This Sustainable Life

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063: Technology won’t solve environmental issues and you know it

Ep. 63

If anything marked the beginning of the industrial revolution, it was James Watt’s steam engine. It wasn’t the first steam engine, but was more efficient than any before.

More efficient means using less energy and less pollution, right?

Wrong.

Each engine, yes, but more people used engines, so Watt engines used more energy and polluted more than anything. They drained mines, which helped collect more coal, which fed more engines.

The direct result is today’s polluted world. If you fantasize that technological improvements will, after centuries since the industrial revolution increasing pollution and demand for natural resources somehow, magically, in your lifetime change their effects, you’re dreaming.

Two main effects drive this pattern—obvious when you see them, however counterintuitive at first. People believe self-serving myths in the opposite direction of millennia of countervailing evidence, probably because they prefer comfort and convenience over the guilt that would come from conscious awareness of how they’re hurting other people. We know the polluted world we were born into. We know the pollution we’re causing—that is, unless we keep lowering our self-awareness with myths.




Efficiency increases overall use, not decreases

When costs drop, people use more. For example:

  • LEDs are more efficient than incandescents and now people light things they didn’t—by more than the energy saved.
  • Gas engines are more efficient today than decades ago and people make cars bigger, heavier, and faster—so mileage is lower than many cars from half a century ago.

A similar effect: building more lands and roads creates more traffic. People already project that autonomous vehicles will increase traffic too.

If you think electric cars, solar power, nuclear power, a hyperloop train system, etc will lower pollution, you’re ignoring history.




Making a system more efficient achieves its goals more

Steam engines, LED bulbs, nuclear reactors, and technology in general are elements of a system. Even the whole economy is an element of a global system including the environment and other human systems.

The goals of this overall system have long included growth and individual comfort and convenience. As long as those goals remain, technological innovation will drive them over competing considerations such as conservation and community.

We took generations to learn that building more roads increased traffic, congestion, pollution, time lost, and so on. In that time we locked in infrastructure parts of which will endure centuries, increasing traffic, congestion, pollution, time lost, and so on.

As long as we hold on to these myths that solar planes or whatever will lower overall pollution, we’re locking in more damage.




How you know it

If you think, “Technology may have increased pollution since the steam engine and before, but this time it will be different,” then you see that we have to change just applying technology as we used to.

You know that for a different result we have to do things differently. Efficiency alone won’t reduce pollution and will likely increase it.




There is a way out

We don’t have to work within the system. We can work on it.

Instead of making the existing polluting system more efficient, we can change the system. That’s the point of my Leadership and the Environment podcast. Leaders change systems. Some do, anyway.

Steam engines, LED bulbs, nuclear reactors, and technology in general affect parts of this system but they don’t change it overall.

Changing the beliefs and goals of a system change it. I’m trying to help people change their beliefs and goals—not just anyone but influential people that many follow. If we don’t change the most influential people then people will keep following them and not adopt new beliefs and goals.




We’ve done it before. We can do it again.

Christianity was more merciful than many systems before it.

Buddhism was more compassionate.

The Enlightenment more observation-based.

Science more skeptical.

We’ve changed systemic goals many times.

We can change from growth—always wanting more—to enough, or as I think: loving what you have. When you realize you can’t have everything, you learn to appreciate, celebrate, and love what you have—in my experience more than when you believe the fantasy.

We can change from individual comfort and convenience to responsibility and caring how we affect others. As any parent, pet owner, or team member will tell you, taking others into account and caring how you affect them increases your compassion, empathy, and overall emotional reward.

More Episodes

10/16/2021

520: Blake Haxton, part 1: Paralympic victory and maybe the most important message I've heard on sustainability

Ep. 520
I learned of Blake through the mailing list of the maker of my rowing machine, Concept2. Their piece on him described him as a Paralympic bound athlete. I was impressed, but only thought of him as a potential guest on watching his TEDx talk.I think my message to his agent describes what I saw in him and when we talked about in this episode:In Blake's case, I heard a message I've never heard with such clarity and experience I wonder if he realizes how much it applies to stewardship and the environment. It's almost the exact message nearly everyone needs. I can't put it as well as he can, but what he shared starting around minute 3 of his TEDx talk of a system breaking down, where most people would be ready to give up, technology being important, but relationships, faith, support, and laughter being the core of what worked.I see roughly 350 million Americans and 7.9 billion humans ready to give in and accept a system breaking down. Then I see Blake living the opposite of their resignation leading to a better life, and there's been almost a decade since leading to what I read as yet more improvement.In my book coming out next year, I quote Churchill's speeches during the blitz -- that it's bad, it will get worse, but we will fight on the beaches, we will never surrender, it will be our finest hour. I heard in Blake's message from a decade ago what America and the world would benefit most from hearing today. I expect it's stronger today.Since he also just won a silver medal, I also ask him about the training and competing.Blake's TEDx talk, The Advantage of Adversity
10/11/2021

518: Killing cities, gardens, and parks, New York's cruel "Open Restaurants" overreach

Ep. 518
Don't outdoor restaurants sound nice? During the pandemic, New York City allowed restaurants that couldn't host people indoors to serve them outdoors. Many restaurant owners credit the rule for keeping them in business. We neighbors happily supported businesses in need.The landlords saw the huge profit in keeping this public space for their private property, started raising rents---profiting from a deadly pandemic---and tried to get politicians to give them that public land permanently.I might not mind if that space were coming from just car spaces, or if restaurants weren't polluting the area so much with plastic, burning fossil fuels to heat the outdoors while California is on fire, other packaging, and noise.There is a better alternative that no one thought of because we didn't know the city was willing to convert space from parking spaces and open sidewalk. We could turn it to living green spaces: community gardens, playgrounds, farmers markets, bike lanes, public pedestrian spaces, and such. There was already huge demand for such spaces. People wait years for plots in the tiny spaces we have. But search the web for "Manhattan community gardens" and you'll find almost nothing, especially around Greenwich Village.This program is already raising rents, making new restaurants harder to start. It helps a few individuals while hurting the industry it purports to help.Those who know New York City's history will see this land grab from the public on par with the failed Lower Manhattan Expressway. People organized to protect what became global destinations: Soho, Nolita, Tribeca, the Lower East Side.If you have influence with New York City politics, end this program of pollution and destruction.See images and videos I made of what Open Restaurants contributes to:https://joshuaspodek.com/another-morning-walk-seeing-litter-in-my-neighborhoodhttps://joshuaspodek.com/pride-destroyed-the-park-washington-square-park-after-a-parade (video and pictures)https://joshuaspodek.com/video-whats-wrong-with-new-york-city (video and pictures)