guest post by Iuval Clejan
Natural philosophy (aka science) is distinguished from pure philosophy or mathematics by coupling theory to experiment. Engineering is distinguished from science in its focus on solving practical problems rather than merely coming up with more accurate models of the universe. Climate change will not be fixed by pure philosophy or argumentation. We need to use the methods of science and engineering to make progress towards a solution. The problem is complicated and involves not just climate dynamics and ecology, but psychology, economics and technology. Besides theory and experiment, we now have the tool of simulation. I propose a think-tank (or more properly, a think/do/simulate-tank) analogous to the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. However, this project would involve social and physical scientists, computer programmers, engineers, farmers and craftspeople who are trying to collaboratively solve the problem of how to provide food, shelter, water, clothes, medicine and recreation for a self contained village in a sustainable way. Sustainability has psychological dimensions, not just ecological. For example, it implies that people would want to keep living in this village, or similar villages. If we are interested in sustainability beyond the initial village, then sustainability implies replicability—that the village would inspire many other people to live similarly.
Initial outputs of this project would be well-founded suggestions regarding what kinds of production skills are needed and how to effectively network them, how many people, how much land, how much time spent on production in order to achieve village-scale independence and sustainability. An eventual outcome would be an actual demonstration of a functional village.
Why village? The word village is used here to mean a group of people who are economically networked in isolation from the rest of the global economy. It also implies choosing a particular geographic location, so not all outputs would be transferable to other locations, though with the initial simulation stage many locations could be tried.
Why economic isolation? Without putting a boundary on the experiment, the problem is too complex, even for simulation. Entropy reduction is the same reason cells have membranes and scientists have labs. The membrane could be permeable to sunlight, wind (and emissions) and water, but at first it might be simpler to keep it impermeable to economic exchange. In addition, it is easy to externalize all unsustainable practices without a membrane. But the size of the membrane is not predetermined. One possible conclusion might be that the village has to be the size of the whole earth. Another reason for starting with a village is that changes in biological (and probably other complex) systems always proceed from small populations that can spread out by replication. It is more practical to achieve a global change in lifestyle and technology starting with a small group of willing people who can then inspire others by example, rather than try to impose a change on a large population, the way fascist and communist experiments have proceeded. Another reason for keeping things smaller and more local is that a stronger feedback between production and consumption may arise, which would regulate unsustainable consumption, because the environmental, social and psychological costs of production are visible in the village, as opposed to hidden or abstracted from the consumers. There are other reasons for localization (e.g. resilience, freedom, more meaningful employment for more people, better relations among people or between people and nature), less directly related to climate change, and more speculative.
This is probably the place to admit my main bias. I am a Gandhist Luddite (who has a PhD in Physics, worked as a semiconductor engineer and a molecular biologist) , not the angry, machine-smashing kind, and I like not only to tinker with technology, but to think how it affects people and nature. I don’t think all technology can be equated with progress. I call this project the Luddite Manhattan Project (or or Localizing and Networking Basic Technology project) for that reason and because it parallels the project that produced the nuclear bomb. I think that the craftspeople and farmers would contribute more to this project than the scientists and engineers. I think that in the multidimensional optimization of technology, we have focused too much on efficiency (disregarding other human values) and that the industrial revolution was largely a mistake (though some good things came out of it, like global communication). If we focus on other human values, we can optimize technology better. I think that localism of basic-needs production (when coupled to non-technological things like democracy) is a constraint from which many other good things such as sustainability, full, meaningful employment, freedom, and good social relations would follow, though it too can be taken to extremes. Given my bias, I suspect that the kind of technology network that would be most sustainable would be pre-industrial, with a few modern innovations. If we really did the book-keeping accurately we would probably find that industrial production is unsustainable. Or rather we would find that pre-industrial production can be sustainable, while current industrial production is not (I leave open the possibility that industrial production might be sustainable in the future, with new innovations, but even then it tramples too many human values). But these conclusions would be outputs of the project, not pre-assumptions or inputs of the project. I welcome some discussion of these ideas, followed by computation, testing and implementation.
The technical part of the project is basically a networking problem. It would allow initial imports (in a way that would allow replicability—that is don’t hog a disproportionate fraction of resources into the village) into a specific location and then network existing technologies so that the system is self-sustaining. What one craftsperson produces, others in the village must use so that the village can continue in perpetuity. A blacksmith needs some fuel, but also customers who need his products and can exchange stuff that he needs. A cooper is mostly useless in the current industrial economy, but would probably find some use in a local village economy, where people need ways to store water and other liquids.
Here are some typical challenges and questions the project would face: How can antibiotics be made on a village scale with no external inputs? What can’t be made and can we find substitutes? Are there missing technology links and can we invent them, or do we need to start with another scenario? What food needs to be produced to provide basic caloric needs to all inhabitants of the village? How much area is required? How can water be captured and transported without plastic or rubber? How much carbon is emitted in production of everything? Where does garbage go? How can metals be recycled? Can plastic be produced? Can electronics be produced? Is there enough time for art, science, scholarship and other forms of edifying human activity? What kind of economic systems work? Is there an optimal one as far as sustainability, or is it a matter of personal preference? These are all questions that can be tackled, if we face them with curiosity and realism, instead of with fear and the kind of magical thinking that most people have towards technology and other things they don’t understand. I’ve heard that Leonardo Da Vinci was the last man to understand the technology of his age, but we have computers to help us.
It might be appropriate at this stage to mention that I do not advocate giving up entirely the industrial mode of production, or the global trade it requires. The Localizing and Networking Basic Technology project would address only food, shelter, water, medicine, all the subsidiary crafts necessary to sustain these, and a few edifying human activities like art, music and scholarship. Computers and internet hardware are almost certainly best left to industrial production, and so are cars, airplanes (but the need for these will drastically decrease if this project is successful), some of the parts for particle accelerators and fancy biotech equipment, etc.
The initial computational stage of the project could model itself on online multiplayer games like Warcraft and planning games like Sim City (I have tried to contact Will Wright, to no avail). I do not play these games (I prefer simple low tech games personally), but I see the usefulness of online collaboration and computation for this project, as a sort of in-silico evolution. Programmers and mathematicians could set up the software to allow both online collaboration and some central planning. I think the simplest solutions should be tried first, i.e. the most primitive technologies, like hunting and gathering. My educated guess is that they will be shown incapable of providing basic needs given the current world population. The same conclusion would probably follow for current industrial production, except the incapacity would be with regards to sustainability. I predict the sweet spot where both sustainability and capacity to “feed the world” (meaning provide a decent life) would be achieved by pre-industrial, agrarian and craft-based production.
I am totally willing to be proven wrong by this experiment about my anti-industrialization bias. With regards to scientific experimentation, there needs to be well posed hypotheses that can be proven wrong, and good controls. The engineering approach is an alternative. Who is willing to work on this project? Let’s make amends for unleashing the horror of the Bomb on the earth, tackle climate change realistically and have some technical fun. For further information please see:
• Iuval Clejan, Luddite Manhattan Project, first stage, 16 April 2012.
• Iuval Clejan, A proposal for funding a blueprint of a village-based technology ecosystem, 5 February 2012.