Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Where will we find the batteries?

The nice thing about snow days is the opportunity to binge watch Netflix. This snow day finished watching a Discovery channel series, Mega-Engineering. They discussed building a dome over Houston, drilling a tunnel from Siberia to Alaska, constructing a floating version of New Orleans, and a personal pod system for rapid transit in DC. Terribly ambitious, but fascinating. One can't help but be impressed at the scope and ambition of the projects.

In one episode, there was a blanket statement about the fact that there is nothing that we can't accomplish with the proper use of technology. Of course it makes me wonder about the "could/should" divide. Just because technology makes it possible, should it be done? All of this tech that the engineers discuss is marvelous, but it also requires huge amounts of power to simply keep the system continuing as it is. Of course, my mind goes to the question, what happens when the grid fails? What happens when the US is balkanized into separate districts, when we suffer an ELE, when the Yellowstone Supervolcano blows? At that point, how regular will our power grid be, and how will these power-reliant systems survive?

Another example of stunning technology is in the development of alternate protein sources. The setup is simple: modern industrial agriculture is a drain on resources and creates an incredible burden on the environment. Simply put, it takes too much water and grain to feed cows, and they fart too much. One possible solution? Find alternate sources of protein that satisfy the need (or desire) for meat in modern industrial society. One alternative is a soy-based formula that passes through an extruder:

The result is supposedly a substance that has the same texture as chicken. Haven't tried it, but I honestly have trouble with anything that has been extruded. "Extrusion". Ick. Another idea is to clone meat. Yummy petri-dish meat. That sounds almost worse than extrusion. I will stipulate to the fact that I have no idea how these "meats" taste or if they feel like meat. The concept freaks me out. Along with the general horror at extruded, lab generated meat is the question of what happens after our society has completely bought in to the generated meat idea, and then the power goes out? When we lose our technological abilities and the processes have failed, how will we turn back? Will we know how to raise animals, how to create a sustainable agriculture? I don't buy the Star Trek model that shows the advanced technological society able to pick up on technology from days gone by:

Looking forward to what will be an inevitable collapse (it happened to Rome, it happened to China, it will happen to us), I wonder if the solution doesn't come from increased technology, but a willingness to look back to a time when humans lived sustainably.  In the middle ages, peasants owned their land, and could not be thrown off. They were taxed on the yield, not on the land itself. Along with this were guilds who were committed to preserving the standards of their profession and disciplining their members. Society was conducted at a smaller scale, with more limited desires, rather than seeking the grand (and illusory) ideal of infinite progress and growth. This system was investigated and extolled by such Catholic thinkers as GK Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc. They called it Distributism. The idea is simple: each man owns a parcel of land, which he can rent out, but never sell. He is free to do with his land what he sees fit. If he has no ability to farm, he can rent out his land to a farmer in exchange for rents paid in crops, or cash. In the local community, each person owns their land and sees to its care and proper use. The community is organized around the principle of the good of the community as a whole. It might be cheaper to throw up a factory to carry out piece-work for pennies a day, but it is not the best thing for the community. Each person has a contribution to make and an inherent value. This would require smaller communities than can be found in modern cities, but it could prove to be more sustainable, less reliant on technology, and more humane. 

And it doesn't require batteries...

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