Sunday, December 20, 2009

Earth-fixing Gadgets

In the back of many modern minds there probably nestles the comforting conviction that science will get us out of our twenty-first century environmental mess. It must be so because despite all signs that world-wide pollution rages on, our climate changes, and our oceans are dying, we go happily along as if there were no tomorrow. Instead of making the hard ethical choices need to get six billion souls focused on our environment, we trust in technology.

That’s a curious attitude given most of our own experiences with technology. Most of the gadgets we buy work for awhile and then, as if planned, go kaput. Or, they work but too often with those irritating idiosyncrasies that make us wonder if they are really worth it.

For instance: I have this cordless vacuum cleaner that I’ve had for years and battle with weekly. First, I vacuum a room and the gadget eagerly eats every little crumb, cheerfully as you could imagine. But, when it comes time to reattach it to its power supply it consistently refuses to engage. Sometimes, I have to slam it into its cradle ten times before the light comes on and indicates that it’s feeding. Or, sometimes, it won’t connect until after inserting it twenty times. So, I give up and come back to it another day. Eventually, it works—almost as advertized. (Of course, if I had any Mr. Fix-it skills, I’d learn how to arrange the contact points so that it would work each time.) Anyway, my point is that our reliance on our gadgets is often an irrational one held by an imperfect being who designed these darn things in the first place.

Pursuing this notion further, are we ready to entrust the working of our planet to gadgets we make? I’m not talking about the innocuous gadgets like bicycles or energy efficient light bulbs, or those IPod Apps that show you the best route to the airport. If these things breakdown, our planet won’t go belly up. I’m talking about some of the more invasive technologies that assume we know a whole lot more about the working of our biosphere than we actually do.

Some enterprising individuals have marched out some ‘interesting’ technologies to combat climate change, including a mechanism to spew out volcanic dust into the atmosphere, or spray salt particulates into the air; a solar umbrella; a way to dump massive quantities of iron ore into our oceans; and carbon sequestration. None of which has been tried on a planetary scale and whose advocates have the neither the desire nor capability to test all the possible ramifications to our environment. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still believe in gadgets: once you wind them up they just keep doing their thing, often elegantly so, forever.

However, all the manmade concoctions in the world won’t make up for the collective brain power of people focused on sustainability. People using their brain power, which includes their knowledge of each other, science, reason, culture, business, governance, and their attitudes towards each other, must make the choices that will promote a sustainable environment. We cannot relegate that responsibility to gadgets. Yet, judging from the delusion that was Copenhagen (BBC News - Climate summit: Where's the beef? 12/19/09), we must still think that something other than ourselves can solve our environmental woes.

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