The Wrong Answer
Why technical wizardry is too often just a way for us to avoid thinking about problems
A decade or so ago I was in Delhi on assignment for a client who mistakenly thought the future of software development lay in the hands of inexperienced programmers whose cultural norms prohibit causal thinking. One Saturday afternoon, as I perused the Times of India, I read an article by a senior Indian medical doctor who was trying to raise the alarm about obesity trends in the country.
In summary, the good doctor correctly pointed out that an increasingly Western lifestyle (e.g. indolent) combined with ready access to cheap calories meant that India, as elsewhere, was suffering from a catastrophic rise in obesity. Unfortunately, his recommended solution was nowhere near as well-grounded as his analysis. The doctor’s call to action was: the recruitment and training of hundreds of thousands of cardiovascular specialists and oncologists to deal with the upcoming deluge of heart attacks, strokes, Type II diabetes, and cancers that inevitably result from excess weight.
Today we see precisely the same kind of thinking in the West with so many of our technologically-oriented fixations.
Just like the Indian doctor cited above, we don’t stop to consider the situation from the perspective of possible change; we merely seek to continue our current behaviors in a way that is supposedly palliative.
Obviously the answer to the problem of obesity is not, and never will be, to hire and train more doctors. The answer is to reduce the astonishing level of obesity (and general fatness) in the population so as to preclude so many ailments and diseases from occurring in the first place. Not only is this a far more cost-effective solution but the enormous human benefits are self-evident.
Likewise with our transportation problem.
Instead of dreaming of a world in which we can sit within electric vehicles for hours in traffic jams, let’s ask why we have these jams in the first place. As the recent media-induced hysteria over the SARS-COV-2 pandemic has revealed clearly, we don’t actually need to be driving around anywhere near as much as we’ve become accustomed to. A great many white-collar jobs can be done far better from home, freeing up several hours per day for more beneficial activities than getting stressed out and prematurely exhausted on the daily commute.
Europeans have long known that the US practice of zoning to ensure everything is as far from everything else as possible is just plain stupid. Not only does zoning make the automobile an expensive necessity for daily life (which was the intention, as zoning was forced on US cities by the powerful gasoline and auto industry lobbies in order to ensure strong demand for their products) but it also vastly diminishes civic engagement and reduces the amount of essential exercise most people do.
Structuring towns and cities to bring essential elements within walking distance and ensuring adequate public transportation dramatically reduces the need for automobiles and improves quality of life immeasurably, as well as hugely reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention also reducing automobile accidents caused by standard human incompetence.
Furthermore, walking doesn’t require highly polluting extraction of lithium (which we still can’t recycle to any meaningful degree) for batteries and it doesn’t require electricity generated by coal-fired and oil-fired and gas-powered electricity stations, all of which contribute to CO2 emissions. The dirty little secret of the electric car world is that a Tesla is actually no less polluting than grandad’s diesel in most cases, because the USA has very dirty electricity generation facilities and little in the way of renewables.
As for artificial meat, why bother? Why not just accept the fact that the typical Western diet is far too meat-intensive? If cattle and other ungulates were permitted to graze on lands that are good for nothing else, we’d have healthier cattle and healthier meat. Yes, it would be more expensive and so we’d eat less of it. This outcome would be excellent for our health, as the average US citizen over-consumes fatty meat at a level that would literally be beyond belief a mere century ago. Which is why the typical US citizen has four days of rotting foot backed up in their intestines, suffers from all manner of bowel diseases, has hypertension, and experiences all kinds of other chronic ailments induced by an appalling diet and nearly zero exercise.
Instead of throwing technology at problems, why not re-think our problems and eliminate them at source? If we’re busy sawing off our legs, why invent some clever hi-tech bandage when the real solution is: don’t saw off our legs.
We really need to wake up and stop indulging the Silicon Valley fantasy that every problem is best solved by some new technological fix. We need to start thinking about what sort of species we want to be, how we want to live, and how best to organize our societies so as to promote better outcomes for as many people as possible. Inventing silly compensatory devices affordable only by the affluent middle classes is a waste of inventiveness and a distraction from the real problems we face.
Furthermore, many of the changes are easy and obvious. Why on Earth are we placing vegetables on plastic trays and wrapping them in plastic? What cretin thought that was a clever idea? I’m old enough to remember the days when we’d simply drop what we needed into a paper bag, which eventually would biodegrade — unlike plastic trays and plastic-wrap, which will persist in one form or another for thousands of years. And no, trying to fix the problem with bacteria that (very slowly) eat (a tiny amount) of plastic is not a clever solution. We simply don’t need to be wrapping vegetables in plastic at all.
Sometimes it seems that for every positive change we automatically compensate by introducing ten new problems which cause ever-greater harm to us and to this beautiful but fragile planet we are wrecking. All because we appear incapable of seeing the obvious under our noses.
If we don’t grow up and start thinking about the many problems we’ve created for ourselves, it’s not going to be just the elephants and rhinos and insects and birds and trees and fish that vanish. The list of the dead will also include the one species that totally deserves the most rapid extinction possible: ourselves.