Sunday, May 15, 2011

Getting the Message Out

In an extraordinary rebuff of the planet destroyers, the graduating students of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA sought an alternative to Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil and noted war criminal in the battle to save the planet, as a commencement speaker. After negotiations with the school, the students brought in Richard Heinberg to speak directly after Tillerson. Heinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

This move is all the more interesting as WPI is a leading engineering and technology school. When one of the premier Planet Killer Universities finds itself in the odd position of its students rising up and demanding that a prophet of civilizational collapse speak at their commencement, you have to wonder what will happen next? Cats and dogs sleeping together? G. W. Bush admitting he was not only wrong but should be prosecuted for war crimes? That Newt Gingrich doesn't sound like an amphibian dental disease?

This all begs the question: what does this mean? Do these students understand the technological trap we've fallen into six thousand years ago and now see the light and wish to return to a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, or will they continue the destruction of the planet but with a lesser technology, a smattering of smart grids, recycling, and french fry grease to power itsy-bitsy cars? While I applaud their audacity in the face of their indoctrination at the hands of a tech school, I find it hard to believe that they are willing to give up the planet-wrecking cudgel of technology.

In the brilliant, forward-looking minds of these young engineers and scientists, I suspect that they see not the elimination of killer tech but a "refinement," a subtle series of adjustments that will allow business as usual to proceed but with a seemingly sustainable engine of "new" technology to power our lifestyles. Among the many technologies I would imagine they see continuing would include the computer. For them, the computer represents a "smart" use of energy, something that is part of the solution, rather than one of the world's most pernicious problems. But it must be eliminated, or rather, it will suffer slow death, compared to its meteoric rise as the grid collapses in small gradations. Without server farms sucking down the equivalent of a Seattle's worth of electricity, the computer becomes a stand alone curiosity, no longer attached to the huge web of pseudo information that has come to supplant true experience. Another point of refinement will be the automobile. While it is not fair to paint all of these graduates with the same brush, I will bet that there is a gradation of autophilia in their hearts that will manifest itself in the form of various "super" cars that will get increasingly great mileage.

But that is exactly the problem. The resources must still be mined and moved and shaped and assembled, all of which requires energy. The destruction goes on albeit with a sweet veneer of techno-green. If you play out the formula to its natural and inevitable end, we end up at the same place--planetary destruction. Like the spiderweb cracks that race across your windshield when a rock thrown up by a truck smacks it, the web of necessary precursors reach back and forward into time. Need plastics? Where do we get them? Oil? Natural Gas? Do we use corn fed plastics? How do we plant the corn? By hand? Harvest? By hand? No. Machines. Lots of machines. Do the machines magically appear or are they made? Does it cost energy to make them? What do we make them out of? Metal? We have to mine the metal. That takes large machinery. It must be made. We need metal machines that melt and refine the metal. Machines to shape the metal, from ingots to sheets to wire. We need roads to deliver the metal. That means asphalt and concrete. That takes oil and plenty of energy. In other words, we need a pre-existing oil-based manufacturing base in order to build the "alternative" future. And, we need constant maintenance of the base.

Chicken and egg, my friend.

So, these wonderful baby engineers and scientists are all chomping at the bit to fix the technology problem with more technology. Yea!

So, while I appreciate the press coverage and the thought that enough students at a Planet Destroyer University got together to demand that this rather radical person in the form of Richard Heinberg be present to offer up a breath of truth, I cannot help but feel that people out there will think that these students have an alternative version of the tech problem that works better, and that is a problem.

Because it will not. The truth is we are part of a brief spike in technology and population, a tiny thin micro spike in the two million year history of humanity that will completely be forgotten in another micro spike. This aberration is at its peak.

We need the message to change, but we risk offering business as usual when what is needed is a clean break. Bless you Richard Heinberg and the students of WPI for telling us part of the truth. Let us hope that the rest leaks out.

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