Wednesday, March 7, 2012

You can't eat technology

This is an edited version of a comment I made on reading Paul Gilding's account of the annual TED gathering, that he spoke at. His account comes with a video of his great 16-minute speech, well worth watching so I have included it here. However, his written account also explains some of the reactions to his talk at the TED conference and it's also well worth reading.

The “we can solve anything” mentality becomes more and more typical, the further you get from physical, especially natural sciences.

In economics, nonsense about “dematerialising” the economy, as though we can have infinite growth magically uncoupled from and unrelated to our finite physical world is perhaps a most extreme example.

Fukushima, once the initial disaster had occurred with the failure of the backup generators, suddenly became a no-win scenario. All we get is a limited set of very nasty choices, where it’s probably not even clear which is the least-worst option.

Someone sitting in a university lab writing papers can assume that new generation nukes can be 100% safe, but that’s because they only ever look at them on paper. I’m a qualified mechanical fitter; one of our popular jokes is that our job description is to fix the engineers’ mistakes (and they make plenty!). Everything gets harder once you start putting it into practice.

We need to realise the complexity of nature and that all our existence relies on it. We still don’t properly understand weather patterns like ENSO (El Niño) and can’t predict droughts or floods caused by it. We still don’t understand groundwater well at all, as the debacle of fracking has painfully reminded us.

We can’t make artificial food. When agricultural systems fail on a large scale, we can’t just switch on a magical synthesizing factory to make food out of air and water, or base minerals. You need farms to make food, and farms need suitable water and soil and weather. "Synthetic food" has been produced as a chef's novelty - but uses ingredients derived from plants to begin with.

One thing that the tech and economic optimists ought to focus on, however, is largely within our reach. We can control our own impact. We can reduce our footprint from technology. We can take out of the market those sectors whose growth most threatens us: put them in public hands or ban them altogether (think of asbestos, then apply that to coal and oil).

Certainly we can be optimistic, but we need an energy revolution and as Ian Angus says, you don’t get win-win revolutions: the old has to go to make way for the new. Political conflict is necessary and inevitable.We shouldn't fear it or hide from it, we should seek to have the maximum input into it.

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