Communicating with tech geeks on sustainability

July 24, 2021 by Joshua
in Nature

Regular readers know I work to communicate effectively with groups that don’t know or act much on sustainability. My goal is to lead them to where they want to act for their own reasons, expecting success. I’ve succeeded with conservatives and evangelicals. Other groups are more challenging. Geeky communities like Slashdot and Hacker News tend to like nuclear, escaping to Mars, and other tech-based solutions.

They seem to miss unintended side effects and systemic effects. They love efficiency but don’t see that you can make part of a system more efficient, lower pollution in one part of the system, but increase it overall. They treat colonizing Mars as inevitable and easy, but lowering consumption as impossible. Space is paradise to them while fresh fruits and vegetables are something to improve with genetic engineering. Nuclear energy is nearly perfect while considering using less energy is stupid and impossible.

Yet technologists help solve problems. A recent post to this community didn’t get the downvotes my posts often do. In fact it got a few upvotes, so I’m quoting it here, like a study a painter makes before the full painting. Leadership works when you work in the space of those you want to lead.

Regarding the environment and humans decreasing the Earth’s ability to sustain life, the tech community doesn’t seem to pick up on the pattern that technology augments the users’ goals and values. As long as our culture values growth, extraction, externalizing costs, comfort, and convenience, technology that makes that system more efficient may decrease pollution in one element, but it makes the system more efficient. That is, we pollute and decrease Earth’s ability to sustain life more efficiently.

When Watt made his steam engine, coal use went up. Uber was supposed to lower congestion and miles driven but they went up. We repeat the pattern over and over. The “father” of the Green Revolution, on winning the Nobel Prize said

The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.

Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster”. . . Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth…

He understood the value of technology as well as anyone in theory and practice. He recognized that we have to change our values from growth to enjoying what we have, from externalizing costs to responsibility, and so on or technology will keep exacerbating and augmenting our problems. That pattern includes nuclear, electric vehicles, and space travel. They may solve local problems, but they exacerbate the systemic effect. Electric vehicles, for example, make sense as a tactic under the strategy of reducing vehicles. Nuclear makes sense only as a tactic under the strategy of lowering power consumption. But we keep valuing producing more cars and energy.

This community seems over and over again to miss the systemic and unintended side effects. If we had clean fusion under our current values, we wouldn’t live as we do today only cleaner. We would grow again until we hit more limits and had to live again under scarcity or natural calamity. Borlaug worked the second half his career to help people see the consequences of helping solve only part of our system but not the system.

If we have to stop growing at some point, at least acknowledging the laws of thermodynamics, the sooner we do it, with the smaller number of people, the more abundance we can live with. The more people we have, the harder to limit ourselves. If we don’t, nature will, as we all know.

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