Sunday, August 26, 2012

Innovation Will Not Save Us

I once wrote that the reason "innovation" will not save us from the looming crises facing humanity is that we already have all the innovations we need today, even if nothing new were invented. Yet if these innovations are not solving our fundamental problems (resource depletion, social breakdown, extreme inequality, etc.), it is illogical to think that some future innovation that we cannot imagine will solve them any better than the innovations we already have. This "innovation" trope is just a "waiting for Godot" type scheme to keep people accepting of the status quo as civilization unravels around us (and we paradoxically go backward).

That's why this quote from an interview with Jorgen Randers stand out to me, because it makes essentially the exact same point:
When you get down to it, the reason why humanity will not solve the climate problem over the next 40 years is not that this is technically impossible. To the contrary, it’s technically quite simple, we all hope to build well-insulated homes and we do know how to make electric cars and we do know how to make solar panels and windmills instead of coal-fired utilities. The technologies exist, and the reason why we won’t do enough by 2052 is not that it’s wildly expensive to do so, it costs probably 1 to 2 percent of the GDP, which basically means that you and I will be as rich in July 2020 as we otherwise would have been in January 2020.

This is postponing gratification half a year to a year, that’s all that it would have taken to solve the climate problem. So when you ask the question ”why don’t we do anything?”, the technologies are there and the costs of applying them are fairly limited, the answer is that society, modern society as we know it, is extremely short term. It is finely tuned to a maximise short-term benefits, in some cases at the cost of future problems, and the two major institutions of today are of course democracy on the one side and capitalism on the other side.

Most people do accept that capitalism is short term, most people know that capitalism allocates capital to projects that have the highest return, and the discount rate used (the weight put on the future of things) is very low and the discount rate is very high, this means that capitalists don’t allocate money to projects that have most of the benefits 20 years down the line and the costs this year, they allocate to things where the benefits come in 4 years and less.

Then you could say that to be able to regulate capitalism in such a way that from the point of view of the capitalists it is most profitable to do the right thing, what is socially beneficial as opposed to what is profitable, and yes, this is true, and this is of course what we’re trying when we’re trying to introduce a price on carbon, a price on climate gas emissions, it basically means that one is trying to make it less profitable to run coal-fired power plants and more profitable to run windmills and things like this. But there you see the short-term nature of democracy emerges as the real problem, because when you try to pass legislation which makes fuel or power more expensive in the short term, most people don’t vote for those politicians.

In a democratic society it is very difficult to get the frame conditions around business decisions in such a way that businesses start to do what is socially beneficial rather than what is short-term profitable. The basic problem is that neither the capitalist machinery nor democratic society puts enough emphasis on our grandchildren’s benefits, and consequently we are basically doing things today that are for our benefit that will cost our children and particularly our grandchildren a lot. This is not necessary, it could easily have been done in a different manner, the technology exists, the costs are low, but because of the short-term nature of democracy and capitalism it won’t be done. This is my main message.
We need to reform our social, economic and governmental systems for any new "innovations" to solve anything. As Craig Dilworth points out in Too Smart For Our Own Good, it is innovation since the stone age which has landed us in this predicament in the first place.

This article, though I don't agree with all of it, makes a similar point: Global Warming Has a Fairly Simple and Cheap Technical Solution. The point is, in order to either tax carbon emissions or regulate them outright, you need to have a force that can assert control over business (i.e. that is above business) to make them toe the line. We no longer have that. The control factor in our society is business, with "democratic" governments as little more than a feel good exercise to obscure this fact. This is why it will never happen. Political and economic power are one in the same - always have been.

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