PM  

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