Can we Fix It? No, Because Innovation Gets Harder and More Costly

'Can We Fix It?' is the name of the famous theme song from the children's TV cartoon program 'Bob the Builder', written by Paul K. Joyce. The reply from the other cartoon characters in the program is 'Yes, we can!'

However, the sorry saga of the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, problems with nuclear power plants in Japan and Europe and many other major problems, illustrates that the long-held believe that technology will save us, and that there is a 'technological fix' for all our problems needs to be re-evaluated.

This oil spill, which has been described as probably the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced, resisted many attempts to fix it. BP's attempts to fix it have become the subject of many jokes and cartoons. They attempted to plug the leak with a 'top kill' mixture of heavy mud, golf and tennis balls, shredded tyres and other objects, followed by more cement - all this junk sounds a bit laughable and desperate (high tech?).

Is Technology the Answer to Everything?

Americans and the Western world have long held a belief that technology will save us from all of our problems. We all believe that technology and science will find a fix for problems that arise including natural disasters. But what about the Iceland volcano that stopped flights in Europe? What was the solution to that? Other natural disasters -floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves, typhoons, global warming, melting of the ice-caps, still occur regularly. People are looking for solutions to these problems as well - but the reality is that there are no solutions.

People also look forward to how technology will solve all our future problems as well and help us maintain our way of life. But is this expectation realistic. Is it getting harder? Is it getting too expensive? This applies to the impending exhaustion the world's oil reserves for use as a fuel, getting back to the moon, climate change and finding a cure for cancer or AIDS, or simply curing the obesity problem. Are the solutions harder to find because we have exhausted the possibilities of our existing technologies or the solutions are simply too expensive?

Why have we not put man back on the moon? It is simply too expensive to do it now? Or simply too hard to justify the expense to do it a second time? Lots of high tech ideas like fusion power have not been achieved, despite the promises. We are good at developing the high tech toys like the iPhone and iPad, but the bigger things, the world needs, seem a long way off and many seem to be getting further out of reach.

There are growing signs that this optimism and unrelenting belief in technology being able to deliver the outcomes we require is perhaps misplaced.

The Success Stories - We have been very successful in the past

  • The green revolution of the 1960s overcame the world's food shortages, for a while at least, with better use of fertilizers and farm management, and better seeds to increase harvests.
  • Smallpox has been eliminated, and polio incidence has been reduced and there is less change of world pandemic disaster like the plague.
  • There are medicines for controlling AIDS and other diseases, but no cures.
  • We have a wide range of high-tech equipments such as the iPad.
  • The bionic ear is widely used, and bionic eye is being developed
  • Nuclear energy has been developed and modernized (but no real solution for dealing with the waste)

The Future Challenges - How many of these are not Achievable?

  • Climate Change / Greenhouse gas - world agreement seems far off - economic hurdles have stalled any progress. There is no high tech , cheap fix.
  • Liquid fuel replacement for oil - no practical solution, biofuels completion with food supplies
  • Water shortages - pollution and climate change
  • Ocean contamination - reducing productivity and fisheries production declining
  • Cure for aids - no cure, current treatments too expensive for most of those infected.
  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Underground storage of waste CO2 from burning of coal - no economic solution found
  • Obesity - no solution found
  • Refugees - growing world problem, likely to expand with climate change and sea-level rise
  • Cure for cancer - not in sight
  • Sending man to the moon and mars - very expensive, postponed
  • Dealing with nuclear waste - no solution found
  • Malaria and other diseases - no solution in sight
  • Sustainable energy - still way too expensive
  • Controlling natural disasters - not insight, including asteroid collision
  • World population growth - Most of the experts forecast there will be 9.2 billion people in the world of 2050. It is suggested that human numbers will keep on climbing, to at staggering 11.4 billion, by the mid 2060s. Is this sustainable?

Is the Hope of Endless Technological Solutions Unfounded?

In many cases, we share blind beliefs that technology can funding a solution. Take coal for example. We continue to use it because we believe we will be able to burn it and pump the waste CO2 emissions underground for permanent storage releasing them to the air. Coal is the cheapest source of energy and we are reluctant to pay the extra cost for sustainable energy (wind and solar).

We have extended our ability to extract oil from deeper waters far beyond our ability to fix the problems that may occur a mile below the surface. In this case, the technology that enables the extraction of the oil becomes an extra source of risk and we are paying the price. This extra risk is likely to continue with other more difficult sources of fossil fuel such as oil sands and more costly locations for extracting oil and gas.

In a way, our problems have become compounded and more complex, which makes it harder to find technological solutions. The growing shortages of oil, nutrients, water, suitable land when combined with climate change will create a major threat to global food security in the next 50 years. Many economies in the developing world, will continue to grow, with India, China, South Korea and other advancing economies demanding more protein food and resources. It is estimated that global food demand will more than double over the coming half-century, as we add another 4.7 billion people. Can technology provide another Green Revolution?

The problems we face now are very different from those faced with the food shortages from 1960 to 1970. TAt this time, food production was limited by inadequate technology and skills. The development of better seeds and fertilisers, and better farm management from the Green Revolution overcame these problems. Today we have the technological advances in the seeds and fertiliser, but the world faces future shortages of almost everything needed to produce food – water, land, stable climates, nutrients, oil, technology, skills, training - each one compounding the others. Is another quantum leap in food production via another Green Revolution possible? Maybe not!

The challenge ahead for the world's farmers is to double the global food production:

  • using half the water,
  • on far less land and with increasingly depleted soils,
  • without fossil fuels,
  • with increasingly scarce and costly fertilisers and chemicals
  • under the scourge of climate change,
  • using less science and technology because less money is spent on research and it is more expensive

One major issue is the future global scarcity of fresh water. Climate change is stealing our water, just when we need it most. There is loss of rainfall, prolonged drought, increased evaporation from storages, eroding infrastructure, shrinking groundwater and rivers and the loss of snow melt-water from glaciers and mountain regions. We may have too little water in about 20-25 years time to feed ourselves.

Much of our farm land is being degraded. The world appears to be losing about one per cent (50,000 sq km) of fertile farmland each year – due to a combination of urban sprawl, mining, soil loss, salinity, acidity and other degradation, recreation, urbanisation, pollution and rising sea levels.

Our resources of mineral nutrients are also starting to decline. Oil and gas production, which supplies much of our nutrients are due to peak in the coming decade and begin to fall. Natural gas will also peak shortly and since it helps make over 95 % of the world’s nitrogenous fertilizer, there will be a shortage of fertiliser as well.

The food supply from the oceans, lakes and rivers is also declining through pollution and over fishing. Most of the world's fisheries are in a state of collapse and the global catch has peaked and started to decline. The majority of the fish supplies could be gone by the 2040's.

What Technologies Could Change Everything? How likely are they?

Space-based Solar Power
The concept is to capture the sunlight in space using an array of huge orbiting mirrors feeding sunlight into to an array of photovoltaic cells. The light is converted to electricity is space and then converted into microwaves, which are sent to earth. Ground-based antennas would capture the microwave energy and change it back to electricity, which is then fed into the grid. It is possible but how do we get the solar collectors into space? Can we afford it?

Advanced batteries for cars, wind and solar power
Electric vehicles could cut petroleum use and help clean the air, provided the electricity did not come from coal or gas. Solar and wind power needs efficient cheap storage. But the batteries need to be a lot better. Lithium-ion batteries and the newer lithium-air battery are proposed for the next-generation batteries. But they are very expensive.

Hydrogen Power from Fuel Cells - very expensive

Carbon Capture and Storage
Trapping C02 from existing plants - about 2 billion tons a year - would be required to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Techniques for experimental moderate scale CO2 capture have been developed, but applying them to huge power plants would reduce the total output of the power station by a third and could double the cost of producing power.

Better Biofuels - from waste and algae not foods

One way to wean ourselves from oil is to produce biofuel, but that process competes with food supplies (sugar and corn) for the basic ingredients. That means new technology to make biofuels from nonfood crops or algae has to be developed. But this is very expensive at the scale required to run all of our cars and planes on earth.

Room-temperature superconductors
This is required for fusion power and to efficiently deliver power through the grid without the wasteful loses that occur now.

Fusion energy
Still seems a long way off and is likely to be very expensive

Perhaps its time for a re-think about what technology can do for us in the future.

"Can We Fix It?" Perhaps we should start to consider "No, we can't!"

There are limits to what technology can do for us. It is getting harder and more expensive.


© 2010 Dr. John Anderson

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