Innovate our Way out of This Mess? Don’t Bet on It!

By Dave Gardner

I spoke recently to a group of businesspeople at a service club luncheon, on the topic of uneconomic growth. The point of my presentation was that, since we’ve reached the point where the costs of growth exceed the benefits, we’d be well served to embrace the end of growth and adopt a new over-arching cultural operating system not based on growth.

At the end of my talk, a well-meaning gentleman in the back stood up with this comment: “I don’t think your conclusions leave any room for the role of innovation in overcoming resource limitations. Desalination plants are resolving water shortages, and we have vast supplies of natural gas.”

He was correct about my not counting on innovation. I am not betting my future or that of my children on the possibility that technology will be developed to fuel continued expansion of the human enterprise and resolve every significant negative impact. I have two reasons:

1) There are plenty of champions of technology and innovation as our potential saviors; we don’t need another one. We need more champions of scaling back and taking the precautionary path. Betting on techno-miracles to live large is very high risk; betting on living small is almost a sure thing.

2) Our massive global population and economy today require a degree of complexity that is difficult to manage. The unintended consequences are significant; in fact, they are, in many cases, the source of most of the major crises threatening civilizational survival. I see no evidence to support the hope that we can innovate our way around these crises.

The case against techno-optimism

It’s apparent most of us are either uninformed and apathetic about our violation of planetary boundaries, or believe innovation and technology will overcome the crises created by crossing those boundaries – thus exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity. For the techno-optimists, I’d like to provide a little perspective.

We have had a terrific run of technological advancement over the past 200 years. It is understandably tempting to believe we can, and will, develop technologies that will allow us to continue living the way we live in the industrialized world, and continue to expand the scale of the human enterprise without driving our civilization right off a cliff.

Renewable energy is one example. If we look at the communication from 350.org, the huge global grass roots organization pushing hard to reduce our carbon footprint, we find very little emphasis on living more simply, and no mention of choosing to have small families. One is left with the impression we can simply switch our energy sources away from fossil fuels, and then continue growing economies and populations.

Can’t we?

Sevareid’s Law: The chief source of problems is solutions

U.S. television journalist Eric Sevareid once remarked, “The chief source of problems is solutions.” There is a lot to like about renewable energy. It is far preferable to burning fossil fuels. But it has its share of unintended consequences. Birds are quick-fried by the sun’s rays focused by concentrating solar arrays. Wind turbines have similar collateral damage, and they aren’t universally considered attractive additions to the landscape. Rare earth metals are among the raw materials needed for batteries and photovoltaic cells. The manufacturing process today both produces toxic byproducts, and depends on fossil fuels. And that’s the list for just two good technologies!

Ozzie Zehner, in his book Green Illusions, makes a convincing case that renewable energy cannot scale up to support today’s level of economic activity and our aspirations for continued growth. He is not alone in this assessment, but there is some debate about this. Of course the myth of prosperity from growth keeps even great organizations like 350.org from telling us the complete truth. Including the news that we need to scale back is likely considered “a controversial bridge too far,” to allow the group to get any traction.

Let’s say we perfect renewable energy, finding a way to scale it up while eliminating its negative impacts. Suddenly we can shift economic growth into high gear without fear of climate disruption. Doesn’t all that economic growth now accelerate habitat destruction, aquifer depletion, and non-renewable resource depletion? The solution creates or expands other problems. Unintended consequences.

Let’s quickly look at other technologies to see if our faith in innovation is well-placed: DDT, thalidomide, asbestos, Malathion, PBDEs, PVC, PCE, CFCs, PCBs, MTBE, aspartame, tetrachloroethene, triclosan, methyl bromide, methyl iodide, damming rivers, Fukushima, Love Canal, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, hydraulic fracturing. This list is hardly an impressive resumé for technology and innovation.

Scale matters

Many of the more benign innovations of the 20th century work fairly well in moderation, but create problems when too many of us do too much of them. Most of us don’t have a problem with indoor plumbing, wine, or even an occasional steak. But a few billion people flushing their toilets or eating steaks becomes a problem. A glass or two of wine per day may be good for you; upping your daily total to 6 or 8 is bad for your body.

When you take a really honest look at the track record of technology and innovation, it is sobering. It’s very difficult to get it all right when there are over 7 billion of us doing it. Add to that aspiring to be materially richer year after year, and we have a recipe for large-scale disaster. When you fully consider the track record, betting on innovation to keep the party going is about as rational as investing all your retirement savings on a lottery ticket.

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