A Technophiliac Klutz

I think it’s vital for groups such as ours to consciously strive for diversity of opinions—“bridging social capital” as Putnam calls it. So I’m posting a series of 26 of my previous blog entries in which I reveal opinions that clash with (so far as I can tell) most Science for Peace members. It originally appeared in http://bit.ly/p6mnyR. Feel free to comment; debate is the whole point.

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A Technophiliac Klutz

Don’t try to tell me how anything works. It won’t sink in. It takes me ages to learn how to operate any technical gadgetry (including “Minnie,” my Apple Mini computer) and even so I can’t understand the theory behind it. I’m a klutz, but not a technophobe. Indeed, I have immense respect for technology. Hats off to Mr. Goodwrench and the Maytag Repairman!

Oddly, my enthusiasm puts me into an underpopulated category, for most of my friends regard technology as inimical to civilized living. To be sure, they use it, but they fear it. Mostly they expect Hal the Robot to take us over, and fear that if we don’t watch out we’ll lose our feelings for humankind and nature. They believe that the only way to prevent that, and to protect our planet from devastation by technology, is to cut back on our use of natural resources and revert to a simpler, even rural, way of life. I’ve made it my mission to combat that perspective, for I say that climate change and ecological sustainability require us to foster technological innovation as if our lives depended on it — which they do.

Question: How has humankind managed to multiply six times over since the Industrial Revolution, while raising our standard of living and life expectancy, and making raw materials more abundant instead of increasingly scarce?

Answer: By inventing more efficient technologies using alternative materials. But only when the population grows do such innovations enter the picture. Without population pressure, we’d never change. Societies are culturally conservative; they don’t change until forced to do so. The “Population Boom” that began after World War II has been a great blessing.

The tons of new innovations coming along prove my point. So don’t run off to the woods, Scaredy Cat! Our life style is going to be marvelous right here in our cities, thanks to the guys who used to be called “Slide Rule Boys.” (What do they call them now? “BlackBerry Boys”?) I’m immensely grateful to be alive at this thrilling period of history, when the challenges are urgent and new answers are coming at us every day, pell mell. Let me mention just two of today’s breakthroughs.

From Tacoma, Maryland there’s a new report about energy, “Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy.” Its subtitle says “Protecting Climate Will Require Essentially Complete Elimination of U.S, Carbon Dioxide Emissions by 2050.”

Sounds right to me. But can it be done? Yes, says the report’s author, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, who heads the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. He thinks “it won’t cost an arm and a leg to eliminate both CO2 emissions and nuclear power.”

Better yet, for all us materialistic types who don’t want to reduce our standard of living, Makhijani’s “Roadmap” concludes that the United States

“can achieve a zero-growth CO2 economy without increasing the fraction of Gross Domestic Product devoted to lighting, heating, cooling, transportation, and all the other things for which we use energy. The fraction was about 8 percent in 2005. Net U.S. oil imports can be eliminated in about 25 years or less.…

“North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska each have wind energy potential greater than the electricity produced by all 103 U.S. commercial nuclear power plants. Solar energy is even more abundant — solar cells installed on rooftops and over parking lots can provide most of the U.S. electricity supply. Recent advances in lithium-ion batteries are likely to make plug-in hybrid cars economical in the next few years.

“Plug-in hybrids should become the standard-issue car for governments and corporations in the next five years. That demand will make prices come down to the point that it can become the standard car design in the next decade…

“The study recommends an elimination of subsidies for nuclear power and fossil fuels, and also for biofuels like ethanol when they are made from food crops. …

“The study recommends a ‘hard cap’ on CO2 emissions by large fuel users [that] would be reduced each year until it reaches zero in 30 to 50 years. There would be no free emissions allowances, no international trade of allowances, and no offsets that would allow corporations to emit CO2 by investing in outside projects to reduce emissions….”

Copies of the 23-page executive summary are available. The full report will come out later and be published as a book by RDR Books this fall.

Excellent! How reassuring! The only remaining question in my mind comes from early in the introduction to the report, which refers to the recommendation by the European Union to cut greenhouse gases sufficiently to limit global temperature rise to about 4 degrees Fahrenheit. I understand that we have to keep the increase to less than two degrees. Four would be far too much. But perhaps it’s a difference in scale that explains the discrepancy. Does it equal two degrees Celsius or what? Would an increase of global temperature 2 degrees Celsius equal 4 degrees Fahrenheit. I should be able to figure that out but, as I admitted, it’s far too hard a problem for us technological klutzes to solve.

Moving on, we come to the most interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail: a story about a British Columbia family who are building a cob house. (See photo for example of cob construction.)

Now this is a kind of technology that may even appeal to my friends, for it is not a new innovation at all, but a return to an ancient method of construction – with dirt. The builders mix clay with straw and pumice, using a rototiller to stir it efficiently, then form it into thick walls, covered with plaster on both sides. This vastly reduces the need for wood. The particular house now under construction will also have dirt floors heated by solar-warmed pipes.

(As a girl in Oklahoma I once visited a child whose family living in a shack with a dirt floor. It wasn’t a pretty sight, so it’s hard for me to imagine having a luxurious house built for myself with dirt floors and walls, but that news item has forced my mind open a little wider.)

The importance of this story is not mainly esthetic. It bears upon an issue that I’ve been debating with my friend Derek Paul, who hosted a conference on forestry recently that predicted, by means of a mathematical model, that we’d run out of wood in a specific time period (I don’t remember when). My point was that no mathematical model can predict when some innovation will come along that completely changes the demand for any product, including wood. So here we are – with an innovation that may handle the shortage very neatly. I don’t know what percentage of all wood harvested goes into house construction, but it must be significant.

Moreover another significant portion of wood is used for paper, which again may be about to undergo some dramatic changes. Newspapers everywhere are losing readers. Most people get their news from the Internet or from television. If this continues a large amount of wood will not be made into paper, as Derek’s model probably assumed.

And book sales are another area that may change dramatically. So far I have not even considered buying one of those newfangled screens the size of a book that hold up to 500 books. I’ve heard that most people don’t like them as well as paperback books. But surely that technology is going to develop. I look forward to carrying a whole library in my purse, including the Sunday New York Times. And perhaps today’s Wall Street Journal, which was sold only yesterday to Rupert Murdoch in the hope that its possession of Dow Jones will enable the paper to survive. I won’t be reading the reports of my own investments, but intend to follow assiduously the stories about technological innovations and economic changes.

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