Technological or Societal Solutions?

I sometimes have an internal debate on what I think is the best solution to major world problems such as climate change, poverty, hunger, and so on. You hear these issues talked about heavily in political terms as to who’s responsible and why should any one government get involved. Well the answer to why governments should get involved is because they have the most power and ability to instigate change, much more so than any one person or group. But change requires money, effort, and most importantly of all, giving a damn. The last is awfully hard to find these days. Human are very selfish when it comes down to it. Our views are heavily tinted by our immediate surrounding, people, and concerns. So it’s hard to care as much about an abstract concept like climate change or world hunger when you live in a temperature climate, have air conditioning and heating, and plenty of food to eat.

Being an engineer and scientist, I tend to believe that if we only had the correct technology, that these worldwide problems could cease becoming problems altogether. If we can perfect carbon and methane remediation and clean power, there would be no man-made climate change. If we can create super cheap energy and hardy crops, we could push back poverty and hunger. We could save the world if only we had the technology.

But here’s the debate: which is the better way? I realized even if we did have the magic technology, implementing them would eventually run into politics, especially if they threaten some industry’s profit margin. Nothing makes politicians take notice faster than a lobbyist coming to them with a donation and a story about a new threat to their interests. But, in all of history, old ideas, traditionas, and technologies eventually get replaced by newer, better, and more efficient ideas and technologies. For example, The horse and carriage were replaced by the model T and cars once we discovered the internal combustion engine. Now we can go farther for less money. Clothes making also made the transition from old to new long ago. In pre-industrial times, individual tailors and seamstresses made clothes by hand, and most people own only a handful of outfits. Industrialization, the assemblyline, machines, and the computer chip largely killed the clothes-making profession, except for specialists. But in return we can buy shirts, dresses, and pants for very low prices. I imagine during those transition periods, there was a lot of argument and distain for the new technology by those involved and invested in the old ways.

Energy is currently in the transition period I believe. Coal, natural gas, and oil have been the foundation of civilization since they first found you could burn coal and oil. However, we know there is a limited amount of the stuff around. Yes, even the oil companies, which is why they all put some money into looking for new oil sources and new energy technologies. However, they are very dependent on the existing market in fossil fuels to keep their business running and their stockholders happy. At the same time, solar power, wind power, and electric cars are slowly becoming more mainstream and forming a small but growing portion of our global civilization. Various countries have agreed to the Paris Climate Accords which among other things states that we should all try to move towards a larger percent of renewable power and away from fossil fuels. I feel in the next 50-100 years our energy grid will be dominated by renewable energy and electric or fuel cell cars. Even oil companies project that current resources won’t last more than 100-200 years. At that point, they’ll be completely out of business since there will be no oil anywhere, or anywhere reachable. That would seem like a good reason to start in the direction of renewable energy right now and fast. However, remember humans are not only selfish, but short-lived. 100 years sounds like a short time to me, but I know I won’t be around to see it, and neither will all the investors and executives companies. They may have a greater interest in the here and now since what happens 100 years from now doesn’t affect them. That is one of the greatest failings of the human mind and civilization I think. The lack of foresight and empathy with the future may one day damage the planet irrevocably. While I may not be alive in 100 years, my children will be, and then my grandchildren will inherit the world we’re building now, for good or ill. In Eastern culture in general, there is the strong belief that one’s main goal in life is to make life better for your children. My parents sacrificed and worked hard so I could have more opportunities and a better life. My dad always says children should exceed their parents since each generation strives for the next. I also personally believe that the meaning of life is to leave the world a better place than you found it. That’s my general belief for most situations, do more good than harm and leave it better for the future.

So in the end, there is no one magical technological solution to the world’s problems. All solutions require the cooperation of people and thus governments and companies. And as long as people are involved, there will be politics and self interests. As engineers and scientists, we are trained to see the future by learning from the past, so we should strive to not only develop the world saving technologies, but encourage everyone else to keep the future in mind.

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