Saturday, April 10, 2010

Magical climate thinking

One reason why so many greens put so much faith in cap-and-trade is the belief that once the price of carbon is set appropriately, this will create incentives that will inevitably push scientists and inventors to come up with solutions to our energy needs. Several things can be said about this touching dual faith in markets and technology.

First, this claim is based on a discredited supply side economics view of invention. Just because there is an economic incentive to invent something, doesn't mean that inventing it is technically or physically possible, or even if it is invented, that other barriers to deployment won't arise. An analogy should make the point clear: vast economic incentives exist to invent pills that would cure alcoholism or drug addiction, and indeed much snake oil gets peddled claiming to provide such benefits. You may have noticed, however, that substance abuse doesn't seem to have disappeared from our society. Given the addiction of modern civilization to cheap energy, the parallel ought to be unnerving to anyone who believes that technology will pull our the climate rabbit out of the fossil fuel hat.

Second, the hopes that many greens place in a technological deus ex machina is an expression of faith in the old high modernist verities every bit as profound - and every bit as rational - as Augustine's faith in Christ. Very telling in this respect is the totemic way in which the Manhattan Project, the ultimate high modernist technological triumph, is regularly invoked as a supposed model for developing breakthrough Green technologies, despite the radical differences between building a weapon and remaking the entire global energy system. In truth, the belief in a technological fix to the climate solution is the ultimate form of high modernist magical thinking. It's no coincidence that the phrase "technological fix" was invented in the early 1960s, the heyday of modernization theory, by Alvin Weinberg, a nuclear physicist and chief administrator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory from the Manhattan Project period through the 1980s. (See Weinberg's essay "Can Technology Replace Social Engineering?" [1966].) Weinberg claimed that nuclear power would create limitless energy, allowing age-old social problems to be overcome while minimizing political conflict over distributional issues - an argument that should feel uncannily familiar to all those who believe that technological breakthroughs will allow the climate crisis to be overcome without fundamental political conflict.

Update: Here's Steve Chu artfully backpedaling from the idea of a green Manhattan Project.


Rod Adams said...

I agree that the existence of incentives - even if so vast they are almost immeasurable - is not going to force invention to happen, you picked a rather unusual technical field as the example.

In places where there are great leaps that have already proven to be viable due to a physical invention or material property that is far superior to existing technology, there is an opportunity for invention that appears to be magical. Heavier than air flight was one such discovery. Antibiotics were another. Semi conductors are a third area.

Weinberg was writing about a fourth technology with similar characteristics and opportunity. Atomic fission releases 2-5 million times as much energy per unit mass as hydrocarbon combustion, the basis for our current energy system. If human ingenuity is unleashed in that technical field, inventions and other advances that seem magical to those who do not understand the physics will be developed.

We already have some examples of what is POSSIBLE, not guaranteed, in the form of powerful aircraft carriers that can operate for 25 years without refueling and submarines that can run at high speeds underwater for months at a time and never need to be refueled in a projected 33 year lifetime.

Nils said...

Rod, thanks for the thoughtful rejoinder. Let me say first that by all means we should be investing everything we can in renewable and alternative carbon-minimizing energy sources. This is vital. And perhaps we will even see an amazing breakthrough that in fact unlocks us from the dilemma we find ourself in whereby 80% of global energy production (13 terawatts) is currently being produced by carbon-loading mechanisms. We can always hope, and we should definitely be making investments that increase our chances of getting lucky.

My main point in this post, however, is that hope and luck are not strategies. The idea that a massive technological breakthrough will inevitably follow from getting the carbon prices right is not rational, but rather a historically specific form of faith. This faith is rooted in a historically particular set of liberal, American, high modernist beliefs that social and political conflicts are never absolute and are always ultimately amenable to technological solutions, such that difficult distributional choices can be avoided. For most of human history, and in most times and places, people didn't worship technology as an endlessly benign and generous God, and for good reason.