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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Epiphanette
May 30, 2008 - 9:25am

Solving the sustainability problem is going to require using new technologies, in the broadest sense of that term. ("Technology" simply being the method by which you do something -- high-tech, low-tech or otherwise.) Over the next few decades, advanced societies will need to go through another major technology shift.

It's "another" technology shift because, by definition, advanced societies got that way by already having gone through a number of major technology shifts. The first industrial revolution. Railroads. Electricity. Telecommunications. Automobiles. Flight. Computers. You name it.

As a result of each of these historic technological changes, fortunes have been made. Inventors and investors have gotten rich. The national economy has expanded. Jobs have been created. So have major corporations.

So, why is the apparent need for a near-future technology shift so threatening to so many people? If you own a coal company, and you want to continue owning a coal company, I can see your concern -- any new technology for generating electricity decreases demand for your product. Similar (although less stark) issues exist for oil companies, etc. But the "creative destruction" inherent in any technology shift creates both winners and losers. That's how the free market works. The automobile made Ford rich, but didn't help the fortunes of local wagon makers or livery stable owners. The telephone made Bell a wealthy man, but eventually doomed Western Union to the check-cashing business. The market giveth, and the market taketh away. Why should the next technological breakthrough be any different?

Well, it's finally beginning to make sense to me how the next (indeed, the current) technology shift is different. Part of it became clear while I was listening to Hermann Scheer's talk to the MIT Club of Northern California. Part of it came out in the news coverage of how all the reform proposals at the latest ExxonMobil board meeting were voted down. One key phrase in the latter jumped out at me -- the Exxon CEO argued that "renewables lacked technological scale".

What's becoming clear to me is that the objections of well-funded sustainability skeptics, which have been injected into the political arena with the flavor of divine revelation, aren't really about the technology at all. They're about the scale at which that technology can be implemented. That scale isn't seen as "industrial". No one's saying that explicitly, but it makes more sense than any other theory I've read or heard of.

You see, ever since the industrial revolution, wealth (and the power it buys) have been centralizing. Transportation and telecommunication require coordinated infrastructure. Technologies based on exploiting natural resources reward the folks who control access to the (relatively few) sites where those resources exist. Complex inventions require complex (read "large") corporations to manufacture them. Factories raise the monetary incomes of workers, but they raise the incomes of investors/owners far more. Business is good, so big business is inherently better.

The threat inherent in the sustainability movement is not that it implies new technologies, but that it implies decentralized implementation of those technologies. There's quite a bit of money to be made in the manufacture of windmills, solar panels, and the like. But it's a relatively short-term (even if large) profit opportunity. Wind and sun (as examples) are available everywhere. That's what makes them sustainable energy sources. But that's also what makes them impossible to maintain control of, or build a traditional business model on.

In a sense, much of current industry is based on business models similar to IBM's in the old days of "if it's not a mainframe, it's not a computer." Large scale, complex and proprietary technology, high cost, long-term support dependencies (read "profit opportunities"), very limited sources of supply. Sustainable energy presumes a business model kind of like that in the PC industry, which created a number of fortunes in the short term, but is now highly competitive with very slim profit margins. No particular economies of scale. No long-term dependencies at all. Much less centralization.

I don't mean to imply some sort of corporate conspiracy here (although I find it interesting that a number of the "think tanks" now putting a respectable face on climate skepticism first got established to promote the idea that smoking didn't cause cancer, so conspiracy isn't out of the question). What strikes me is that centralized industry, wealth, and power has become kind of a consensus secular religion in Western society. Which is why sustainability (not because of its concern with the climate, but because of its implications on the social and economic fronts) is seen by some as heresy.

The good news for Greenback and other colleges and universities is that technology shifts require research and invention, more and more of which is happening on campuses. The better news is that schools are learning to protect, and profit from, some of the intellectual property that comes out of that research.

The good news for sustainability advocates, on campuses and otherwhere, is that the prospect of decentralized technologies provides an answer to the skeptic's classic question: "what's in it for me?" What's in it is local jobs, lower costs, a better quality of life, greater self-sufficiency. Those are advantages I can explain to Greenback's decision-makers. I may not be able to make the sale, single-handedly. But I can get the conversation started.

 

 

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