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Real Men are Environmentalists Too

By Jonathan Larson © 1997

When environmentalists preach about the evils of technology, men tend to mutter dark phrases and generally feel put upon. The reason is simple. Attacks on technology are perceived as an assault on male creativity itself.

Most technology IS male. Over 99% of U.S. patent holders are men. By huge majorities, men also construct, operate, and maintain technology. Technology is often male because it is loud, large, and powerful.

The power of technology is so obvious, it is rarely discussed. Consider that an average man can produce about 1/3 horsepower and a world-class athlete maybe 1/2 for short periods. Most hedge clippers now have that much power. An Egyptian pharaoh was considered wealthy with 250 horses. The installed horsepower in the U.S. is 250 for every man, woman, and child.

Technology can literally move mountains and has changed the course of history. Scientific scholars invented the atomic bomb which is so fearsome that even megalomaniacs like Brezhnev or Nixon could not bring themselves to war with each other in spite of extreme provocation. Skinny guys with thick glasses made warfare obsolete. Now THAT'S power.

Most technology, however, is not a frivolous multiplication of male power or a demonstration of brains over simple brawn. Overwhelmingly, technology is employed in the mundane tasks of providing the necessities of life--food, clothing, shelter, transportation.

Mundane technology is the cause of the ultimate environmental paradox. The power men employ to provide for their families is now destroying the biosphere. Necessary modern technology causes soil erosion, deforestation, global warming, toxic poisoning, and ozone depletion. Make no mistake; current technology is an environmental disaster. It must be replaced.

There are those who suggest that we revert to the technologies which existed before the industrial revolution. Anyone who would be seduced by this argument should ask himself, "Do I know how to farm with horses?" because that is the future of 90% of a much smaller population under this scheme. Such a plan would also involve huge political problems--the most serious of which would be land reform.

The alternative to looking backward is to press ahead. This course of action is not intuitively obvious--if technology is the problem, how can technology provide the solution? Can technology become environmentally correct?

Humanity really has little choice in the matter. If technology is defined as the tools for human survival, it is a primitive failure if it is also destroying the life support systems of nature. Technology itself is not the problem, but its primitive nature certainly is.

Take, for example, the catastrophe of global warming. The facts of global warming are accepted by all scientists internationally with the exception of a few hacks in the hire of American, right-wing, think tanks. The most important global-warming fact is that because of the carrying capacity of the atmosphere, the United States must douse 5/6 of the fires powering our technological infrastructure. This means we must survive on 1/6 of our furnaces, internal combustion engines, and fossil-fuel electrical generators.

If this sounds impossible without new technology, it is. Millions of people would starve or freeze if we tried to get by with so little fire. Fortunately, with the exception of ships, airplanes, and farm machinery, all these fires can be replaced by electrical power.

The partisans of nuclear power claim they have the only solution. Nuclear power misses the point. For 50 years of electricity, we will have 50,000 years of toxic headaches. This is an absurd trade-off. Chernobyl demonstrated that one small accident can render a territory the size and agricultural importance of Iowa uninhabitable for hundreds of generations. Nuclear power has too much down-side risk--Communists and Capitalists alike have determined it is a bad idea.

This leaves solar power as the only alternative. Unfortunately, we basically only know how to power our country with fire and fission. Worse, we want our power most when the sun isn't shining. Solar power is neither convenient nor reliable. Because we think power is worthless unless under our command, research into collecting and storing solar power has been tragically underfunded and understaffed. Solar research has been treated as the province of aging hippies, not serious science.

Two factors favor solar power. Foremost, there is so much of it available. A small fraction of the Sahara desert receives more energy than all the electricity used on the planet. Solar's cousin, wind power, is so plentiful in the USA that 14 states have the capacity to power the entire nation. With available conservation methods combined with sun-drenched deserts and far-flung wind farms, 5/6 of the fires in the United States could be reliably replaced with solar power. No less than the Union of Concerned Scientists says it is possible in their study of solar potential.

The end of the Cold War may be just as important. For the first time in almost 50 years, the best scientific and industrial talent will not automatically be employed in weapons research. If the USA is ever going to get serious about a solar conversion, this flood of talent on the market makes now a most opportune time.

Some will argue that there is no money for such big projects. They are wrong. There is plenty of money. Every day, money traders move over $1.5 trillion between various currency exchanges--an interesting figure since there is not that much international trade in real goods and services in a year. When we stop treating money as a video game and put it to work, there will be enough for projects of survival.

Our grandfathers built the railroads. It is humiliating to think we cannot even electrify them. When it comes to technology, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. If we cannot improve on what they gave us, we are doomed and truly deserve to be. Technology is about power. The interesting question is, Are we brave enough to use this power wisely?

It will require more than courage to produce elegant, sustainable, environmentally-sound technologies, however, it will take genius and hard work. Industrial societies like the United States have plenty of geniuses and folks who love to work so even though time grows short, an industrial environmental solution is possible. The organizing principles have begun to emerge.

Technology is Inevitable. Ben Franklin called man a tool making animal and he was right. No matter how great the problems of technology, there are no non-technological options for survival. Legitimate criticism of current technology has been confused by many as demonization. When people call technology harmful, the implication is that it can be fixed. But when people call technology evil, the implication is that it should be destroyed. This confuses the issue, for bad technology must be replaced by better technology.

Think Big. Physics has been the dominant science of the 20th century--a science infatuated with tiny world of the dead subatomic particle. This tiny fragmented thinking has been socially manifest in the over-specialization of work, the over-individualism of economics, and the atomization of human knowledge. The shift to a biological perspective is essential. If one thinks of the earth as a single living organism, it follows that damage to part of the planet is a damage to the whole. Forestry practices in Brazil affect the weather in Seattle: coal burned in Ohio kills lakes in Maine. We are all in this together.

It's Your Creation. The joy of inventing and building is clear to those who have done it--it makes a man feel like a god. The process of turning a synaptic flash of an idea into the products of industrialization defines much of male creativity. Because technology is almost exclusively the offspring of men, much of the demonization of technology is nothing more than male-bashing. Yet some criticism is legitimate for like irresponsible fathers, we have not nurtured our creations. Like sex, technological creation is more fun than maintenance of the offspring--for some reason, sex until dawn is more invigorating than caring for a sick child all night. Like with humans, technology is also more enjoyable when it is young than when it is old and dying.

The Germans, who are no slouches when it come to technological creativity, have passed what may be the world's most interesting environmental law. Because they are running out of places to hide their garbage, they now require manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling. The principle is: You made it--you figure out what to do with it when its useful life has ended. Three general strategies to cope with this legislation have emerged: Some products are designed for easy disassembly and resource recovery, others are being reformulated to biodegrade on their own, while other products and processes are designed out of the system altogether. By assigning total product life responsibilities on the original technological creators, the Germans are forcing into existence a whole new generation of industrial excellence.

Men may never be able to create life itself directly, but we can certainly create technologies that coexist with a living planet. Technological creators will become even more godlike when their creations conform to the rules of living things--mortal, in need of nurturing, and connected to the web of life. This is the biological imperative to human creativity.


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