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You've presented many of the deeper issues and conflicts in this area. I find that I agree with much of your perspective, and where I go in different directions, it is largely because we have different expectations regarding future technologies. I'd like to say more about expectations.

You remark that "the Crutzen/technoP view places its optimism in technology, a `something will turn up` optimism based on a long history of engineering advances and specifically the series of `miracles` that have been delivered by industrialism over the last 2 centuries." Mind reading is hazardous. Optimism? I can't speak for Crutzen, but I think my closest friends would tell you that my view of the future contains a thick, black mass of near-despair centered on the technologies I expect. And although `miracles` of the last 2 centuries should be reason enough to be sceptical about projections of a carbon-burning civilization in 2100, gazing at trends from the outside isn't the basis of my expectations. Instead, I have for many years looked at technologies from the inside, examining what natural law says about their potential, and seeing how research is moving toward exploiting that potential.

Above, you say that "it's time to junk the whole model of 'engineering the planet,' imho, and learn some biomimicry skills.  instead of treating biota like machinery, learn to make machinery that works like biota, or to work with biota instead of machinery." I am persuaded that the human race is well on its way to doing what you urge by applying the most fundamental molecular-level principles of biological systems to making things. Making high-performance products cleanly, inexpensively, from common materials can provide the leverage needed to make solar power inexpensive and coal absurd, to shut mines, to decentralize production, to make products endlessly recyclable. Enough even to get the damned CO2 back out of the atmosphere and set things right. I'll give you even odds, though, that these technologies will instead be used to destroy everything we care about.

You write of "optimism...placed in people, in the ability of human beings to adapt and, when all other options are exhausted, to do the right thing". But consider the words you then use in speaking of a corresponding "pessimism in technology -- a disillusioned, disenchanted view based on a long history of huckster claims, frantic bandaiding, malfeasance, arrogance and stupidity in grandiose technomanagerial engineering projects". This is pessimism, yes, but technology itself produces no "huckster claims, frantic bandaiding, malfeasance, arrogance and stupidity". Like the optimism, this pessimism is placed in people.

Could you please direct me to a center of progressive vision that looks toward a future of enormously more powerful technologies and is working to shape and share the understanding that might make that future work? It seems that humane people are drawn instead to imagined worlds of shrunken, easily manageable technologies, where the issue isn't explosive potential, but the fear (hope?) that failing resources will make the 21st century blur and shift into a world of locally grown vegetables. This abandons expansive revolutions -- and the future -- to be twisted, narrowed, and directed to suit the power crowd and the hucksters who serve them.

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Regarding the two "stealth hinges", I hope that you aren't inclined to shoot the messenger. I've done my best to present the facts as I understand them, to show why the sunscreen option will be appealing and what I think some of the consequences may be. Showing why it will be appealing isn't the same as liking it or the behavior it encourages.

Regarding Part 1, whether the CO2 problem is insoluble by reductions, if CO2 emissions were stopped today, I think we might be in reasonably good shape (might...), but this is a straw man scenario. My best guess is that the IPCC makes a reasonable range of projections. On the left, some projected emission rates; on the right, their cumulative results:

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The curve on the right keep going up all the way across.

Regarding Part 2, whether it is a false dichotomy to say that are only two options (do nothing or put up an SO2 sunscreen) -- it is indeed false. So far as I know,  however, no one believes that it is true.

----

Regarding the feeding behavior of the the profiteers, what you describe seems all to familiar.


Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sun Oct 15th, 2006 at 06:19:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
good conversation TP -- as you say there is a surprisingly wide realm of agreement, so I'll focus on the central issue of where we invest our optimisms and our pessimisms.

one thing I don't understand is what is so wrong with a world of locally-grown vegetables :-)  they taste better, are fresher, are more nutritious and cost less (i.e. their EROEI actually makes a kind of sense) -- what more is needed?  only the fossil-fuel industry, food processors, marketeers and other middlemen (the unproductive sector) benefit from the dysfunction that is our delocalised industrial food system.  suggested intro reading:  The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan.  

and then of course intensive polyculture is far more efficient in terms of food calories produced per acre and per gallon of water than industrial farming, surely a very important factor given current population, loss of arable land, and water contamination and drawdown.  I consider local vegetables, sustainably grown by small-scale polyculture, far from an impractical or fuzzy or sentimental proposition.   it's an extremely sensible, hard-headed and practical proposition -- far saner and more realistic than the truly warped and twisted dysvalues and dysfunctions of corporate industrial ag.  and it can be done and is being done today, without having to wait for miracle technologies.  it is being done now in real time, at Polyface Farm by a conservative Christian/libertarian farm family, it is being done throughout Cuba by mobilised citizens of a socialist nation, it is being done in Pasadena in a suburb by "LA liberals," in Pittsburgh in abandoned urban lots by low-income social justice organisers.  there's nothing sentimental or impractical about something that is already working.  no, imho it is the bizarre fictions of finance capitalism and its fantasies about free lunches and fairytale rates of return that are "sentimental" in the sense of reflecting wishful thinking rather than biological, chemical, and thermodynamic realities.

anyway, I think for shared perspective I'd earnestly suggest a read of Hornborg The Power of the Machine ... for an imho compelling analysis of why pessimism about industrial (C19 and its lineal descendants) technology is not merely a pessimism about human nature per se but a pessimism about the technology itself.  Hornborg makes a good case for the industrial/Cartesian paradigm (and its associated justificatory ideology, freemarketism) as inherently productive of intensifying inequalities and accelerating resource destruction. in other words, the technology shapes the behaviour and the culture, not just the other way around.  what this means is that the technomanagerial approach and the heavy industrial tech it relies on cannot be fixed.  it is what it is and it works the way it works, just like a shark or a virus.  a whole different approach is required to stop the ungoverned feedback loop of more resource destruction leading to more profits, which at each iteration, converted into the fiction of generic money (fungible and infinitely mobile) enable even more resource destruction, and so on.

so I have to ask, why do we require "enormously more powerful technologies"?  [except, of course, to remedy the damage done by previous generations of "enormously more powerful technologies"... and that's another amplifying feedback spiral into disaster.]  what we require, as human beings, is air, clean water, food, shelter, security of our persons from violence and humiliation, a degree of autonomy, community and a role in it, a sense of meaning or purpose, art and culture, some cultural mediation of brute ranking and inequality, a sense of continuity and hope for our offspring.  industrialism  (communist or capitalist) and "development" have by and large undermined these qualities for 9/10 of the human race with their (literally) powerful technologies -- technologies which amplify the power of core elites to appropriate time, space and resources from the peripheries.  those things -- time, space, and resources -- have been subtracted  from the lives of real people, who as a result live without some subset of the requirements listed above, with a diminishing quality of life.  a "world of local vegetables" would, for the majority of humanity, result in a higher quality of life, greater security, less malnutrition and disease, more autonomy, etc.

all these processes of accumulation and dispossession can occur in the absence of heavy industrial technology -- in antiquity for example;  but the "efficiencies" of the fossil-based technology enable them to happen at ever-greater speed and on an ever-greater scale.  when we say "more powerful" technologies we generally mean technologies that could compress time, appropriate space, and convert resources on an even greater scale -- more of the same, in other words.  if the patient is anaemic, we'll still prescribe cupping :-)

how can more powerful technologies improve this situation?  the increase in technomass can only come at the expense of biomass and the further impoverishment of the core.

so far I know of no high-tech "biotech" efforts that are not perched atop the same pyramid of inherently destabilising and runaway industrial tech, nor any which do not focus on destructive goals like the privatisation of whole genomes, the Enclosure of the cycle of seed to crop, and other attempts to subsume the biotic world into the control-metaphor of the machine.  the molecular-level work may look light in theory, but it's based on the same extreme resource pyramid of industrial tech that impoverishes the periphery more viciously with each passing decade.

by contrast a bin full of Hermetia turning hog shit into (a) high quality compost and (b) chicken food without my having to lift a finger except to check on their progress now and then -- now that's what I call biotechnology :-)  and any peasant farmer in the temperate latitudes could use this "technology", and perpetuate it, without incurring debt, sacrificing autonomy, or allowing the pillaging of local resources in exchange.  it is in fact not technology at all, but symbiosis, and there's the essential difference -- not encrusting the planet with an ever-thickening carapace of Dead Stuff, but exercising intelligence and ingenuity in establishing symbiosis and cooperation with biotic processes.

speaking of parachuting cats and institutional stupidity, I note that NZ govt is now engaged in a major biocriminal effort -- they've had the bright idea that to "control" the varroa mite in apiculture they will poison all feral bees.  this is the technomanagerial mindset at work.  this is insanity.  words fail me.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Oct 15th, 2006 at 04:47:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is a lot to think about. I will try to reply this evening.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Mon Oct 16th, 2006 at 04:58:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Here is a piece of what I mean:  the hidden costs of industrialised farming:  autopathic problems and a neverending, cost-escalating, ologarchogenic merrygoround of desperate bandaids.  
Soon after the news broke last month that nearly 200 Americans in 26 states had been sickened by eating packaged spinach contaminated with E. coli, I received a rather coldblooded e-mail message from a friend in the food business. "I have instructed my broker to purchase a million shares of RadSafe," he wrote, explaining that RadSafe is a leading manufacturer of food-irradiation technology. It turned out my friend was joking, but even so, his reasoning was impeccable. If bagged salad greens are vulnerable to bacterial contamination on such a scale, industry and government would very soon come looking for a technological fix; any day now, calls to irradiate the entire food supply will be on a great many official lips.  That's exactly what happened a few years ago when we learned that E. coli from cattle feces was winding up in American hamburgers. Rather than clean up the kill floor and the feedlot diet, some meat processors simply started nuking the meat - sterilizing the manure, in other words, rather than removing it from our food. Why? Because it's easier to find a technological fix than to address the root cause of such a problem. This has always been the genius of industrial capitalism - to take its failings and turn them into exciting new business opportunities.

[...]

Surely this points to one of the great advantages of a decentralized food system: when things go wrong, as they sooner or later will, fewer people are affected and, just as important, the problem can be more easily traced to its source and contained. A long and complicated food chain, in which food from all over the countryside is gathered together in one place to be processed and then distributed all over the country to be eaten, can be impressively efficient, but by its very nature it is a food chain devilishly hard to follow and to fix.

    Fortunately, this is not the only food chain we have. The week of the E. coli outbreak, washed spinach was on sale at my local farmers' market, and at the Blue Heron Farms stand, where I usually buy my greens, the spinach appeared to be moving briskly. I tasted a leaf and wondered why I didn't think twice about it. I guess it's because I've just always trusted these guys; I buy from them every week. The spinach was probably cut and washed that morning or the night before - it hasn't been sitting around in a bag on a truck for a week. And if there ever is any sort of problem, I know exactly who is responsible. Whatever the risk, and I'm sure there is some, it seems manageable.

    These days, when people make the case for buying local food, they often talk about things like keeping farmers in our communities and eating fresh food in season, at the peak of its flavor. We like what's going on at the farmers' market - how country meets city, how children learn that a carrot is not a glossy orange bullet that comes in a bag but is actually a root; how we get to taste unfamiliar flavors and even, in some sense, reconnect through these foods and their growers to the natural world. Stack all this up against the convenience and price of supermarket food, though, and it can sound a little ... sentimental.

But there's nothing sentimental about local food - indeed, the reasons to support local food economies could not be any more hardheaded or pragmatic. Our highly centralized food economy is a dangerously precarious system, vulnerable to accidental - and deliberate - contamination.

[...]

It's easy to imagine the FDA announcing a new rule banning animals from farms that produce plant crops. In light of the threat from E. coli, such a rule would make a certain kind of sense. But it is an industrial, not an ecological, sense. For the practice of keeping animals on farms used to be, as Wendell Berry pointed out, a solution; only when cows moved onto feedlots did it become a problem. Local farmers and local food economies represent much the same sort of pre-problem solution - elegant, low-tech and redundant. But the logic of industry, apparently ineluctable, has other ideas, ideas that not only leave our centralized food system undisturbed but also imperil its most promising, and safer, alternatives.

it is cheaper not to break things in the first place than to patch them up afterwards.  but in a monetised industrial economy there is "profit" to be made in the ever-expanding market sector of Patching Things Up Afterwards, which in turn spawns whole new market sectors to patch up the side effects of the bandaids.  so there is always more profit to be made by doing things wrong (DeAnander's Law of Industrial Capitalism) which explains why the "logic of industry" is insane and suicidal, and feeds a death spiral of increasing energy inputs, increasing authoritarianism and centralised control, and diminishing returns...

words to live by:  "elegant, low-tech, redundant".  I would add:  ubiquitous, distributed, transparent.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Oct 16th, 2006 at 08:00:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
OK, I've dug my way out far enough.

It seems that humane people are drawn instead to imagined worlds of shrunken, easily manageable technologies, where the issue isn't explosive potential, but the fear (hope?) that failing resources will make the 21st century blur and shift into a world of locally grown vegetables.

...what is so wrong with a world of locally-grown vegetables...
Please forgive my lack of clarity. I've spent enough time turning compost heaps and avoiding processed foods and truck-ripened fruits to appreciate locally grown vegetables. What I intended to criticise was what I see as a tendency to welcome the idea of harsh resource constraints that would force people to tend their gardens and eat their veggies because they'll be so incapacitated by shortages that they can't move things around any more. (Mind you, one could argue people would soon be quite happy with the arrangement -- partly because of hedonic-treadmill effects.)

My claim is that a future where technology stagnates is easy to imagine and very soothing to contemplate, compared to one in which a something like the Moore's law explosion in the infosphere begins to take off in the world of physical technology. Superficially, these capabilities on this scale seem like an optimist's dream because they could be used to solve many of the overwhelming problems we face today (for example, by spreading global wealth while decreasing environmental impact). On closer examination, they lead to possibilities that are scary, complex, and very, very hard to think about. After grappling with this, the idea that resource limits will stop all that starts to seem like... well... an easy excuse for avoiding the hard issues.

...the technomanagerial approach and the heavy industrial tech it relies on cannot be fixed.  it is what it is and it works the way it works, just like a shark or a virus.  a whole different approach is required to stop the ungoverned feedback loop of more resource destruction leading to more profits
This may well be true in practice, though of course it could be different in theory :^). But what if heavy industrial tech can, in fact, be replaced by something that beats it in productivity, cost, product quality, cleanliness... ? Something that resembles heavy industrial tech about as much as a kid's cell phone resembles [>>warning: obligatory Moore's law comparison from pre-1950<<] a room full of technicians in white coats tending a 30 ton vacuum-tube computer that eats 40 kW and delivers about 1/1,000,000 the computing capacity. Or about as much as an oak leaf resembles a billion-dollar semiconductor fabrication facility. (Guess which one makes smaller electronic devices.)
...why do we require "enormously more powerful technologies"?
Let's assume that we don't need them. The question is, what do we do with them when they arrive anyway?
...the power of core elites to appropriate time, space and resources...
...those things -- time, space, and resources -- have been subtracted  from the lives of real people...
Time, space, and resources (for quite a while at least) don't have to be counters in a zero-sum game. What scares me is that core elites are full of people who crave ever more power, because it is people who crave ever more power who climb to the top, and they're forcing a nasty game on the rest of us. Being forced to live more like peasants wouldn't keep people from being stomped.

Moving in the opposite direction may offer a chance, but humane, far-sighted people seem to prefer contemplating (fantasies of) shortage-induced collapse, or warming-induced collapse, or nuclear-winter induced collapse, or [fill in blank]-induced collapse. So I predict that lots of planning will be done for a future of limited options that never happens, and almost none for a future of enormous possibilities that seems hard to avoid.

how can more powerful technologies improve this situation?  the increase in technomass can only come at the expense of biomass and the further impoverishment of the core.
They could easily make the situation worse, but not because of a zero-sum resource dynamic. My thesis is (1) that enormously powerful technologies will emerge whether we want them or not and (2) that so much could change that there may be a chance to break out of some old, destructive patterns.
the molecular-level work may look light in theory, but it's based on the same extreme resource pyramid of industrial tech that impoverishes the periphery more viciously with each passing decade.
Molecular-level developments aren't inherently and necessarily based on this resource pyramid, but regardless of their potential, they are of course slotted into the system. And this pattern may continue even when really radical developments could be leveraged to replace they pyramid with something different.


Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Sat Oct 21st, 2006 at 04:47:44 AM EST
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