How many times in history have we embraced new technologies and the sales pitches that came along with them only to discover completely unexpected consequences that came (to be fair, along with the leaps in efficiency and seismic shifts in socio-economic paradigms) with them?
Computers have not created the “paperless” office, nor eliminated time-wasting meetings but instead made the creation of voluminous documentation (as well as printing them out and generating hard copies) a lot easier not to mention requiring countless hours of meetings for their authors to “walk-through” these documents with their intended readers (who, guess what, don’t read them in their own time). To this day, the debate rages on as to what value email really adds to business and whether this value is not merely cancelled out by the time needed to manage our inboxes, undo the misunderstandings caused by poorly-written messages, and the erosion of the quality and value of the content of the messages in many of these emails.
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While the average middle-class household today has at least 100 times the computing power of what was available to the entire Apollo program back in the 60’s, there is something to be said about what this power is used for. Compare a 200-GB, 3-GHz marvel of consumer marketing being used for downloading mind-numbing music and updating FaceBook profiles to a 64-KB 500-KHz vacuum tube monster being used to land a man on the moon. It all depends on what one’s definition of progress is.
And that is just what we observe in the world of computing.
With this year’s Earth Hour just around the corner (on Saturday, the 31st March), we again highlight a very critical flaw in the current trendy mad rush into so-called “green” technologies — that the underlying issue of runaway consumption has been glossed over and/or swept under the rug. The only REAL solution to averting catastrophic environmental degradation (that is if the theory behind its prediction is sound) is to consume less and reduce activity in absolute terms.
Ratios such as efficiency tell us the sugarcoated story.
Take hybrid cars. They are more energy efficient. But will an increase in efficiency actually result in a reduction in consumption? If people spend less on running a car, guess what? They end up driving more. Then there’s manufacturing. Humanity has become more efficient at manufacturing. But that simply meant that more people can afford to buy manufactured goods as this efficiency resulted in lower costs. Therefore, more is produced. On top of that, people now value durability and serviceability less in these goods because their low prices mean that replacement is often a more economical option than repair. Think of the containerloads of garments and useless trinkets being imported all the way from China (on petroleum-guzzling freighters) most of which will be used only for a couple of months — or even days — before they end up in a landfill.
Absolutes such as consumption tell us the real story.
For all the progress we’ve seen in the development of technologies that directly harvest solar energy (i.e. solar panels and cells), the fact is that no amount of technology changes the absolute quantity of solar energy captured for every square metre of collection material. This becomes relevant when we consider that the amount of energy it takes to accelerate a 70-kg human being to a useful speed of, say, 50 kilometres per hour is an absolute quantity and will not change no matter how much technology you apply to it.
The only reason we are able to build machines today that possess the power to propel us to really cool speeds or do things hundreds of times faster than our unaided bodies can is because of the energy-dense fuels required to power these machines. Fossil fuels are unmatched in energy density and squarely beat “green” energy by a hundred or even a thousand fold. Within centuries we are releasing an amount of energy and toxic gases that took nature millions of years to store and trap respectively in fossil fuels.
Note that this is speaking in absolutes.
So if we think we can continue to consume the way we do and multiply the way we do thinking that technologies that will wean us off petroleum are just around the corner, think again. Next time you get a free plastic toy with your McDonalds Happy Meal, stop to think of how much energy was consumed in its production before the 15 minutes of attention it gets from your 5-year-old expires. Next time you order a mug of capuccino from your neighbourhood Starbucks, think of the 10,000-odd years’ worth of stored solar energy that went up in the puff of steam used to froth its milk.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.