Technological Solutions

Saturday 29th of August 2020

In the last post, when considering flying, I raised the issue of technological solutions which would enable us to continue and the same level of air travel or even expand this industry. We could continue to develop technologies which would reduce the carbon emissions from flying itself (like other industries there would still be related emissions e.g. in manufacturing planes). There are already some fuels which come into this category and another possibility would be to move to battery-powered flight. This particular technology would need to be significantly more efficient than it is currently, especially for long-haul flights, but this is not out of the question.
I confess that I am somewhat sceptical about seeing advances in technology as solution to dilemmas like this in the area of climate change. One of the reasons for this is that I feel that the necessary technological process will only happen quickly enough if this is taken as an emergency situation, which certainly hasn’t been the case up to now with climate change. However, there is a lot more to it than that.
Fairly early on in lockdown I heard the naturalist and wildlife presenter, Liz Bonnin, interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live. She was being asked primarily about how the “respite for nature” afforded by lockdown in various parts of the world could feed into the longer term and whether it tells us anything about nature’s ability to “bounce back”. I’m not sure to what extent the interviewer was hoping that Liz Bonnin would give a positive assessment of coronavirus providing a platform for a turnaround in the dynamics of climate change, but that isn’t what happened.
What surprised me was the extent to which, in what she said, Liz Bonnin challenged current worldwide economic models. Most specifically, she said that trying to achieve infinite growth with finite resources causes the both the planet’s health and our own to suffer. She did acknowledge that nature might be able to recover if given the resources to do so, but that can only happen if human beings change. She also talked about re-writing the economic system within planetary boundaries. (Much of this also features in a short clip she recorded and tweeted for Earth Day on 22nd April. In this she also said that the pandemic could be a wake-up call for us as humans).
No doubt many commentators have said similar things (and I have heard academics saying the same thing on a number of occasions), but what this reminds me of most is the book, This Changes Everything, written by Naomi Klein and published in 2015. The subtitle of the book is Capitalism vs. The Climate. In many ways it is difficult to accept that, as a race, we are prepared to prioritise our economic systems over the health of our planet, which, as Liz Bonnin reminds us, is equally essential to our own health. However, the fact that a similar dynamic (prioritising economics over health) is discernible within the coronavirus pandemic is a chilling reminder that we have the potential to ignore these issues, however much this may be at our collective peril.
To return to the theme of technology, especially in relation to aviation, I don’t believe that finding alternative fuels or methods of propulsion are the answer. There are a number of reasons that this is my stance. I have already suggested that one is the urgency of the climate emergency. The fact that we have been debating many of these issues over the last fifty years without coming up with solutions which fully address the issues (in spite of the fact that some forms of technology have emerged over that time) is part of my scepticism.
I was reminded of this a little while ago when I came across a book published in 1987. It was written by Rudolf Bahro and part of its value is in his attempt to gain an overview of various aspects of the politics of climate change. For him this included a need to move away from the level of exploitation of resources inherent in an industrialised society. Unsurprisingly, he was sceptical about the possibility of the transformation of our society (and through that of addressing issues of climate change) through technology. A rough translation of the German title into English would be A Logical Approach to Being Saved from the Apocalypse.
I am also thoughtful that technology tends to be enmeshed in our economic systems. As part of this, those who benefit most from technology are generally those who are already relatively well-off, partly because technology demands a certain amount of investment. It is therefore expected that it will deliver a return from that investment and so it supports a capitalist ethos. That can easily then become the focus rather than the question of whether it really makes the impact which is needed.
One of the key matters which has emerged from the coronavirus pandemic is the nature of employment and the reimbursement from that employment. It is difficult to know which is the more fundamental in economic terms - without work most people do not have the disposable income to spend which is essential for purchasing the products or services which people create in their work.
It therefore becomes almost impossible for us to step outside this circle, especially if we are constantly focused on models of economic growth. Part of the reporting of the pandemic has very much been its economic impact, with much talk of the nature and depth of the accompanying economic recession.
Because our economic systems have been largely shut down during lockdown, this has to some extent been forced on us and we have an opportunity to step away from this treadmill. Dealing fully with climate change requires something of the same. To go back to the example mentioned above, if we are to reduce carbon emissions from aircraft we will be confronted fairly quickly by the economic impact of doing so in terms of jobs lost, companies bankrupted and shares losing value.
Because we are so thoroughly wedded to our capitalist systems, this takes us into unknown territory. I can’t help feeling that we have a deep-seated fear that the whole system will unravel once some of the foundations are shaken. One of those is definitely the idea that we can keep on making our economies grow indefinitely. Another is that our economic systems can sustain various shocks as long as they are underpinned by enough capital, which so far our governments have been willing to do and which financial markets have so far accepted (perhaps not surprisingly as they would otherwise be undermining themselves). We might say that another is that progress for humanity is intrinsically bound up with economic success and indeed expansion.
On one level, I am tempted to come up with some suggestions as to what could replace jobs in the travel industry. On another, attempting to fill one hole in displaced economic activity feels like an attempt to plug a small hole in a dam when it is the whole dam which is being threatened. Perhaps that is another reason why we find it so difficult to move away from what we know because we lose all our familiar points of anchorage or reference and feel that we will be swept away in chaos and destruction?
To go back to Rudolf Bahro, he saw it as integral to the ecological crisis that we address spiritual issues. For him it made sense to incorporate this into his approach, hence the “logic” in his title. For his contemporaries this wasn’t necessarily the case. Although he was involved with Green Party in Germany in the early 1980s, he diverged from the mainstream view because he didn’t feel they were able to challenge sufficiently the status quo in terms of politics. Those who shared his view became known, somewhat derogatorily, as “fundis”, because of their belief that things needed to change fundamentally.
When discussing spirituality, Bahro makes a link with the hemispheres of the brain, which I am going to use to bring me back to Iain McGilchrist. Bahro talks about the “integrating function of the right cerebral hemisphere” (Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster i.e. an abridged and adapted English version of Logik der Rettung p. 71) which he connects with an expansion in consciousness, both on the individual level and connecting with it in a wider sense.
I feel that Iain McGilchrist’s description of left-hemisphere-dominated responses and what does not come naturally to the left hemisphere may help us increase our understanding of why we struggle so much with making the necessary changes. The left hemisphere zeroes in on what it already knows and makes decisions based on that. It may seem like a small thing to say that we find it difficult to step outside what we already know. That may seem like very little justification for following a road which leads to disaster (Bahro talks about a path to self-extermination) but there is a definite sense of “better the devil you know” than having to dismantle structures which have been in place for centuries in one form or another. Part of this is also having difficulties with engaging fully with the complexity of systems. It is the right hemisphere which looks at context and different levels, whereas the left hemisphere’s ability to create a narrow focus, although useful in some ways, also leads to certain aspects of a situation being left on one side or discarded in order to maintain that very focus. The picture accompanying this blog, a painting by William Blake which he presents as a depiction of Isaac Newton, suggests something of this focus, as he ignores the ecosystem behind him. (Blake's distillation of this into the figure of Isaac Newton in itself chooses to leave to one side Newton's often-neglected hinterland with his alchemical and apocalyptic interests).
Again, in and of itself, the left hemisphere works to draw something into its orbit and keep it there, whilst then going through its own processes on it. The right hemisphere is more open to something new. It perhaps goes without saying that in order to make changes, something new has to come into play, but it is only by the right hemisphere taking on its proper role that this can happen.
I can’t help but feel that the climate change and ecological crisis is, more than anything, an issue of the right and left hemispheres. This is by no means Iain McGilchrist’s focus, but there are times when he articulates something that definitely fits with this. For example, on p. xxiii of the Preface to the New Expanded Edition he says the following: “Since the Industrial Revolution, but particularly in the last fifty years, we have created a world around us, which, in contrast to the natural world, (my italics) reflects the left hemisphere’s priorities and its vision.” Like Rudolf Bahro he then goes on to talk about intuition, which is implicitly the arena of the right hemisphere.
The right hemisphere is better at seeing human beings in the context of the natural world as a whole, rather than us prioritising humans and their needs. Much of the process of industrialisation has consisted of us extracting resources from the natural world without really seeing any need to look at the effects that this has on the interacting ecological systems. There is a challenge inherent within facing up to climate change, which again relates to the right- and left-hemisphere dynamic. It is not greenhouse gases in themselves that cause a problem, so we immediately need to shift from a focus on these gases themselves and move to the effect they have in raising average temperatures. Even then, it is not the temperature on its own that is the issue, but the effect it has on weather systems, habitats, sea levels, glacier melt, rainfall, drought, flooding, fire risk and so on. In order not only to make changes but even to take climate change seriously we need to move more into a right-hemisphere approach.
I find it difficult to know to what extent the counter-arguments which are often used around global warming are what people actually believe and to what extent they are used tactically (because of wanting to maintain the status quo for whatever reason). In either case, they fit with a left-hemisphere approach. For example, if someone says that whether they, say, fly as often as they wish to do so will make negligible difference to the state of the planet, there is some truth to that. But that truth is only true from a left-hemisphere perspective. The right-hemisphere reponse would be to acknowledge that change has to begin with the behaviour and attitudes of individuals moving before this can become sufficiently widespread to be seen as a recognisable shift. Another of the difficulties in this respect is that the left hemisphere works on measurable commodities. Although changes in gas composition in the earth’s atmosphere can be measured, that is not to say that those changes will have an immediate impact on the effects that were mentioned above. A left-hemisphere argument might also be that changes are pointless because they don’t have the desired effect. The left-hemisphere, as part of its specific focus, tends to deal less well with something which elapses over time and so when we are left-hemisphere-driven we would be less able to notice changes, especially if they are subtle. That could work both in terms of the ability to ignore the signs of climate change previously and a lack of awareness now of any improvements that we can make.
Iain McGilchrist talks at length about the left hemisphere’s tendency to want to continue in a particular direction rather than being forced to change course. Even without any psychological resistance to radical modification of our systems, resolving climate change will be an enormous challenge to our society, at least if we accept Iain McGilchrist’s analysis that our culture has been increasingly subject to the left hemisphere’s limitations over the last few hundred years. There is, of course, a flipside to this. Combatting climate change is a very practical problem in many ways and I wouldn’t want to underplay the significance of this. However, it is also, if there is any truth in my inclination towards this being an issue of left and right hemisphere balance, an issue of consciousness. It therefore offers us an opportunity to bring out into the open in a new and intensely relevant way dynamics which have tended to remain hidden. It may be that this is another aspect of apocalypse, to go back to Rudolf Bahro’s title for his writing. Apocalypse tends to be associated with death and destruction, mayhem and chaos. Whilst I don’t believe that is out of the question in relation to the impact of climate change, there is another way of looking at apocalypse. The original meaning relates to a revealing or unveiling. The climate change crisis may be both a product of a left-hemisphere dominated period in our history and a jolt to our awareness which at least could prevent us continuing to sleepwalk into the future without considering what alternatives there could be to our current position and how we go about achieving them. Whilst I believe that this is of huge importance in relation to us as a species in the context of climate change specifically, it may be that this broader application is of even greater significance.
Is there any way that we can leverage current turmoil to create movement and space for change? That remains to be seen, but it seems clear that we are at a moment of choice. We could “return to normal” as regards economic activity, but there is also potential for “a new normal” in the sense of many of our systems as well as in more health-related matters. There is no guarantee that this will be the direction we adopt but there may at least be more opportunity to present the case for change.