Prof. E. Carr Everbach
Swarthmore College Engineering Department
The following essay was written for a lecture series at Penn State Berks campus entitled, “Will Technology Be a Hero or Villain Over the Next 100 Years?,” and delivered at the Perkins Student Center Auditorium, Penn State Berks, 7 p.m., Jan. 25, 2006. It is a reflection that summarizes my thoughts about the topics of this course, and are my own opinions (not those of the students or administration of Swarthmore College). I welcome constructive comments.
The Penn State Berks lecture series began with author Alan Weisman discussing his amazing book “Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World.” A journalist and world traveler, Weisman pieced together, from many trips and interviews, a history of one of the world great experiments: to build a community in the deserted backcountry of Columbia that would not only be self-sufficient, but would teach the world lessons that could be applied everywhere. Its passionate but opinionated leader, Paulo Lugari, assembled a team of engineers, educators, tinkerers, thinkers, and inventors to develop an abandoned air base into a model of sustainability, harnessing the power of wind and water, reusing cast-off materials, and creating forms of self-governance that were respected by the Columbian government, anti-government rebels, and narco-syndicate warlords nearby. I hope many of you were able to attend Alan Weisman’s talk. Although Gaviotas has not yet reinvented the world, it remains a source of ideas and inspiration to many, and in time may have a more significant effect on the world as natural resources dwindle. I think it is especially important for young people, such as yourselves, to learn what ideas have worked in the past, and which have not worked so well. I will be up to you to create tomorrow’s history. The more you can learn about the past, the more choices you will have in deciding among alternatives to the problems awaiting your generation.
To understand where we are going, we must look at where we have been. That is the principal precept of the historian: that history is relevant because it can guide our future choices. I am not an historian, but rather an engineer. My job, broadly speaking, is to invent or devise ways to improve the human condition in the future. It has often been said that the difference between science and engineering is that science is truth-seeking, of figuring out how nature really works, independent of whether or not the result is beneficial to humans, while engineering is all about improving our lot. True, engineers use the findings of science, and often, since scientific findings are incomplete, engineers are forced to make up rules of thumb, or devise order-of-magnitude estimates, or create factors of safety. In the end, engineers are servants of society; they work on behalf of some entity, the boss or the government or the Northern Spotted owl, to devise or invent better ways to live in the world. Scientists sometimes look down upon engineers as sloppy, imprecise, or most often, kind of dumb, but science depends upon engineering at least as much as the reverse in these days of huge high-budget science research. Thermodynamics as a science followed a hundred years after engineers had covered the developed world with railroads and steam engines, all designed to take advantage of the invisible fluid that transports heat, known then as the “caloric.” After engineer James Watt showed that heat was just another form of energy, scientists like Josiah Gibbs could work it into a broader theory that fit into the structure of science. In essence, after engineers figured out how to make steam engines work, scientists explained why they worked. To be fair, the situation is often the reverse. Microwave ovens were possible only after scientists described electromagnetism and calculated the excitation frequency of water molecules.
As an aside, here is a nerdy joke I love which pokes fun at three professions: the “proof” that all odd numbers are prime numbers. The mathematician, over-relying on mathematical inductions says, “one is a prime number, three is a prime number, five is a prime number, seven is a prime number, and so forth by induction.” The physicist, always trusting theory over experiment, says “one is a prime number, three is a prime number, five is a prime number, seven is a prime number, nine – well, that’s just experimental error, eleven is a prime number, …” And finally, the engineer says “one is a prime number, three is a prime number, five is a prime number, seven is a prime number, nine is a prime number, eleven is a prime number …”.
So even if engineers are kind of dumb, and don’t always understand the deep reasons of why something works, the enterprise of engineering, which is much, much older historically speaking than science, has built into it a series of safety nets, with all calculations and construction processes requiring careful checking and inspection. And when a bridge falls down or rocket blows up, engineers learn from forensics what went wrong and ideally incorporate the lessons into future designs and codes. That’s why buildings in California don’t topple easily in earthquakes, and over time the designs, in a kind of Darwinian procedure, get better and better adapted to the circumstances of their employment.
Technology, however, is not all better mousetraps. Engineers live in the real world, not only of physics, but also of economics, politics, and social structures. Companies from Ford to Microsoft release products that are known to be flawed, or even dangerous, because is cheaper to let the public “debug” the flaws and correct them in later versions than to design them well in the first place. Since there is no perfectly safe anything, engineers are forced to make tradeoffs between cost and safety, sometimes drawing lines in morally questionable places. How bullet-resistant should soldiers’ body-armor be, and at what monetary cost, or at what cost to the soldier’s mobility?
What does all this general discussion of engineering have anything to do with the environment, and with history? Aren’t engineers responsible for some of the worst environmental disasters of history, from million-year-toxic nuclear waste to global warming? Well, yes, precisely. The days when engineers can just sit in their weenie-bin cubicles and design widgets without regard to the long-term effects of those widgets are over, or should be. Not only the environmental, but the economic and social costs and consequences of technology need to be considered early in the design process, and, to the extent possible, negative effects anticipated and ameliorated. This is the view of what I would call “progressive technologists,” such as myself and my colleagues in the Engineering Department at Swarthmore College and elsewhere. We view technology in general and our own work in particular, holistically, in the context of our society, and of history. Context, as it turns out, has everything to do with the success of a technology, much as it has to do with the success of species in Darwinian evolution. Unless there is good “human factors design”, or matching of the technology to the culture, abilities, and needs of the end-user, the technology will wind up on the scrap heap of history. Worse, it may be cursed by later generations and its developers remembered only for their shortsightedness.
There is a view of technology as juggernaut, driven by forces of greed on the one hand and human curiosity on the other, that will lead inevitably to whatever future awaits us, almost independent of our own wishes. When I was a child, it was nearly a forgone conclusion that when a technological society evolves to the point of discovering nuclear fission, it quickly stuffs itself out of existence with a WWIII scenario of total nuclear annihilation. Much of the science fiction literature I read as a teenager dealt with the distopias of a post-nuclear-holocaust world, and I recall thinking, after flunking a test or being rejected by a girl, “oh, well, it doesn’t matter anyway because all of this is going to be blown up soon.” And I believe it is true that the Cold War saw nuclear arsenals of sufficient size to do the job, and several moments in history that could easily have gone that way. However, for complex human reasons as well as dumb luck, we are still here, and unlikely to be wiped out by nukes. Don’t mistake me, there are still lots of nuclear weapons in the world and I think it is quite likely that at least one, and most probably a pair, of cities will be vaporized sometime in the future. For that horrible tragedy, as well as for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, engineers bear a part of the blame, but of course not the whole blame. We as humans asked them to do it. But losing a city or two is very different from the total annihilation of the human species and the end of history. One of the principal motivations for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, SETI, in the 1970s, was the idea that if we had evidence of other technological civilizations it would reassure us that were not destined for self-annihilation. We would have volition, we could make choices about our technologies, we could guide our own future and not just resign ourselves to whatever happens on the path technology was pushing us down.
Now back to environmental history. If we take the optimistic view that we can guide our own technologies somehow, then: how should we guide them? As I said at the outset, to understand where we are going, we must look at where we have been. Many smart people are now not so worried about WWIII as with a distopian environmental future of the consequences of global warming, pollution, overpopulation, and dwindling natural resources. Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” comes to mind: if the world doesn’t end in fiery holocaust, but ends in the slow miserable extinction of humanity in its own filth, the miserable result would be the same. Here’s the poem, in case it’s been a while since you saw it:
Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
I’d like to think that intelligence and civilization count for something, however, and that humans will be wise enough to play their cards better. That’s why some call me an optimist and others a naïve apologist for technology. I prefer, however, to assert the principle of Pascal’s Wager: if we are not predestined for a miserable end, why not assume the best and try to build the best future we can? What have we got to lose if we are wrong; at worst we won’t do worse than we would if we just gave up in despair. There’s also the lesson of Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins, two of my favorite literary characters, who mirror the real-life human spirit of “never give up, even if the goal seems hopeless.” How many times in human history has luck tilted toward those who pressed forward optimistically, even when the facts were dire? I was once headed for a head-on collision with the blunt end of a guardrail while driving at 60 miles an hour in a 1965 Corvair, the “unsafe at any speed” car that Ralph Nader said would explode on impact and drive the steering wheel shaft through the driver’s heart in a head-on collision. I had less than one second to react, but managed to spin the wheel enough to have the guardrail end enter the car through the driver’s headlight, missing the steering column by inches. Although the car did burst into flame on impact – the gas tank was located behind the front bumper – I managed to vault out the open window, carrying with me today as memento only the scar on my chin and forehead. I take this scenario as a metaphor for environmental disaster: we as a world are headed toward a guardrail and at this point we cannot avoid a collision. But if we are smart, we will have buckled our seatbelts and perhaps still have time to spin the steering wheel just enough to avoid the worst outcome.
So what are the relationships among humans, their technologies, and the environment? A course I teach at Swarthmore College looks at this question chronologically from the Stone Age to the information age. While I can’t give you the whole course in this lecture, I can give you the high points, at least as far as I have been able to understand them. First, what makes humans human is their technology. It’s not only that toolmaking was a big plus for our ancestors and allowed them not to all be eaten by saber-toothed tigers. Our ability to invent has changed the path of our own evolution, has led to our greater, more facile brains, allowed us to walk upright and have less body hair. Evolutionary biologists point out that many of these changes from apes began before evidence of stone tools or fire domestication, but were greatly accelerated by them. There are numerous chicken-and-egg reciprocal mechanisms in the history of technology in which incremental changes in one sphere prompted advances in another and then, in turn, on the first. We are “homo habilus,” the toolmakers, who were so successful that we evolved into “homo sapiens,” the wise ones, in a naming process of enormous self-congratulation, as Clive Ponting says in “A Green History of the World.” However, we can call ourselves wise because we survived and flourished enough to do so. To the victors belong the spoils of naming things, even ourselves.
We are not the only wise ones, of course. Those wolves, who sold out their tough cousins for table scraps and agreed to sit by our fires and wake us when other predators came calling, gambled that they were hitching their wagons on a good bet, and they were right. In my course, we learn that there is evidence that human evolution was strongly influenced by this symbiotic relationship: love between man and dog has benefited both species enormously. Same with housecats and vermin control: the very saber-toothed tigers of our deepest fears in pre-history regard us as their servants as we bring them Fancy Feast or Nine Lives Gourmet.
Is domestication of animals a technology? I say yes, just as much as breaking rocks into cutting tools or using fire for warmth or cooking. But now we get into a gray area: is human culture a technology? For, along with these things, Cro-Magnon people, and even their predecessors, developed language, religion, and social structures. If I were teaching at a big university, I might have to cede this intellectual turf to the social scientists; after all, I am only an engineer. However, as I’ve said earlier, I’m a progressive engineer who realizes that culture is the dominant influence on technology, and, I believe, on the environment. So in my course I look at how social structures interacted with what people actually did to and with the world around them.
And mostly the results are not encouraging. There was no “garden of Eden” period in which humans lived sustainably on the Earth. Mounting evidence points to the environmental degradation humans wrought wherever they were, the effects only ameliorated by nature’s own ability to heal its wounds. With low population densities and nomadic movements of hunter-gatherer groups to fallow lands, this was usually possible. Exceptions occurred when human activities caused fundamental changes in the environment that could not be healed. For example, about 50,000 years ago, humans entered Australia from mainland Asia when the water-crossing distance was reduced by low sea levels (and food was scarce on the mainland). What the humans found were huge docile beasts of various kinds, giant sloths, lizards, and flightless birds, and found them very easy to hunt. Within a short time, as the human population grew exponentially, the large so-called “megafauna” of Australia were wiped out. Worse, a method used to hunt them was intentional lighting of forest fires and driving of the beasts into traps. The deforestation changed local rainfall patterns, creating the great desert of central Australia later discovered by the Europeans when they arrived.
Even in the Americas, the fantasy of the ecologically-minded Native Americans has given way under evidence of the extremely inefficient and environmentally damaging hunting and farming techniques of many indigenous peoples. At one site near present Casper, Wyoming, the bones of 17,000 bison are found at the bottom of a cliff along with evidence that they were driven there in a single hunt for the dozen or so that could be eaten. It’s true that European rifles and social structures such as bison bounties wiped out the herds that once darkened the plains, but the process is not so much one of difference as of degree. As long as nature could heal itself faster then we could hurt it, there was a sense of sustainability. With the Darwinian success of homo sapiens (did we say “wise ones”?), our footprints eventually grew too large for complete recovery.
If high human population densities were confined to a few megacities like Rome or London, then probably we would still have been OK. But with the rise of civilizations, trade routes, and the technologies of transportation, invasion by humans of wilderness accelerated, aided by the ecological legacy (or inheritance) of great natural resources in these areas, from timber to gold to, eventually, fossil fuels. Invasive species transported from one previously isolated ecosystem to another did incalculable environmental damage, much as disease transported from one people to another inflicted more human misery and death than all the weapons of history. Of course, this large-scale transportation of people, animals, resources, and diseases was facilitated by technologies, from the wheel to the jet airplane. Indeed, it has often been said that technologies are simply great magnifiers of human consequences. Now, we do on a global scale what we used to do within the few square miles around our ancestral village.
Not all human technologies are bad for the environment, however, or have been historically. As a result of recent scholarship, we now know that virtually every square inch of North America at the time of the European’s arrival had been systematically cultivated by Native Americans. The forests thought to be primeval by the colonists, we now recognize, bear the signs of selective encouragement of some tree species and the destruction of others; red oaks would not have been seen South of what is now New England had their natural ecology not been adjusted by culling. As I noted before, humans simply cannot exist without changing our environment, customizing it to our needs, and we have always been that way since before history began.
Much talk has centered of late on what a sustainable lifestyle could possibly be, even in principle, for homo sapiens. For one thing, absent a pandemic that would reduce our populations to Stone Age levels, modern citizens are just not willing to live an aboriginal lifestyle. Some kooky environmentalists might like living in tipis, but even the Native Americans knew a better life when they saw one. That was perhaps as great a factor in the destruction of Indians’ way of life than the genocide eventually inflicted upon them: Indian encampments sprang up around colonist’s forts and settlements, especially in winter or in times of famine, so that the Native Americans could live on molasses and whiskey. Though it was bad luck that Indians had inherited the Asian inability to produce the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase that neutralizes the effects of liquor, the result would probably have been the same otherwise. Whenever one group of people sees its neighbors living a softer, easier life, the culture of the first group bends in the direction of the second group. While that may have been one explanation for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism, it also bodes ill for our finding a path to sustainability that involves any sacrifice of our creature comforts.
In his book “Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect,” Paul Ehrlich notes that, although the human gene pool has not changed very much over the past 100,000 years, human cultures are much more malleable, and can adapt faster to changing circumstances. You may recall that the same author in his 1969 book “The Population Bomb” predicted global starvation by the year 2000, as exponentially growing world populations and only linearly growing food supplies parted company. Of course, Paul Ehrlich was wrong about the date of the eventual crunch, and for two main reasons: the first was the “Green Revolution” or super-high crop yields due to petrochemical inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Evidence suggests that many of these gains have gradually ebbed as petrochemical enhancements have depleted soil depths and pesticide-resistant insects have increased in numbers. The other reason Ehrlich was wrong was that rising economic standards in many developing countries, including China and India, brought about the increased education of women, and with that the lowering of per-capita birth rates. This reason might be called a cultural one, and it is the main reason (not mass starvation) that the world’s population is expected to level off at 10 billion or so, give or take a billion, around 2150. It’s an open question whether or not the world can sustain 10 billion humans, especially with the Green Revolution starting to peter out, but perhaps genetically modified organisms can produce enough food for us all, or some other tech-fix.
Incidentally, I talk about the tech-fix in my course, too, the idea that human ingenuity, properly sparked by capitalist incentives, will be able to solve any problem we now have. This view is an ideology, not a testable theory, even in principle. It’s true that humans in general and engineers in particular have been able to save our collective asses by good luck and clever inventions in the past. It’s also true that, at least for the developed world, the quality of life seems to be getting better thanks to technology. But the tech-fix is a dangerous ducking of responsibility for poor decisions today by assuming that the messes can be cleaned up by other people later. Even assuming we had a safe place to store high-level nuclear waste and a way of getting it there, the time-scales of the hazard are so immense compared to our ability to deal with them that I believe it is irresponsible for use to proceed with nuclear fission. Only a firm believer in the tech-fix could, with a straight face, say that society will figure out a way of rendering the waste non-toxic or of guarding it for tens of thousands of years. Where were we ten thousand years ago, and where in good conscience can we image we will be in ten thousand years hence? If we can’t figure out how to clean up a mess now, using current technology, we shouldn’t be making the mess. That’s one statement of the concept of sustainability.
There is a wonderful story (told by Gregory Bateson and mentioned by William McDonough in his "Centennial Sermon," 7 February 1993) that the large roof beams in a building in New College, Oxford, finally succumbed to dry rot and had to be replaced. The problem is that the beams were two feet thick and spanned the 40-foot width of the hall, and it is just not possible to buy lumber of that size anymore. While the chancellors of the university were obtaining quotes for modern glue-laminated composite beams, a young faculty member suggested that they contact their forester, since Oxford maintains forested land and has for many centuries. Upon being summoned, the forester told the chancellors that great oak trees were waiting in the forest for their use, planted three hundred fifty years ago when the first roof beam was laid because the architects knew that dry rot would probably require replacement in 350 years. This story underscores another aspect of sustainability: the concept of setting processes in motion now that will not pay off for many years, but are part of a long conception in which resources are used at the same rate they are renewed. Another concept of sustainability is to offset negative effects in one place or time with positive effects elsewhere. Thus if a forest must be cleared for housing, can derelict housing areas or so-called “brownfields” be reforested? On the other hand, not every environmental service is fungible, or transposable to another time or place. If the cleared forest is the last habitat of an endangered species, that species may die out, and no complementary planting will ever bring it back.
What is the value of a species anyway? Is it only its utilitarian value to humans or does it have inherent value independent of humans. This is a question for the philosophers to answer, not the engineers. Clearly there may always be some utilitarian value that is not yet evident, but will be sorely missed later: the old “cure for cancer lurking somewhere in the rainforest” argument against tropical deforestation. But that misses the point of deep ecology: is there any moral claim possible from non-human creatures, even inanimate ones? In 1974, Carl Sagan published “The Cosmic Connection,” a fascinating book dealing with many issues of humanity’s place in the universe. One chapter deals with terraforming the planet Venus. It might be possible, said Sagan, to send a satellite to Venus with sulphuric-acid-eating pyrobacteria from deep ocean magma vents that would thrive on the sulphuric-acid atmosphere of Venus. With unlimited food and exponential reproduction, Sagan calculated only a hundred years or so for the transformation of Venus into a planet covered in the waste products of these bacteria: oxygen and water. Since Venus keeps one face toward the sun, there would be a strip from pole to pole wider than the US of temperate climate, with colder temperatures to one side and warmer to the other. The question for deep ecologists is: is it morally right to terraform Venus, if we can, even if it is true that there is no life there now? Is there an inherent value to the way Venus is now, independent of its potential usefulness to us, that would make it wrong for us to change it forever? What about mosquitos? Is it just a matter of the unknown consequences of the fragile and interconnected ecosystems not being disrupted, of potentially losing the eagles because they are at the end of a long chain that starts with the mosquitos? Perhaps so. We don’t seem to mind eradicating smallpox, HIV, or polio melitavirus, since the unknown ecosystem consequences can’t possibly be worse for us than the organism itself.
The real question is: how can we construct a future that we’ll want to live in, and that our children’s children won’t curse us for providing? That’s the lesson of Gaviotas, that courage and inventiveness can provide alternatives to our current unsustainable way of doing things. Perhaps a hydrogen economy will be the tech-fix for our current overindulgence on fossil fuels, which is clearly getting us into a lot of trouble. I’m all for hydrogen, incidentally, because I think we’ll solve the transportation and distribution problems and it will be better for us than fossil fuels. Probably the way you get there from here will be first to extract the hydrogen from fossil fuels, since in an energy sense, that’s the cheapest and easiest way. Once you’ve stripped the hydrogen from the hydrocarbons, you put the carbon back in the ground, where it belongs, and not into the atmosphere. Once you start running out of hydrocarbons, however (or rather, once the price of producing coal and oil is too expensive), then you start taking your hydrogen from carbohydrates. I can imagine growing crops not for biodiesel, which is still combustion that puts carbon into the atmosphere, but for hydrogen extraction, possibly aided by genetically-engineered microbes. Then we put the carbon back in the ground, where it belongs, refilling all the abandoned mines and pumping carbon sludge into capped, tapped-out oil wells. Over time, the atmospheric carbon dioxide we have too much of now is taken up by the plants, the hydrogen extracted, and the carbon put back into the ground. Perhaps in a few hundred years we can reverse the effects of the industrial revolution on the atmosphere.
This scenario I’ve just described may be wrong, but its one example of a way we can steer our car so as not to hit the guardrail so hard. Although it is hard for cultures to change, as Paul Ehrlich notes, they can and do change, and in most ways faster than any other thing. Allow me to provide some examples of what I regard as significant shifts in attitudes and behaviors during my lifetime. When I was a kid, smoking was everywhere, in the movies, in every restaurant, bus depot, and church function room. Today, well, you know. Also in my lifetime leaded gas, once so common that it was claimed that cars couldn’t run without it, was completely phased out, and thank goodness. When I was in graduate school, a huge hole in the Earth’s ozone layer opened above Antarctica, and it took years before the atmospheric chemists were able to work out what was causing it. When CFCs were implicated, many of us who saw how ubiquitous they were – in every spray can, in every air conditioner, refrigerator and freezer; my dad used to degrease car parts in Freon and then dump the bucket onto the driveway – we were convinced that Western citizens would never give up their CFCs. But give them up they did, and paid the price for it too, in redesigned refrigeration systems and new, more expensive non-ozone-destroying replacement refrigerants. [I’m sure the price of cotton went up when slavery ended, too, but many people were willing to pay the price.] The marking of cans of tuna with “dolphin safe” symbols by companies which use hinged nets was initially thought to be a waste of time, since those cans cost slightly more than the competition in a competitive market. But the green-seal organization read it right: so many folks were willing to pay 5 cents more per can of tuna that soon competitors saw the “dolphin safe” label as a market advantage, despite the higher price. Now there are very few cans of tuna that are not “dolphin safe,” and the tuna industry has been transformed.
An economist friend of mine once noted that “value” is psychological in the sense that, if people are convinced that some product is of value, they will be willing to pay more for it. Instead of requiring people to pay $200 extra for a catalytic converter on their new car’s exhaust system, what some people would call an unjustified intrusion of government into the free market, if buyers were convinced by advertising that cars with catalytic converters would make their drivers appear more attractive to the opposite sex, people would be glad to pay the $200, which adds to the nation’s GNP. So if some begin to value the non-killing of dolphins as a component of their tuna fish sandwich, they are willing to pay a little more for this value. This little bit of leverage is all it takes, in many cases, to drive cultural change in a more sustainable direction.
Indeed, it is on this basis that the current wind energy market is trying to bootstrap itself. Coal, oil, and other fossil fuels are heavily subsidized in a variety of ways, including bringing the might of the US military to protect oil interests abroad. Wind power is cheaper, in principle, because the fuel is free, and installation costs are less than for a coal plant of comparable electrical output. But wind farms are risky investments, and banks charge high interest rates to companies building them. So unless wind farms are subsidized, their current per kilowatt-hour charge is more than for coal. [If you include the costs to public health of mining-related illnesses for miners, pollution-affected populations near power plants, and acid rain, then wind is back to being cheaper]. The wind energy suppliers are now relying upon the early adopters, those who perceive value in purchasing pollution-free electricity at a higher price, though the lights do not burn any brighter. With more demand for wind power, the banks and utilities see the loans as less risky, and the costs for everyone will fall. While wind power will never be sufficient to cover all our energy needs, it is a sustainable source of electricity that we should employ fully and help us ease the transition away from fossil fuels and into hydrogen.
What about developing countries? Alan Weisman’s “Gaviotas” quotes a French civic planner as saying “Development means making people happy. Before you spend your money on roads and factories, you should first be sure that those are what your citizens really need.” As I’ve already pointed out in the example of Native Americans living near colonist’s settlements, the traditional living arrangements of societies change when a perceived improvement in the standard of living is nearby. It is very hard for citizens of Columbia, or China, or Ghana, not to want the standard, and perhaps more importantly, the style of living, that we have here in the U.S. Why should we be able to take long, hot showers, dry our hair with blow driers, and step into a warm house filled with labor-saving devices and deny these creature comforts to the developing world? The problem is that our western lifestyle cannot be sustained without great inputs of fossil fuels and other environmental impacts, and the global problem will only get worse as developing nations become as wasteful as we are. I recall a political cartoon of a fat, rich king, covered in gold and diamonds and sitting on a throne addressing a poor African figure looking up from below. The rich king is labeled “Developed World” and is saying, “Don’t make the same mistakes I made.” Basic equity demands that we divest ourselves of some of our creature comforts, or else not complain if other nations seek to obtain them, too.
There is hope, however, for a different path into the future for these nations than the one we took. Take Ghana, West Africa, where I traveled to establish a study-abroad program in Environmental Studies. Ghana is a very poor country, with little petroleum, but natural resources of timber, gold, and boxite (aluminum ore). It is also the land of the cultural heritige of most African Americans, since a large fraction of the 300-year slave trade was through there. Ghana is trying to make its people happy by buying into globalization to bring in wealth. As a result, they are beginning to export raw materials like logs and ore to other nations, such as ours, which produced finished goods like chairs and microprocessors. Of course, there is an environmental price to be paid for the extraction of natural resources as a basis for the Ghanian economy, or the growing of monoculture petrochemically-treated crops to meet world markets. The bright spot is recent governmental and university interest in building the educational and cultural infrastructure so that people’s skills are what is exported. Export chairs, not logs. Even better, the cultural capital of Ghana is in its arts and textiles, Kente cloth and Adinkra symbols and patterns worn the world over. Eco-tourism is beginning to surge in Ghana, which has benefitted from its relative political stability compared to other African nations and helps provide incentive to maintain habitat for elephants and apes, among others. Instead of trying to improve the ex-British phone system, Ghana has gone cellular, and an indigenous internet culture has arisen that has begun exporting programs and programmers to other African nations. Ghana still has a long way to go, however, as regards its energy needs. It has the largest hydroelectric facility in Africa, the Volta Dam, but still must import expensive petroleum from the Middle East to run its factories. Ghana is located only 4 degrees north of the equator, however, and so solar energy has great potential. I have several projects going there, including a solar water pump that uses no photovoltaics but rather uses the expansion of an air column, when it is heated, to pull clean well-water from the ground in small villages. Ghana is ripe for hybrid vehicles, wind turbines, and a hydrogen economy. All it lacks is expertise and money, and both are beginning to flood in. It may very well be that Ghana and some other developing nations will develop right past us, and do so with much-reduced environmental consequences.
In this talk, I’ve provided some of the more straightforward applications of technology to help solve current environmental problems, both in developed and developing countries. Wind energy, however, or even hydrogen, won’t be the answer if we are wasting it. The greatest challenge for both developed and developing countries is to imagine a lifestyle in which people do not have to endure cold, hunger, or deprivation, but also don’t waste resources faster than those resources can be replenished. What is your personal environmental utopia? I’ll tell you mine. I’ve already mentioned some characters from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings stories, and I used to think that the Shire of the Hobbits was my ideal future. Simple living, close to the land, but no poverty and perhaps a lot of high-tech gismos hidden where they can do their jobs but not impose themselves overmuch on daily life. However, a friend of mine told me that she would consider that future miserably boring; she prefers midtown Manhattan, with all its glitz and complexity. I had to agree that the world needs its Manhattans, its Golden Gate Bridges, its Londons and Romes, as much as it needs the Shire. Indeed, a question that arose in my course is “have humans, who evolved from nature and have physical and psychological connections to forests, plains, and mountains, have humans evolved so far that we no longer need those things?” Have we transcended the circumstances of our upbringing, like a child who no longer needs to nurse? Could generations of people live comfortably, as long as their creature comforts were present, in a world of glass and plastic and stainless steel, devoid of trees, creeks, and animals? Could we load a few thousand folks who have grown used to their office towers in Midtown Manhattan into metaphorical spaceships and send them off to Alpha Centauri to create a new life there?
Personally, I believe that in some way we HAVE transcended our beginnings, though if we are smart, we’ll take along our beginnings with us as we move forward. I’d like to see that ship to Alpha Centauri filled with trees and creeks and honeybees; the same with terraforming Venus. And while we are evolving toward our unknown future, perhaps humans can terraform Earth, too, keeping both Manhattan and the Shire while we steer our technological ship through the rocks of global warming, flu pandemics, and dwindling natural resources.
What I should do:
teach young engineers, future policy makers and problem-solvers;
buy wind power;
promote green design (green roofs, bird-friendly windows, strawbale houses),
buy a hybrid vehicle,
insulate my home,
don’t waste resources,
E. Carr Everbach, for Penn State Bucks County, 27 January 2006
If our sun were scaled down to the size of a period on the printed page, about half a millimeter diameter, then Alpha Centauri would be about 8 miles away. It is our closest neighbor.
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