Why technological solutions to tackling climate and resource issues probably won’t work.

“We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it”. Stewart Brand’s brand of eco-pragmatism, spelt out in his new book Whole Earth Discipline, is prefaced with his knowing nod back to the Whole Earth Catalog, this time with added urgency. And being god-like involves solving the accelerating climate and resource crisis by adopting nuclear power, learning to love GM crops, and indulging in quite a lot of geo-engineering. A review by Jon Turney in The Guardian seemed to welcome Brand’s vision of “a new generation of science-led, environmentally aware ecoengineers who recognise that the state of the Earth is now in our hands”. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it’s worth unravelling some of this. The first point is that as the triple impact of resource scarcity, climate change, and increasing global population becomes more apparent, and as we continue to do little to mitigate them, the clamour for technology-based solutions grows louder. But they’re unlikely to be successful.

On energy, Brand is not the only environmentalist suggesting that nuclear power is the solution. James Lovelock said much the same thing a few years ago. At a technical level, David Mackay argued persuasively that the risks of radioactive leakage were lower than generally advertised, and that the embedded carbon in the tonnes of concrete in the construction were not substantial enough to cause concern. Earlier this year an Oxford scientist suggested that concerns about radiation risks were overblown. And the government would like to build quite a lot of them.

On GM foods, the UK Government’s Chief Scientist, John Beddington (who has been worrying about the 2030 “perfect storm” for some time now)  promoted GM foods as part of the solution in a speech at the beginning of January. His predecessor, David King, was an advocate, and  the Royal Society is also in favour. The Gates Foundation has also been funding some research (link opens short video). Indeed, there are days when this queue seems to stretch down the hall – Mark Lynas joined it recently.

Cunning plans

Geo-engineering has been getting increasing amounts of airplay as well, although fiddling about with the atmosphere seems by far the riskiest of these endeavours, and by some distance. Jamais Cascio has written about it extensively (though with some caution), and Bill Gates has just stumped up several million dollars, personally, for research. Even Peter Harper, at the National Centre for Alternative Technology (whose environmental credentials are impeccable) has suggested that (opens in pdf) we may need “big technology” such as geo-engineering, mass carbon sequestration, and nuclear power to save the day. (When I saw him talk on this he used the phrase “cunning plans“, which didn’t completely inspire confidence, given Baldrick’s success with them in Blackadder).

The issue here is that these are not just technical questions. They also imply a worldview, which tends to get submerged (and assumed away) in technical and scientific discussions. The first part of this worldview is that large centralised solutions, sometimes run by organisations which are not accountable, are better suited to solving the problems we face than more diverse, more local, and more accountable solutions. (They might be, but I’d prefer to have the assumption out in the open where it can be debated).

Judging systems by what they do

There’s a fundamental systems principle which says that one should judge a system by what it produces rather than what it says it produces.The record for the large technical centralised solutions isn’t good. Vandana Shiva has written of how genetically modified crop systems in India create financial dependency and debt among Indian farmers, sometimes leading to suicides, without necessarily increasing outputs. In the UK, Rob Hopkins of the Transition Movement wrote a critique of GM recently.  And in general, the output of the nuclear power system, certainly historically, has primarily been to transfer millions of pounds from taxpayers to construction companies and utility companies to build plants which are delayed and whose energy invariably costs more than was originally estimated. [Update: Craig Severance is sceptical at Energy Bulletin.]

The second part of this story is that the push towards technological solutions is presented as being unproblematic, even though it also has a clear opportunity cost. Funding and technological expertise do not get spread across multiple possible solutions but concentrated on the preferred one. David Elliott has noted (opens in pdf) that Germany and Denmark, the European countries which have made most rapid progress on renewable energy, are also those which made the clearest break with nuclear power, and now dominate the sector, at least in Europe.

Technology only delays decline

And the third part of the worldview embedded in the acceptance of technological solutions is a reluctance to accept that we’ll need to get by on less in a world with less resources; it’s a way of delaying the consequences of our over-consumption. The problem is that it does seem only to delay it. Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of The Limits to Growth, observes that when they run their World3 model, technology is never a panacea:

You will note I say that technology may delay the end of growth a few years, but it does not avoid the end of growth or the decline. I have worked in science and technology, and I have a scientific degree, so I am not saying this because I am unaware of what technology can do. When we put together models using phenomenally optimistic assumptions, it just moved the decline date back a few years. all it does is delay the end of growth for a few years.

Increasingly, economists – at least those out of the government and financial mainstream – are concluding that the notion of “green consumption” is a contradiction; we can’t maintain our present material standard of living by applying more sustainable technologies in place of our present less sustainable ones, and hope that consumption will fall. Indeed more resource-effective technologies appear to increase consumption, rather than reduce it – this is the Jevons Paradox, first outlined by Stanley Jevons in The Coal Question in 1865.

And the argument in favour of geoengineering is that it might, it could (it’s always described conditionally) delay global warming long enough so that we change our energy consumption patterns and don’t hit the tipping point of global temperature increase where positive feedback loops send the planet into a rapid cycle of warning. It is no more than a stay of execution. There are risks, of course, as Jamais Cascio explained in the Wall Street Journal:

Geoengineering won’t solve global warming. It’s not a “techno-fix.” It would be enormously risky and almost certainly lead to troubling unforeseen consequences. And without a doubt, the deployment of geoengineering would lead to international tension. Who decides what the ideal temperature would be? Russia? India? The U.S.? Who’s to blame if Country A’s geoengineering efforts cause a drought in Country B?

Responding to failure

In short, all three of these solutions take me back to Thomas Homer-Dixon’s description, in The Upside of Down, of how failing systems respond, short-term, to the increasing signs of the failure. In short, he suggests that such systems use technology to postpone the point at which they have to adapt to a changing external environment. But there is a large price to be paid, in terms of complexity and rigidity; and the collapse, when it comes, tends to be sharper and steeper. In the cases discussed here, the rigidities and complexities include new laws constraining the ownership of crops (and seeds) and, as with the British nuclear power industry, an extension of the powers and size of the separate police force which supervises their security. In practice, it is likely that the solutions to climate and resource pressure are going to be less palatable, at least for those living in the rich parts of the planet: less consumption, and more equitable distribution. (We could feed everyone on the planet now, but don’t, partly because it’s not in the interests of the large companies which dominate the food sector.) These are political questions, not technological ones.

I like Stewart Brand. His book on MIT, The Media Lab, was one of things which got me interested in futures. How Buildings Learn is a wonderful history of adaptation. The Long Now is thrilling. His role as a lifetime cultural provocateur has been invaluable. And this is the main value of his most recent book. It is also a provocation. Its gleaming techno-utopianism – how Californian! – forces us to think hard about the politics involved in resilience.