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Why I am not a Luddite

A friend told me once that she hates cars and plastic. I understand her sentiment, but I prefer to say I am against waste. I had a thought about cars, plastic, and waste one time  as a cyclist while stopped at an intersection, waiting for a break in traffic. I looked down and saw a plastic cup on the street. It was one of those cups that come from fast-food restaurants and designed to hold a 40-once soda. I looked at the cup that was in perfectly good condition, probably tossed away after just one use. Before I could think any further about it, a car ran over it, smashing it flat. Now it was completely useless for holding soda. It was just a piece of litter on the street.

Usually while I am waiting at intersections, I play a game of looking into the passing cars to count the number of occupants in each. Mostly there is only a driver, then a few more with one or two passengers. On a rare occasion, I spot a car with all of its seats full. I did not get a chance to count the occupants of the car that crushed the plastic cup, but I thought of the energy that transported so few passengers in such a heavy vehicle. The car running over the plastic cup represented for me our thoughtless waste of energy and material resources.

Environmental consultant Gil Friend spoke of waste at a recent Green Festival in San Francisco. What we call trash is really a misplaced resource. It is similar to how a biologist defines a weed; any plant growing where it is not wanted. When I was a kid, a dandelion was not a weed. It was a flower that I picked in bunches and gave as bouquets to my mother. If she thought they were weeds, she kept that secret to herself. She put them in a vase with water for display on the kitchen table.

While some plastic can be recycled, most of it ends up as trash. The various types of plastic are not as easy to deal with as glass and metal. When plastic becomes trash, it doesn’t just end up in landfills. It is now in the world’s oceans. The North Pacific Gyre contains a Texas-sized patch of plastic, swirling around just beneath that ocean’s surface; a great accumulation of wasted resource. This product of petroleum has become a different type of oil spill.

People who oppose a particular technology or invention are accused of being against progress. They would respond that it all depends on one’s definition of progress. I agree that we should not assume something is better simply because it is newer. Then, there are some who reject all technology and would like to live as the Amish. They may even proudly label themselves as Luddites. I am not one of them.

I grew up in a world of technology, convenience, and innovation. It was a world that my parents’ generation was happy to create after they had grown up in a world of depression, scarcity, and deprivation. It has been a “Green Revolution” world where more people have enough food to eat. It has vaccines and medicines that have helped people live longer and healthier. Yes, there are negative side effects. Pesticides have poisoned our waterways and killed our wildlife. Misuse of antibiotics have led to drug-resistant diseases. That does not give us reason to reject all technology. We should be aware of any negative impacts from technology, then work to reduce, if not eliminate, those impacts.

Stewart Brand has written a book on the subject called Whole Earth Discipline. He identifies arguments against technologies where the Green movement has gotten it wrong, and he is not afraid to include himself. He apologizes for opposing nuclear power and makes the case for building more fission reactors to get us off burning coal. He has come to the same conclusions as Gwyneth Cravens who wrote the 2007 book Power to Save the World. Like Brand, Cravens started as an antinuclear activist and changed her mind after researching the facts. Interestingly, he lists negative impacts of coal on the environment and misses one found in Cravens’ book; since there are trace amounts of uranium in coal, much more radiation is released through the coal plant’s smoke stack than from any nuclear power station.

After I changed my opinion on nuclear power, I decided to write about it on my personal website. Like other environmentalists my major concerns were waste storage and the use of the technology to build nuclear weapons. However, I wasn’t considering how any risk from nuclear power was far outweighed by the risk of climate change.

Countries that have gotten the bomb have used research reactors to enrich their uranium, not commercial reactors. Other countries who want nuclear weapons will develop them whether the world builds more nuclear power plants or not. The best route  to non-proliferation is to provide assistance with developing nuclear energy for peaceful use on the condition countries end their weapons programs. Brand credits George W. Bush with developing the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). “Part of the GNEP scheme is to develop new proliferation-resistant reprocessing techniques and new reactor designs such as the sodium-cooled fast reactor, which breeds its own fuel, reducing traffic in nuclear fuel as well as reducing spent-fuel mass and longevity.” While the program was denounced by environmentalists, it has gained support from countries that have nuclear technology and the IAEA. Brand speculates that this might be the one lasting accomplishment of the Bush presidency. That is especially ironic, given his administration’s public opposition to any Iranian nuclear program. “What do they want nuclear power for?” was the common response from Bush and his aides. “They’ve got oil!” Note: GNEP new name is  International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation.

One important fact I forgot in my opposition to nuclear power is that technology is always evolving. Remember that 30 years ago a personal computer cost over $5,000, could only run one application program at a time, and stored all its user’s data on floppy disks. Today’s reactors are safer, having benefited by the study of previous accidents. Brand describes Generation IV reactors  that will be smaller and generate even less waste. The long term storage issue itself will be solved by advances in technology. Brand suggests disposing wastes in “interim” sites, giving us time to work out long-term solutions. “Plan short and option long; take the actions in the near term that preserve the most choices for the long term.”

Stewart Brand could never be accused of being technophobic. The Whole Earth Catalog he edited was subtitled Access to Tools. Many of those tools are the products of the Industrial Revolution. His Coevolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Review magazines have embraced advances in new technology, especially computers and the development of the desktop PC. In addition to nuclear power, he promotes genetic engineering and GMO crops as being beneficial to the environment. One example is the development of crops that are resistant to the herbicide Roundup. The herbicide is very effective while having a fraction of the toxicity of other products. It doesn’t pollute the water or linger in the ground. “Roundup  Ready” crops allow farmers to use “no-till agriculture.” By not plowing their fields, carbon is held in the soil instead of going into the atmosphere. Earth’s soil holds about 1,500 gigatons of carbon so “no-till” would have an important role in reducing GHG emissions. Brand reminds us that Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring advocated “biological solutions” to replace the pesticides that have been endangering wildlife.

Brand suggests we could learn a lot about a person in an interview by asking “What have you been wrong about, and how did that change your views?” Being able to admit you are wrong should be considered a character strength, not a weakness. The first step is to rely on real science to find the facts, not the junk science that mostly ends up in the media and the Internet. But how do we as nonscientists weigh the confusing and contradictory experiments, reports, and studies that seem factual? How do we know what is fact and what is fiction?

The problem is we have been fooled into confusing scientific debate with political debate. Science doesn’t work the same way as politics. A scientist constructs a theory and works to disprove it. It is like building a house with the specific intention of trying to knock it down. If it doesn’t fall down that is an indication that it is a well-built house. If you invite other builders to knock it down and they succeed, it is back to the drawing board. That is what is means to design experiments that others can copy and to publish the results in scientific journals.

I am reminded of Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science. The Bush administration used distortion and denial to stall action on global warming, teach Creationism in the schools, and restrict stem cell research. In the interest of fairness, Mooney acknowledged the Left’s refusal to accept the science on genetically modified organisms. After reading Whole Earth Discipline, I think Mooney could have been a lot tougher on the Left when it comes to having an anti-science agenda, although I agree with him that conservatives have been more successful in turning scientific debate into political debate. To debunk global warming, they take advantage of the reality that theories can never be proved beyond any doubt. They will manipulate statistics and make personal attacks on climate change educators like Al Gore. They will cite “experts” who turn out to have no background in the science needed to study climate. They will only use data that confirms their bias.

“Our first duty is to be wary of confirmation bias,” writes Brand, “the inclination to notice and believe whatever supports our current theory, and ignore or disbelieve everything that doesn’t support our views.” Greg Craven dealt with confirmation bias when he wrote What’s the Worst That Can Happen?, A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate. Craven designed a tool for evaluating sources of information and weighing them in importance. He urges us to create our own lists to rank sources, though his list is hard to beat. At the top he puts peer reviewed, scientific journals.

Whole Earth Discipline is subtitled An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, and Brand identifies the environmental movement’s commonly held “precautionary principle” as an idea in bad need of pragmatism. “All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent,” he quotes David Brower. Being overcautious can lead to overreaction or complete inaction. The remote chance of something going wrong prevents the initiation of any experiment or project. Moving forward with caution is wise, so Brand suggests adding the “vigilance principle.” “Precaution plus vigilance would seek to move quickly on new things.” He suggests three categories of ongoing oversight: “1.) provisionally safe until proven unsafe; 2.) provisionally safe until proven safe; 3.) provisionally beneficial until proven beneficial. As the evaluation grows more precise over time, public policy adjusts to match it.”

Brand’s ecopragmatist approach looks like a good course to follow. Sorry Ned Ludd. I could never follow you, especially on my high tech, 21-speed bike. I would never make it up those hills on that old 3-speed of my youth.

Notes for Whole Earth Discipline on web at www.sbnotes.com

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August 22, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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