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Can technology save us?

© April 2006 Anthony Lawrence

We're running out of oil. We're running out of water. Because we're running out of water, we're going to run out of food. The ice caps are melting. The weather is changing, species are dying off. If all that doesn't kill us off, religious fundamentalists (whose numbers increase with environmental and political stresses) surely will.

It's easy enough to point fingers: big indusry, big government. Greed. Impotence. Ignorance. Stupidity. The latest conservative position here in the U.S. is that we need to devote attention to the effects of global warming rather than the causes. As maddening as that sounds, it might even be right: realistically we can't change our current way of life overnight. If we tried, there would be riots and insurrection, maybe even civil war. Try telling people that they can't drive their cars, that they need to be cold, go hungry, maybe not shower every day. Try telling them that they can't have children. Remember, a lot of those folks own guns.

Some people say we are leaving a big mess for our grandchildren. Probably true, but I think most of the people reading this will experience drastic changes in their own lives before they die. Most of those changes won't be pleasant. It's coming faster than you think and it's tough to see much hope.

And yet there is hope.

We should have run out of food already. Advances in agriculture and plant genetics saved us (though at the cost of using much more water). Those advances may have slowed, but they still do continue, and breakthroughs could spurt us forward again at any time.

While many companies still resist remote telecommuters, rising gasoline costs and increasing connectivity options are making that a more palatable choice. I do most of my work remotely now; and several people in my family work from home at least one day per week. If we can increase that trend, we can save gasoline and decrease pollution.

Genetics probably offers the most hope: breeding insect and disease resistant crops gives us increased production. Computer controlled irrigation can make more efficient use of dwindling water. Nanotechnology may someday offer other ways to deal with pests and vermin: mechanical insect and rodent control by intelligent machines might replace pesticides entirely someday.

We might even develop super foods, or re-engineer our own body chemistry to extract more energy from sources we can't even digest today. Termites digest wood; we might someday be able to eat plastic - thereby solving several problems at once. It sounds far fetched, but plastic is just a hydrocarbon. So is a steak.

I do think we're going to go through tough times. I think it is not a bad idea to own a bicycle. I'd rather not own a gun, but I'm not unhappy if my neighbor does. I wouldn't be throwing away sweaters, either.

If technology doesn't save us, well, it won't be pretty and it won't be fun. Probably the only good thing is that when we do run out of oil, global conflicts become more difficult. That won't stop a hungry mob from a drought stricken area from marching in with pitchforks and bats, but at last they won't be driving tanks or dropping bombs from on high.

But I do think that technology can save us. Perhaps not quickly enough to avoid all pain and distress and turmoil, but hopefully before we descend into a never ending dark ages.

I sure hope so.

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Mon Apr 3 04:40:17 2006: 1845   BigDumbDInosaur

Technology is what got us into this mess to begin with. Most of the problems you've outlined are very recent in human history and started to develop around the time of the dawning of the Industrial Revolution and its associated large-scale consumption of resources to support the manufacturing process. In other words, the onset of technology, especially mechanized transportation, had a lot to do with the negative conditions you described.

A big problem that you didn't mention is overpopulation. The USA has closed in on 300 million people (legal and otherwise), which although a far cry from the billion plus that inhabit several Asian countries, is still too many people for our continent and our economy to properly sustain over the long haul. Too many of that population are not adequately contributing to the economy, are overloading the system that the rest of us work to support and are adding to the environmental effects that are alarming many of us. I believe the time may well come when American couples will be told -- not asked -- to limit themselves to one or two children in order to flatten population growth. I shudder to think of what means of enforcement might be devised to assure compliance.

I don't necessarily agree that all of the bleakness that you describe will come to pass. For example, it is technically incorrect to say we are running out of water. Water naturally recycles and the amount of water on the planet hasn't decreased. What has changed is that there are more people who need the finite amount of potable water that is available. Many are in regions where abundant fresh water supplies don't exist. If technology were to develop a means of desalinating and cleaning sea water in very large quantities and getting it to where it is needed, then the available potable water supply will have increased.

It's easy enough to point fingers: big indusry, big government. Greed. Impotence. Ignorance. Stupidity.

Everyone plays a part in affecting our quality of life. Big business and big government exist because that's what people want. The Walmarts and Targets of the world didn't spring to life on their own. They came into being because of the "always the low price" mentality (which is also why "Made in USA" is an almost forgotten phrase). Economy of scale tends to push down the price, and the price is the overriding concern when most people go shopping. Ergo the continued growth of big business

The latest conservative position here in the U.S. is that we need to devote attention to the effects of global warming rather than the causes.

I don't think that this is solely conservative thinking. It is natural human behavior to consider effects instead causes. In any case, the causes are very difficult to remedy, and generally speaking, lead right back to overpopulation. The planet is only so big and as it becomes more populated, its ability to naturally counteract the negative effects of ever-expanding energy usage gets stretched thinner and thinner. More people do more things that emit so-called greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

We're running out of oil.

That was also said some 32 years ago when the first oil "embargo" took place, and yet more oil is discovered (and consumed) each year that passes. Actually, we don't know how much undiscovered oil exists. There's one heck of a lot of crude that has been discovered but has yet to be touched (often for environmental reasons). Even more exists that we have not discovered.

Be that as it may, there is a finite amount of oil and over time, it will become increasingly difficult to extract it. Although all of our so-called leaders (and many citizens) keep bleating about how oil dependence is killing us and so forth, this country (the USA) lacks the political will to do anything about it. If we did, the average soccer mom would not be hauling her kids around in a gas-guzzling SUV, we wouldn't be relying on jet aircraft as our principle mode of mass transportation between cities (aircraft are terribly fuel-inefficient when compared to trains carrying the same payload), and we wouldn't be packaging everything in plastic containers whose raw material is petroleum.

But I do think that technology can save us. Perhaps not quickly enough to avoid all pain and distress and turmoil, but hopefully before we descend into a never ending dark ages.

Maybe. However, the ultimate path we take will be chosen not by machines but by people -- political leaders, in most cases -- and right now the average person or politician is too nearsighted to see where this planet is heading. You can be sure the average political wonk isn't going to tell his or her constituents that they have to substantially scale back their lifestyles in order to drastically reduce oil consumption, as doing so will greatly reduce the chances of being re-elected.

Until our political leaders develop the backbone needed to make the right decisions and implement them, we will continue to overcrowd and overextend this planet. Just contemplate what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and you'll see a lot of the problem. Ain't no machine gonna fix that, bubba. <Smile>


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