The hard question of civilization

The hard question of civilization

In the filed of Artificial Intelligence there is a wide common discussion of the hard question of intelligence, namely „What can it be that atoms and molecules in our skull that is nothing more than dead matter can form something that we call our self, that we all experience every day. How can it be that we have wants, and will and can shape the world as we imagine, when instead everything we know of in this universe is only constantly decaying due to laws of thermodynamics.“

In this field of „innovation“ a large interdisciplinary research body has evolved that consists of sociologists, philosophers, medical research and informatics to name just a few. The field is quite young but it has managed somehow to create a large scientific playing field because the implications of true Artificial Intelligence are so profound that people involved in it want the advent of this technology to be as little harmful to our societies as possible.

In a more broader view, related to this topic, I want to raise “the hard question of civilization” here, that is

„Can we grow out of growth problems in a finite world“

At first sight the reader will immediately spot a contradiction in this sentence and will dismiss it easily. But wait a moment: What is it, that the cult of „innovation“, „progress“ and „growth“ just spills out on every news outlet that we read ? „The cement industry can grow sustainable“, „We can sustainably grow our fishing industry“, „There exist enough resources for food and shelter to accommodate 12 Billion humans by the end of this century“

As far as I am concerned, we live in a substantially ill formulated world view, when we insist on perpetual growth and innovation of ever more and more ubiquitous machinery. (A computer will soon reside in any item that you buy from an industrial manufacturer. You will possibly have a dining table that welcomes your guests in the evening with a “warm” greeting message when they take seat for the dinner that you prepared for them. It can make pictures during the evening and store it in itself
. The table will become a „knowing you“ entity in your house just as everything else you will be facing in a few years from now).

Lately the term „disruptive“ was added to the list of cults in our civilisation, meaning that we have to forcefully destroy everything that exists, only because we want to destroy it. Wait a moment: „and to make a profit from it“ is missing in the last sentence. Here we come to the core of the cults in our civilisation namely, it is ok to destroy everything that we see and replace it with some or more technology so that profits can be made from it. If you only have an idea to make more profit with more technology, money will pour down on you like magic and everybody will be happy.

The climate change problem does not only occur due to our usage of technology, from now on we can also solve it by applying ever more technology. Renewable energy is at the core centre of this view and of course renewable energy can help us to reduce the impact on our biosphere created by our energy needs, being fulfilled with a lot of fossil fuels. Great innovators like Bill Gates and Elon Musk promote that they use research and development for the betterment of our civilization.

The dark side to all of these claims is that to solve all of these problems we will have to deploy a gargantuan amount of new machinery on a global scale at breathtaking speed. Ugo Bardi says, we do a lot in the area of renewables already, but we must increase our efforts ten fold to be on time to evade huge problems with climate change. So the idea everybody is promoting is „growth as fast as possible with all means available”. Everybody promotes growth as the final destination to solve our problems. To cloak it for the greens, the term „sustainable growth“ has been coined and is being promoted in every press release you read today.

There exists a tiny misunderstanding when growth is promoted that has been looked on in the 70 to the 90s, namely what are the impacts of technology on our societies and how should the new technologies be developed so that all people really benefit from them. Today the use of technology is promoted only for the profits of the global corporations and no one should deem to have a vote of „what kind of technology do we want?“ This is called „technological determinism“: Some people in the universities develop the latest technology and it is being deployed on the population for profits sake but the consumers must not have a say in what type of technology they want. The professors and the tech gurus know best, what is good for us.

In our modern technological civilization, we do not see how interconnected our gadgets are. A self driving car would not be possible with the gigantic computing power that is available in today’s computer graphic cards. The development of these cards somehow was paid for by the kids playing computer games. Without them we would not have self driving cars with some space left for our stuff in the trunk besides a huge computing apparatus. The pattern that we see from this example is that our whole technological advancement is interdependent. We can not grow a certain aspect of technology without also growing other aspects of technology.

When we talk about smart grids, a large network of consumer behavioural databases will be required to constantly monitor the energy usage and calculate a combination to produce just in time the energy we need. Transportation as a service (TaaS) includes a lot of machinery in the background to operate this system. In my town we have a large system of public transport but even that requires a substantial amount of supportive facilities. Monitoring hundred thousands of cars in a city will require a huge computing effort and automated charging stations as well as repair shops and the like. It is not very clear if all this will possibly be operated cheaper than a good old mass transportation system

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. Research shows that when a car is available everywhere at any time, more miles per person will be driven by these cars.

The question to come back to is: Will it be possible to increase mileage per capita and reduce the impact on resources at the same time? A huge amount of claims exist that when we grow, the technology will improve resource usage and in the end we have more stuff that needs less resources. Well, when we look at resource extraction figures for the last 200 years, there only exists one trend and this is up, and up is not only linear but exponential. There have been marginal efforts in reducing resource usage but the overall trend on usage of the carrying capacity of this planet is up and up and only up. So it is ok for you to claim that the future will be different but this was also stated some 50 years ago and even in the Kyoto protocol claims were made that CO2 production can be reduced even if the economy grows as a whole. You guess it, there has not been a reduction in co2 emissions since Kyoto but an increase and only in the last three years the trend has stabilised at a high level but I claim here that due to high economic growth this year, we can anticipate an increase in CO2 emissions this year as well.

So an important question that will need a much broader public discussion in the future is, what type of technology we use and what are the additional benefits of it in other aspects of technology and what are the harms imposed on our world by this technology. Currently the only approach is to grow for growth sake and for the growth of the profits. That is the neoliberal paradigm as it was imposed on the world since the 80’s.

The renewable energy transition is only a small aspect of a whole lot of other transitions we need to make. All of these want growth
. The people that want to resolve hunger want growth, the people that want to regrow plants to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere want growth. The cement industry wants growth. When we subsume all of these as „growth for growth’s sake“ there will in the end be no more room to grow to.

That makes it so difficult for organisations that aspire for change in the world to argue because they too need to promote growth. And that makes it so difficult for the reader to make a difference in the term “growth” as it means so many different things. And we have not even touched the topic of “sustainable growth”.

When we talk about growth, I propose to talk about the minimal growth possible to achieve a certain goal .

Intrenex aims at such a goal. The Supergrid can be built without a lot of research & development into technologies that do not yet exist. Everything we need is already there, we only need to deploy it on a large scale. The Supergrid is self-regulating, does not require huge amounts of battery or inefficient gas storage due to it’s geographical extent and it does not require smart meters and smart grids with smart appliances with billions of computers in billions of appliances that all monitor what we do when.

It involves the most freedom in itself and for it’s participants with the lowest impact possible on the world and our wallets.



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