Fighting the Environmental Apocalypse as a technologist
"Quitting smoking is too hard, I will never succeed". You may already have heard this kind of affirmation from someone who doesn't have the courage to stop tobacco. Of course they will quit smoking, on the latest the day of their life in the worst case. And, unfortunately, the more they wait to voluntarily stop smoking, the more it increases the chances to experience a way more unpleasant, involuntary stop.
The same is true for the destruction of our environment. It's suicidal to think that we can do nothing and continue like that for centuries.
The question is: will it be a planned, voluntary choice, or will we be the victim of a brutal, involuntary collapse?
Understanding the problems
As all our philosophy and maths teachers told us, the first step is always to define the problem(s).
The purpose of technology is to multiply the efficiency of our efforts. But if we go in the wrong direction, we will never reach our destination.
Also, technology is easier than politics, because, unlike politics, technology can spread and scale quickly (patents and copyright aside). People love to talk, not to act. This is why as a citizen, the best way to approach the problems is from a technological point of view.
When we are talking about the ecological apocalypse, there are, in reality, two problems:
- Climate warming
- The destruction of the environment
While Climate change's most impactful effects are awaited in a few years, the destruction of the environment is already affecting us. We are eating plastic today, and it would still happen if we were emitting 0 Carbon. Even if we had Carbon-neutral concrete, we would still be destroying our soils.
These 2 problems go hand in hand. Solve one but not the other? The future will remain uncertain for a lot of people (and by that, I mean you, me or people of our families).
How did we get there?
Our economic system is based on extraction and transformation. We dig big holes in the planet, extract different kinds of materials, and turn them into products that final consumers can buy with their hard-earned money.
The problem is: this system does absolutely not take into account negative externalities.
Negative externalities are all the undesirable byproducts of our activities that are not taken into account by our models:
- Coal emits small particles, pollution (SO2, NOx, mercury...), lung diseases, emits a lot of Carbon, and much more...
- Oil also produces NOx and SO2, and a lot of other kinds of nasty stuff. Without talking about the wars.
- We still don't know what to do with nuclear waste.
- When we buy food in a supermarket, it comes with a lot of useless packaging.
- When we transport a gadget from one side of the world to the other, a lot of Carbon is emitted.
When nobody is responsible, nobody care.
Climate is not weather. Yes, during the day the temperature varies between 12°C and 20°C, but a global, annualized temperature elevation of a 3°C degrees will have dramatic consequences.
Here is what we can expect:
- Unintended consequences that make your life miserable. In my hometown, in addition to the melt of "eternal" ices on the mountains, tiger mosquitos have already invaded the region. You can no longer have a diner outside during the summer. While nobody is talking about that, it's making the life of the people really miserable, especially when you lived here before this nightmare (all my childhood).
- More extreme events such as storms, fires and flooding: 2021 was a good year for those who had a boat in their garage.
- Dramatic fall in agricultural yields. How long can you survive without food?
- Unhappy people who want to move from an unlivable country to a better place where there already are people who have no inclination to share their lands.
- Your know the refrain...
The three principal final sinks of energy are: Electricity, Heat and mobility.
Other than renewable electricity and nuclear, all the other sources emit too much greenhouse gases that are causing global warming.
Destruction of the environment
While everybody is busy debating about which temperature the frog is going to be boiled, we are accelerating the destruction of what enables us to live.
Destructions of the soils, a new continent made of plastic, microplastics in the rains and the fishes...
We expect to have most plastic in the sea than fish in a few years. And it would happen even if we were Carbon neutral.
The loss of biodiversity is said to have fallen below 'safe levels' globally.
What has been done so far
"My neighbor is polluting more, so reducing my own waste will have no impact."
"This plane ride will save me 3 hours compared to train. It's the only solution if I want to meet my productivity goals!"
"I need to go to the hairdresser."
Humanity is an excuses production machine. Any pretext is good to do nothing.
We are looking after micro-optimizations that have, to this day, no impact at all.
Increasing by a few percent the marginal efficiency of our stuff, but increasing the global consumption is what we are doing today. Our cars are individually more efficient than in 1970, but as we have globally way more cars than in 1970, the automotive sector emits way more pollution and greenhouse gases.
But, in my opinion, the biggest root cause of all of this is debt. This virtual fuckery creates a huge momentum in any initiative, whether it be at the individual, national or international level. Can we really blame someone who has a loan to pay for not being very cautious about the negative impact on the world of its employer? After all, they are mandated by law to pay off this debt, with dramatic consequences for their lives if they don't, and law is supposed to be the expression of the general will.
Who is responsible? I'm not sure.
Some ideas to join the fight
While I can't pretend to know how to solve these problems, here are what I consider a few good ideas to slow down the coming apocalypse.
Eliminating waste and pollution
My phone recently died due to a faulty USB connector. It was 4 years old. Everything else was perfectly working. So due to a little piece that may cost around $6 (max unitary retail price), an otherwise completely functional pocket computer has to be trashed because due to the conception and glue it is impossible to repair.
The same is true for home appliances. What the fuck about all these smart things that break after 1-3 years of use.
Thus, I think that the principal axis to reduce waste is repairability. We need to buy stuff for life. It's normal that things break. But it's not normal to change the complete device, appliance or clothe. Me, you or a more knowledgeable third-party technician should be able to repair it.
Solution: Only work for and buy stuff from companies that embrace repairability.
The second point is the obsolescence of an ecosystem. There are many factors that come into play:
- No longer updated devices.
- Devices no longer compatible with the existing infrastructure (for example, phones with new generation mobile networks, as previous networks shut down to be replaced)
Again, these millions (billions) of obsolete devices are negative externalities that were never considered when doing the maths if a new technology is worth it.
Solution: Reject dubious new technology. Yeah, 5G will bring 4k streaming, but does it really matter on a 5 inches screen?
The last point I want to discuss is those locked-down or single-purpose gadgets. Consoles, electric water boilers, cooking robots... The list is infinite of (often) small things that only have a single purpose. The only future they have is to finish as trash once the new generation is coming out.
Solution: Only buy multi-purpose stuff: real computers that you can install whatever you want on them, saucepans to cook and boil water, bowls...
Eliminating greenhouse gases emissions
The easiest and biggest impact a technologist (outside of the impact of its job) can have on greenhouse gases emissions is by reducing transportation and heating.
Solutions: Remote work is not negotiable, and no more holidays on the other side of the planet. Don't own a car, even electric, use bike or public transports instead.
By working remotely, you not only don't lose time commuting but, more importantly, all the stuff in your old office is no longer required. A lot of energy was used to build and transport all this stuff such as tables, chairs, desks... that are used 3 hours per day.
But transportation is not only your personal transportation, it's also the transportation of everything you use and eat. Food, gadgets, materials, appliances...
Solution: Live rural. Buy local. Buy fruits in seasons. Start a mostly vegetarian diet. Don't buy gadgets that are used twice a year.
Projects worth considering
- Open Source Ecology: are building a set of Open Source and reusable blueprints for a civilization that you can build yourself. From powercube to an entire tractor.
- The Framework laptop: while you can live without a phone, it's close to impossible to live without a computer nowadays. So better buy one that you will be able to use for a decade by being easily repairable and upgradable.
- Gouach repairable batteries: Batteries are the challenge of the decade. So better start making repairable batteries today.
- postmarketOS: An Operating System that aims for at least a 10 years life-cycle for devices.
- Project Drawdown: propose a lot of applicable solutions with their potential savings.
Carbon capture and storage: by definition, Carbon capture and storage uses way more energy than what was generated when releasing it. The idea is to use "clean" energy (nuclear fusion? 🤔) to capture carbon from dirty uses.
But in reality, the numbers don't add up.
As pointed out by markkat:
In the IEA's "Clean Technology Scenario", more than 28 GtCO2 could be captured from industrial facilities between now and 2060.
We emit about 35-40 GtCO2 per year. So in 40 years, we might expect carbon capture to remove less than one year of emissions.
Not useless, but close, considering the investment which could be used instead to more rapidly reduce emissions by installing/improving solar, wind, geothermal, etc.
Carbon offsets: as Carbon capture does not work, if you believe that adding some financial bullshit on top of it will save us, then you'll believe anything.
Finally, we need to put more thought into our lifestyle. Technologists and white collars are characterized by high disposable income, which often means income used to buy gadgets and do polluting activities such a traveling around the world to enjoy a trek for a few days.
Changing lifestyle is both the simplest individual change but the hardest collective one.
Because changing our lifestyle means changing what we value.
Should we continue to favor appearances and pretend that everything is fine?
Having a good life in 2030-2035 and embracing the kind of lifestyle promoted on TV or social media is mutually exclusive 🤷♂️
Some Closing Thoughts
I recently learned a lot about Buddhism and stoicism. This is, in my opinion, a good way to initiate the change.
The solutions have been here for more than 2000 years. Now they need to reach the critical mass and to become a status symbol.
Think about it 2 seconds: When you have no one to impress and have no interest in being the richest of the cemetery, you are way less inclined to enter a corruption scheme with some destructive environmental consequences or to buy the latest iDevices to increase your social status.
So yeah, even if all my social circles (from family to friends...) are "encouraging" me to make more money, to work more, to travel more and to consume more, I will do the opposite. And I will enjoy the ride even more.
The most important part of this is to be followed. To make a frugal lifestyle more enviable than the mainstream consumerist dystopia.
This is a work in progress. I'm afraid that due to momentum, we lack the time, but I'm trying.