Techno-Fix: Triumph or Tragedy?

So called “modern man” has basked in the illusion that something like “American Ingenuity” can find a solution to any problem by inventing a new technology that will do what needs to be done, whether to replace a no-longer viable technology – such as developing a new fuel that is somehow carbon-neutral – or to solve a new problem resulting from existing technology – such as finding a new material to replace one nearing depletion.

After all, just look at the steady growth of technology throughout the industrial era of the past two hundred years. Invention has continued, sometimes at a seemingly breathtaking pace. Manufacturing, transportation, and communication have all benefited from the combination of new inventions and new forms of energy, from the first coal and steam driven factories to the latest nanotechnologies in micro devices with diverse applications from medicine to surveillance. Why can’t this triumph of technological progress just continue indefinitely?

Endless progress of technology has not been an entirely unreasonable assumption given the modern history of science and technology and the seemingly endless development of products to do all sorts of things, from washing our dishes to space travel to the moon and maybe soon to Mars. Yet the pantheon of technical progress has been intimately connected to and dependant upon the unlimited availability of cheap readily available fossil-fuel energy, both for development of technologies and for their deployment. The fossil fuel energy era has allowed continued development of advanced highly complex technologies.

But wait! What if we look closely at the context of all this and what conditions allowed such bounty? Well, we then find that most of the products we idolize arose in the context of an expansive materials science and the ready availability of more and more exotic minerals extracted from locations around the world and cheap energy to process them. Many of these materials are far from plentiful, yet are required for the new technologies to work.

Lithium, a key material in the manufacture the new lithium-ion batteries, which are gaining such widespread use in everything from hand tools to electric cars, is only found in a few places in the world. Various rare earth metals used in electronics are increasingly difficult and costly to extract as demand accelerates. Extraction, processing, and manufacture with these new materials all require fossil fuel energy – they cannot be made available without very large energy inputs. Furthermore, extracting and processing fossil fuels needed for these processes takes more energy and cash. As sources of fossil fuel are depleted, new more remote ones yield lower quality material. Net Energy Gain (NEG) declines and costs accelerate with deep water wells and “fracking” for onshore low-quality deposits. No new technology can change that.

A strong cultural belief in our inevitable salvation by technological innovation is evident in claims for particular technological imaginaries. One such claim is that all we have to do is send privately funded rockets (more efficient than NASA) to the moon to mine abundant minerals, and we will have plenty to fuel continuous economic growth through advanced technologies. Another imaginary ‘techno-fix’ is the strange resurgence of “cold fusion” a hypothetical type of nuclear reaction proposed by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann in 1989. Under a new name, “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR)” – or other assumed names used to disassociate it from the scandal that resulted from early misrepresentations of results and failures to present data to support the first claims of evidence for this unlikely process – some still believe in the concept, but without scientific evidence to support it.

In the case of moon-mining, the fantasy simply does not address the underlying problem of continuing on the path to full climate chaos; rather its claim is to enhance extravagant extraction and consumption. In the case of ‘LENR,’ there have been no verified experiments demonstrating a process for which there is also no viable theoretical construct consistent with nuclear science and no experimental evidence that would confirm the claims that it even exists no less produces vast quantities of usable energy from low-energy inputs. It is a long story of “pathological science,” where claims were taken to the press but never substantiated by the scientific processes of replication and verification. This led to funding for more research but not to viable scientific results, yet the idea still garners some support from ‘true believers’ who just don’t want to give up on the fantasy and do not understand the scientific method. A brief summary of that history can be found at Wikipedia under “cold fusion.”

Because of the short history of technological successes in the fossil-fueled industrial age, the culture of consumerism includes a solid belief in the wondrous human ability to create solutions to any problem with new technology, thus allowing us to imagine that we can ignore the (inevitable) prospect of having to dramatically curtail the consumerism that increasingly defines our personal and social identities as it destroys the planet. We have projected our belief into a limitless future of technologically enabled endless consumption, just when the material and ecological limits to economic and technological growth are upon us. The convergence of the ecological, financial, industrial, energy, and climate crises we are now experiencing is not amenable to any technological fix, including “geo-engineering,” the final hubris. These crises are endemic to the relationship we have cultivated between our debt-driven growth-dependent economy and the biosphere upon which our lives depend. It is we who must change, and our technology must be reinvented to adapt to that change.

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