Monday, June 24, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - VI

Technology will always be a part of whatever solution we seek to our various environmental problems. It is claimed that innovations in fields such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology will transform every aspect of life. One advocate argues that it would be an “evasion of our ethical duties” to ignore the fact that our human activities have already changed the world to such an extent that we need to engineer a solution.

Technology is so intoxicating that sometimes even distinguished economists speak about it as though it can solve anything. “The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources,” remarked Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Solow. Julian Simon, who writes mostly on economic subjects, goes even further. “Technology exists now,” he wrote, “to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature—foodstuffs, oil, even pearls and diamonds….We have in our hands now —actually, in our libraries — the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years. (Seven billion years?!)

A joint report published in 2003 by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Commerce, entitled Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, concludes, “The twenty-first century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment.”  What kind of technologies are such optimists dreaming about? There will be animal protein bioengineered in factories rather than obtained from animals grazing in the fields. We can use genetic engineering to improve on the natural process of photosynthesis in plants. This would allow solar energy to be used on a massive scale without taking up too much land. 

According to theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, the most efficient crops in nature convert just 1 percent of the sunlight they receive into chemical energy. “We can imagine,” he writes, “that in the future, when we have mastered the art of genetically engineering plants, we may breed new crop plants that have leaves made of silicon, converting sunlight into chemical energy with ten times the efficiency of natural plants…. They would allow solar energy to be used on a massive scale without taking up too much land. They would look like natural plants except that their leaves would be black, the colour of silicon, instead of green, the colour of chlorophyll.” In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh wrote: 

Although the Paris Agreement does not lay out the premises on which its targets are based, it is thought that they are founded on the belief that technological advances will soon make it possible to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and bury them deep underground. But these technologies are still in their infancy, and the most promising of them, known as “biomass energy carbon capture and storage,” would require the planting of bioenergy crops over an area larger than India to succeed at scale. To invest so much trust in what is yet only a remote possibility is little less than an act of faith, not unlike religious belief.

When talking about dealing with climate change,  politicians don’t talk of the system viewed as a whole taking into account the manufacture and transportation of every element of a finished good.  For example, take debates over “zero-emission” electric cars helping to fight climate impacts. They are not, in fact, “zero-emission” within a systems perspective. They draw their electricity from an energy grid which may be composed of polluting coal plants. And even if the power is generated in, say, solar farms, there’s the emissions of greenhouse gases in manufacturing the solar panels and the powering of their supply chain. 

For some people, the solution to avert climate catastrophe is Geoengineering. Some schemes focus on reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, floating billions of tiny strips of tinfoil in orbit around the earth to reflect the sunlight, or injecting massive amounts of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. Other ideas include fertilising the oceans with iron slurry to increase the volume of marine life, which would consume excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The primary argument against these proposals is that they could never be effectively tested and, in addition, they risk causing even greater problems in their unintended consequences. If, for eg., you put aerosol particles into the air to cut back sunlight, it’s permanent. You can’t withdraw them. You withdraw them, you have a catastrophe. That means we’re instituting a permanent change in the whole ecology. That’s a tremendous burden to put on future generations. As Walt Whitman said, 'It is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.' But if the geo-engineering solutions are not going to do it, it doesn’t mean we should stop working on them. 

It is natural that people will aspire for better lives. But when we assume that technology can keep solving whatever problems may come up, there is trouble ahead.  One problem about this is simply one of timescale. We have a couple of decades to answer these questions. These developments, even if they’re feasible, even if they’re the right thing to do, are not going to happen in a relevant timescale. There is, also, a concern that if people believe there's an engineering solution to climate change, this would reduce the pressure to curtail use of fossil fuels and give license to continue with business as usual. 

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