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.

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