Showing posts with label global warming. Show all posts
Showing posts with label global warming. Show all posts

May 7, 2013

Everything is Connected (Human Waste Edition)

One of the fun things we have to look forward to as global warming advances: Rivers of raw sewage pouring into public waterways. 

According to a new report by the nonprofit environmental group Climate Central, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East coast, more than 10 billion – billion! – gallons of raw and partly treated sewage poured directly into lakes, rivers, streams, and the ocean. Some of the overflow “bubbled up” (as the New York Times charmingly put it) onto streets and into homes.

The reason was simple. Treatment plants, most of which are built in low-lying areas near large bodies of water, were unable to handle Sandy's storm surge, especially when they lost electrical power. The only recourse was to start dumping. The report said enough overflow was released to cover New York's Central Park with a pile of poop more than 40 feet high.

One way or another, this will be one of the myriad ways we’ll all pay for climate change as the frequency and intensity of storms increase and sea levels rise. Either we pump massive amounts of taxpayer dollars into upgrading sewage treatment facilities or we get used to wading through shit.

"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.  

Photo credit:  JL Johnson via flickr via


February 7, 2013

Everything is Connected (Rodent Relocation Edition)

Among the side-effects of Hurricane Sandy, itself a preview of our global warming future: Rats!

The New York Times reports today that the massive low-land flooding caused by Sandy has driven legions of rats inland to take up residence in apartments, schools, restaurants, and office buildings, even cars. It's an especially robust invasion because the storm left plenty of garbage in the streets for displaced rodents to feed on.

They became so bad I couldn’t even take all the jobs,” said Jonathan Vargas, a partner with All Day Exterminating, who estimated that his rat complaint calls doubled in number after Hurricane Sandy. Timothy Wong, a managing partner with M&M Environmental, a pest control company on the Lower East Side, said rat complaints began to soar after the hurricane and have not let up yet, partly because the wintry weather is driving the rodents indoors.

“The subway, the sewer, a lot got disrupted,” said Mr. Wong, who said complaints about rats were about as bad as he has seen in 10 years. “There’s so much garbage out in the streets these days. Renovations because of the flood. Christmas trees. These things make it worse. For them, it’s Restaurant Week.”

 "Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.  

December 13, 2012

Everything is Connected (Wet Blanket Edition)


Living with the effects of global warming isn't only going to be harder. It's going to be less fun.

A couple of recent dispatches make the point:

1) Lots of people who love to ski will have to find another hobby. According to a report yesterday in the New York Times, as global warming continues, scores of the nation’s winter resorts, especially those at lower elevations and latitudes, won't have any snow to offer their customers.

The Times quotes one study's prediction that no ski area in Connecticut or Massachusetts is likely to be economically viable by 2039, while more than half of those in Maine and New York will go under. Another report said that the industry has already lost more than a billion dollars in revenue due to warming. 

Some in the industry are confident that snow-making technology will make up for any short-falls caused by climate change. There's a problem with that scenario, though. Snow-making requires water, and warming not only reduces snow, it reduces rainfall. After a year of record drought, the Times says, "reservoirs are depleted, streams are low, and snowpack levels stand at 41 percent of their historical average." 

2) The second report, in The Daily Beast, describes an impending gastronomic disaster of epic proportions: "The End of Pasta."

Wheat is a cool weather crop, which makes it the most vulnerable of our basic grains (rice and corn are the others) to global warming. According to reporter Mark Hertsgaard, predictions are that if current trends continue, global wheat production could decline by as much as 27 percent by 2050.

Bakeries will obviously suffer under such conditions, but pasta production will suffer more because the variety of wheat used to make pasta – durum wheat – is especially sensitive to climate change. Already shifts in rainfall patterns are forcing farmers in North Dakota, where some of the world's finest durum wheat is grown, to move their operations west. If warming continues, they may have to stop raising durum wheat altogether.

An ironic twist puts the durum wheat crop in North Dakota at even greater risk. Fracking has turned the state into an epicenter of one of the biggest oil booms in American history. As a result, land once used to grow durum wheat is now being paved over for oil pumps and gas pipelines, all busily producing fuels that are pushing the planet's temperature higher, faster. According to Hertsgaard, the flaring of natural gas that occurs during fracking is itself a major contributor to global warming. 

North Dakota isn't the world's only source of durum wheat, or even its most important one. That honor, Hertsgaard says, goes to the Mediterranean basin. Unfortunately, predictions are that climate change will hit that region even harder than it's hitting North Dakota.

Goodbye spaghetti, farewell, macaroni and cheese!

"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Photos: Skier: Tech4Globe; Pasta: Jacksonville Organic Produce Delivery Service

November 11, 2012

Everything is Connected (Global Chaos Edition)

Queens, New York, after Hurricane Sandy
So much for denial. A report commissioned by the CIA and other security agencies confronts head on what our political leaders are afraid to mention: The various forms of chaos that will be unleashed by global warming. 

Among developments the report says that the nation's defense and intelligence establishments need to prepare for, according to the New York Times:

  • large populations displaced by flood and famine,
  • rampant spread of disease,
  • increasing conflict over decreasing resources,
  • relief agencies overwhelmed by the scope and scale of need, and
  • the necessity of military action to curb violence or protect vital interests.

The report predicts that global warming will impose what the Times describes as "unparalleled strains" on government resources in the coming years. These strains will be the result of "more frequent but unpredictable crises in water supplies, food markets, energy supply chains and public health systems."

The National Research Council, which the Times calls "the nation’s top scientific research group," produced the report. It was originally to be presented to intelligence officials on the day Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, but had to be delayed because the federal government was shut down. Lead author John D. Steinbruner told the Times that Sandy provided a preview of the sorts of disruptions we can expect to see more of in the future. 

"You can debate the specific contribution of global warming to that storm," he said. "But we’re saying climate extremes are going to be more frequent, and this was an example of what they could mean. We’re also saying it could get a whole lot worse than that.” 

Post-Sandy repairs, Bronx, New York
The report says the U.S. military is not taking adequate steps to prepare for the disruptions that are expected to occur. It specifically warns of the collapse of "globally integrated systems that provide for human well-being." That's a reference to a condition I've written about frequently in this space, "technological autonomy," a shorthand way of describing the fact that nations around the world are now utterly dependent on massively complex, tightly coupled technological systems that are highly vulnerable to chain-reaction breakdowns.

The Times article ends by noting that even as the urgency of preparing for global warming has grown, the willingness of politicians to provide the funding necessary to do so has declined. 

"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Photo Credits: Queens destruction: Spencer Platt - AFP/Getty Images; Bronx power lines: Don Emmert - AFP/Getty Images.

November 1, 2012

Everything is Connected

Gridlock, NYC

According to the New York Times, it's too early for climate scientists to say with assurance that Hurricane Sandy was a manifestation of global warming. Whatever their ultimate verdict, the storm provided some alluring previews of what we can look forward to as climate change takes hold. 

Case in point: massive gridlock in New York City as a result of Sandy's impact on subways and trains.

The New York Post headlined its story on the situation "Now Sandy is Driving Us Mad." Here's an excerpt: 
An unprecedented crush of cars, trucks and pedestrians clogged the streets of Manhattan from river to river yesterday, bringing the city to a virtual halt — leading Mayor Bloomberg to impose emergency High Occupancy Vehicle restrictions to avoid similar chaos today.

An endless line of cars poured into the city throughout the day — but many drivers ditched their vehicles when they landed in a gridlock nightmare, and concluded their commutes on foot.

Bloomberg responded to the traffic hell by ordering carpooling on all major crossings except the George Washington Bridge.


"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.  

Photo credit:: Andrew Gombert/European Pressphoto Agency via New York Times

October 14, 2012

Everything is Connected

I'm inaugurating a new regular feature today, Everything is Connected, named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology.
  1. Everything is connected to everything else. 
  2. Everything must go somewhere. 
  3. Nature knows best. 
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.  

The Los Angeles Times reports today that the effects of severe drought in the Midwest this summer are causing restaurants to cut back on the size of their servings, increase prices, and reduce staff. Customers are complaining about smaller portions, lower quality cuts of meat, and fewer specials.

Smokin' Jonny's BBQ in Gardena, California, raised the price of corn on the cob from $1.50 to $3.00 and then dropped it from the menu entirely because the quality of the corn wasn't good enough. Ribs are only on the menu on weekends because that's when people are willing to splurge for what's become a luxury meal.

"Economists say even bigger hikes are ahead as the poor U.S. harvest ripples through the food chain," the Times reports.

Chase Edmondson, an actor interviewed by the Times, said he sometimes orders kids' meals to combat menu shock. "It's kind of ridiculous when you're getting a hamburger for $12," he said.

September 24, 2012

Talking Technology! (No Free Lunch edition)

The New York Times published a superb report yesterday (the first part of a series) on the massive, and massively wasteful, power consumption that drives the Internet.

The article is notable not only for its reporting but also for its appreciation of the underlying issues.

Specifically it emphasizes that the Internet is not, as we'd like to believe, an entity that exists in some friction-less, dream-like realm called "cyberspace" or "the cloud." In truth, the Internet isn't "virtual" at all: It runs on such Earth-bound realities as diesel generators and lead-acid batteries, not to mention huge amounts of electricity and substantial amounts of pollution.

Here are some quotes:
Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.

“It’s staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”

Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.

The inefficient use of power is largely driven by a symbiotic relationship between users who demand an instantaneous response to the click of a mouse and companies that put their business at risk if they fail to meet that expectation.

At least a dozen major data centers have been cited for violations of air quality regulations in Virginia and Illinois alone, according to state records. Amazon was cited with more than 24 violations over a three-year period in Northern Virginia, including running some of its generators without a basic environmental permit.

Each year, chips in servers get faster, and storage media get denser and cheaper, but the furious rate of data production goes a notch higher.

With no sense that data is physical or that storing it uses up space and energy, [Internet users] have developed the habit of sending huge data files back and forth, like videos and mass e-mails with photo attachments. Even the seemingly mundane actions like running an app to find an Italian restaurant in Manhattan or a taxi in Dallas requires servers to be turned on and ready to process the information instantaneously.

“If you tell somebody they can’t access YouTube or download from Netflix, they’ll tell you it’s a God-given right,” said Bruce Taylor, vice president of the Uptime Institute, a professional organization for companies that use data centers.

A crash or a slowdown could end a [data center manager's] career…A field born of cleverness and audacity is now ruled by something else: fear of failure.

 “When somebody says, ‘I’m going to store something in the cloud, we don’t need disk drives anymore’ — the cloud is disk drives,” Mr. Victora said. “We get them one way or another. We just don’t know it.”

“That’s what’s driving that massive growth — the end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere,” said David Cappuccio, a managing vice president and chief of research at Gartner, the technology research firm. “We’re what’s causing the problem.”

September 17, 2012

Technological Autonomy: Greasing the rails to Armageddon

There are any number of ways to frame the apocalypse, I suppose. As one who spends a lot of time thinking about technology, mine is a phenomenon known as "technological autonomy." 

I'm convinced that technological autonomy may be the single most important problem ever to face our species and the planet as a whole. A huge statement, obviously, but there's plenty of recent evidence to back it up.

Briefly stated, technological autonomy describes a condition in which we are no longer in control of our technologies: they now function autonomously. This isn't as absurd as it may sound. The idea isn't that we can't switch a given machine from "on" to "off." Rather, technological autonomy acknowledges the fact that we have become so personally, economically, and socially committed to our devices that we couldn't survive without them.*

Technological autonomy is probably the most controversial theory in the rarified but growing field known as the philosophy of technology. Paul T. Durbin, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Delaware, has written that the discipline is roughly divided between those who interpret technology narrowly and those who interpret it broadly. If you think of technology as tools, period, scholars in the narrow camp agree with you. They tend to have engineering backgrounds and become irritated at any suggestion that machines have taken on a life of their own. "It is not the machine that is frightening," says Joseph Pitt of Virginia Tech University, "but what some men will do with the machine; or, given the machine, what we fail to do by way of assessment and planning."

Scholars in the broad camp, who often come from philosophy or sociology backgrounds, says it isn't that simple. They insist that technology must be seen systemically, that it includes not only machines but also the social relationships and economic structures in which machines flourish. As Thomas Misa of the University of Minnesota puts it, technology is "far more than a piece of hardware," but rather "a shorthand term for the elaborate sociotechnical networks that span society."

From that perspective we can see that controlling our machines involves much more than just deciding, "Okay, we're not going to do that anymore." All of us, whether we like or not, are enmeshed in a massively complex web of interconnected, interdependent technologies and technological systems. To extricate ourselves from those systems would inflict massive, probably irreparable, damage to our way of life. I use the term "de facto technological autonomy" to suggest that while we can literally turn off our machines, practically we are unable to do so.

The people of Japan have learned a lot about technological autonomy since the tsunami hit the Fukushima reactors. They'd love to get rid of nuclear power altogether, but their leaders are telling them that to do so invites economic disaster. In much the same way we Americans, along with most of the rest of the developed world, are trapped by our automobiles. We know that for lots of reasons we'd be better off if we stopped driving them tomorrow, but we can't. If we did, life as we know it would collapse, since in one way or another we depend on the internal combustion engine for our jobs, our food, and virtually everything else we need. It's impossible to overestimate the implications of that particular dilemma, politically, economically, militarily, and – most important – environmentally.

The reasons I think technological autonomy is the most crucial issue in history are contained in several reports I've come across in recent months. They're collected on my hard drive in a folder labeled "The End of Civilization." Together they testify, explicitly or implicitly, to a growing consensus in the scientific community that we humans are not going to find it within ourselves to act soon enough or dramatically enough to forestall catastrophic climate change. If the battle is about bringing our machines to heel, it's pretty certain at this point we're going to lose.

An example appeared in a New York Times essay in July by Roger Bradbury, an ecologist at Australian National University. The world's coral reefs, sources of food for millions of human beings, have become "zombie ecosystems," he wrote. They will collapse entirely within a human generation. Although the evidence that this is happening is "compelling and unequivocal," scientists and politicians alike have consistently "airbrushed" the truth. There's hope to save the reefs, we're told, if only we take prudent action. Forget it, Bradbury said. There isn't any hope.  

The scent of doom similarly emanated from a report in England's Guardian newspaper in February. "Civilization faces a 'perfect storm of ecological and social problems,'" the headline read. This was the conclusion of a group of 20 scientists who had all been winners of the Blue Planet prize, an international award the Guardian described as "the unofficial Nobel for the environment." The paper issued by the group made repeated use of the word "unprecedented," as in this passage:

"In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us."

A month later the journal Science published a paper signed by an international group of 32 experts who specialize in environmental governance. “Societies must change course to steer away from critical tipping points in the Earth system that could lead to rapid and irreversible change," the paper said. "Incremental change is no longer sufficient to bring about societal change at the level and with the speed needed to stop earth system transformation."

Yet another apocalyptic paper soon followed, this one by a group of 22 scientists from a variety of fields, writing in the June issue of the journal Nature. Entitled “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere," the paper warned that the planet's environmental systems are nearing breakdown on any number of fronts and that those "tipping points" will likely be sudden and dramatic rather than gradual. The Los Angeles Times quoted lead author Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, as comparing the likely severity of the environmental shifts we're facing to the effects of an asteroid hitting the planet. 

That the world seems to have taken little to no significant notice of these warnings strikes me as utterly astonishing. It's as if a family has been told that their house is on fire and they remain glued to their TV shows and video games, potato chips and soda at hand. Certainly climate change hasn't been anything close to a central issue in the current presidential campaign. The only conceivable explanation is that we are simply unable to contemplate the scope and depth of changes that will be required to forestall the catastrophes the scientists are predicting. That by definition comprises a condition of de facto technological autonomy.     

The volume of scientific alarms increased in recent months in part in anticipation of Rio+20, an international colloquy on the environment held in Rio de Janeiro in June. Officially named the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the nickname was a nod to the fact that the conference was convened on the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, also held in Rio. At that meeting a global "blueprint" was adopted that would supposedly set the nations of the world on the path to a saner environmental future. 

As it's turned out, the two Rio conferences can be considered benchmarks on our journey over the environmental cliff. Global warming, among other sources of degradation, has only accelerated since the first one, and nothing emerged from the second one to suggest we'll find a way to reverse that trend anytime soon. Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, called the conference as a whole "a failure of epic proportions" and its rambling, inconclusive final report "the longest suicide note in history."  

Our ongoing impotence in the face of climate change prompted one of our better-known environmental activists, Bill McKibben, to publish an angry and pessimistic jeremiad in the August issue of Rolling Stone. He spent a few thousand words documenting the latest irrefutable evidence that disaster's approach continues unimpeded while the "charade" that we're actually dealing with it continues, as it has for decades.

"Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989," McKibben said, "and since I've spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in."

The conclusion is inescapable that some challenges are just too difficult to face. Controlling the machines we've unleashed seems to be one of them. 

*For previous essays of mine on technological autonomy, see here and here.

©Doug Hill, 2012

September 8, 2012

Talking Technology!

The New York Times reports today that some American companies are making big profits selling a gas that's been banned by international treaty because it damages the ozone.
The gas, HCFC-22, is used to repair older air conditioners; newer machines don't use it. There's a flourishing market smuggling it into countries where it's illegal or exporting it to countries where it's legal.

DuPont makes more HCFC-22 than it can sell legally in the States and exports it to countries like Mexico. Marcone, a major supplier of appliance parts based in St. Louis, was recently convicted of selling smuggled HCFC-22 to American retailers with a discount promotion it called "Freaky Freon Fridays." A federal prosecutor testified that the senior vice president in charge of the operation was considered "a hero" in the company because of the revenue he was bringing in.

Indeed, the profits involved in selling HCFC-22 are such that it's actually becoming more abundant and cheaper on the global market than it had been before the treaty banning it went into effect, the Times says.

The vast amount of goods shipped internationally in the global economy makes it easy to smuggle HCFC-22. According to the Times, some of the gas sold by Marcone was made in the U.S., sold to Mexico, then smuggled back into the States. Another shipment had been manufactured in China and exported to Ireland and the Dominican Republic before being shipped by freighter to Miami, hidden in cargo containers among other, legal goods. Fake invoices were produced to fool Customs inspectors.

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.

January 7, 2012

The Environment vs. Technological Autonomy

Just a note to say that Cyborgology published my essay today on the environmental implications of technological autonomy. The basic question addressed: Can we control global warming if we can't control our machines?

Again, this is a condensed version of an earlier post.

December 17, 2011

The Inconvenient Truth of Technological Autonomy

Most of us recall Captain Renault's famous pretext for closing Rick's Café in "Casablanca." "I'm shocked!" he gasped. "Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

That pretty much sums up my reaction to Naomi Klein's recent article in The Nation magazine, in which she reveals the dirty little secret of global warming: The only chance we have of avoiding its devastating consequences is to radically curtail the rampant consumerism on which our economy currently depends. That, in turn, will require the imposition of a broad range of government regulations that will effectively put an end to the so-called "free market" so cherished by the Republican right.

The above is not intended to denigrate Klein's article in any way. It's a fine piece of journalism and I'm pleased it's attracted the attention it has. (Note in that regard the interview with Klein on the New York Times environment blog, Dot Earth.) Having said that, it's also true that Klein's "inconvenient truth" is hardly a revelation. Anyone who's been paying attention recognized long ago that consumerism and the technologies on which consumerism thrives are the forces responsible for driving the planet over the edge of ecological sustainability. It's also been obvious that reversing that fatal progression will require massive social, political and economic change, change impossible to accomplish without equally massive government intervention.

That's true in part because the interests aligned against necessary change are so formidable and in part because individual citizens have repeatedly proved unwilling or unable to initiate necessary change on their own. 

I realize that's an anti-democratic statement, but it's hard to have faith in democracy when we read, for example, that a majority of Americans are gullible enough to accept the propagandists' claims that climate change is a fiction, and complacent enough to act, or fail to act, accordingly. Klein quotes poll results showing that the number of Americans who believe that burning fossil fuels causes climate change has fallen from 71 per cent in 2007 to 44 per cent in 2011.

(I should pause here to state that I generally favor skepticism toward the claims of experts. In this case, however, the scientific consensus is overwhelming, and I don't find it hard to believe that human activity has an impact on the environment. This is especially true when I can see evidence of that impact – smog, for example – with my own eyes. It seems obvious, too, that if anyone has an ulterior motive in this debate, it's more likely to be the forces fighting the scientific consensus. Even if we concede that there's uncertainty in the data, the stakes here seem awfully high. Thus the question I always want to ask the climate change deniers is, "Okay, but what if you're wrong?")

The same week that Klein's piece appeared, a report was issued by the Global Carbon Project (a group of scientists, of course) stating that global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year. The report said this was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003. The fact that this news received what can only be described as ho-hum play in the major media (the Penn State child rape scandal attracted far more attention) is further indication that American democracy isn't quite up to the challenges we face.

More tangible evidence of that inadequacy confronts me on the New Jersey Turnpike each week as I drive from Philadelphia to New Jersey to visit my daughter. Billions of tax dollars are currently being spent on a series of highway expansion projects that make the building of the Egyptian pyramids look like a student crafts fair. The scale of labor and resources involved is astounding, as is the insanity of making such a commitment to the automobile in the face of overwhelming evidence that we ought to be moving as fast as possible in the opposite direction. (And yes, I recognize my own participation in the insanity by making that weekly drive.)

All this brings me to the subject of technological autonomy, a central issue in the philosophy of technology, and the focus of a pivotal chapter in my book.

Technological autonomy is a shorthand way of expressing the idea that our technologies and technological systems have become so ubiquitous, so intertwined, and so powerful that they are no longer in our control. This autonomy is due to the accumulated force and momentum of the technologies themselves and also to our utter dependence on them.

The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner has referred to this dependence as the "technological imperative." Advanced technologies require vast networks of supportive technologies in order to properly function. Our cars wouldn't go far without roads, gasoline, traffic control systems, and the like. Electricity needs power lines, generators, distributors, light bulbs, and lamps, together with production, distribution, and administrative systems to put all those elements (profitably) into place. A "chain of reciprocal dependency" is established, Winner says, that requires "not only the means but also the entire set of means to the means." Winner also points out that we've typically become committed to these networks of technological systems gradually, unaware of how irreversible those commitments will become, or the consequences they will ultimately entail. He calls this "technological drift."[1]

To many people, the idea that we've lost control of the machines in our lives is absurd, a fantasy out of science fiction. Setting aside the fact that, from Mary Shelly on, science fiction writers have understood the implications embedded in technology better than almost anyone else, allow me to quote on this subject two individuals who can't easily be dismissed as crackpots.

One is the late historian and head of the Library of Congress, Daniel J. Boorstin. In 1977 Boorstin wrote that technology had emerged as the dominant force in American culture and that its proliferation was beyond our control. "We live, and will live," he said, "in a world of increasingly involuntary commitments."[2]

One reason this was so, Boorstin said, was that no technology can be uninvented. "While any device can be made obsolete, no device can be forgotten or erased from the arsenal of technology. While the currents of politics and of culture can be stopped, deflected, or even reversed, technology is irreversible."

Another conspicuously rational person who expressed similar thoughts was the physicist Werner Heisenberg. In his book Physics and Philosophy (1958) Heisenberg called technological expansion a "biological process" that was overtaking even those nations who would have preferred not to pursue it. "Undoubtedly the process has fundamentally changed the conditions of life on earth," Heisenberg said; "and whether one approves of it or not, whether one calls it progress or danger, one must realize that it has gone far beyond any control through human forces."[3]

In my book I argue that the processes Boorstin and Heisenberg identified have enmeshed us ever more deeply in a state of "de facto technological autonomy." By that I mean that although we can theoretically detach ourselves from the technological systems on which we've come to depend, practically such a detachment is impossible because it would create unsupportable levels of disruption. Naomi Klein didn't use the words "technological autonomy" in her article in The Nation, but that's what she was talking about.

It's hard not to be a pessimist when one faces squarely the scope of social, political, and economic change that will be required to avert catastrophe, especially when we consider that global warming is only one of the dilemmas with which technological autonomy presents us. Nuclear power is another example. The New Yorker magazine has reported that the post-tsunami meltdowns in Japan initially prompted a wave of plant closures there, but that most of them have since re-opened. To undertake permanent reduction of the nation's reliance on nuclear energy would be, in the words of its economics minister, "idealistic but very unrealistic."[4]

Clearly, to extricate ourselves from the grip of technological autonomy will require reversals that are almost literally unimaginable. For that reason one can see that the resistance of the climate change deniers may be logical as well as suicidal. If Klein is right, what they're really saying is that the patient wouldn't survive the surgery.

That, of course, is where the idea of geoengineering comes in. Our commitment to technology has now become so irrevocable that technology itself may well be our only savior. What sort of world that will leave us with is a question no one can answer. The evidence on display as I make my weekly drive up the turnpike isn't encouraging.

1. Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1987, original printing 1977), p. 88-90, 100-101.

2. Boorstin, "Bicentennial Essay: Tomorrow: The Republic of Technology," Time magazine, Jan. 17, 1977. (Online access requires subscription or payment.) Boorstin later expanded this essay into a  book, also entitled The Republic of Technology.

3. Heisenberg quoted by Winner, Autonomous Technology, p. 13. Also see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 153.

4. Evan Osnos, "The Fallout," The New Yorker,  Oct. 17, 2011, p.46f. (Online access requires subscription or payment.)

Photo Credit: Benny Chan

©Doug Hill, 2012