Technically Feasible Doesn't Mean "Going to Happen."

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.


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It would be so nice if "we can" meant "we will" but it never has, not really. We have been lucky enough in the West that we've been able to largely ignore that, even when it affects us (the poverty levels in the US are notoriously under reported, just like the real unemployment levels) either directly or indirectly via our neighbors. But what do we see/hear here? "Oh, look at that over there! It's shiny and you must have it!" followed closely by "Oh, look at these poor starving (usualy brown or black) children in this country over here. Please oh please won't you help the children?" It drives me crazy, particularly when I know that if certain factors in my life were different (no house, no garden, etc.) the public school's breakfast and lunch programs were in the shape they're in today when I was growing up, I would have been one of those starving American children that nobody ever quite manages to see. Actually that was a bit off-topic, wasn't it? Sorry.

We can do many things that we don't. Most if not all of them are technically feasible. But so many of them are either not supported, or badly enacted and half-assedly administered as to make such declarative statements about feasibility moot.

By Kate from Iowa (not verified) on 30 Aug 2011 #permalink

Funny that this would be difficult for us to understand -- as a Marxist of some sort, it seems entirely obvious to me that nothing happens on a large scale in our society unless someone can get rich from it.

Exactly, going back to the medication example, guess what happens when resources start getting even tighter: the government will cut funding for medicaid, social security, research for new drugs, and there will not be as much money to enforce regulations on industry so prices will go up as anticompetitive practices proliferate.

And yes, you Mr/Ms middle class will also be getting in in the pants as the insurance pools will shrink and insurance will get more expensive as healthy people choose not to join the cost sharing pool. The government may be successfully pressured into doing away with your recently won protections from industry predation as the people are distracted by other issues. Also as less people can afford buy drugs the prices will go up, and up and up to people who can as the production volume goes down, and your income or pension, or investment portfolio goes down too.

At some point you are going to have the privilege of asking yourself if maybe you should switch to a cheaper drug... or if you really need that statin. I mean, it's just prevention right... Oh sure, the generic life-critical drugs will still be around, though much more expensive, but...

Hi Sharon,
I am currently reading "End of Growth" by Richard Heinberg. My husband read it before me and I was hoping to get away with not reading it. Larry and I have discussed some of his proposals and whether or not they will actually happen. I think much of what is feasible is not politically expedient and therefore won't happen. We just keep plugging along working on ways to ease ourselves out of the range of danger. Not sure how well we will succeed but at least we are giving our kids a head start.
Glad to know that you are okay from the storm. I am very sorry for your garden loss.
Take care!

None of this explains why you're so optimistic about trying to make people pessimistic. If you don't believe technology can save the world, then what can?

And if your answer is for everyone to convert to Gaiaism, then we don't believe you.

Collin @5: I think you are missing the point of the post. Sharon is saying (and I agree) that technology is not a sufficient condition for saving the world. There also needs to be the economic means and political will to implement the needed technological changes. The first of these is going to get harder the longer we put these changes off. As for the second, there are still too many people (especially in positions of political power) who are comfortable enough with business as usual and are not willing to change it for long-term benefit. For technology to save us, we need the political will to become favorable while we still have the economic means. Possible, but I wouldn't count on it.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 30 Aug 2011 #permalink

Well said, Eric.

Humans are beings of inertia. Breaking the inertia and changing direction is very, very hard to do. It's pretty hard for one person to make radical changes in their life, harder for a family, really hard for a community -- and on a national level? It takes a major event, usually a catastrophic one.

He probably means a concept that pops up as a straw man in some apocalyptic SF. Some large group of people have formed a religion that worships some more-or-less believed concept of Gaia. They are usually portrayed as anti-technological fools. They are there to provide a contrast to the can-do practical "common sense" of the survival-oriented protagonists.

Our economic system prevents the majority of "desirable" changes from being implemented. No Social, or political, movement can change the economic system that serves the powerful, only disruptive technology that ends scarcity, the bases of our economics, can produce any real change.

By John Deere (not verified) on 30 Aug 2011 #permalink

"only disruptive technology that ends scarcity, the bases of our economics, can produce any real change. "

Bear in mind; carefully; so far, all such powerful disruptive technologies have instantly been captured by Big Capital; and made into profit machines. They watch for them, and move very intentionally to achieve that. All the wonderful technological advances of the past century have led us to- world wide, the vast and increasing wealth distribution disparity; the biggest and worst in history; and still moving in that direction.

"only disruptive technology that ends scarcity, the bases of our economics, can produce any real change."

And, further to what Greenpa says above, Big Capital is moving to capture primary resources like water. They're already pretty much in control of oil and food...

I think we're mistaken to expect that any significant change is going to come as a result of disruptive technology, although I hope that we'll learn how to use modern communication systems to enable real democracy.

We have the technology NOW to feed and shelter most or all of the people in the world, reduce the effects of global warming, and stop the loss of biological capital. The obstacles to solving these problems are political, not technological. (stops beating dead horse)

What is "Big Capital"?