063: Technology won’t solve environmental issues and you know it (transcript)

July 13, 2018 by Joshua
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek

I want to talk about technology and how technology will not solve the environmental issues most people think it will, not if we act on it the way that we’re acting on it now and that you know it. I’ve been thinking lately back to before the main actions I took that led to this podcast and that led to me taking a more active role in the environment. I thought of them as challenging before I did them. I’m thinking mainly of avoiding packaged food which was as you know something that led to a lot of changes in me. They ended up becoming awesome for me. Some of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Why did they seem so challenging beforehand when they ended up turning out so awesome? Why didn’t I act earlier? Guilt was certainly a piece of it. When I started becoming aware that I was doing things that were against my values, doing things that would hurt other people and I knew that I was doing it, it started to make me feel guilty and like many people when I started feeling these feelings I would think about all the stuff and certainly that raised self-awareness that I didn’t want to be aware about. Now lowering your self-awareness would make me feel better in the moment but not in the long run.

But the technology part is another big piece of it. And with a Ph.D. in astrophysics, having helped build the satellite and with several patents to my name I thought I knew technology really well. I certainly knew the pattern that a lot of people also had to learn in life. You’re sitting there in traffic, you think, “Oh, if only there was another lane or a parallel road, then there wouldn’t be so much traffic. Why don’t they build another lane?” I think people have gotten the idea now that when you build an extra lane for a month or two, maybe six months, the traffic will decrease but eventually there’ll be more traffic than there was before. Contrary to what people think naively, building roads generally creates traffic. Somehow, I didn’t see the same pattern with technology but once you see it, it changes everything. It changes how you view technology as a potential solution for environmental issues. Personally, I thought for a long time if we could just get fusion to work, I know it always seem 20 years off, but if we could get fusion to work to get energy without carbon I thought it would just solve everything. I thought it was a total game changer. I thought efficiency was the answer. Now on second thought, it’s much more like roads.

Before continuing I want to make one point abundantly clear that I’m not suggesting, nor proposing, nor believing that technology, innovation or efficiency in themselves are problems. A lot of people have these categories and they hear something new and they think, “Well, if he doesn’t want technology, he must want us to live in the Stone Age” which is not what I’m saying at all. I’ll talk about the nuances in a second. But for now, I’m not saying that technology, innovation or efficiency in themselves are problems. They’re neutral. It’s how we use them, our values and what we care about, that’s what creates meaning. And I’m talking about our values. When used consistently with our values, I’m a big fan of these things. But first we have to look at and act on our values and that’s what this is about.

I want to give an example. If anything marked the beginning of the industrial revolution it was James Watt’s steam engine. It wasn’t the first steam engine. What made it different was it was significantly more efficient than any steam engine before. More efficient means using less energy and less pollution. Right? Wrong. Well, for each engine – yes, each engine would pollute less but more people used engines and people who weren’t using engines before would use them. And a big reason for using the engines was to pump water out of mines to get more coal to put into steam engines to pump more water out of mines to get more coal and so forth. The direct result is today’s polluted world. If you fantasize as I did that technological improvements will after centuries since the Industrial Revolution caused an increasing demand for natural resources that somehow magically in your lifetime, in our lifetime that the effects will go from increasing, increasing, increasing pollution to decreasing them, you’re dreaming. As I was dreaming.

There are two main effects driving this pattern that are obvious when you see them, however counterintuitive they seem at first just like thinking more roads should decrease traffic. It doesn’t. It increases. People believe self-serving myths in the opposite direction of millennia of countervailing evidence. I think probably because they prefer as I did comfort and convenience over feeling that guilt that would come from consciously being aware of how they’re hurting other people with their pollution. We know the polluted world we were born into. We know the pollution we’re causing. That is unless we keep lowering our self-awareness with myths. So number one, efficiency increases overall use, not decreases. There are some counter examples but the general trend overall certainly since the Industrial Revolution is that when costs drop people use more.

Two big examples. LEDs are more efficient than incandescent light bulbs and now people are lighting things they never used to. As a society we haven’t yet crossed over but certainly many, many individuals have that they are using LED so much more that they’re using more energy overall than they were with incandescence. One other big example is that gas engines are much more efficient today than they were decades ago and that efficiency is not being turned into greater mileage. On the contrary, people make cars bigger, heavier, faster so they accelerate more so mileage today is lower than many cars from half a century ago. And this happens over and over and over again. We don’t turn efficiency into savings. We turn it into using more energy. It’s the same thing that happens with traffic. If you think that electric cars, solar power, nuclear power, fusion, a hyperloop train system that these things will lower pollution, you’re ignoring history. If we make solar powered airplanes, people will keep making more and more airplanes and fly more and more until we hit physical limits again. If we make a hyperloop train system between San Francisco and L.A., that’s not going to stop people from flying. Now people will fly and take the hyperloop. And here’s the big effect. Making a system more efficient achieves its goals more. Steam engines, LED bulbs, nuclear reactors and technology in general are elements of a system. Even the whole economy is an element of a global system including the environment and other human systems and the goals of this overall system have long included growth and individual comfort and convenience as their main goals. As long as these goals remain the main goals, technological innovation and efficiency will drive them, those goals over competing considerations such as conservation and community. If a system is designed for growth, making it more efficient will make it grow more efficiently.

We took generations to learn that building more roads increased traffic, congestion, pollution, time lost and so on. In that time of not figuring this stuff out even though it’s right in front of us we locked in infrastructure parts of which will endure for centuries increasing traffic, congestion, pollution, time loss and so on for centuries. As long as we hold onto these myths that solar planes or whatever will lower overall pollution we’re locking in more damage. And why do I say that you know this? Because if you think, “Oh, technology may have increased pollution since steam engines and before and so on but this time it’ll be different,” then you see it has to be different this time. Something has to change because if we keep doing it how we used to do it, we’ll get the same results. Efficiency will drive a destructive system to destroy things more efficiently. You know that for a different result we have to do things differently. Efficiency alone won’t reduce pollution and will likely increase it. But there is a way out. We don’t have to work within the system. We can work on the system. Instead of making an existing polluting system more efficient, instead of making destruction more efficient we can make it not destructive. That’s why I made a podcast on leadership and the environment, not just efficiency and the environment, not technology or innovation or legislation and the environment but leadership. Leaders can change systems. Some do anyway. So steam engines, LED bulbs, nuclear reactors and technology in general affects parts of the system but they don’t change it overall. Changing the beliefs and goals of a system change it.

I’m trying to help people change their beliefs and goals. So you listeners, also influential people that many follow, if we don’t change the most influential people, then people following them will keep falling back on their beliefs and goals. And I had this headline that says the top three executives at Google have eight airplanes between them. As long as the most influential people behave like that everybody else will think, “Well, yeah. Google’s becoming carbon neutral maybe but its leaders are not.” And people want to be like the leaders. We’ve changed systems before as cultures and we can do it again. Christianity was more merciful than many systems before it. Buddhism more – compassionate. The Enlightenment – more observation based. Science – more skeptical. We’ve changed systemic goals before many times. We can change from growth that is always wanting more to enough. Or as I think loving what you have. When you realize you can’t have everything, when you realize you can’t go to every place on Earth you learn to appreciate, celebrate and love what you have.

In my experience, more love than when you believe that fantasy, that when I believe that fantasy my life is more full of joy, love, compassion, empathy, delicious than before I started avoiding packaged food and all the things that came from it. We can change from individual comfort and convenience. I certainly like those things but how about a little responsibility and caring to how we affect others? Not just a little but how about making that primary? As any parent, pet owner, team member or someone who’s joined a long-term relationship will tell you taking others into account, caring how you affect them, taking responsibility for how your actions affect others increases your compassion, your empathy, your love and your overall emotional reward. The result, yes, you can’t do some things that you did before that you enjoyed. Parents can’t party like they used to. And you have to do somethings that you didn’t want to do before but now you’ll probably enjoy.

The result is action. For me it ended up assuaging my guilt, it increased my self- awareness and it turned an area of my life full of guilt into joy and delicious. So the next time that you find yourself saying, “I want to travel but I don’t want to pollute. It’s not my fault there aren’t solar powered airplanes or it’s not my fault that this bottle. I don’t know if it’s going to be recycled or not but I’ll use it anyway” I put to you, “You may be helping drive a system.” What are the system’s values? Where does it lead? Does it lead to more responsibility and more caring or does it lead to not thinking about what happens and someone else will figure that out? Not what you want its values to be, not what you wish or fantasize its values were but what its values actually are and use that as an occasion to see if you can change the system to work with your values.

Let’s get to you here now because changing the system sounds abstract. How do we actually do it? I’m not a billionaire. Ironically what you or any listener can do is as simple as what they would do. Know when your actions conflict with your values and change your behavior to meet your values. Not think about, not analyze but to act. What nearly every guest says they feel a mindset shift and then it becomes natural, it becomes easy, they wish they’d done it before, or if it’s challenging, they’re glad for the challenge. So buying stuff you don’t need, buying packaged food, buying bottled water, your dietary habits, air conditioning, heating versus sweaters and fans, even eventually I can tell you flying since bigger changes lead to bigger joy once you make them. Analysis, planning and all that academic, impractical stuff that leads to talking and thinking, I value these things, I appreciate these things, I do these things but I recognize their limits and more importantly I recognize when something conflicts with my values and I know when I choose to behave in conflict to my values and I know that right then and there I can choose to live consistently with my values and my experience tells me that when I do that I learn and grow and I change and it becomes easier and easier to live consistently with my values and stop shunning them. Instead of deciding to avoid plastic or polluting, avoid plastic or polluting. Do it and you’ll find yourself change just like my podcast guests. That’s personal leadership and it will lead to leading others as well.

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