One of the hardest things for people to get their heads around is the fact that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we will. For affluent people in the west in an era of rising energy availability, for the most part can and do went together. In an era of declining resource availability and declining wealth, however, many of us are likely to get to know the experience of much of the world, which is that what we can do doesn’t have much to do with many people’s experience..
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.
Daily, I receive emails from people who assure me that just as soon as the next technological breakthrough comes in, we’ll all be fine. Daily I receive statements that we could technically do this, and that means it’ll happen any day now. Unfortunately, history and reality offer checks to those assumptions – it is possible it will happen, but we cannot afford to live our lives as though these outcomes are inevitable. It is, however, hard to shake the belief that all depends on feasibility anyway. Check out the whole thing.