Reasons for Optimism and Concern: Can Technology Save the World?

== Can we save the world?  ==

TechnologyHopeI cannot recommend too highly an excellent article that appeared in The Guardian — Technology as Our Last Best Hope — about the concept of ecological modernism, which sees technology as key to solving big environmental problems.

“The prophets of ecological modernism believe technology is the solution and not the problem. They say that harnessing innovation and entrepreneurship — coupled with a strong overall goal of efficiency, sustainability and moving toward a smaller human footprint — can save the planet and that if environmentalists won’t buy into that, then their Arcadian sentiments are a problem, not a solution,” writes Fred Pearce.  This, by the way, is exactly the choice offered by my two “Gaian mother” types in my novel, Earth – one of them driven by nostalgia and primitivist mysticism and the other by a science-driven wish to save the world by a different route… by humanity growing up.

Pearce continues, “The modernists (e.g. Stewart Brand) wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanisation and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change. They say they embrace these technologies not to conquer nature, like old-style 20th century modernists, but to give nature room. If we can do our business in a smaller part of the planet — through smarter, greener and more efficient technologies — then nature can have the rest.”

The article is thorough, thoughtful, and well worth your time.

EnergyTrendsAnother important piece – by Amory Lovins – suggests that progress is possible. His three major energy trends to watch include accelerating improvements in efficiency,  and in renewables,  and in distributed power.  The last of these three is of particular importance, if we want a robust civilization that can roll with many coming shocks. (So I tell folks in Washington, once a year, every year, for 25 years.)

Excerpt from Armory Lovins: “The business of installing solar modules is booming. Germany took it to scale — 8 GW a year — and installed more photovoltaics in a single month in 2011 and 2012 than the U.S. added all year. That volume also cut the German installed system cost to half our costs, even though we all buy the same equipment. If the U.S. did that too, it’d have really cheap solar power, because Germany gets about as much sun as Alaska and far less than the mainland U.S. But even so, U.S. solar prices are now low enough that photovoltaics on your roof, financed with no down payment, can beat your utility bill in over a dozen states. In fact, solar accounted for 49 percent of new electric capacity installed during the first quarter of 2013 and all new utility electricity generation capacity added to the U.S. grid during March, according to SEIA and FERC.”

All of these signs of tech-propelled improvement have been fought tooth and nail by the mad right… and quite often by a smaller, but genuinely unhelpful political cult, the mad-far-left.  Somehow, amid political lunacy, science has pushed ahead, spurred by both government and market forces along with simple common sense on the part of real people.

In other words, humans and their civilization may save the world, almost despite ourselves.

== And more cause for science optimism ==

Then there is… N-Fix is a naturally occurring nitrogen fixing bacteria which takes up and uses nitrogen from the air. Applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular) via the seed, it provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix nitrogen. Plant seeds are coated with these bacteria in order to create a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship and naturally produce nitrogen.

Wow, do you have any idea how much would be saved — in energy, fossil fuel pollution and digging and waste — if most of our crops could be self-fertilizing in nitrogen?  Now add efficient algae-culture and tasty vat-grown meat, please?

==Technological solutions ==

SwedenGarbageSweden’s waste management and recycling programs are so good only four percent of the nation’s waste ends up in landfills.  (In contrast, over half the waste generated by U.S. households ends up in landfills). Yet, Sweden needs trash to fuel the waste-to-energy factories that generate electricity for a quarter of a million homes and provide 20 % of the entire country’s  heating. As a result, Sweden must now import trash from the landfills of other European countries — and those countries are now paying Sweden to do so. Alan Pierce writes, “You read that correctly, countries are paying to get rid of a source of fuel they themselves produced so that Sweden can continue to have the energy output they need. You don’t have to be an economist to know that’s one highly enviable energy model.” And an example of efficiency that is an inspiration for a more sustainable future.

In parts of the developing world, anemia is a serious problem — affecting 44% of Cambodians, and two-thirds of the children. Chris Charles, a Ph.D. student developed an Iron Fish (the Cambodian symbol of good luck), which can be added to cooking pots, to offer relief from anemia.

Technology has made a difference to quality of life in the developing world: Examples include introduction of widespread bicycles, inexpensive off-grid lighting, low-cost water purification systemswireless internet accesssolar ovens for cooking, refrigeration for vaccinescommunity radio, and so on…but access to reliable electricity remains a major problem.

Over at, the question, Can Technology save the world, is under consideration, and the responses are running 50-50.

Most-Anticipated-Business-Books-2012-abundanceIn Abundance, The Future is Better Than You Think, X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis and journalist Steven Kotler, write, “Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, women and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them….Abundance for all is within our grasp.”

== Oh but for every bit of good news… ==

There have been mistakes — and setbacks — as Silicon Valley sets out to defeat global poverty and improve the quality of life in the poorest countries around the world. In ForeignPolicy, Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur detail how some revolutionary ideas, such as the highly-touted Soccket ended up as failures in the real world.NASA image shows a nearly ice-free Alaska on a clear day.

Disturbing reflection on our priorities: Who is the highest paid public employee of each state? In 27 states, the highest paid employee is the football coach, in 13 it’s the basketball coaches, and in one state, it’s the hockey coach. The other states include five college presidents, a medical school chancellor, a medical school department chair, a medical school plastic surgeon, and a law school dean. (That gets you to 51 positions because Minnesota’s football and basketball coach are each earning $1.2 million.) All earn more than the states’ governors.KochBrothersExposed

Watch: The Koch Brothers exposed video.  Alas, the video gets far less fact-rich and more emotional. Let the emotional and more liberal-weepy parts glide past in the background while you work… and glean the (scary!) facts as they come up. I’d have preferred an analysis of WHY the New Right wanted Social Security privatized.  To dump a hundred million new “greater fools” into markets and force them to buy stocks.  Think.  Who would the retirees buy stocks FROM?Our home grown calamities appear to erupt right out of human nature itself.

Oh, but sometimes cartoonists distill truth perfectly.  Here is one example.

And ammo against grouches, from xkcd.


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