On online wag recently noted that at Bell Labs — one of the most productive, innovative places the world has ever seen — the slogan was “Never Schedule Breakthroughs.” A breakthrough is just that: a radical and unpredictable reorganization of understanding. Waiting for one is like trying to solve one of those elaborate circular garden mazes by assuming a teleporter to take you straight to the center.
We might well need some breakthroughs to survive the climate crisis, and it will be nice if we get them, but I’m much more impressed by things like this, a serious incremental step, than I am by the wondertoys we’re so often told to ogle. The FLOX work is a great example of the trench warfare of science and technology. It can help buy us time to radically reduce our energy demands and switch off fossil fuel use entirely — time to aggressively apply every off-the-shelf idea and practice we have now, without hypnotizing ourselves with the need for “breakthroughs.”
Anyone who thinks we can afford to wait for breakthroughs to start radically changing paths has to answer this question: If you think we need breakthroughs to survive the climate crisis, why shouldn’t the public just count on a better breakthrough, one that not only solves the current problem but also makes up for future inaction? If your personal hoped-for breakthrough is practical cellulosic ethanol at scale from wastestreams, then why shouldn’t the next person say that the breakthrough he’s waiting for is a cellulosic/terra preta process that both provides fuel and traps carbon? After all, breakthroughs are like miracle ponies — no point in setting your sights too low, right?
Talking about breakthroughs means whispering a subtext: “All will be well, all will be well, all will be well.”
Admiral Rickover, a cast-iron SOB but a very smart guy, used to talk about how the most dangerous thing when humans are running complex machines like submarines and nuclear reactors is precisely this — the will to believe that “all is well,” the human tendency to put the best possible interpretation on every sign that might suggest trouble. It’s particularly true if responding to the signs as if they were trouble would involve lot of work that might turn out to be unnecessary.
Nearly all of Rickover’s extraordinarily successful efforts to put nuclear reactors at sea safely boiled down to his ability to create a culture where people habitually shake off the “will to believe” and force themselves to consider each tiny stray problem … a little water in a bilge, a random spurious alarm that never stays locked in, a slight change from an expected lab result … to react to the data without subconsciously putting the “best face” on it. In other words, the Navy’s ability to use high-school grads to run hundreds of nuclear reactors under difficult circumstances for decades without killing anybody depends on going against basic human nature and refusing to be lulled into thinking “all will be well” unless and until you put it well.
I submit that this is a challenge we Americans uniquely face — we are steeped from birth in a culture precisely the opposite of the one Rickover created in the nuclear navy. In our world view, everything will be all right somehow, even if we screw off right up until the last moment. (Not for nothing was Bill Murray’s Stripes a hit movie … it’s all about refusing to do the boring grunt work but saving the day through style and panache at the last minute.)
We need a cultural movement to say that, while breakthroughs are welcomed, they are far less important to our survival than our willingness to follow the disquieting data, even when it means work, and costs money, while telling ourselves that there will be no breakthroughs and that, if we’re going to save this ship (and thus ourselves), it’s through conscious reordering of our habits, not breakthroughs.