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Commentary: When technical feasibility doesn’t matter

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the position of ASPO-USA.)
One of the hardest concepts for many Americans to absorb is this – that technical feasibility rests on a complex bed of other feasibilities and never stands alone. Thus, simply observing that it is technically possible to, say, create zero impact cities or to run our cars on corn waste does not usefully tell us whether we are going to do so or not. This historical reality stands in stark contrast to the perceptions that many of us have, which is that technology operates as a kind of vending machine into which one puts quarters and gets inevitable results.

For example, it has been technically possible to eliminate most causes of death in childhood for the world's poor for thirty to forty years, and periodically the UN and other agencies explain how this might technically come about. But without other base elements of feasibility - a real commitment to saving impoverished children worldwide - it turns out that it is technically infeasible.

The same, of course, is true of addressing climate change and peak energy - it was wholly technically feasible for us to begin transitioning to a renewable energy economy in the 1970s, and had we done so, both issues would be vastly more manageable and comparatively minor concerns. It is still technically feasible, although enormously difficult, that we could drop industrial emissions dramatically or reduce our fossil fuel consumption. It is not, however, economically or politically feasible that we do so, as evidenced by the fact that we're not, despite emergent consequences.

We are in the habit of forgetting the basis of will, energy and money that technical capacities rest on – we assume that because an outcome is desirable, it is therefore likely. But low infant mortality is eminently desirable, something I suspect most of us can agree on – and there are no major technical barriers. Thus John Michael Greer has found that when he questions the future of the internet, people base their case for the internet’s persistence on its desirability, utility and current viability – without really recognizing that many things that meet those specifications don’t happen for many people in the world.

Gail Tverberg at The Oil Drum framed the question most usefully for me:

"I've discovered when you say, "There may not be medications", I get a lot of arguments that this is the highest use, so of course we would have medications, even if we had nothing else. Also, if I say there may not be plastics, someone believes that since they take such a small share of the petroleum, surely they will be spared. And so on."

The reality of our situation is that whatever balance we eventually strike in a world of shortfalls, we are likely to leave some needs - probably many needs - inadequately met. And we know this because in poorer societies we run into these realities all the time. It isn't a lack of technical capacity that prevents poor children from getting vaccinations or rehydration liquids and dying of preventable diseases - it is the underlying feasibilities - problems of poverty and transportation and resource allocation, corruption and disruption. There will always be competing priorities, many of them compelling, many of them compelling to those in power.

Look at how this is playing out right now as the states, most facing the largest budget crisis since the 1930s, struggle to figure out how to cover a range of very necessary human services on desperately underfunded budgets. In every case, advocates for specific causes make the correct and compelling case for the harm done by cutting any particular program. Thus, services to the disabled, education for children and free public parks are all in competition with one another. Other things that could be cut in a rational society can't be for a host of reasons, mostly political in the worst sense – so despite ample technical and economic capacity to care for the weakest members of society, we do not.

Or we could think of it in the terms provided by The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update - the popular perception of TLTG is that it was wrong in all particulars, but in fact, its scenarios have actually held up very well. And it usefully articulates in a deeply coherent way how we struggle to allocate resources in a limit constrained world:

"The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. It is true that we did not include in the original World3 model technological progress at rates that would automatically solve all problems associated with exponential growth in the human ecological footprint....[But] in several scenarios we test accelerated technological advance and possible future technical leaps beyond these 'normal' improvements. What if materials are almost entirely recycled? What if land yield doubles again and yet again? What if emissions are reduced at 4% per year over the coming century?

Even with such assumptions, the model world tends to overshoot its limits. Even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that we believe is possible, if these are the only changes, the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse." (TLTG:TTYU p. 204-5)

When technical capacity is considered in isolation, it becomes possible to do all sorts of things. And indeed, many of those things probably will be done - and some of them will even be completed. But the full scale "rescue of society" strategies become increasingly unlikely, precisely because most of the rescue strategies fail to acknowledge what John Michael Greer correctly calls the whole systems cost of maintaining that infrastructure. Given the degree to which we have put off basic maintenance of our most fundamental infrastructure (bridges, sewers, water pipes, etc… for a national delayed-cost of over $3 trillion), we do have to ask ourselves what would have to happen to make something technically possible real? Those of us who read this mostly already know that the hydrogen economy was a fantasy – what may be harder to explain to others is how many dreams remain only dreams.

I am making no statements here about what we will and will not do, except for this – we will probably do many things less well than the imperfect way we are already doing things. This seems both self-evident and historically justified. What we need then are strategies that work for us when things fall apart – strategies that have not just technical feasibility on their side but also the ability to work for us when things are imperfect.

Even among accessible and technically feasible projects, there are significant variations in what is really possible. Consider an unfinished nuclear power plant and an unfinished program that places decentralized solar panels on the roofs of community infrastructure. The first is of no use whatsoever unless the funds, resources and will are there to finish it – in all likelihood it is a negative asset and a potential danger, at best, it is a resource sink. The second, which may have lost funding before it could get panels on the roof of all the local community and senior centers, but did get to the hospitals, homeless shelters and some schools, is of considerable use – it provides lights, power, safety for many, if not all. Both programs are well within the range of technical feasibility – but the returns if things go badly are very different.

The same could be true of almost any improvement – consider a full-scale national health care program (devoutly to be wished for, of course) that can only be funded in periods of growth and economic stability vs. more limited but more viable funding for a network of “shadow” health care providers who would offer basic care to those already unable to access it, and for those who will lose their access as the economy declines. The potential gains of the former are greater in a perfect world. In the world we inhabit, however, the equation shifts.

One of the many projects that face us is the transformation of our relationship to our technologies – we have, for the longest time, assumed that because things can be done, they will. We can see with our own eyes that those assumptions have often been incorrect, but many have been blind to that fact. Opening eyes to what is actually viable for us in the future we have created and now inhabit is a vast, but enormously necessary undertaking.

Sharon Astyk is a writer, teacher and science blogger (www.scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook) and a member of the Board of Directors of ASPO-USA.

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