Technology will not save us

A pair of sobering reports have received media attention recently.  One is a study led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory geographer Thomas Wilbanks on the possibility of cascading system failures due to climate change [New Government Report Warns of ‘Cascading System Failures’ Caused By Climate Change].  A second report is a NASA study about how a ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global systems. [NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?]

We have mistaken impression that civilization is a progressive march in the forward direction only.  But history is littered with civilizations such as the Roman Empire, Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, all of whom were sophisticated and advanced (for their time).  The NASA study involved natural and social scientists who studied these dynamics and identified five major factors related to societal collapse: Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.  These factors can converge to generate two social outcomes: pressure on resources due to strains on ecological carrying capacity and the stratification of society into rich and poor.   Both have played a role in the collapse of societies over the past 5000 years.

Technology won’t save us.  Technology can make processes more efficient, but can also lead to greater consumption of resources by lowering cost and therefore increasing demand (an outcome sometimes referred to as Jevon’s Paradox).   And technological societies are brittle.  As Wilbanks and team point out, the services provided by infrastructures have interdependencies that can lead to cascading failures.   For example, during Hurricane Katrina, the loss of electricity meant that oil pipelines could not ship and refineries in the region could not operate, leading to higher gas prices across the country.  Contemporary lifestyles rely on these intricate webs of infrastructure services, rendering society vulnerable to localized events that propagate widely and cause major disruption.

Required is social change: a reduction of economic inequality to diminish potential for social disruption, and reduction in resource consumption through renewable resources and slower population growth.  In other words, we must find ways to reduce the external threats to our technological and societal systems: hardening our infrastructure by itself will not help.

Air pollution and school absences

I recently moved to Columbus, Ohio from Salt Lake City, Utah, a place we enjoyed albeit with some notable exceptions, including the poor air quality during the winter.

The Wasatch Front is plagued with persistent cold air pools in the winter; known more informally as temperature inversions.  These occur when high pressure settles in over the Intermountain West, causing cold air to settle in the valleys and trapping pollutants.  Inversions are becoming more chronic with climate change, and more people and especially vehicles in the Salt Lake Valley is creating among the worse PM2.5 pollutant problem in the United States.  PM2.5 is particulate matter that is 2.5 microns in size or smaller; this is very nasty stuff that penetrates deep in your lungs and crosses into the bloodstream to affect much of your body.

A recent study by BYU economist Arden Pope and the Salt Lake Tribune suggests the toll being taken on a vulnerable population in Utah – children.  Evidence suggests that school absences correlate with PM2.5 levels.   The number of elementary students absent from school increase with air pollution levels in Salt Lake City, Provo and Alpine. However, in mountainous Park City, which sits above the haze, school absences rose before and after weekends and holiday breaks, but were otherwise flat.    [ Bad air: Pollution and school absences]

I’ve also done some research on air quality issues in northern Utah, showing that the air quality alert system may be increasing, not decreasing, the amount of driving in Utah.  [Utah’s Air Quality Alerts May Have Inadvertently Put More Cars on the Road]