The Technological Fundamentalism Boomerang

Robert Jensen describes the dark side of the faith that technology can continue to solve all our problems. Excerpts below.

Link: Technological Fundamentalism In Media And Culture By Robert Jensen.

An honest assessment of the culture’s technological fundamentalism makes it clear why Wes Jackson’s call for an “ignorance-based worldview” is so important. Jackson, a plant geneticist who left conventional academic life to co-found The Land Institute [] to pursue projects about sustainable agriculture and sustainable culture, suggests that we would be wise to recognize what we don’t know. His point is that whatever the advanced state of our technical and scientific prowess, we are — and always will be — far more ignorant than knowledgeable, and therefore it would be sensible for us to adopt an ignorance-based worldview that could help us work effectively within our limits. Acknowledging our basic ignorance does not mean we should revel in the ways humans can act stupidly, but rather should spur us to recognize that we have an obligation to act intelligently on the basis not only of what we know but what we don’t know.

If we were to step back and confront honestly the technologies we have unleashed — out of that hubris, believing our knowledge is adequate to control the consequences of our science and technology — I doubt any of us would ever get a good night’s sleep. We humans have been overdriving our intellectual headlights for thousands of years, most dramatically in the 20th century when we ventured with reckless abandon into two places where we had no business going — the atom and the cell.

On the former: The deeper we break into the energy package, the greater the risks we take. Building fires with sticks gathered from around the camp is relatively easy to manage, but breaking into increasingly earlier material of the universe — such as fossil fuels and heavy metal uranium — is quite a different project, more complex and far beyond our capacity to control. Likewise, manipulating plants through traditional selective breeding is local and manageable, whereas breaking into the workings of the gene — the foundational material of life — takes us to places we have no way to understand.

These technological endeavours suggest that the Genesis story was prescient; our taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil appears to have been ill-advised, given where it has led us. We live now in the uncomfortable position of realizing we have moved too far and too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage safely the world we have created. The answer is not some naïve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of what we have created and a systematic evaluation of how to step back from our most dangerous missteps.

Did Cheap, Abundant Energy Encourage Overpopulation?

Richard Heinberg presents an ecological view of energy and popluation at Global Public Media. Most of us don’t want to acknowledge this view of reality, so denial will be a common response.

The key question is: What is the human population carrying capacity of the earth without cheap, abundant energy?

Link: How Do You Like the Collapse So Far? | Global Public Media.

Everyone knows things are going wrong. But if you understand ecology, you know this in a way that others don’t. It’s not just that the current crop of world leaders is idiotic. It’s not just a matter of a few policies having gone awry. We’ve been on a perilous track since the dawn of agriculture, capturing more and more biosphere services for the benefit of just one species. Fossil fuels recently gave our kind an enormous economic and technological boost—but at the same time enabled us to go much further out on an ecological limb. No one knows the long-term carrying capacity of planet Earth for humans, absent cheap fossil fuels, but it’s likely a lot fewer than seven billion.

To be sure, some of us are better able to handle the information than others. Many fragile psyches come unhinged without constant doses of hope and assurance. And so for their sake we need continuing positive messages—about a project to make a village sustainable, or about a new coal power plant halted by protest. Some will cling to these encouraging news bits, believing that the tide has turned and we’ll be fine after all. But as time goes on, collapse becomes undeniable. Limits to growth cease to be forecasts; instead, we see daily proof that we’re hitting the wall. As this happens, those who can handle the information spend more of their time managing the fraying emotions of those around them who can’t.

As the Great Unraveling proceeds, there may in fact be only one occupation worthy of our attention: that of identifying the qualities that make our species worth saving, and then celebrating and exemplifying those qualities. If we concentrate on doing that, perhaps we win no matter what. Outwardly, it will probably look a lot like what many of us are already doing: working to save a species, an ecosystem, a human community; to make a village sustainable, or to halt a new coal power plant.

Taking in traumatic information and transmuting it into life-affirming action may turn out to be the most advanced and meaningful spiritual practice of our time.

When Composting Becomes Essential

John Michael Greer describes how composting will gain status in the ecotechnic future — when fossil fuels are no longer feasible for fertilizing crops. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: A Theology of Compost.

What makes composting such a useful template for an ecotechnic society is precisely that it highlights the ways such a society would have to differ from the way things are done in today’s industrial civilization. Some of the crucial points of difference that come to mind are these:

First, where industrial civilization converts resources into waste, composting converts waste into resources.

Second, where industrial civilization works against natural processes, composting works with them.

Third, where industrial civilization requires complex, delicate, and expensive technologies to function at all, composting – because it relies on natural processes that have evolved over countless millions of years – thrives on a much simpler and sturdier technological basis.

Fourth, where industrial civilization is inherently centralized, and thus can only function on a geographic and political scale large enough to make its infrastructure economically viable, composting is inherently decentralized and can function on any scale from a backyard to a continent.

Fifth, where industrial civilization degrades exactly those factors in its environment that support its existence, composting increases the factors in its environment that support its existence.

Finally, all these factors mean that where industrial civilization is brittle, composting – and future ecotechnic societies modeled on the composting process – are resilient.

From the contrast between the monumental absurdity of industrial society’s linear transformation of resource to waste, on the one hand, and the elegant cycle of resource to resource manifested in the humble compost bin on the other, it’s hard to avoid moving on to challenging questions about the nature of human existence, the shape of history, the meaning of the cycles of life and death, and the relationship of humanity to the source of its existence, however that may be defined. The practicalities of composting can’t be neglected in any sense – nor, of course, should the romantic dimension, when that shows up! – but the insights made available by a philosophy and a theology of compost may yet turn out to be at least as valuable as either.

Barriers to Clean Energy in the US

This article from Grist describes why we are not adapting to the new energy realities and recommends some solutions. Excerpts below.

Link: New energy rules could unleash an economic boom and help quash climate change | By Timothy E. Wirth, Vinod Khosla, John D. Podesta | Grist | Soapbox | 22 May 2007.

Why aren’t we moving faster toward a clean energy future?

Huge society-wide change comes only when millions of consumers change their habits, and consumers will not change their energy habits until we reach the "crossover point" at which clean energy beats coal and oil on the basis of price, convenience, and availability.

Right now, most drivers cannot pull into a gas station and fill up with domestically produced biofuels. Most homeowners cannot choose wind- or solar-generated electricity to power their appliances. Going green too often costs more — in time or money.

Change won’t come until the price is right. That price is set by the market, the market is shaped by rules, and the rules favor fossil fuels.

If we want to change the future, we have to change the rules.

Rules matter. Rules define the character — and shape the future — of the society that makes them. Democracy’s distinguishing excellence lies in its ability to write the rules in a way that serves the common interest.

Good rules align the interests of individuals and corporations with the public interest, so that business can profit in ways that also make society richer and safer. This is the foundation of sound public policy. When high purpose is combined with the profit motive, the results can be astonishing. Time and again market capitalism, bounded by smart rules designed to serve the public interest, has delivered the desired result more cheaply, quickly, and easily than anyone thought possible.

Unfortunately, rules that are passed to advance the public interest can come, over time, to harm the public interest.

The rules we have now encourage the use of energy — especially oil and electricity. For most of the 20th century, this was smart policy. Electrification of the U.S. economy produced huge gains in productivity and quality of life. The increased mobility of people, goods, and services had similar benefits. Using more energy did not make us dependent on foreign oil. As late as 1940, the U.S. produced 63 percent of the world’s oil, compared to the 5 percent that came from the Middle East.

But the world is very different today. Geologists estimate that the Middle East has over 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves, the U.S. just three. And carbon dioxide emissions from our power plants and vehicles are wrecking the world’s climate. The rules need to change.

The rules today give oil and gas companies — the most profitable industry in the history of the world — billions of dollars in tax breaks and research subsidies. The rules do not factor in the indirect costs of oil — the cost of protecting oil supply lines to the Middle East, the cost of oil price shocks that lead to recessions, and the cost of intensified storms that make coastal property uninsurable. Insurers have priced insurance in Florida so high that the state has stepped in and pledged tens of billions of dollars in public money if a major hurricane strikes — despite the fact that neither the state’s catastrophe fund nor the state-chartered insurance company has anywhere near enough money to pay the claims.

The rules perpetuate our energy habits. Auto companies sell cars that get as little as 13 miles per gallon — something they could never do in Europe, Japan, or even China. Utility companies make more money when their customers waste energy and less when they save it. Developers build with energy-inefficient materials because they don’t have to pay the utility bills. And power plants use the atmosphere as a free garbage dump for their global-warming emissions.

We need new rules that will make the best choice for the country also the best choice for consumers.

Here are five more rule changes that would reduce emissions, give consumers new choices, launch new businesses, and accelerate the profitable transition to new energy technologies:

  • Put a price on carbon.
  • Set "carbon efficiency" standards for vehicles.
  • Make energy efficiency the business of utilities.
  • Modernize the electric power grid to be more efficient and better deliver clean energy.
  • Increase government support for clean energy.

via Clean Break

Energy: Paying Now or Paying Later

Sara Robinson at Orcinus on There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL):

Years ago, bars used to offer a "free lunch" as a way to draw customers. Of course, the drinks in those bars cost twice as much, so the lunches weren’t really "free" at all. Similarly, in complex systems, what looks like the cheapest solution to a problem often turns out to be the most expensive one in the long run. TANSTAAFL is a way of saying, "Don’t expect something for nothing — there’s always a hidden cost somewhere."

Fossil fuels have been a big free lunch, until we found out that there was no "away" with those, either. And now we’re going to get to spend the next 50 years trying to pay for that long lunch. There are a couple lunches that look considerably cheaper right now — biofuels and nukes among them — but anybody who thinks those are going to be free is kidding themselves, too.

Jim Jubak at MSN Money (U.S. economy’s fate in Saudi hands – MSN Money) describes the Saudi stranglehold on the U.S.:

I have bad news for anybody who thinks that this Saudi control over the U.S. and global economies is a brief phase that will end by itself. The decision among oil producers such as Saudi Arabia to shift away from being a mere producer of crude oil to becoming a producer of value-added products made from oil — such as gasoline, fertilizer and plastics — will prolong the economic clout of these countries. Saudi Arabia will go from being the low-cost swing producer of crude oil to being the low-cost dominant producer in gasoline, fertilizer and plastics.

The only thing that changes this game — that redresses the balance between supplier economies and consumer economies — is a change in the price signals that consumer economies send in response to price increases. As long as the response to an increase in the price of oil is an increase in consumption, then oil prices will drift higher at a pace set by the self-interest of oil producers. Those of us who live in the consuming economies will just have to hope that the Saudis and other oil producers efficiently milk consuming countries’ cash-cow economies.

On the other hand, if higher prices lead to less consumption because consumers become permanently more efficient in the ways they use energy, and because consuming economies adopt lasting sources of alternative supply (and don’t abandon them at the next dip in oil prices), then consuming countries have a chance to take back some degree of control over their own economies.

Do we really need alternative sources of energy?

Do we really need to cut back on energy consumption?