January 25, 2012

Technology Fixing Technology


One of my many unappealing qualities is a propensity to say "I told you so!" This comes to mind because yesterday the New York Times ran an article that affirmed the conclusion of a recent essay of mine for the technology blog, Cyborgology. I hasten to add that my conclusion was hardly earth-shattering; still, it's always nice to see science weighing in on the side of common sense.

The subject of my essay (an adaptation of an earlier essay posted here) was the problem of taking effective action to stop global warming in the face of our utter dependence on the technologies that cause global warming. After describing the various forces that comprise what I call "de facto technological autonomy," I noted that some scientists, in desperation, are beginning to examine various geoengineering techniques that might be used to reverse the problem without having to radically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.  

After listing a couple of examples of the exotic techniques being contemplated, my essay came to the following conclusion:
One looks for hope where one can find it, but the problem here is obvious: Even if they did work for the purposes intended, nobody knows what the unintended results of such radical measures might be. Technological autonomy is a process that proceeds without regard to original intention.
Two weeks after that essay posted, the Times' Justin Gillis reported on two new studies in the journal Nature Climate Change, both predicting that significant complications would almost certainly arise from the deployment of geoengineering techniques. Those complications range from unpredictable disruptions of various environmental processes to uneven distribution of the effects of geoenginnering, which could be a source of new international tensions.

Gillis' article concluded as follows:  
The bottom line of these studies is that even as they dive into research questions on geoengineering, scientists are perhaps inevitably coming to the conclusion that we would be better off limiting our emissions now rather than handing future generations a mess that may not be at all easy to clean up.

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