SC210--Week 4--Lecture notes

Technology and Failed Expectations

The October 13, 2000, Science contained this lovely little tidbit: "'Their hearts are very much in the right place, but they often get the science wrong.... Fifty years ahead when the problems of the greenhouse effect really hit us hard, somebody is going to point a finger back at the Greens, and say: "If we had nuclear power we wouldn't be in this mess now, and whose fault was it? It was theirs."' -- The 28 September [2000] Independent, quoting Greens hero James Lovelock, [whose] autobiography, Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist, was published last month."

I mention this because it ties so neatly into Volti's Ch. 6, "Technology, Energy, and the Environment," which begins by telling us that although technology gets blamed for a great many problems--the greenhouse effect and global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, water and air pollution, soil erosion and contamination, urban sprawl, and so on--"it can also be part of the solution." The prospects of global warming are quite definite today and Volti's outline of the picture is pretty accurate. And Lovelock's comment is apt indeed.

Which technologies are most at fault? Volti notes that we started having serious effects on the environment with the development of sedentary agriculture. He might have noted that we did have effects before that, for primitive hunting techniques, such as using grassfires to chase whole herds of game over cliffs, can be terribly wasteful (note also the "Pleistocene overkill hypothesis") . But certainly agriculture is an environmentally damaging technology. So is sanitation, for it has done more than anything else (including antibiotics and vaccines) to extend the average lifespan (by saving babies) and to grow population--and the more of us there are, the more impact we have at any level of technology. However, industrial technologies get more blame; many of their impacts are larger and more obvious, though some are large and nonobvious (e.g., global warming). Intriguingly, successive levels of technology have less impact per capita--agriculture supports more people on less land than hunting and gathering, mechanized agriculture supports more people on less land than nonmechanized agriculture, and high-tech agriculture (dependent on satellite weather forecasts, hybrid seeds, and so on) supports more people on less land than plain mechanized agriculture.

So is the problem technology--or people? Most would rather say "technology"--perhaps because that seems more controllable. In addition, new technology has new impacts, and new impacts are always more noticeable than old ones. Further, in an age of rapid technological change, new impacts appear before their predecessors have had a chance to get "old." Yet technology, as Volti notes, can be part of the solution. Recycling technologies make it possible to reduce waste problems. Alternative energy technologies--windmills, solar cells, solar power satellites, fuel cells, hydrogen fuel, electric cars, etc.--all make it less necessary to burn fossil fuels and add to the greenhouse effect. Ditto nuclear power--no matter how scared of it we are.

Note what Volti has to say about past technological fixes. When England ran out of wood for fuel and ship construction material, the industrial age--coal, steel, and steam engines--was born. Coal was too smokey? Try oil! Could these technological fixes have been replaced with social fixes? Only by changing behavior--making civilization less expansive, decreasing demands on available resources. Today we talk about the ethics of conservation, driving more efficient cars, recycling, having smaller families, and more, all of which spread as public awareness of the problems and their roots spreads.

What can government do? Ours tends to work on that public awareness. It also funds research, though as Volti notes, support for research at the same level as that enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry for many years might have served us well. Some have suggested central planning and control, but countries that have tried that--the former Soviet Union, for instance--have been much less successful at preventing or fixing environmental problems (consider the Aral Sea). The free nations of the West rely on markets to meet needs once they have been recognized--they are good at improvising--and they have been much more successful. Yet we should not take that as a justification for complacency.

Nuclear power is a classic hot-button issue. It has been so ever since its first use in the form of nuclear bombs to end World War II, which linked it forever to death and destruction. In the 1950s, there were a number of efforts to find peaceful uses and change the perception, but nuclear waste added to the perception of safety problems. But almost from the time when global warming was first recognized as a genuine side-effect of burning fossil fuels for energy, it has been suggested that nuclear power, which releases no greenhouse gases, could help satisfy the world's energy needs without contributing to climate problems. In our Taking Sides readings, Allison MacFarlane, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University and a member of the U.S. Energy Department's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, argues that although nuclear power poses serious problems to be overcome, it "offers a potential avenue to significantly mitigate carbon dioxide emissions while still providing baseload power required in today's world."  However, it will take many years to build the necessary number of new nuclear power plants.  Many people agree with her. However, there are also those who do not. Professor Kristin Shrader-Frechette of the University of Notre Dame argues that nuclear power is both impractical and risky. We would serve ourselves much better by developing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

The "Atoms for Peace: Fifty Years Later" special section of the Spring 2004 issue of Issues in Science and Technology included two articles on the potential benefits of nuclear power ("The Nuclear Power Bargain" and "Nuclear Technology's Numerous Uses") and two that recognize potential problems ("Stronger Measures Needed to Prevent Proliferation" and "Deterring Nuclear Terrorism"). The year 2007 saw filed the first applications to build new nuclear power plants in many years, with many more expected. How far the trend will go depends on how quickly other energy sources are developed and on whether we can develop techniques to keep carbon from fossil fuels out of the air. One such technique is carbon sequestration; see Robert H. Socolow, "Can We Bury Global Warming?" Scientific American (July 2005). If carbon sequestration can be done economically, it will make the nuclear option much less necessary.

If we cannot bury global warming, other solutions will be needed. Among the more provocative proposals are those termed "climate engineering" or "geoengineering." In one version, this means putting a fleet of reflective satellites in space to reflect a portion of the solar heat away from Earth. At home, we would call this turning down the thermostat to reduce the source of heat. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is like taking off the blanket, or reducing heat retention. Kevin Bullis. Energy Editor of Technology Review, reviews the latest thinking about "geoengineering" as a solution to the global warming problem, and concludes that despite potential side-effects and the risk of unknown impacts on the environment, it may be time to consider technologies that can rapidly cool the planet and offset global warming.  However, such a solution would require constant maintenance. If it faltered, global warming could take a sudden jump (consider the furnace turning on when you're all wrapped up in blankets). There may be unintended consequences as well, including political ones, and Colby Professor James R. Fleming thinks the idea reflects excessive fondness for technological solutions.

Questions for Discussion

1. Volti asks us to think of technology as offering potential solutions to the environmental problems created by technology (or perhaps by people!). In what ways does computer technology hold potential solutions to global warming and deforestation? What problems might computer technology make worse? (Click here for a hint.)

2. Do you think that James R. Fleming is right or wrong to be concerned about the historical connection between the military and weather modification? Explain your reasoning.

3. Nuclear power is being seen by some as less dangerous than global warming. How dangerous is global warming? How many people could it kill? ( is a good starting point for research.)

4. If one country unilaterally starts launching geoengineering satellites into orbit, other nations are likely to object. Why?