Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Can technology save us?

with 33 comments

I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday.  It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.

In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.

She then looks at how, since our governments announced they were not going to do so, private investors are now involved in a race to return to the Moon (and win a $US 20 million prize). Just after 11 minutes in, however, economist Marianna Mazzucato makes the point that private sector development would never happen unless governments first spent money innovating (just look at your Computer, iPhone, or SatNav).

This is followed by an examination of the invention of graphene (i.e. the repeated use of sellotape to produce a film of graphite comprised of only one layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal matrix). It is truly astonishing what graphene can do – including carry the weight of a cat…

After 23 minutes, a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all. However, Bronnin then presents the example of Professor Robert Langer at MIT. What he is doing – and enabling others to do – is truly amazing; including potentially doing away with the need for chemotherapy to treat cancer.

After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…

However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.

It presents the case for synthetic biology, which has now succeeded in genetically modifying cyanobacteria so that they use photosynthesis to produce ethanol. This is brilliant, but, it is still only recycling CO2 (it is not removing it from the biosphere). With this technology, we could stop the CO2 content of the atmosphere from rising (but it will not help get it down again).

In the final 10 minutes of the programme, Bronnin presents the inspiring case of the British inventor, Michael Pritchard, who miniaturised water treatment technology as a result of watching the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; when people were surrounded by water they could not drink…   Indeed, to prove that it works, he even gets Bronnin (at 54 minutes) to drink water extracted from a tank including all kinds of unpleasant things including dog pooh…

For all these reasons, if you have not seen it, I would recommend that you watch the programme:

Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.

Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.

In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.

Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy – and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.

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33 Responses

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  1. Well said.

    argylesock

    13 April 2013 at 14:14

  2. Nothing is infallible, including technology and our ability to solve our problems using it. We should also consider the number of problems that we create with it too. Driven by the right motives, it would no doubt offer our species an awesome future – but I’m not sure I include either warfare or the pursuit of unconstrained wealth as the “right” motives.

    There is a very real hubris in presuming upon the past too far. I have never died before. Does this mean I can presume upon my immortality?

    Furthermore the dependence upon the continued operation of the complex interconnected global civilisation that we currently experience mostly depends upon the continued operation of technology. A special sort of vulnerability is introduced in this configuration as a disruption in one area of the system can rapidly propagate and impact upon the whole system. In an age of rapidly escalating impacts, that does not augur well.

    ccgwebmaster

    13 April 2013 at 18:28

    • Thanks for that. Your second paragraph is even better at conveying the point I often try to make by referring to the driver of a car accelerating towards a brick wall turning to his passenger and optimistically saying “so far so good…”!

      More and more economists are now coming round to accept that Lord (Nicholas) Stern was right to point out that conventional cost-benefit analysis does not apply to deciding whether or not to try and mitigate climate change (see A Blueprint for a Safer Planet (2009?)).

      Martin Lack

      13 April 2013 at 18:40

  3. Technology will have to save us, nothing else will. As far as doing it by modifying behavior alone, that would mean culling 90% of the herd. To start with. The easiest way to modify behavior is by making expensive what is really expensive, instead of throwing subsidies at it. Starting with energy. No more two weeks vacations in Thailand, you little greedy ones! And no more cheap appliances from China! Real austerity, not just austerity for the destitute…

    Patrice Ayme

    13 April 2013 at 19:44

    • As I have said to you before, Patrice, my intention is now – and always has been – to emphasise the point that technology alone will not prevent an ecological catastrophe. On the contrary, such a belief is an excuse for continuing with “business as usual” – and it will simply expedite that catastrophe.

      Martin Lack

      13 April 2013 at 21:23

  4. Considering that it is technology which has enabled us to “conquer” nature and thus the degradation of the environment which is a consequence of that it seems most unlikely to this writer that the cause will also bring about a cure.

    Thomas Foster

    13 April 2013 at 22:26

    • The genus Homo has been technological for 5 million years. Give or take two million. Homo is the cure for life.

      Patrice Ayme

      14 April 2013 at 01:18

      • If we Homo Sapiens have been technological for 5 million years, we have spent most of that time being very unsuccessful; and have spent the rest being far too successful. Is there no scope for just living in harmony with our environment (as opposed to being at war with it)?

        Martin Lack

        14 April 2013 at 20:01

        • Hominids has been masters of the environment for at least three million years. By a million years ago, only Homo was left (but for places like Flores). Dozens of megafauna species got annihilated.

          Homo’s technology has extended to the entire Earth for at least a million years. The Earth itself was turned into a tool. A tool we are not at war with, but that we use.

          Patrice Ayme

          14 April 2013 at 23:26

        • A utilitarian attitude to Nature is one that does not recognise its inherent value (i.e. which it would have even if we did not exist). Seeing ourselves as superior to Nature rather than as part of it has resulted in our not living in harmony with it. This is, by definition, equivalent to being at war with Nature. QED.

          http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/nature-is-not-your-enemy/

          Martin Lack

          15 April 2013 at 09:07

        • Call it what you want, Martin. Man manipulates nature, and that nature one calls nature has not been “natural” for more than a million years. Except if one views man as part of nature!

          Patrice Ayme

          15 April 2013 at 10:21

  5. In a word no- fossil fuels in the narrative to human endeavour were and are too good to be true. Think about it, coal- oil-gas were the ultimate resources that allowed us in turn to leap generations in technology, population [which is essential for development - the more minds the better] and efficiency. The later allowed us all to stay at school longer . you could not ask for a better gift from the gods.

    And over the last 38 years [I remember the original Tomorrow's World] there has been talk of the day oil runs out and the solution to fix it. And it has all been a huge disappointment.

    The popular narrative- the one that also acts on my expectations- has had anti grav skate boards, and flying cars but mainly it is the hidden power pack that is missing- the thing that powered the 6 million dollar man. Nature did it first and best as nothing beats a gallon of petrol, not hydrogen, not fusion, not nuclear and not chemical batteries.

    My expectations were high and whilst solar pv has crashed in price and doubled in output and the phone battery went from brick to biscuit in 20 years the big stuff has only marginally improved. My old Morris Minor [now passed on but still alive no doubt] could do 80mph at a push and 35mpg – 45 years later and the improvements are marginal. Sure the internet and mobile [predicted in a mad book I have from 1966] have transformed the way we connect but has proven that a million typewriters and chimps will not produce Shakespear.

    Have we reached the limits of physics? I want fusion to be true but I no longer expect it, or flying cars or hover boots.

    Many things which are modern inventions have their roots in the 50-60-70s and have been developed. They have been made smaller and cheaper as predicted. The electric car, the internal combustion engine, the jet, nuclear- the big stuff was around for decades before. I am regretfully coming to the conclusion that as far as energy is concerned we are reaching technological limits. If we had another 100 years of growth and no AGW then perhaps there is something we have missed but I doubt it. We have had 200 glorious inventive years and have transformed many parts of lives but not in the core areas.

    We live as long as [healthy well fed] someone 100 years ago, the rail network and post was better and faster, the food was as fresh- lots of things were similar. 50 years ago and you could find homes with most of the gadgets you find today. Sure we have digital tv but 50 channels vs 2 doesn’t make a huge difference. We have more of the same and it is cheaper and often better but not energy.

    We have blown 50million [a 100 million] years worth of stored energy in a couple of centuries. Quite an achievement- the energy of millions of years of trapped solar power. And what now- we are going to accelerate the process for zero cost in a tank with bacteria?

    If we are sensible- !- well obviously we would not waste it on crap or another iPhone upgrade or carting a ton of car to the shop to pick up 4 bags of groceries. How mad is that? But that is our future, and it will be forced on us. Economics will drive up our costs and we will all go green. I did a costing of savings on home heating- average consumption over the life of solar pv/thermal- at 7% inflation and it is more than that or will be at today’s prices it would total £150,000 over 25 years – my only suggesting is be sensible now or go mad with indulgence, doing neither would be either a waste of the present or your future.

    julesbollocks

    14 April 2013 at 07:10

    • Dear Jules, Thank you so much for taking the time to compose that response. I really enjoyed reading it. I would only quibble with one bit; where you appear to lend credence to the view that this Tommorow’s World programme is just another ‘false alarm’ regarding resource depletion. I am sure you did not intend to do this but, for the record, we are now witnessing the consequences of our failure to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Therefore, when we might run out of them is now irrelevant: We simply must choose to stop using them. Therefore, this programme did not present another ‘false alarm’. I think you will agree that, if anything, it presented another false hope. However, those who would deny the nature of reality will, of course, also point out that we need fossil fuels to make all sorts of things: This makes me wonder whether, since they can be manipulated to produce ethanol, cyanobacteria could be manipulated to produce biodegradable plastics as well…?

      Martin Lack

      14 April 2013 at 10:20

      • That’s correct- TW was addressing an issue that we all knew was coming and it gave false hope.

        What has surprised me in a relatively recent study of the issue is it is happening in a way which quite unexpected. The story is unfolding as a Greek Tragedy.

        We are not seeing a bang, or a great revolution but a slow crappy down hill slide. My last blog on graphs reckons 2005 was the peak and since we have watched fuel prices double, and disposable income diminish, and governments have replaced growth with debt. Just as the Roman Empire declined over decades it reached its limits to growth [the roads got too long and the returns on invasion too minimal] it also split into 2 halves with the successful Eastern Empire declining that much slower. The empire of the West is in terminal decline with the eastern empire of Asia finding some success in the last of abundance.

        The solution to peak oil [peak everything] is to spend more and more. tight oil, gas fracking, tar sands, Arctic drilling- this is what scraping the oil barrel looks like. The amazing trick is how it has been sold as an opportunity- a brave new energy future.

        If you look at the figures, World GDP in business is worth $70 trillion with all energy estimated at 6 to $7tr – 10% – which is amazing. It is also an industry with surprising few employees. However, whereas tar requires 130,000 workers to get 2 billion barrel per year, 50,000 workers in Saudi Arabia produce 8 billion barrels per year. If it isn’t people, it is money.

        I am sure we could produce as much synthetic oil for everything we use with the right investment and workforce but will it be worth it?

        As a young driver I worked to buy, insure and run my car and had little else- I don’t think we are prepared to spend that much on the freedom of travel or heating- technology cannot help us but changing the way we work and live will. It is a psychological problem not a technological one.

        As I say to everyone AGW, recession. peak, they will all happen and it comes down to whether we want to be prepared or kid ourselves it will sort itself out. At least we know one thing- what we have is what we have to use:- there is no fix just around the corner so no point in waiting.

        julesbollocks

        14 April 2013 at 13:29

        • All very true, Jules. The Saudis may well be doing quite well but, I suspect, they are closer to hitting the brick wall (resource depletion) than anyone else. They are certainly closer than they will admit. I seem to spend an awful lot of time wondering whether my pessimism is just end-of-the world catastrophism. However, we are not doomsayers peddling nonsense without foundation; we are the only ones looking at all the evidence and not dismissing it as part of some New World Order* conspiracy theory. We are, in short, watching the rising tide and pointing out that it will sink all boats.

          * By the way, if you have not read this NWO page on Wikipedia already, I would heartily recommend it.

          Martin Lack

          14 April 2013 at 14:16

      • This makes me wonder whether, since they can be manipulated to produce ethanol, cyanobacteria could be manipulated to produce biodegradable plastics as well…?

        I see no reason why not. Which would make your comment in your main article about this technology not helping to reverse the rise of CO2 incorrect. The danger there is that since it’s so hard getting across the message to the policymakers that rising CO2 endangers us all, we would be unwise to implement such technology (as, indeed, any technology, beginning with chopping down trees) without first acknowledging the potential global impact, and ensuring that we don’t jump from the frying pan into the, uh, freezer…

        … crowd-sourcing research funding…

        One (of the very first?) examples of this is the Dark Snow Project, with which Peter Sinclair of Climate Crocks is involved. The Dark Snow Indiegogo campaign currently has 49 days to run, so I would urge those who have a few bob spare to consider sending them their way…

        a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all

        Ain’t that the troof!

        pendantry

        14 April 2013 at 13:49

        • Which would make your comment in your main article about this technology not helping to reverse the rise of CO2 incorrect.

          Ooops! I didn’t think of that… This technology is being trialed out in the desert of New Mexico. Yes, it is space intensive, but that is no problem if the land is not being used for any other purpose.

          I seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place – with people telling me I should write more often about solutions rather than the problem and then, when I propose solutions, I have to admit that they risk of encouraging a laissez-faire attitude…!

          Martin Lack

          14 April 2013 at 14:00

        • @Martin: The cynic in me wonders whether those encouraging a positive attitude are themselves aware of the dangers of optimism; my internal paranoiac wants to know more about their ideology, so as to decide whether they’re arguing from a basis of denial.

          I think that Einstein was right:

          “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

          It’s a case of heads you win, tails you lose, given the way things are headed, which are, as Jules rightly points out:

          We are not seeing a bang, or a great revolution but a slow crappy down hill slide.

          If we as a society were serious about transforming our energy generation, we would already be building plants in desert land to use concentrated heat from the sun (via parabolic mirrors) to melt rock to turn into solar cells; rinse, repeat. The fact that we are instead still arguing about ‘the consensus’ really says it all.

          pendantry

          14 April 2013 at 14:21

        • “The fact that we are instead still arguing about ‘the consensus’” …demonstrates how successful the fossil fuel lobby has been in copying the tobacco industry’s modus operandi… Fooling well-educated people everywhere into thinking they in a fight to preserve their civil liberties (when in fact they are enabling a handful of business leaders to consolidate their wealth whilst simultaneously trashing the planet).

          Martin Lack

          14 April 2013 at 16:50

  6. Just to clarify on an issue between peak oil and AGW. Personally, I think peak has happened not only as far as oil is concerned but also reserves of gas and coal have been overestimated. I also think oil producing nations are big fat fibbers. Saudi used to export 10 billion barrels per day but it is now down to 7 because – they say – they are consuming more. It is a great place to hide decline but, it doesn’t matter, either way, exports are down. China is importing coal and home production is in decline, they say it is a safety drive to close down dangerous mines – but it doesn’t matter coal there is in decline.

    And oil is costing more and more yet the oil companies cannot tell investors the risks are higher.

    We may be lucky and run out quicker than be able to dump more than the imagined ‘safe’ limit of 2c into the atmosphere. and I would not want to test it. I don’t see peak fossil as the guaranteed saviour of AGW.

    What will be worse is the lack of preparedness of peak- just like people in recession hit Greece we will burn the park trees and trash our environment, we simply will not have the spare cash to care about the planet.

    However I think fracking in the UK is not viable and not something to worry about- too much! and the same for tarsands. Like recycling they can be side issues that distract from the real challenge at hand. [on the energy balance not driving to work for a few days would counter any savings in recycling all year- but people see recycling as the get of jail free card that must give them an unreasonable amount of green credits].

    Of course I may be very wrong.

    julesbollocks

    14 April 2013 at 14:02

    • Thanks for the clarification, Jules. I refer you to my previous response (just posted [at 14:16] above).

      Martin Lack

      14 April 2013 at 14:18

      • With reference to NWO one cannot help notice the disturbing trend of the right of the use of ‘greens’ – how they are bringing down the economy and killing pensioners and how they wish to enslave us in a totalitarian hell. Replace ‘green’ with Jew and you can see in action history repeating itself. Greens even have their very own blood sacrifice- we [I think I would be heading for the first internment camps in a UKIP dictatorship] sacrifice the babies of the third world. Green is now labelled a religion!

        My fear is not the pessimism of humanity completely entering an Armageddon but the social collapse as scape goats are sought. a night of perhaps of smashed solar panels rather than glass.already the mainstream is happy to cite single parents, people on welfare, the disabled [the bankers] the elite [who were also targeted in 1930s Germany] and now it is ok to public vent hatred at climate scientists and greens.

        We need a thoughtful, intelligent public more than ever. Crappy decline will hit us all and people need to know why and also why we need to treat it as the challenge. The fight against fascism is the fight against its roots: In fascism the once great glory of a .people has been stolen by [insert scapegoat here], to reclaim the golden age those people must be destroyed. Telling people that the golden age is never coming back and they are being lied to is to my mind the priority because the next great thing [cheap energy replacement] is not going to happen.

        julesbollocks

        14 April 2013 at 15:10

        • Agreed. NWO ideation was something I never had time to get into within the scope of my MA. However, reading the Wikipedia article, I realise how fundamental it is to the misperception of the World that afflicts so many people: whether that be Lord Monckton with his paranoia over Agenda 21 or James Delingpole’s insane inversion of reality in the 2nd Edition of Watermelons… With regard to the latter, the NWO paranoia is explicitly stated in the book’s subtitle (i.e. ‘How Environmentalists are Killing the Planet, Destroying the Economy and Stealing your Children’s Future’).

          Martin Lack

          14 April 2013 at 16:34

        • Getting a bit off track here, but I’ll chuck in my tuppence:

          Humans have to learn to co-operate, or go down the pan en masse. Global crises require global action on a unified basis: concepts that are anathema to ‘right-minded patriots’ focussing on the local sovereign lands (you know, those lands their forefathers stole from the previous incumbents). No doubt there are some who consider initiatives such as Vote World Parliament as part of the insidious NWO, too.

          There’s nowt so queer as folk.

          pendantry

          15 April 2013 at 00:26

        • Thanks for that, Pendantry. T’was as incisive as ever.

          Martin Lack

          15 April 2013 at 09:01

        • You’re welcome. PS “‘Twas“, not “T’was” – the elision is at the beginning ;)

          pendantry

          15 April 2013 at 21:06

  7. Jean and I watched the Horizon special a couple of evenings ago. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what my overall thoughts are in response to your post, Martin.

    What does come to mind is that old saying, “Never underestimate the power of unintended consequences.”

    So it may be that we are at a particular point in time, or more likely an era, where seeing clearly into the future is challenging. Or, at the risk of revealing the petty frame of mind I seem to be in right now, “I can predict anything, except those things that involve the future.” Sorry!

    The one aspect of modern life that is a game-changer is what we are doing now. Sharing ideas and thoughts across a far-flung net. Not only as the Horizon programme illustrated but as ordinary people trying to make sense of the world.

    Finally, I can’t resist responding to Mr. P’s ‘all folk are queer’ phrase. Years ago I used to live in the tiny South Devon village of Harberton (pop. 300) just a couple of miles outside Totnes. The village pub The Church House Inn was the obvious meeting, eating and drinking venue.

    One evening I was standing at the bar waiting to be served by landlord David Wright. Next to me was a local elderly Devon man sitting on a bar-stool peering into his pint. I heard him mutter to nobody in particular, in a genuine, now rare, Devon dialect, this wonderful piece of old Devon folklore, “All the world’s a little queer, except thee and me. And I have me doubts about thee!”

    With that I shall depart!

    Paul Handover

    15 April 2013 at 16:23

    • You have said this (to me) a few times now Paul, but I never get tired of it; especially when you tell the whole story of where you first heard it (this being the most elaborate yet). Many thanks once again for taking the time to comment. I am glad also that you took the time to read all the other comments (because my post was predominantly a factual description of the programme). :-)

      Martin Lack

      15 April 2013 at 17:43

      • That’s very kind of you.

        Paul Handover

        15 April 2013 at 18:46

      • @Martin psst… Paul’s told me this story before, too — but I don’t want to discourage him, it’s a great story :)

        pendantry

        15 April 2013 at 21:18

        • In my earlier days, I used to think it very sad when these old fellas couldn’t remember that you had heard all their stories before. Guess what! Now I’ve become one of them fellas! :-(

          Paul Handover

          16 April 2013 at 01:17

  8. [...] ccgwebmaster recently observed wryly in a comment on this very [...]

  9. [...] from some comments to a recent post over at Lack of Environment.  The particular post was called Can technology save us? and was a reflection of Martin Lack, the blog’s author, watching a recent BBC Horizon [...]


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