Technology and the environment

Laurence of Commentary has written two quite interesting pieces on environmentalism and technology (Let’s do the time warp and What’s wrong with technological solutions). Both pieces are worth responding to. Unfortunately, they’ve also attracted the usual utterly idiotic comments. For example, in response to the earlier piece, Colin Pretorius writes I have no time for Luddite environmentalists and I don’t buy into the peak oil thing.

What can I say? I don’t actually know any Luddite environmentalists; most environmentalists are accused of being supporters of utterly impractical, revolutionary new technology, such as, gasp, windmills, or solar power for energy generation, not current, outdated technology propped up by vested interests. And while there’s disagreement as to when peak oil will be, but anyone who disbelieves the concept that oil is a finite resource and that its production will at some point peak has a serious problem with logic.

In response to the later piece, we have more hot air, this time from Hard Rain. His style is fiery, rhetorical, calculated to incite, and void of facts of logic. He writes: What is truly disturbing to me is how such a blatant fallacy as anthropogenic emissions-based global climate change is taken seriously at all by anyone.. He continues: Any form of skepticism regarding the popularized ideas of “global climate change” is met with scorn and malcontent, as if skepticism and questioning are not formative parts of the scientific method.

Unfortunately people respond to this bullshit in the rest of the comments, and avoid the more interesting original point. It’s called feeding the troll. And I guess I’m making the same mistake.

This kind of thinking is comparable to the priests of old, grimly hanging on to their comfortable way of thinking that the earth was flat, even after Galileo had demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that this was not the case, and had had his findings long since accepted as scientific consensus. The so-called skeptics of today are the priests of old, defending vested interests, or falling into the psychological habit of denying, filtering out bad news.

Luckily the innovators are normally ahead, and in the flat earth case navigators could move on, ignoring the views of the ignorant, not wasting time trying to prove something to those who’d never accept.

So leaving aside this nonsense, let’s try and move one, and respond to Laurence’s original point.

His point in What’s wrong with technological solutions was similar to what he made in the earlier, but less convincing.

According to Laurence, The Antidote (in this post) pours and scorn and ridicule on [technological solutions, and] argues that the only viable solution is austerity.

In my opinion, saying we’ll be able to improve things by terraforming other planets, or mimicking real volcanoes by blasting tens of thousands of tons of sulphur dioxide particles into the stratosphere every month to reflect some of the incoming solar radiation, two of the ideas mentioned, are worthy of scorn.

Especially when there are quite simple solutions staring us in the face. Stop chopping down existing forests. Restore old forests. Reduce carbon emissions.

Reducing emissions can be done in a number of ways, and this is where the disagreements start. We can walk to work instead of drive. I personally see this as a great lifestyle improvement. I used to live where I worked, now I’m about 100 metres away, and it’s fantastic not to have to drive. A win for the planet, and a win for me. Others see this as a terrible imposition, and prefer to enjoy their freedom to spend all day stuck in traffic belching out smoke as they inch forward.

We can build better houses that don’t leak most of their heat (or let it in), so requiring much less energy to keep comfortable. Mud huts, for example, are undeniably vastly superior in this regard to cement houses.

We could use solar and wind power to generate electricity, currently viable technology, instead of getting neighbouring countries to build coal power stations, and import the power, as South Africa is doing.

I don’t mean to say that implementing and gaining political, cultural and economic acceptance for the changes is simple. But, fundementally, what’s needed is simple.

All of the technological solutions are much more viable than nonsense (for now) of terraforming other planets. Ideas like that are harmful in the sense that they assume some central authority (whether government or the market) will come to the rescue, and that we don’t need to make any changes ourselves.

The world seems to be divided into two, those who think (or demand) that they can continue to consume as they wish (and the organisations who’d like to perpetuate this myth), and those who realise they’ll need to make changes.

As the Antidote points out, the stop what you’re doing principle is unavoidable. Laurence concedes that this may be the case, but remains too hung up on the Antidote’s supposed contempt for technological alternatives. The contempt is for pie-in-the-sky solutions, not current, viable, technologically solutions that we should be implementing as fast as possible.

Change is unavoidable. Conservative minds, those slower to adapt to new situations, and new opportunities, are the ones pining for the past, hoping things won’t have to change too much.

They will change. And I’m confident, encountering the visionary people I do all the time, that it will mostly be for the better. Not painlessly, not linearly, but for the better nonetheless.

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  1. Nice post Ian. The word “technology” comes with a lot of baggage and assumptions – why are only the latest inventions and pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams worthy of the term, but long-established or simple techniques and tools aren’t?

    I can’t think of any human communities ever that did not use some form of technology or other. Paleolithic people did. Luddites do – they may drive a horse cart instead of a Prius, but it’s technology nonetheless and figuring out which of the two options is more environmentally friendly is not exactly rocket science.

    Surely what we’re looking for is sustainable, appropriate, just and democratic technology and if that is a Luddite thing to say, I’ll happily call myself one.

    The stop-what-you’re-doing-principle doesn’t suggest you freeze in your tracks, lie down and die. It implies that you stop whatever damage your doing and find another way that is not harmful. In no way does this exclude technological solutions (all be they potentially Luddite technology 😉 ).

    We went on an “eco-touristy” type weekend away last week. Luxurious tented camp in beautiful, private fynbos nature reserve. We met the super rich owners, who have embraced technology in all its modern ways, own a quad bike each, a jet plane, a boutique wine farm with all the mod-cons. They’re very concerned about the environment etc. As a family they have a humongous environmental footprint, but they conveniently off-set it with a 600 hectare piece of near-pristine land. In contrast the managing couple who stay on the reserve permanently, live very simply and without much modern “technology” in a cabin with solar power, gas heaters and a generator to run their washing machine. They say they’d leave the place if they brought in 220V electricity, cell phone coverage or TV. Figuring out which is the more sustainable and fair lifestyle is not tricky – it’s common sense for Luddites like me.

  2. Hi Ian

    I’ve read your exchange between Laurence so I’m not going to drill any further into it. However there are several aspects I remain concerned about that you’re not addressing directly and rather reverting to heart warming rhetoric.

    The crux of it is conveyed in your comments about “conservative minds, those slower to adapt to new situations, and new opportunities, are the ones pining for the past, hoping things won’t have to change too much.” You reference to “vested interests” is similarly short-sighted.

    Those quick paintbrush comments smear all those faced with dealing with both the practical and conflicting considerations as behaving in corrupt and stupid ways because of personal weakness.

    In response then I have to pose to you hard questions to the solutions you both offer and insinuate against those of us on the other side which senior policy makers, those you deem as having vested interests and other pretty intelligent people with substantial qualifications and study cannot supply answers to me for.

    First, how do you propose to distribute the solar and wind power in the revamped power grid you propose? Do you know how much power can be generated from such technology in future as against growing power demands and restricted resources? Do you take cognisance of the poor and the need to industrialise through cheap electricity? What should be done about how the electricity price is supressed to low levels in light of the?

    Secondly, you propose mud huts at a solution for housing? However what about support for large scale urban dwelling? How do you engineer the mud to support larger structures or ones for urban requirements? What about the market that will arise because of this stipulated resource and how it will burn increased amounts of energy to allow the ‘mud’ to create the same outcomes? Indeed, what happens if I don’t like them – will you force me through violence to obey?

    And what about the poor once again? Is this not becoming undemocratic?

  3. Thirdly, I also agree it would be great to walk to work but I go to work a good distance away because I have to due to circumstance and the social environment. Now how are you going to reorganise the city to allow everyone to walk to work? What energy and resource inputs are you going to spend to change it all while fouling the environment? How do you propose doing so when social and city engineers alike with doctorates or god knows what other qualifications have battled for several decades over the same quest and often failed?

    Look, I’m not actually expecting you to answer these questions here. Rather I want you to think how these three – only three of many examples of questions are what those of us you label as ‘stupid conservatives with inherent bias’ in polite language are forced to face and deal with – balancing conflicting interests and demands on not just economic but social, environmental, scientific and culture grounds.

  4. Indeed, Andreas gives the heart warming story about the rich family trying to offset their ecological footprint against their new plot. That might seem nice Andreas, but you’re also not thinking far enough in the system for root cause, effect and implications of change. a) wasn’t that plot there before they got there, b) what about their capital assets that are generating them their underlying wealth and the pollution, c) who’s worked out whether they’re continuing to destroy the environment at a bigger rate than us other … ‘short sighted conservatives’ and d) isn’t it awfully convenient to tout their green plot as a conscience soother when most people would love to have one of their own regardless?

    If we follow that example it will cause worse environmental degradation elsewhere for some and a hoighty toity elite who wag their finger about it being for the environment when others suffer.

    Shouldn’t you go back to the primary problem instead of tut-tuting those of us who might actually work in such corporations and try to convince those born into wealth that their actions within the corporate world require reconsideration.

  5. Now I must be honest with you from the get go. I have never been too concerned with how my actions would effect the environment. Let me rephrase that, what I am trying to say is that, like most people, I have gone through life so far without making a conscious effort to protect the environment.

    All of that changed recently, and funnily enough it came about when I changed jobs – surprising when you find out that I am in Marketing. I recently began working for a friend at a company called The Green Cartridge Company. While trying to find a way to market his product, I began questioning him about his product to try and find out what we could use to differentiate his product from that of his competitors.

    He began to explain to me that the company had been called The Green Cartridge Company because the aim was to protect the environment, while at the same time saving his customers money. (Now please don’t misinterpret this article, I am not trying to hard sell products for The Green Cartridge Company, but rather I am trying to make people aware of the impact that printer cartridges can have on the environment if not disposed of correctly).

    Upon hearing this from my friend I immediately set to work, and began researching the impact that printer cartridges could have on the environment – to put it lightly I was shocked at the results.

    Here are just some of the results that I found. (Please note that these are the results of a study conducted in America and Canada. Keep in mind that these two countries are well reputed for their recycling procedures and awareness).

    • There are more than one million printer cartridges used in Canada each year, and only 10% of these are recycled.
    • As of 1999, America was only recycling 5% of their printer cartridges.

    • These means that roughly 90% of the printer cartridges used in these countries are ending up in landfills.

    Now comes the interesting part:

    • The plastic used in these cartridges takes over 1000 years to decompose.
    • It takes 3.4 liters of oil to manufacture a new printer cartridge.
    • In 12 months, cartridge recycling could save 4.3 million liters of oil in a country of 22 million people.
    • And finally, if the cartridges thrown away in America, in one year, were to be stacked end to end, they would cover a distance of 38,000km. This is enough to circle the earth.


    Now I understand that with the many similar crises that the world faces this may seem like a seemingly small problem. But just think about it for a moment. Nearly every person in the world uses printer cartridges, be it a young child printing the picture that they have just drawn on the computer, to the large corporate that prints thousands of pages every day. And what seems so unfortunate about this problem is that it has a simple fix, and one that is not time consuming for the user.

    I was reading an article the other day and in it, it said “The earth’s natural resources are being consumed at a rate that reinforces the idea that we are living for today and the future generations will be paying for the consequences”. Is this really the legacy that we want to leave behind for future generations?

    So I would like to stress that many organizations, like The Green Cartridge Company offer a printer cartridge recycling service. The Green Cartridge Company offers a service whereby we will collect our client’s empty cartridges and use them to remanufacture new ones, or we will buy back your old cartridges. These remanufactured cartridges are then resold and are not nearly as expensive as a new cartridge. So by simply recycling your old cartridges you are creating two ways in which your company can save money, and more importantly you will be doing your bit to help the environment.

    For more information contact The Green Cartridge Company on (011) 450 2110

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