Andrew Revkin, science writer and author of Dot Earth blog was in Tempe this week to chat with Braden Allenby a Sustainability scientist and professor of Engineering and Ethics at ASU. The two gentlemen discussed how complex systems—natural, human, and technological—interact under rapidly changing conditions. The importance of addressing this topic was underlined by both the unusually frigid weather in Tempe as well as most of the U.S. and the protests, just developing at that time in Egypt. The Carson Ballroom in Old Main was packed with students, professors and the curious like myself. Kristina Johnson, Under Secretary of Energy was seated in the front row, taking notes.
Professor Allenby began, illustrating how technology is imbedded in our culture’s psychology. The automobile, the computer and the cell phone are iconic with personal freedom. Revkin’s opening statements addressed the current rate of change and used cell phones as an example of exploding technology. Of 5.3 billion cell phones in use in 2010, ¾ are in developing countries. He referred to a NY Times article about a woman in Africa who had to go into the village to charge her cell phone, where the rates kept rising. So she installed a few solar panels and soon people were paying her to charge their phones. In no time neighbors were installing their own solar panels. The lightning speed of progress is not just happening here!
Allenby pointed out that the current academic model became outmoded with the Internet. Now anyone can take classes at MIT. “If the information that professors distribute is available on the web, what they need to be teaching is wisdom.” He commented on changes in our cognitive systems, magnified by social networking and claimed the gap is widening between those who “get it” and those who don’t. (Distressingly, I am firmly in the latter camp!)
There was discussion about climate change. Both agreed that political imposition of climate control will never work, but said that keeping the idea in people’s minds is valuable. Forward thinking people will include consideration of potential affects of climate change in decisions about issues like development or investments. The optimistic viewpoint is that in the same way CFC’s were done away with as result of the Montreal Protocol, there are currently underestimated technologies lurking that will be part of the solution when the time comes.
Allenby pointed out that humans have already had a huge impact on the planet. He stated that lots of nature is still out there because we decided to make it part of the human system. He referred to the Everglades as a deliberate design choice. There is an idea to digest!
The two scholars agreed that in the future there will be no simple solutions (no Kool-aid) and that we will have to rely on constructive discourse to work out the issues. I liked Revkin’s comment that the people on the far edges always dominate conversations, but the people in the middle find the compromises and the overlooked solutions. Here’s to that!