When All You Have is a Hammer

For the past month and a half I’ve been slamming insular planning for its wholly inadequate approach to dealing with the burgeoning issues of resource depletion and environment change. Over the past century, land use laws have been promulgated as a means to direct, contain and manage the impacts of rapidly-expanding and fossil fuel-powered cities in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens. Predictably, these land use laws didn’t speak much to the scale of cities’ fossil fuel dependence or larger environmental concerns because supplies of fossil fuels seemed endless, as did the planet’s ability to absorb humans’ ecological impacts. In short, cities seemed insulated from the larger physical and natural forces which guide the activities of all dynamic dissipative systems on Earth.

These days it’s becoming increasingly clear that our cities are no longer insulated from these wider considerations. Yet the sustainability policies being enacted as the primary means to see us through these difficulties remain mired in the same short-sighted, anthropocentric and ecologically ignorant view of the world that got us into this mess in the first place. Therefore, I’ve taken to calling such sustainability planning “best practices” insular to reflect their lack of interdisciplinary considerations.

Thus far I’ve argued that insular planning policies based around increasing density, efficiency and renewable energy production will serve only to exacerbate our predicament because they fail to account for the ecological implications of urban metabolism processes and underestimate both the scale of cities’ dependence on fossil fuels and the severity of overshoot.

This week I’m going to continue my critique by assessing insular planning’s commitment to implementing technological ingenuity as a means to realize sustainability. In particular I’m going to discuss the negative externalities that inevitably follow widescale technological adoption.

Over the course of the Age of Exuberance, human ingenuity has delivered an impressive array of technological applications throughout the Western world (and increasingly in the developing world). These applications have imbued our lives with unprecedented benefits the likes of which had been never known before: instantaneous communications, rapid travel options, and a cornucopia of foodstuffs, along with much more. This process of technological development has unfolded in a seductively reliable fashion for so long now that many of us have come to assume that it will continue indefinitely into the future.

Western culture, and by extension, insular planning, implicitly holds that technological progress is a sort of independent variable which, regardless of environmental factors, will continue to march onward and upward, taking all of humanity and its cities with it. Again, it’s important to remember that insular planning developed within the context of this technological milieu, and predictably adheres strongly to the faith in continuous progress.

At its base, this unshakable faith in the agency of technological progress itself is based in a still deeper myth, namely that the world can be made to progressively serve the interests of humans. A study of history and ecology – let alone recent events – discredits this notion thoroughly. Yet now in the early stages of the Age of Sufficiency insular planning exudes a breezy confidence that technological ingenuity will bail our cities out of the current predicament in more or less the following way:

“By increasing efficiency and renewable energy via ingenuity (i.e. technological progress) we can provide for a workable transition to a new arrangement of living comprising a world full of increasingly dense, technologically-intensive, affluent, and even ‘greener’ metropolises.”

The logic behind this notion seems to suggest that because technological ingenuity has worked in the past to deliver a higher quality of life to a greater number of people that it must be a transferable force which can be applied to any and every future problem with predictable success – including our current energy and ecological dilemma. Well, if that isn’t a classic case of the hammer thinking everything’s a nail, I don’t know what is.

In addition to energy efficiency and alternative energy, insular planning is throwing its weight behind so-called “intelligent cities”, “smart initiatives”, visionary “sustainability plans”, smartphone apps, and other whiz-bang gadgetry – all in the name of sustainability. There is a lot of activity on the shoproom floor to be sure – many well-meaning planners find themselves running around trying to solve for sustainability with the tools of technology without ever considering that perhaps they are confusing activity levels with actual progress.

And that’s too bad, because the stakes have never been higher. When we set the bold expectations for technological progress against the stark ongoing worldwide trends now underway, we see the magnitude of the challenge. Essentially we planners are asked to support technologically-savvy policies  that suggest that the planet can be made to accommodate 2 billion additional people and an economy three times larger all the while reducing fossil fuels use 90% (and by extension, total energy requirements 72%) over the next 38 years. Oh, and during which time the ecological basis for our survival continues to be undermined.

As incredible as the pace of technological progress has been over the Age of Exuberance, forgive me if I find it hard to imagine how technological ingenuity could be delivered in sufficient quantities to make it happen, even if it were a good idea to do so (which it’s not).

Considering these long odds, it’s a shame we don’t consider reducing our need for implementing breakneck ingenuity more often. Then we wouldn’t have to rely on the technological equivalent of a Hail Mary touchdown pass to bail us out. Perhaps there’s another way… I’ll have more to say on this at the end. For now however, I’m going to attempt to clearly articulate what I believe to be are critical weaknesses in relying on technological ingenuity as the primary means to deal with the predicament of energy descent and overshoot. And that’s going to start which discussing what technology is and how it works.

Most importantly, the central assumption over the Age of Exuberance that technological progress is an independent variable and that the environment is a dependent variable is false, and any denial of this is a very bad misunderstanding about how the world works. Technological progress occurs only when the raw materials necessary for application are present in sufficient quantities in a reasonable timeframe. In other words, technological progress is dependent upon the resources that a healthy functioning environment can provide – it’s the real independent variable.

Second, it seems that insular planning strategies confuse the relationship between technology and energy sources. They are not the same thing. Collectively, technology can be understood as a transformer of energy from one form to a more-degraded form, with work and heat created along the way – just as the Second Law of Thermodynamics requires.

As I showed in The Laws of the Jungle, Pt. 3, over the course of human history, technological ingenuity has served to raise human carrying capacity by diverting available energy and resources that would have been available to other biotic community members. Additionally, technological developments allowed humans to maximize rates of drawdown – that is, use up surrounding resources faster than they can be replaced locally.

Along the same lines, in Throwing Fuel on the Fire, Paul Ehrlich’s I=PAT formula describes technology as one of the three multipliers of environmental impact (I), along with population (P), and affluence (A). In this way, technology comprises tools which increase energy and material throughput, not lessen it.

Also, as I discussed in Can’t Have Cake and Eat it Too, technology is used to execute work more efficiently. The efficiency gains realized as a result of increased technology are systematically reinvested back into the process from which they originated thereby allowing us to enrich ourselves at the expense of the environment (the rebound effect).

These phenomena belie the popular mainstream image of the latest technology as a magical source of new energy that could preserve metastatic arrangements of living, if only they were deployed near and far. It’s closer to the truth to say that “new energy technology” is an oxymoron, as technology only speaks to new ways to use energy that already exists.

To be sure, alternative renewable energy will be an important fixture in a sustainable future, but only in a small-scale, local context. The problem is that as these alternatives are scaled up, their growth and market penetration ultimately depends upon supplies of the very finite products their inception was meant to protect: namely fossil fuels. I’ll discuss matters specific to alternative energy in a future post.

Finally, history has shown that every technological development brings with it risks and misapplications which are not accounted for at the time of the technology’s adoption. Progress traps are conditions human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through technological ingenuity, inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve right there and then. And so it goes until that society finds itself down a blind alley. This concept is described at length by Ronald Wright in his 2002 book “A Short History of Progress”. Progress traps adhere to the Law of Unintended Consequences, where history shows us that interventions into complex systems tend to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.

Most progress traps arise when technological applications that work well on a small scale are scaled up dramatically. The idea at work oftentimes is that if a little is good, then a lot is better, or that the benefits will rise commensurate with the inputs.

However, what we see is that the process of scaling up inevitably leads to diminishing returns – the point when each additional increment of technological application brings fewer benefits proportional to the costs (direct or otherwise). Another implication of this phenomenon is that, past a certain point, technology creates problems faster than it solves for old ones.

These diminishing returns of technological application are revealed through revenge effects – when technology bites back. There are many examples of revenge effects as they relate to cities, but few are as significant as the introduction of the automobile.

Automobiles were widely adopted over 100 years ago under the auspices of conquering the tyranny of distance. At first, the car was welcomed as a simple blessing, but at some point during the scaling-up process, adoption turned into dependence. Before too long, the drawbacks of excess CO2 production, traffic jams, sprawl, auto-related death and war implementation were evident. It’s important to note that these revenge effects could not have been anticipated at the time of the automobile’s development and introduction, however clear they are to us now.

The lesson here is that technological ingenuity is well-suited for solving discrete problems in isolation but terrible at mitigating the risks of predicaments – particularly predicaments that previous technology introduced in the first place.

We learn that every strategy that looks at the needs first rather than the problems caused by meeting needs in unsustainable ways will have an advantage over the types of band-aid solutions that are often proposed with the problem-solving approach. Just like a man stuck in quicksand, it helps to take a moment to assess the predicament instead of flailing around frantically.

Along the same lines, treating predicaments as scores of small problems in need of solutions leads to system brittleness. That’s because technological fixes tend to strengthen the systematic relations supporting unsustainability, resulting in magnification of the predicament to be dealt with later.

As this continual doubling-down on ingenuity continues, we raise the stakes by creating new problems even as the old ones were solved. In effect we trade one type of unsustainability for another as we edge further and further out onto progressively smaller, less-stable branches.

However, when we properly understand technology’s relationship with nature, we see that the ecological stakes are too high to place our blind faith in flawed technological ingenuity. It’s a shame we don’t consider reducing our need for implementing breakneck ingenuity more often than we do.

For some reason, it’s culturally ingrained in many of us to think first – and sometimes exclusively – about increasing the supply of technological ingenuity rather than trying to prevent problems from becoming so difficult in the first place.  But what if we used our immense ingenuity to figure out how to do more with what we already have? Perhaps if we did focus all of our collective, voluntary, and coordinated efforts on shifting away from dependence on fossil fuels, we could immediately contribute to the solution of a wide range of problems that would be much harder to solve if we confronted each in isolation.

Perhaps we’d recognize that what we’re running short on isn’t energy or technological ingenuity, but moderation. Technology amplifies intention. So we must change the intention first, and then the tools and the technology will follow. Then we’ll have plenty of available energy. We have to realize that all the technology in the world won’t make metastatic arrangements of living sustainable.

As it stands, I hold that it’s risky and intellectually lazy to depend upon technological ingenuity to bail our cities out of the current predicament. Instead, We need to plan for moderation and sufficiency, which I’ll explain further in a future post. In the meantime, we could consider employing the precautionary principle in sustainability planning practice.

The precautionary principle states that if there is a risk that an action could cause harm, and there is a lack of scientific consensus on the matter, the burden of proof is on those who would support taking the action. It’s an acknowledgement that advances in technology just increase our ability to do things, which may be either for the better or for the worse. It suggests that appropriate technology is a better strategy for addressing our predicament than maximum technology. I’ll talk about this distinction more in future posts.

Now, it’s true that if Edison had worried about the consequences of inventing electricity I’d be sitting in the dark and not writing this blog. But it’s also worth considering that I wouldn’t need to…

Next week I’ll continue exploring the implications of insular planning’s commitment to implementing technological ingenuity as a means to realize sustainability.

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