The seductive lure of toys that promise solutions without change
Reading about the sunken tidal turbines — which seem interesting — I got an overwhelming feeling of "here we go again."
Why is it that people who know that "eat the foods you love and lose weight without exercise!" is hokum can’t resist spending hours and hours hyping and being hyped about technotoys that promise "abundant low-cost clean energy that lets you lose carbon without reducing consumption!"
I’m an engineer. I like engineers. But most of the engineers I’ve known are, at some level, stuck at the "bigger hammer" stage of development. ("Won’t move? Well, you just need a bigger hammer! Here, I’ve designed this one, and it should do the trick.")
In the utility industry, some wag (probably Lovins, but I’m not sure) called this the "edifice complex." The utilities like to build plants and put the names of executives on them — if you conserve your way out of the need to build the plants, there’s no edifice.
In the Bigger Hammer stage, the thinking is that for all problems there is a technology solution.
That’s the way good engineers are — they can’t sleep because they see a better way to use materials and science to solve a problem. (To do for a dime what any damn fool can do for a dollar, as one of my profs liked to say.)
So I have no fundamental beef with the pursuit of new technologies (toys) to provide the services we want and need with lower environmental cost. (For example, here at Gristmill I recently posted a call for people to help convince Google and Mapquest to tweak their technology to make it more useful for low-impact means of getting around.)
And tidal turbines might work out, as might some of the many, many other wondertoys that are constantly being conjured on this list as if they were waiting in the wings, ready to stroll on stage.
What gives me gas is that I notice how rapidly, at least in America (the only place where I have a lot of direct experience), Wondertoys are unmatched in their ability to worm their way into and quickly take over what are nominally environmental discussions.
Take Gristmill, for example. It seems like more than half of the discussions here either start out as or soon get turned into technology "evaluation" threads, albeit mainly through handwaving and what I can only call magical optimism, all boiling down, at some level, to "don’t worry, Wondertoy X is on its way, and that’ll take care of it." Followed by the necessary corrective of "well, that turns out to have been way oversold." And off we go, madly typing about different techno fixes for our real fix (the consequences of all our previous techno fixes).
Is this fascination with wondertoys a necessary painkiller for the grim state of the environment? Do we naturally prefer thinking about the shiny new toys to considering, "OK, that’ll be great if it works out; meanwhile, what do we do if it doesn’t?"
I guess I’m just saying that there is something important lost when environmentalists spend a lot of time as technology boosters, because when we do that we, in a sense, leave our posts as environmentalists and become just more droplets in the wave of demand for things that will let us continue doing business as usual.
"Ethanol will save us from having to change!"
"No, it’s hydrogen!"
"No, not hydrogen, biodiesel!"
"No, not biodiesel, butanol!"
Maybe I’m just weary of fighting the dominant paradigm.
This morning I plan to go testify at a hearing on a transportation "plan" that is essentially nothing but a roadmap for more carburban sprawl, including a massive, costly new bridge across a river.
Nowhere in the "plan" do the words "peak oil" appear, or do the "planners" even state their assumptions about the costs of gas or the effect of carbon taxes. They have defined their problem as "too much congestion" and they have a new, bigger, multi-million dollar hammer (a new bridge) that they’d like to throw at the problem. Behavior change/non-tech solutions just aren’t in their worldview.
But if the technotoy blogs and magazines are all filled with discussions of the next cool new toys and the environmentalists spend all their time thinking about the next wave of cool new toys, who’s minding the store as far as the non-tech solutions we’re going to need? I know they aren’t discussing non-tech approaches over at Popular Mechanics and Green Car Congress or any of the bazillion other places where people go to talk toys.