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  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
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 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
and a member of the U.S. Energy Department's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's
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
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
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?
(http://environment.about.com/od/globalwarmingandhealth/a/gw_deaths.htm is a
good starting point for research.)
4. If one country unilaterally starts
launching geoengineering satellites into orbit, other nations are likely to