106: Exploding the Myth that Technology Will Save Us (transcript)

December 17, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek

Those of you following my personal life know that I took a lot of Amtrak journeys in the last month in my trip across the country starting in New York I went to L.A. with a stopover in Chicago, then Ventura, San Diego, Houston, then from Houston to Atlanta I went by bus with a stopover very briefly in New Orleans where I got a fried green tomato po’boy and then from Atlanta back to New York. Amtrak is a third-world train system. That’s what we have in the United States. Delays in Japan are measured in minutes or seconds. Many of mine were hours. Trains creaked, they stopped in the middle of nowhere, they were diesel. The top speeds are half of what they are in Europe and Asia. I joked on my blog that I would imagine it torture for a Japanese or European train engineer to have to work with Amtrak.

But this recording is not about complaining about Amtrak. It’s about undoing a major myth that people share about the environment and I found that Amtrak illustrated it perfectly. Changing Amtrak illustrates a common with that most Americans seem to believe that’s keeping us from addressing environmental issues of faith that technology will fix the situation. People overwhelmingly believe that once we get solar and a few other renewables and a few other technological advances, then the environmental situation will be solved. It’s a tempting belief. I’d like to believe that if we could just make solar airplanes, flying wouldn’t pollute.

Let’s look at changing Amtrak for a comparison. Say we wanted to make Amtrak a first-world system. Say we wanted to enable trains here to go double their current maximum speed. The technology exists. We know it does because it’s all over Europe and Asia and it’s been tested for decades. It’s tried and true. Do you think we could just buy some Japanese or European trains, put them on tracks here to get a faster train system? Probably the track gauge differs, the distance between one track and the other but that’s a relatively simple problem.

Let’s say that we solve that, let’s say we could just take those trains and put them in our tracks here. You may know that our tracks have too many turns in them. Amtrak has a lot of turns in the tracks that you can’t go at 200 mph around. So if we were going to get trains to go that fast, we’d have to straighten out the tracks. But people live near the tracks, businesses exist near the tracks so that means we’d have to move people’s property and that would be expensive even if they agree to it. If they didn’t agree to it would require legal maneuvering that many object to like eminent domain and that would require legal hassles for decades, maybe lifetimes. Few politicians, if any, would touch the issue. Many that did touch issue would lose their jobs. People don’t like the government taking their land even if it pays for it and even if it does pay for it, it has to pay a lot. It takes a long time to make that happen. So say we solved that issue. How about electrifying the system to get power everywhere? Because we use a lot of diesel. Amtrak still has a culture of not being on time. They’d have to learn, they meaning the Amtrak employees, would have to learn new protocols that have to change their culture. I hope you see that just getting Amtrak trains to [unintelligible] speeds that are routine and have been routine for decades in many parts of the world is much harder than just applying a technology no matter how well that technology is tested.

So when you say that technology will save us, I’m not saying you say it, when people say that technology will save us or rely on technology or think the technology alone will save us you might as well say putting French or Japanese trains on Amtrak tracks will enable Amtrak to reach their speeds. Yes, we need the new technology. The new technology is essential but it would be nowhere near enough. Ultimately, you have to change a lot of people. You have to change your incentives, you have to change your beliefs and so on. All of that goes into cultural change. There’s a lot of reasons why things stay the way they are. And if you aren’t changing your beliefs and your behaviors with regard to the environment, if you’re flying around, if you’re getting a lot of packaging, you’re exhibiting the inertia that I’m describing in your life that Amtrak people are going to do much more in their lives. Even if we changed all the power supplies that we could to solar wind and other renewables, many things can’t change. People still find ways to make money with fossil fuels. Making everything electric doesn’t mean someone won’t be able to get fossil fuels and do something with it to make money that way.

So we still need cultural change to get people to feel like we don’t have to grow all the time, that we can be satisfied with what we have. For externalizing costs with pollution, say, for that to become not acceptable, for people and companies to take responsibility for when their behavior say pollution affects others, hurts others. In general, we have laws that cover when you do something that hurts someone else. For some reason when you do it through pollution, we don’t really cover that. Anyway. These are some of the changes that we would have to have that’s not simply a matter of technological change. If you think that changing Amtrak is hard and think about it. I mean, pause for a second and think how hard would it be to get Amtrak to go double the speeds. Would you take that job offered to you for any amount of pay to change Amtrak, to make it a first-world train system? Do you think the people who’ve tried to do it don’t want to succeed?

If you think that changing Amtrak is hard, it’s nothing compared to changing the whole nation or many nations of the whole world. If you think it’s easy and you yourself are over the IPCC recommendations, say you’re polluting more, if you’ve done one flight across the country and back, I believe that puts you over the IPCC recommendations, for that alone. To say nothing of your heating, water, gas you’re putting in your car and so forth. So if you think it’s easy and you’re over those recommendations, why don’t you change, why don’t you drop below them, or if you are below them, please let me know since almost no one is below them. And I would love to know what works, especially if you changed yourself. I would love to know what you’ve done because if we do want to change Amtrak or we want to change the nation, I believe that the most effective ways to solve hard problems are to solve easy problems that are relevant. Take what you learn from that. Apply that to slightly more complex problem and keep repeating that until you reach the hard problem.

But big vague myths with no justification that technology alone will save us it doesn’t work that way and I hope the illustration with Amtrak illustrated that. In the meantime, I recommend not relying on a myth that technology will save us. That’s not to say I don’t believe we should switch to more efficient technologies but first we have to change culture, we have to change the beliefs and the goals driving the system. Because a system that’s based on growth and externalizing costs will produce those things more efficiently if you make it more efficient. That’s the opposite of what we want. I believe that starts with you and me right here right now. And I guess I’ll put on this as a final note is that the changes that I have made through flying less, through polluting less, through picking up garbage, they’ve improved my life. It takes time but it improves your life if you choose to do it. Anyway. That’s a topic for a different talk.

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