Can technology Save us? A wrap up

In my last three posts I’ve asked the question if technology can save us from many of our own problems. I’ve discussed several technologies for each topic, water, energy and food. These technologies are not all of the ones out there by any stretch of the imagination. These are the technologies I’m aware of at this point. I wouldn’t say I’ve done an exhaustive search for technologies either. I hope to have made it obvious that technology alone cannot save us. We need to make a concerted effort to change the status quo and that won’t be easy to do.

We have some major problems adopting new technologies. First, we have incumbents interests that have no desire to see the current energy regime change. We have problems of ownership of technical problems. Why should the US invent new ways to extract water when Mexico is the country that will suffer? How do we know that a given technology is going to be the best, or even good enough for our needs? What happens if all our best efforts turn out to actually make things worse?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. We have to make a choice as a society to decide what constitutes a good investment for research. In one Urban Time article I posit that the EU can over take the US in terms of scientific research in the upcoming decades. This should terrify people. This is what has driven the US economy since the 40’s and to some extent earlier. The shifts in capitalism have driven our company goals toward shorter and shorter returns on investments and less visionary goals. The ability to experiment in companies and use government funds to experiment with deploying new energy systems has floundered.

This should be cause for concern. We’ve seen the result of poorly managed technology in the past few years. Simple things like a software glitch that caused Toyota’s to accelerate out of control, flash crashes on the stock markets from high frequency traders and other complex systems like Fukashima. We don’t always have proper controls designed into our technologies to protect us from it.

Personally, I’m optimistic about the future of technology and what it can do for us. However, there are plenty of Sci-fi authors out there that are very pessimistic. I love reading the dystopian future and post-apocalyptic books as much (or more) than anyone and we need to realize that without requiring proper controls on our technology and production of our material goods these results could happen.

Technology alone cannot save us from ourselves. We may be able to use technology as a tool to fix problems we’ve created, but we have to do the dirty work. Technology doesn’t design and make itself (yet).

Can technology save us: Food production?

In 1768 Thomas Malthus wrote the Principles of Population, which posited that eventually all populations are held in check by disease and famine. This theory argues that any population that grows to sufficient size will outstrip the resources in that the population requires, which will result in famine disease and population crash. While, this is likely true in a Darwinian sense (he used this as to help develop the theory of evolution) it is not true for populations that are able to innovate and provide additional food resources.

Innovation allows the human population to develop new techniques for providing additional food in the same area of space. In some ways this happens through domesticating crops such as corn or bananas and increasing the size of the produce until it hardly looks like the wild version of the produce, which can be seen below for the banana. For a fruit that is roughly the same size an individual will receive a great deal more energy than with the wild fruit.

Source: Wikimedia

Obviously bigger fruits and vegetables aren’t the only product that we’ve seen increase in density of calories. Cattle are being breed to be larger and provide more meat on a single cow. In the extreme case, the Belgian Blue, they are so large they are unable to reproduce without human assistance and are taller than most cattle at the shoulder.

In many cases our cattle, pigs and chickens are being raised in some pretty terrible living conditions. These living conditions cause pollution of our land, cause diseases and can be smelled for hundreds of miles away from the farm. The production of the meat isn’t healthy for the animals nor for the people that live near them. However, for most people it’s out of sight out of mind, or they can’t afford to pay the market for humanely raised animals (grass fed beef or free range chickens).

In the US there’s child hunger, but there is famine in other parts of the world. Part of this is due to poverty, water shortages or powerful people withholding the food that is available. What technologies are out there that may be able to address some of these problems?

One of the most interesting me to me is Lab Grown Meat. This would remove the requirement of using killing animals to provide the meat and proteins we need to survive. Currently, these meats don’t taste all that great and most people would likely be against eating it. However, it could actually lead to a lot of other benefits. For one, if we are able to get cow meat to taste right, that means that we have the muscle and fat ratio correct. This could also allow us to use the same method to rebuild muscle mass for people who have been injured. Other benefits for people with special diets, like vegetarian or vegan, may be able to eat the meats because they aren’t coming from animals.

Labs devoted to growing animal meat would reduce the amount of corn and grains going to cattle and would increase the general supply of these foodstuffs. Additionally, the area required to grow animal meat would be a lot smaller than that to raise a herd of cattle. We won’t be able to replace every source of meat with this, but it is likely that it could replace a lot of it.

Another interesting idea is called the Vertical Farm Project. Instead of a farm taking up huge tracts of land, the farm could be contained in a single structure. It could take the idea of local to the extreme. There could be different floors for each type of crops and the crops could be grown using hydroponics or in a more traditional method if desired. These towers are planned to help power themselves through wind and solar power collectors. The crops would receive both artificial and natural sunlight through large windows and UV lights.

It is also likely that aside from simply providing crops the lower levels could also be used to house a version of grass fed cattle. The number of cows in the herd would have to be very small, but the manure could provide the nutrients some of the crops require. Additionally, since the air would be filtered it would reduce the impact of the smell of the cattle in the surrounding areas. The air circulation equipment could also filter out methane that the cows release and use that as an additional power source by burning it. The idea of a vertical farm like that would essentially ensure that all the material within the farm would be reused and maximize the sustainability of the farm.

At this point these ideas aren’t yet proven to work. It is going to be some time before these technologies are going to be fully workable and deployed to the general public. They could work in both the developed world and the developing. The vertical farm could seriously help the sub Sahara countries in Africa as it is likely that a vertical farm like that would be able to provide crops that normally would not grow outside of the farm. Additionally, the vertical farm could have a water collector on the top and use sun light to convert ocean water into drinkable water through a evaporation and collection.

Can technology Save us: Energy Problems

Energy is one of our largest concerns moving forward. We know, at least on some levels, that the technology that is feeding us power isn’t exactly the cleanest technology or power sources. For the most part, the US is powered through coal and natural gas. Between these two roughly two thirds of our power is generated. Both of these power sources need to be extracted from the ground. There are several ways to extract coal from the earth, those of us from Pennsylvania know of both of these. The first is the old fashioned digging of huge mines. In some cases these mines catch on fire and can burn continually until all the coal is burned through. This can take decades or centuries. Not only that, but if you’ve seen ads or the show Coal on Discovery, you know that it’s horribly unhealthy for the miners and can lead to black lung. The other method is mountain top removal, which is less well known but equally destructive. According to a recent study it has removed 500 peaks and eliminated 2,000 miles of streams in the Appalachia mountain range.

Natural gas extraction is equally destructive, but it’s talked about less frequently than mountain top removal. Fracking has been banned in several countries and regulation in US states has been mixed (Ohio very strict PA very lax). However, the US is being compared to Saudi Arabia in terms of the quantity of Natural Gas in the ground (these estimates are highly contested). Because of the abundance natural gas is being touted as the clean alternative to coal. While it is true that natural gas does burn cleaner than coal it still is not a clean reaction. As it is a hydrocarbon molecule it’s reaction does not lead to 100% efficiency and only water as a resultant material. It still produces Carbon DiOxide but at a much lower rate than coal or gasoline (benzine).

While it is strongly debated among politicians the use of coal and natural gas are causing climate change (Obama compared them to Flat Earth Society members), it’s fairly obvious that they cause local pollution levels to increase. However, as we saw from the Iceland volcano ash and other pollutants are able to enter the jet stream and move around the world. This same affect can happen with coal and natural gas power plants.

However, as technology caused a great deal of these problems perhaps it can fix them. One of the first technologies that we should look at is captured carbon sequestering (CCS), which I’ve discussed before. This could help remove the excess carbon in the atmosphere now. However, there are risks it does reduce housing values and can leak to the surface in a similar manner as smoke from a coal fire. However, there has been success in countries like Iceland. While this is small scale, its the appropriate level to be testing in the US. There are several different technologies for CCS and many states in the US could experiment with different technologies. This will allow the selection of the best technology. The US government should encourage testing different technologies through programs at the state level to designed to increase testing different technology. This could include highest capture and lowest leakage rate from the captured location. Companies could then bid on the right to use their technology for the projects. Additionally, as this can be tied to economic benefits such as job creation and pollution reduction, without impacting current power production, it should gain bipartisan support.

Io9 recently had an interesting article about using caves as a method for batteries. This technology, while very very young, would be used in conjunction with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and wave (when that matures more). This would allow for a massive storage area for extremely windy or sunny days to effectively smooth the energy production for a region. In addition it also could be used to buffer from over production for traditional power plants as well. It is difficult to plan for excess demand, but if these caves could be used to store energy from a colder time of the year until the summer it could be used to buffer against increased demand during the hot summer months.

Renewable energy sources must be part of any plan to create a national energy plan for any country. Without these energy independence would be impossible. Creating incentives for home owners and removing barriers, such as home owner associations that are against solar panels, should be a goal of government at several levels. Austin currently has a huge push for renewable energies where something lie 35% or more of the city energy needs should be generated by renewables in 2020. Including individual home owners in this plan will make it easier to reach.

Finally, nuclear reactors will also be required for wide area energy generation. Currently nuclear energy accounts for nearly 20% of US energy production. Developing safer techniques for nuclear energy generation is extremely important with Fukashima and the risk for using the same technology for creation nuclear weapons. Fortunately there are safer materials to use. One of them is called Thorium. This material reacts more safely and cannot be used to create weapons. This type of reactor would also be extremely useful for desalinating water.

To achieve true energy independence we will need to use all of the available materials for energy production. It will likely require a transition period from coal to natural gas to a combination of renewable energy sources and nuclear reactors. This will likely take 20 to 30 years. However, we need to use economic and national security as much as environmental concerns to win the argument. With the current mentality in the US government environmental arguments are not likely to win over many converts. Using job creation, through construction and managing the facility, and the long term economic benefits will likely win over more converts than any other method. Including in the argument a way to capture the pollution as a method of reducing pollution rather than simply require cleaner burning is also likely to win over converts as the GOP tries to defund the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is likely to be a difficult fight to get the US to be independent of foreign energy sources, but it is possible. To do so will require a clear plan of action. Sadly, the US has been lacking that for the past few decades.

Can technology save us from Water problems?

In my last post I decided I was going to write a series about technological fixes that will have major ramifications on issues that result in social problems. In this post I’m going to discuss some problems with water  uses and some technological solutions that may be able to fix them.

We are seeing water issues all over the world where there simply isn’t enough access to fresh drinkable water. Last summer there was a horrible drought in Texas which caused wild fires to burn only 30 miles or so away from Austin. The area is still technically in a drought, although there is a glimmer of hope because there has been a decent amount of rain so far this spring.

In the US southwest there are serious disputes over water rights to the Colorado river. This dispute isn’t just between Arizona and California but also between California and Mexico. Because of the population growth in those areas if left unchecked it would be likely that the Colorado would never reach the Pacific Ocean and there would be no water to reach Mexico.

In the developing world, a major problem is clean drinking water. Water that isn’t clean carries a great deal of diseases and as we saw in Haiti only a few years ago can lead to large number of deaths. However, there’s a difference between the dispute over access to water in the US and Mexico and access to water in the developing world. It is more likely to cause wars and civil unrest.

There seem to be two major causes for water issues that we’re having. The first is pretty obvious, overpopulation in areas where water is already scarce. It’s been shown that the lower level of education and higher level of poverty leads to higher birth rates. In places that are already under stress a continually growing population makes things worse. However, in the US the cause is migration to these areas, such as Phoenix, San Diego and Austin. The second factor is climate change. With less snow fall on mountain ranges and shorter winters there is less water to flow in rivers that are caused primarily by snow melt. This change over time will lead to new areas that will be under water stress in the future.

There are some technologies that can alleviate the problems. One of them is desalination, which removes salt from water. This would allow cities near the coast to use the ocean as a source of water. The process requires the water to be boiled and moved into several different chambers for evaporation. The process produces extremely high salt concentrations in the remaining water. Most of which is pumped back into the ocean in the same area as the water is extracted. This continually increases the salinity in the area and can cause problems for the local flora and fauna.

This method provides clean drinkable water however, it is extremely expensive and the price of the water is extremely high. This makes it unlikely for the water to be affordable for the developing world and the developed world likely won’t want to pay for the advancement of the technology. In addition to this, it’s been suggested that nuclear energy be used to power the desalination plants. However, this has additional risks in war torn regions in the developing world. These plants may be attacked in an attempt to procure the nuclear material within to make weapons.

However, desalination seems to be the most likely method of alleviating water problems. If the technique was improved to the point that enough water could be piped to different parts of water stressed regions it could improve conditions in those areas and improve the amount of crops that were produced annually. This would reduce starvation and improve the general living conditions in those areas.

Unfortunately, this will take time and will need support from national level governments, supranational agencies like the UN and EU, local governments and research labs. However, in the current state of affairs governments do not seem to be in any sort of position to actually invest in this technology. The explanation of climate change would not be received well in the US as the vast majority of the Republicans believe that it is a hoax.

Instead of framing the discussion in terms of climate change the discussion needs to be framed in terms of the populations of large cities like San Diego and Phoenix. They need to be framed in terms of foreign policy. The issue between the US and Mexico is a perfect example of that. Improving the ability to desalinate water in the US will ensure that the US is able to use less and less of the Colorado and allow Mexico to use more of the water. Water should be considered a “tragedy of the commons” as it is easy for each member using the water source to use just a bit more until there’s none left for anyone else. A solution to a tragedy of the commons is to create a continually growing commons.

California, Mexico and Arizona should work together to create a consortia to develop the technology. Creating new systems to power the desalination plant would be useful. It’s expensive to power the plants, but if it is powered through a combination of solar energy, wind and nuclear the price will drop and water will be more plentiful.

Can technology save us?

We live in a time where technology is everywhere. Most people cannot survive without their cell phone these days. We look for technological solutions to nearly all our problems. We look to address behavioral problems with medicine and we used to use techniques like frontal lobotomies and shock therapy to address extremely disturbed persons or criminals. However, in many cases these are not the correct remedy. In many cases simply understanding what is causing a child with behavioral problems can alleviate them without actually need to resort to extreme measures such as medicine, which likely will not fix the root cause of the problem and are merely band aid remedies to the symptoms.

In other cases we use technology to solve problems that technology created, such as pollution. We are developing tools like Carbon Sequestering which is intended to capture carbon from the atmosphere and then store it underground. However, even though this seems like a fantastic solution, there are serious difficulties with applying a purely engineering based solution. A lot of people are deeply concerned about the impact of captured carbon sequestering on their property value or health of residents living in the area.

In my next few blog posts I plan to explore different challenges facing the world in the next few years or decades and discuss some potential socio-technical solutions to the problems. Technology alone cannot save us from ourselves. There needs to be a combination of education, choice of technologies applied and open discussion and inclusion to affect real change.

Each of the posts that will be in this series will discuss different topics and I’m going to focus on three major technology fields that will have a huge impact in the future development of our society. The first I’m going to look at is water. Water is important because in arid regions it’s in very short supply. There is a huge demand in regions like the US southwest and of course many areas within Africa.

The second will be energy. This of course is a very contested technology field. There are many different competing technologies for the next big energy source. It’s under debate whether we’ve reached peak oil or not, if nuclear power is safe and if we should actually shut down coal plants.

The final technology will be food production. There’s a big debate over the humanness of slaughtering animals and the environmental impact of large pig farms. In many areas of the world there are shortages of food supplies. In much of Africa there is brutal starvation, there is starvation in the US and developing the right technologies to can alleviate the problems.

I hope to put forth different ranges of technologies that will solve these problems as well as potential social arguments that will make the changes easier to implement.