Ecological principles show us that systems are free to expand until they hit limits. Imagine a pond with a numerous, diverse range of critters living in it like insects, frogs, and plants. In the autumn, decaying autumn leaves on land – detritus – are carried by runoff from melting snows into the pond. In the spring, a situation develops where warmer temperatures allow the algal population to reproduce exponentially into a bloom, taking advantage of the giant store of available energy brought the previous autumn. Through their life process, the algae consume dissolved oxygen in the water, usually resulting in the death of many other types of animals and plants. However, when the inflow of available energy is ceased, the algae die off too.
As unsavory as it may be to consider, the algae’s fundamental predicament isn’t so different from ours. The superficial difference is the form of the detritus: whereas the algae rely upon massive stores of decaying leaves, we humans rely upon massive stores of fossil fuels.
There is an important difference between algae and humans, of course. Humans, at least in theory, use their immense mental powers of reason to consider the possible consequences of their actions on the future. History has shown that more often than not these mental powers have been used to develop and apply technologies when limits are reached, with little regard for their impacts on the future.
For a long time, natural selection alone determined the maximum carrying capacity of humans. However, at a point in the distant past, humans developed the ability to augment their maximum carrying capacity via technological ingenuity. Since that point, humans have been inventing and utilizing tools designed to divert energy and resources that would have been available to other members of the biotic community to serve human purposes exclusively.
More recently, humans supplemented takeover with drawdown, a process by which surrounding resources (like fossil fuels) are used up at a rate faster than they can be replaced naturally – a profoundly unsustainable practice.
As unsustainable as takeover and drawdown are proving to be, they have been very successful in expanding the bounds of human dominion in the past. So it’s only natural that most people – including many well-meaning planners – assume that technological progress can continue to thrust us past our current limitations regardless of the larger forces at work in the world.
But as I showed last week, technological progress always brings with it risks and misapplications which cannot be not accounted for at the time of the technology’s adoption. This phenomenon is called the Law of Unintended Consequences, and it guarantees that progress traps will arise. 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.
We find that the benefits of scaling up a technology are eventually offset by unforeseen costs. In other words, technological progress is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and the ignorance of this fact is present in insular planning’s support of renewable energy and efficiency measures as the primary means to realize sustainability.
Many writers and scientists including Geoffrey West, Joseph Tainter, and Thomas Homer-Dixon have written and commented on these phenomena, which could be captured under the umbrella term the paradox of ingenuity. The paradox of ingenuity states that past a certain point in the technological development of a society, the ingenuity necessary to maintain order – that is, the information exchanged, decisions required, controls necessary and readjustments needed – cannot be delivered in sufficient quantities to offset the costs. In short, each increment of ingenuity creates problems faster than it can solve for old ones – a vicious cycle indeed.
We can see that technological progress is largely a race between the emergence of new problems and the emergence of new techniques for their control; or, more accurately, a race between our ability to use technology and our ability to do so responsibly. The situation is not unlike playing poker poorly; we lose each hand, each time afterward playing “double or nothing” and increasing the stakes dramatically each round.
And the stakes are alarmingly high at present. Previously the world had been big enough to absorb these impacts, but it’s clear now that our metastatic cities are no longer insulated from their own deleterious effects on the environment. Rates of resource depletion, biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, topsoil loss, salinization, toxification, ocean acidification, overfishing and climate change are alarmingly high and will increasingly affect our metastatic cities.
Though a study of history clearly demonstrates that technological ingenuity has wrought much of this damage, the technological boosters of today are asking planners to blindly commit to further technological applications to “solve” this dilemma – as if starting tomorrow, technological progress could magically absolve itself from the law of unanticipated consequences.
Considering the long odds and high stakes, I want to know why we planners aren’t asking the hard questions of why we aren’t reducing our cities’ need for breakneck ingenuity. I know that this sort of thinking must seem hopelessly old-fashioned to those ensconced within the technologically-optimistic milieu. But I believe we planners must snap out of the insular haze we’ve been ruminating within and begin questioning the technological path that’s been served us for us.
As I showed last week, technological ingenuity is well-suited for solving discrete problems in isolation but terrible at mitigating the risks of predicaments – particularly those that previous technology introduced in the first place. It’s important to remember that technological ingenuity is know-how, but know-how is never an end unto itself – it is a means without an end; a mere potentiality, an unfinished sentence. Know-how is no more a solution than a guitar is music.
The faster we adopt technological ingenuity featuring renewable energy and efficiency, the more deeply the paradox of ingenuity becomes with attendant consequences for metastatic cities’ citizens. For reasons I’ll make clearer next week, the uncomfortable truth is that technological ingenuity featuring renewable energy and efficiency isn’t going to be able to maintain the current configuration of our metastatic cities. So we planners need to start getting serious about how to improve their resiliency against the impacts we can see coming from a mile away.
That’s where I’ll pick things up next week.