Sunday, March 25, 2007

The silver bullet is aimed at us.

Silver bullets are great things. When a big, slobbering werewolf crashes through your door and gives you that look that says, "Yay! I won't have to raid the chicken coop tonight!" the availability of a silver bullet can mean the difference between survival and a scene of blood and gore that your nearest and dearest won't be eager to clean up after.

We relish the idea of having that sort of decisive, 30-caliber effectiveness in real life. It's an especially compelling hope when the problems you're faced with seem overwhelming. But when it comes to technological solutions to environmental problems, all too often the ideal is the enemy of the good.

Why invest in improved mass transit when the "antimatter economy" is just forty years off? Why build wind farm capacity today, when by 2107 roving bands of nanobots will be hunting down carbon dioxide molecules and beating them up in back alleys? Why eat a responsible diet today if you figure that tomorrow holds a cheap pharmaceutical cure for your every ill?

Some solutions really would make a huge difference, like nuclear fusion. It's clean, it's fueled by one of the most abundant substances on Earth, and it's been just-a-couple-of-decades-away since 1950. While I think that is partly due to chronic underfunding, the truth is that we can't base our future on the assumption that it will pan out in time.

Other solutions, like the much-touted "Hydrogen Economy" strike me as overhyped and impractical. Why would auto makers be excited to build a hydrogen car in 2020 when they claim they can't survive even moderatly increased fuel-economy standards today? I believe that the Hydrogen Economy exists primarily for the purpose of siphoning interest away from alternatives that are viable right now.

There is one last category of silver bullets, which are highly worrying to greenies like me, but excite the business world. Genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology hold tremendous promise, but also the potential for huge -- some would say "disastrous"[1] -- consequences if handled improperly. Now, some will tell us that Our Corporate Masters(TM) are going to be careful about what technologies they introduce and mindful of the potential consequences. It's safe to say that these people are on crack. Given our current corporate structures and incentives, it's perfectly reasonable for a corporation to look at a memo from one of their research teams entitled "If We Release This Product, Saber-Toothed Cows May Overrun New York" and delay the rollout only until their legal team assures them that they won't have to foot the bill for the cleanup.

Potential negative effects don't matter as much to corporations as they ought to, because the decision-makers and investors are shielded from most of the consequences. Nothing short of outright fraud can put a CEO in jail, and the worst that can happen to investors is that the value of their stock drops to zero.

Okay, I'm headed off on a big fat ranty tangent here. Instead of continuing down this path, I'll simply recommend that you read William Grieder's The Soul of Capitalism. It should explain why I don't believe corporations -- as presently constituted -- have the necessary incentives to properly weigh the broader consequences of their actions.

Without heavy (perhaps even stifling) standards for proving the safety of these new products, we're faced with a situation where each problem we try to solve may end up causing three new ones. Of course, biotech has enormous potential applications for creating new medicines, cleaning up toxic chemicals, sequestering carbon, and making agriculture more productive. But we need to tread very cautiously. Look at the problems we caused ourselves with ordinary pollution, and then imagine how much worse it would be if the toxic agent was no mere molecule, but a self-reproducing organism.

For most people, it's easy and comforting to believe that technological progress will step in to preserve our current way of life. The alternative -- contemplating major reductions in our consumption -- is downright scary. But I think it's absolutely necessary, and probably healthier for us in the long run.

I'm absolutely not implying that we shouldn't be pursuing new technologies. Instead, I'm saying that true silver bullets don't exist. When cars were introduced, they seemed like a perfect solution to our transportation needs. We didn't predict the side-effects of global warming, sprawl, urban flight, or social fragmentation. But they still occurred, and we're dealing with the consequences. When we finally figure out nuclear fusion, what will be the consequences? Will our energy problems be solved, or simply magnified by the subsequent reliance on new industrial processes with high energy inputs? It depends primarily on what we choose to do with it.

Maybe in twenty years, we'll discover some tremendous, completely unintended consequence of a new technology, but -- as with automobiles today -- we'll be so dependent on it that we can't possibly turn it off again. Unexpected problems will arise because we're so eager to let new technologies transform our society over and over again. The attitude is, once we've gained some new capability (such as those provided by cars, or the Internet) we tend to use it to the hilt, heedless of the dangers. Why not grow all our food in Iowa, produce a city's energy five hundred miles away, get all our manufactured goods from China and have all our critical documents stored on a server in Palo Alto [3]? There's no chance these systems could be disrupted, leaving us stranded, right?


[1] Upgrade that to "cataclysmic," and a Hugo-winning sci-fi story can practically write itself.

[2] There is no two.

[3] I'm lookin' at you, Google Docs.

What Would Jesus Drive?

As an environmentalist living in a state where "liberal" is a dirty word, I think I've come to recognize -- and maybe even understand -- the patterns of thought that hinder our progress.

  1. The world is very big, while humanity and its needs are tiny by comparison.
  2. Environmental restrictions are an onerous restriction on personal freedom.
  3. Technological progress and human ingenuity will save us from any environmental excesses.

I believe that -- at least to a first approximation -- the first idea has its origins in a very specific conception of God. According to this conception, God had a plan to establish humanity as the dominant species on the planet, and [preferred deity gender pronoun] created the Earth to fulfill the needs of the species. Environmentalism is therefore seen as a repudiation of the commandment to use the Earth as we see fit, and the sustainability movement seems to imply that God screwed up by not anticipating our current needs.

Maybe this is a shamefully misleading caricature of my opponents. But my reason for suspecting that is that it's so easy to refute this depiction, that it hurts my brain to think that anyone could actually believe it. The words of actual anti-environmentalists only lend support to the idea. Here's Rush Limbaugh's take:

In fact, that passage [by Michael Crichton] is one of the things that helped form my whole thinking on the concept of the complexity of all of this that is our planet and the impotence that we really have to do anything about it. The idea that by improving our standards of living, that those characteristics of our existence will destroy us, is, frankly, just absurd. I contend you cannot believe in God and believe what the global warming crowd believes. You can't. The two do not go hand in hand. You have to actively not believe in God and believe in something else as a replacement, in order to hold this catastrophic climate crisis view that they all have. [source]
Of course, I do believe in global warming, and I don't believe in God. But it's not necessary to be an atheist; you simply have to not believe in the same conception of God that Rush does.

Well, I promised that this viewpoint was pretty easy to take apart, and I guess it would be rather anticlimatic if I didn't demonstrate the fact. It seems to me that their conception of God is a right-wing, consumerist convenience not derived from any scriptural source. This god could not have merely provided us an inheritance that could bring us happiness if used responsibly. No, sir. The only logical course of action was for the Creator to provide a canvas big enough to support all the desires and cravings of as many descendants as humanity could ever want to bear.

Why should we believe that, though? Understand that this is the same God who promised the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey, then stuck them in the one spot in the parched, sandy Middle East that doesn't have significant oil reserves[1]. Okay, cheap shot. But I can't recall any scriptural support for the idea that God will protect us from the consequences of our own stupid actions. A quick glance through the annals of history would similarly reveal a God who often steps aside and lets humanity reap what it has sown. So why this loophole that protects our environment from the consequences of the pursuit of material gain? Why don't the anti-environmentalists say what they really think: God loves us and wants us to have SUVs?

There is some evidence, of course, that any Creator would want and even expect some level of economic development for our own benefit. How else to explain the digestive tract? We need "stuff" to survive, and that stuff invariably comes from nature. But one solitary verse about "replenishing" and "subduing" [2] can hardly be bootstrapped into a comprehensive environmental and economic policy. If the Lord Almighty didn't specify One True Global Carrying Capacity, we should assume that we're supposed to figure out the limits of creation for ourselves, rather than assume that no such limits exist.

This conception of God also ignores ample evidence that our happiness in this life isn't supposed to come from ever-expanding material consumption. It's supposed to come from things like loving your neighbor, doing good works, and smiting the enemies of the Most High.[3] I disagree with quite a few religious ideas about how to live happily, but there are some valuable ideas to be mined, ideas which some self-proclaimed religious people seem to have rejected in favor of "The Cult of More".

The Cult of More is the fundamental idea, lodged deep in the American psyche, that the solution to all our problems, from the environment to poverty to that deep, abiding sense of purposelessness that infects the lives of so many. It also considers American-style, cutthroat capitalism to be the ideal means of achieving economic growth. Environmentalism, anti-corporatism, and anti-consumerism all threaten the tenets of The Cult of More, and therefore constitute a grave threat to the happiness of every American.

The Cult of More offers false promises of salvation, and provides the first line of defense for the greediest and most socially damaging practices of modern corporations. The truth is, there simply isn't enough planet to raise everyone's standard of living to that of the average American. That standard of living is even less attainable when we start trying to figure out how to achieve it for future generations, and it falls pathetically short of the lavish lifestyle that our society promotes as ideal.

If you're like most religious people, you must have been taught somewhere along the lines that values like service, sacrifice, kindness, and compassion would bring more happiness than material wealth. As we live our lives in a world that risks being drowned in the sea of our wants, we need to settle on a new set of priorities that will let us achieve greater happiness at less ecological cost.

I'll be covering the other two articles of faith (Regulation as Anti-Freedom and Technology as Savior) in separate posts.


[1] According to Wikipedia, Israel produces about 2700 barrels of oil a day, or enough fuel to power three Hummers. They also note that the population of African elephants has tripled in the last six months.

[2] Genesis 1:28

[3] We seem to have the smiting bit down pat. In fact, our government spends $400B a year on smiting-related expenditures. Can we please work on the other two for a while?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Paean to the 'lectric cars

My letter to, in response to someone complaining that a switch to electric cars would make us even more dependent on coal. My main point was that, if built properly, electric cars could act as grid storage devices, making wind power far more reliable as an alternative. But, as usual, I got all long-winded about it.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Soylent green is people!

That's all I could think when I read this story about Ventria's new genetically modified rice with human genes.

Of course, the joke doesn't quite work, because the rice is intended solely for manufacturing medicine, not consumption. But I'm convinced that the ultimate goal here isn't to make medicine for third world countries, as the article suggests. Had that been the true goal, they would have put the genes in crabgrass or plankton or sardines. You know, things nobody would consider eating.

No, this is a shot directly across the vegetarians' bow. Put enough human genes in your vegetables, and you end up with carrots that scream when you try to eat them.

Meanwhile, PETA is trying to shame Al Gore into adopting a vegetarian lifestyle. That makes all kinds of sense to me. There are billions of cows on this planet, each belching out methane (a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) at a prodigious rate. Also, vast swaths of land are being deforested to create grazing land in South America, so they can ship beef northward to feed our already chubby butts. A worldwide shift to a vegetarian diet would probably reduce the amount of economic activity needed to feed humanity by an order of magnitude. Plus, rodeo clown unemployment would skyrocket. So really, there are no downsides!

Mister Gore, as one of the most influential people in the environmental movement, you could do great good by drawing attention to the environmental effects of the meat industry. Also, it would be a great personal favor, as I'm currently heavily invested in tofurkey futures. Put down the burger and back away slowly!