On 13 February 2015, the journal Science published an article titled “Fund climate intervention research, study says.” The article reports on the findings of a National Research Council study, which advocates slowing global warming by spraying microscopic particles into the upper atmosphere, thereby reducing the brightness of the sun.
In an apparently rational tone, the Science article discusses not the pros and cons of re-engineering the atmosphere, but reports on obstacles to manufacturing public approval for the approach. Noting the “albedo modification” proposal “faced skeptics from both right and left — from conservative lawmakers who felt it addressed a nonexistent threat and from environmentalists worried that geoengineering would sap support for [CO2] emissions cuts,” the article ends on an optimistic note, suggesting that hopefully the study “will end such gridlock — and help the United States avoid the controversies that have crippled climate engineering research elsewhere.” Nevermind people who worry something might go wrong or who like seeing the sun.
Such technological approaches to resolving problems with climate change are not motivated by concern for the environment: they are a way to increase funding opportunities for researchers while divorcing science as a social enterprise from moral questions about what science does. In terms of the psychology of addiction, this is organized science proposing to act as an enabler.
The straightforward policy solution to the current level of American CO2 emissions is to make energy more expensive. If energy were more expensive, Americans would use less energy and CO2 emissions would decrease. No risky, high-tech research subsidy is required. This is Economics 101.
Policy can’t change what people believe about CO2 emissions, but policy can change how individuals spend their money. The price system is how society makes collective decisions about the allocation of resources in a market economy. To save the planet, individuals would determine how to spend the money they aren’t spending on expensive energy.
Making energy more expensive doesn’t just mean increasing the cost of electric light and Internet browsing. Meat is very energy-intensive to produce. Since it takes far more energy to produce a pound of meat than it takes to produce a pound of vegetable protein, the price of meat would increase under this scenario. People would eat less meat as a result. Eating meat three times a week instead of three times a day is the easiest single thing Americans can do to reduce CO2 emissions. This would additionally reduce animal cruelty, reduce antibiotic consumption, and reduce agricultural runoff, leading to cleaner water. Since 80% of antibiotics used in the United States are given to livestock as a preventive measure, reducing antibiotic consumption would also help preserve one of the most effective tools available to modern medicine, which is presently under threat from over-use and drug-resistant bacteria.
The only sane way to view the National Research Council’s geoengineering report is as a provocation. It means that the American lifestyle cannot continue. It does not mean that we need more technology to keep living the way we do. It means technology has pushed us to the brink of ecological catastrophe.
The belief that more technology will solve the problems created by technology is an irrational article of faith. Modern technology simply hasn’t been around long enough to demonstrate that it can solve the problems it creates. The rise of modern technological civilization — which is the proximate cause of climate change — dates to the inventions of the Newcomen and Watt engines around the year 1750. These inventions — which powered the industrial revolution — were inspired by two principle causes: the Renaissance revival of Vitruvius and his three departments of architecture (buildings, machines, timepieces), combined with the need for an energy subsidy in the face of widespread wood shortages caused by deforestation (the steam engine was invented to pump water from coal mines because the English ran out of wood to burn for fuel).
Given that modern technological civilization is only some 250 years old, then if follows that: 1) modern technology has been an unbelievably destructive force globally when viewed across civilizational time scales, and 2) viewed across civilizational time scales, there is an almost complete lack of evidence that modern technology is able to solve the problems it creates. Geoengineering is a short-sighted solution, and probably insane.
The Connection to Growth
The only demonstrably effective way to reverse course is to slow the rate of technological growth. Today’s rate of growth is not some inherent feature of technology, but a political construct put in place after World War II. It is a (largely unexamined) policy problem. I know how repugnant ending growth must sound to a researcher, for whom the search for truth has become a secondary concern, but it’s the most logical solution. Occam’s Razor agrees.
Growth will end. We have only to decide whether it ends rationally or in disaster.
In the 18 July 2014 issue of Science, Kendra Smyth reviews the new book “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert. The book documents past mass extinction events and situates the present loss of biodiversity — due to human activity — within this context.
If it is the case — as Smyth writes — that “with warp speed humans are responsible for transforming the biosphere” and that “humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches,” then this state of affairs would seem to draw attention to certain un-examined assumptions behind statements like “humans have succeeded extravagantly.”
Specifically: perhaps our characteristic intelligence is not at all a survival advantage, but rather a genetic fluke, and the relative youth of our species (behaviorally-modern humans are roughly 50,000 years old) may then simply indicate that natural selection hasn’t yet gotten around to knocking us off the food chain. Perhaps this is a hypothesis better left untested. Perhaps we’re only “succeeding” insofar as we’re eliminating ourselves faster than natural selection eliminates other species.
It would also seem that the West’s post-Renaissance preoccupation with technological progress conceals an irrational vestige of our religious heritage: an irrational faith in a technological savior to the eschatological trajectory of technology. That is, we eagerly anticipate a technological solution to the problems created by technology. Given that modern technology is only 300 years old (beginning with the Newcomen engine in the early 1700’s) there is very little evidence in the history of the human race to support the view that technology will solve the problems of technology, making such beliefs very much an article of faith.
To quantify the aforementioned state of affairs, it may be worth beginning with an honest discussion of the heresy of diminishing returns. If one looks at the productivity of the US healthcare system, for example, we see a straightforward diminishing returns curve:
The meaning of the above chart is that relatively few medical innovations have made a substantive difference in quality of life and overall health outcomes: sanitation and hygiene (in the mid-1800’s, Ignaz Semmelweis at Vienna General Hospital decided that doctors should wash their hands), anesthetics and analgesics (patients used to die of shock during surgery), antibiotics (developed for around $20,000 of basic science research), and the vaccine. Since then, modern medicine has been largely concerned with addressing the problems of technological civilization, such as poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and environmental pollution. And medicine has been growing exponentially more expensive. Unfortunately, there are few patents to be found where a change in cultural values is what is needed: you can’t patent a healthy diet and exercise, so well-funded science turns its attention elsewhere.
Although diminishing returns is a well-documented economic phenomenon, it receives scant discussion in the mass media, which is otherwise filled with breathless accounts of the latest and greatest gadgets. The phenomenon is by no means limited to the healthcare industry, but appears throughout the economy. If one looks at, for example, the cost per patent over time, a similar curve emerges:
The above chart illustrates a simple point: patents get more expensive over time because most of the easy and most pressing problems get solved first. The diminishing marginal utility kicks in as more specialized patents affect fewer numbers of individuals, in contrast to patents with a more broad applicability that affect many people.
Here is what diminishing returns on investments in technology mean in cultural terms:
Fracking is a new energy extraction technology with many harmful consequences, including heavy water use, irregular seismic activity, and environmental pollution. Fracking is becoming an increasingly popular way of extracting energy for two main reasons: politically, Americans don’t want to depend on foreign energy sources; and, culturally, Americans want to persist in destructive, wasteful habits. Driving in automobiles is inherently wasteful, as over 2/3 of the energy purchased as gasoline is not converted into motion, but rather lost as waste heat. Fracking is a harmful technology designed to preserve a wasteful mode of transit for cultural reasons. Busses (measured in passenger miles per gallon), trains, and urban living are by far more energy efficient and less environmentally costly.
Many Americans delude themselves about their habits by purchasing “green” products like hybrid automobiles. While hybrids produce fewer emissions while in operation, they are more complex than conventional automobiles, use more energy-intensive materials, and they rely on toxic chemicals for their batteries, so that, on the whole, they may actually produce more pollution than typical internal combustion engines. If one purchases a hybrid with the goal of reducing carbon emissions, one would do better to adopt a vegetarian diet. Doing so reduces carbon emissions, reduces antibiotics use, lowers medical costs by improving diet, and reduces animal cruelty, without further concentrating wealth in the hands of the industrial system that profits from marketing “green” products that aren’t actually all that “green.”
Dietary modification, despite its advantages, requires self-control and a change in cultural values. Unfortunately, scientific and technological “progress” plays the role of an enabler for bad habits. These bad habits seem poised to wipe our species off the face of the planet.