Sunday, March 13, 2011

Technological Hubris

As Americans, we are hardwired to believe in technology and progress. We are taught from an early age about how important technology has been to the American experiment, from the cotton gin to the computer. We are told that through technology our lives will inevitably become better.

This technological triumphalism, however, is a myth built on a house of cards. So while technology has the potential to make our lives better, it also has the potential to cause debilitating harm. We have witnessed technological hubris first-hand with the massive oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico and are currently watching the nuclear meltdown of several power plants in Japan. These accidents were all man-made and a direct result of poor policy choices. What these catastrophes should make clear to policy makers now is that we need to immediately change course, especially on energy issues.

The most important issue that we must first deal with is how to end our reliance on oil. We can only do this by an immediate and rapid switch to renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, and thermal power. Each of these requires a great deal of investment in technology, which is the right kind of investment that will benefit us in long run. Yet, as Americans we have fallen behind China on investment in solar technology and other forms of renewable energy. Instead of being at the forefront of positive technological innovation, we’ve adopted some of the worst policy positions on energy using pernicious technology instead.

This fact is best illustrated by President Obama’s abysmal energy record. He opened up offshore oil and natural gas drilling off the coast of the United States in March of 2010. The very next month, the Deepwater Horizon explosion caused the worst oil-spill in our nation’s history. The short-term consequences from this event were a temporary freeze on new offshore drilling permits and the massive ecological devastation of the Gulf. The long-term consequences of this event are still being documented and it has already exacerbated the vast dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of changing course, the Obama Administration has doubled-down on its wrongheaded strategy and has since lifted the ban on offshore drilling. What this tragedy should make clear is that adopting old technology to extract dirty sources of energy is extremely problematic for both us and the environment.

Another failure of Obama’s energy policy was his adoption of nuclear power as a “clean” source of energy. In fact, he supported an $8.3 billion-dollar loan guarantee for the construction of the first new nuclear power plant in United States in over thirty years. He took this position in spite of the fact that there are huge drawbacks to nuclear power, such as the possibility of apocalyptic nuclear meltdowns, there is no safe way to store nuclear waste, and that nuclear power plants are more expensive to build and maintain as compared to every other type of power plant. Furthermore, the nuclear meltdowns in Japan buttress the dangerous nature of this technology. It should be eminently clear that this archaic technology needs to be retired, not encouraged.

What is amazing about the previous two examples is that both offshore drilling and nuclear energy have been hallmark Republican energy proposals for last several decades that Democrats have traditionally opposed. Instead of listening to the saner voices in his caucus, President Obama has adopted bad policy positions from the Republican Party. These policies have been tried before and failed. The great compromiser Obama (well only with the Republicans, not liberals in his own party) would rather adopt failed policies from his political opponent’s rather than chart out a bold new path towards sustainable energy. The continued use of these antiquated, failed technologies is harmful for both us and the environment.

President Obama, Congress, and other policy makers need to rapidly change course on energy policy. Although President Obama has offered tepid proposals on sustainable energy, a lot more needs to be done and fast. Through our hubris, we have challenged the very laws of nature and are now beginning to feel the negative consequences. What all of these various technological disasters should demonstrate to us as a nation is that technology and progress do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Murphy’s Law often prevails. If there is anything good we can learn from the Gulf oil disaster and the Japanese meltdowns is that technological hubris will cause blowback. We must end offshore drilling and prevent the construction of new nuclear power plants. Instead of sticking to harmful and antiquated technologies, Americans need to rapidly adopt positive technology that will help us achieve a sustainable energy future. As Albert Einstein once put it, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”