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When Technologies Become Mythic

It is only human to seek simple solutions to complex problems -- the proverbial “silver bullet.” This is not necessarily bad so long as everyone remembers that it is only a strategy and doesn’t lose sight of the complex problems themselves. But it can become a significant problem if the purported solutions become mythic -- that is, if they take on the air of salvation, as opposed to options that may, or may not, work in the real world.

Somewhat ironically, a few mythic solutions in the environmental area are technology systems, including suites of technologies collectively summarized as “the hydrogen economy;” and as “biomass.” The former contemplates the widespread use of hydrogen as an energy source, especially for mobile uses; the latter an increased focus on biomass as a source of fuel, material, and functionality. Both are highly appealing politically and ideologically. For both, however, their mythic status may be problematic.

Consider the “hydrogen economy.” Most obviously, hydrogen, like electricity, is a secondary energy source: it must be generated from a primary fuel such as coal, petroleum, or nuclear. That hydrogen itself is environmentally preferable is, therefore, immaterial unless the generating process is also considered. Second, hydrogen cannot be distributed through existing infrastructure, and even then substantial leakage is likely. This raises both efficiency and operating safety (and liability) issues. It also suggests that hydrogen use at the scale contemplated could have -- indeed, must have, at least at the local level -- substantial effects on atmospheric chemistry.

It is thus somewhat surprising, especially given governmental enthusiasm for hydrogen, that no systemic analysis has been attempted that covers the technological, environmental, economic, and social end-to-end implications of a hydrogen economy. This is no doubt due in part to the mythic status of hydrogen: why question that which is “known” to be good?

Similarly, increased reliance on biomass, primarily for fuel and material use, is problematic at the scales implied by some. Serious land use and loss of biodiversity are involved in any transition of land to biomass production at scale.

Moreover, the energy, fertilizers, and pesticides necessary to support significantly increased biomass production have their own impacts. For example, agricultural activity in many regions already has had significant impact on estuarine areas; the large dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound are two examples. Increasing biomass production significantly will only worsen the perturbations of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles that underlie them. The only viable solution may be genetic engineering, but that is highly problematic for many activists, even those promoting biomass.

The immediate problem regarding the mythic status of these and similar technologies is that it leads to the assumption that they can substantially address major environmental and economic issues in a simple, permanent, and desirable manner -- for example, that the hydrogen economy can provide energy without attendant environmental impacts. This may be true: that something is mythic does not mean it is ineffectual. But the effect is to blind people to the need to carefully test and evaluate new technologies as they are introduced, and, especially at the scale of technologies such as these, to be constantly on guard against potential rebound effects. Every major technology should be adequately assessed before deployment, especially where it appears on first blush to be highly desirable and thus suppresses critiques.

More fundamentally, however, the danger of mythic technologies is that they are blinding: they enable our refusal to deal with reality. The truth is that our species at its current scale of population and activity is beyond silver bullets -- no technology, however mythic, can provide permanent and simple solutions. Rather, we are now in constant dialog with global systems ---- the nitrogen and carbon cycles, the hydrologic and climate systems, biological systems at all scales -- and solutions will be complex, involve difficult trade-offs, and inevitably be partial and contingent.

Comfortable, even desperate, belief in salvation myths, be they technology or seabeast, only blind us to our responsibility to respond ethically and rationally to challenges of our anthropogenic Earth.

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Brad Allenby is VP of environment, health, and safety for AT&T, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia's Engineering School and Princeton Theological Seminary, and Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Business School. The views expressed herein are those of the author, and not any institution with which he is associated.

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