Thursday, July 17, 2014

Techno-Fixes Are Counterproductive and Mad

This article is about all of the high-tech ideas that are tossed out every so often to clean up the ocean and deal with things like the giant plastic garbage patches floating out there (larger than the state of Texas by now!). You’ve probably seen these in TED talks, the pages of Wired Magazine or promoted by the Long Now people and other “bright green” environmentalist types. You know the story – brave, earnest, high-achieving high school student invents magic super-machine that will solve (_insert problem here_). Now we can all relax and forget about all the problems, because “they” have solved them.  It's a sign of our easy quick, cargo-cult, techno-fix culture that refuses to ever question the secular religion of growth, innovation and technological progress:
 Every so often, somebody comes up with a plan for finding and removing the particles of plastic that litter our oceans and accumulate in "garbage patch" gyres. These plans meet with great acclaim ... from everybody except the people who know the most about garbage patches and plastic pollution.

Why do marine scientists and non-profits like The Ocean Conservancy speak out against ideas like 19-year-old Boyan Slat's ocean cleanup technology? Primarily, it's because plans like Slat's tend to be based on a really simplistic understanding of both the problem and ocean systems and, as a result, wouldn't actually work in the real world.

But there's a bigger issue here as well. This isn't a matter of mean old scientists talking dirt on the big ideas of a brave, smart kid. Great-sounding-but-not-actually-effective ocean cleanup plans have real consequences. They divert limited money and time away from the actually useful work. Worse, they inadvertently help prop up an unsustainable system where it's totally okay for us to keep letting plastic get into the oceans ... because we can just come back later and clean it up. But that's simply not true, writes Stiv Wilson, policy director of the ocean conservation nonprofit

    "I find debating with gyre cleanup advocates akin to trying to reason with someone who will argue with a signpost and take the wrong way home. Gyre cleanup is a false prophet hailing from La-La land that won’t work – and it’s dangerous and counter productive to a movement trying in earnest stop the flow of plastic into the oceans. Gyre cleanup plays into the hand of industry, but worse, it diverts attention and resources from viable, but unsexy, multi-pronged and critically vetted solutions..."

There are real solutions to the problem of plastic pollution, but they don't come in the form of feel-good gadgets that will sift the particles out of the water. And if we convince ourselves otherwise, then we're going to ignore the stuff we should really be doing
Plastic pollution in oceans can't be solved with a gadget (BoingBoing)

Teen invents device to clean giant ocean garbage patches (Treehugger)

This is a point I've tried to make too - these techno-fixes divert time, money and resources from real, honest solutions that will have less blowback and achieve a more permanent resolution. But they wont preserve the wealth and power of the elites, and so they are ignored in favor of the latest wonder gadget, will will just cause more (profitable) problems down the road.

Not only do these techno-fixes not actually deal with the underlying problem, they are actually counterproductive. What they do is give people the false idea that there is a quick fix with some sort of gee-whiz technology and that the status quo is sustainable. This allows the people who benefit from the status quo to keep it going, to deflect criticism, to head off any uncomfortable questions, and to prevent any significant, meaningful change that will tip their apple cart. Instead, they assure us that there is a techno-fix for every imaginable problem. You name it, air pollution, resource scarcity, peak oil, climate change, topsoil erosion, droughts and falling aquifers, etc.; for example, electric cars, carbon sequestration, geoengineering, carbon trading, putting prices on “ecosystem services,” genetic modification , desalinization, and so on. Even social problems like inequality and unemployment will magically disappear with technological progress (Vote online! Computers will magically create jobs! Online courses!).

My favorite recent example is colony collapse disorder. This seems like a  parody straight out of The Onion, but as we know, there is no way to make the culture we live in any more ridiculous and insane than it actually is. People are now proposing to build millions of tiny flying robots to pollinate the crops to replace all the bees we’ve killed off with (most likely) neonicotinoid pesticides (which also, by the way, are killing birds). I swear I am not making this up!:
Honeybees, which pollinate nearly one-third of the food we eat, have been dying at unprecedented rates because of a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The situation is so dire that in late June the White House gave a new task force just 180 days to devise a coping strategy to protect bees and other pollinators. The crisis is generally attributed to a mixture of disease, parasites, and pesticides.

Other scientists are pursuing a different tack: replacing bees. While there's no perfect solution, modern technology offers hope.

Last year, Harvard University researchers led by engineering professor Robert Wood introduced the first RoboBees, bee-size robots with the ability to lift off the ground and hover midair when tethered to a power supply. The details were published in the journal Science. A coauthor of that report, Harvard graduate student and mechanical engineer Kevin Ma, tells Business Insider that the team is "on the eve of the next big development." Says Ma: "The robot can now carry more weight."

The researchers believe that as soon as 10 years from now these RoboBees could artificially pollinate a field of crops, a critical development if the commercial pollination industry cannot recover from severe yearly losses over the past decade.
Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees (Business Insider)

So we’re going to spend millions of dollars to develop robotic bees which still aren’t even viable (“But RoboBees are not yet a viable technological solution. First, the tiny bots have to be able to fly on their own and "talk" to one another to carry out tasks like a real honeybee hive”) instead of, you know, trying not to kill actual bees that have co-evolved with plants over millions of years. That might impact profits, after all. Because one good technofix (synthetic pesticides) deserves another (robot bees!). I’m sure our artificial solution will be even better and cheaper than the original, right? I can’t think of a better example of what I’ve been saying on this blog over the years – most innovations today are just trying to solve the problems caused by earlier innovations.

In fairness, they do note, “Although Wood wrote that CCD and the threat it poses to agriculture were part of the original inspiration for creating a robotic bee, the devices aren't meant to replace natural pollinators forever. We still need to focus on efforts to save these vital creatures. RoboBees would serve as "stopgap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented," the project's website says.” Sure. But somehow stopgap measures have a way of becoming permanent solutions in our modern industrial global civilization. I wonder how many resources will go into building millions of these robot bees. But those resources will spur economic growth! More profits for robotics companies! After all, that’s the main purpose of human society, isn’t it? Surely that will be the new “green” solution.

I also love how the execrable business tabloid Business Insider (have those ads crashed your browser, too?) calls this a “game changer” and lumps it in with all the other high-tech intensification “game changers” being touted by global mega-corporations and Silicon Valley  – Frankenmeat, insect ranching, and “Future Food: How Scientists And Startups Are Changing The Way We Eat.Future food, eh? Somehow, I don’t think "future food" is going to be as good as "past food" and I don’t think "changing the way we eat" is going to end up well for us. It hasn’t historically – obesity sits side-by-side with starvation. Will we even get a choice in the matter? Somehow, I’m guessing that the rich and powerful will get to stick with the old way of eating the past foods that the rest of us won’t be able to afford anymore. They probably won’t suffer from the same diseases and die prematurely either. But the corporate media won’t tell you that, or course, they’re busy flogging the newest techno-fix (water from clouds!, Robot farmers!, artificial leafs!)

What’s the alternative? Less growth, less profit, less technology, and more sanity that takes into account the quality of human life and the realities of our planetary ecosystem.. But you won’t read about that in “Business Insider” or see it at TED anytime soon.