GRAND CHALLENGES

In the interests of interdisciplinarity and civic engagement, I attended the environmental/energy section of the National Academy of Engineering\’s GRAND CHALLENGES SUMMIT. I had hoped to have Steven Chu (Obama\’s Energy Secretary) and Jim Rogers (Duke Energy CEO) subject their master plans to my withering critique, but as it happened they were too busy. To be fair I doubt their replacements had any less to say. And, due to personal cowardice in large groups of ideological opponents and failure to plan ahead, I didn\’t get to ask any embarrassing questions. My response is therefore sentenced to the void. So it goes.

Early last year, the NAE organized a board of experts to come up with 14 GRAND CHALLENGES to be faced in the coming century. Here they are, with comments. The comments already point out many of the flaws in the list, despite what seems to me a studied innocence of their political subtext. Which can more or less be extrapolated from the fact that the chairperson is William Perry, Clinton\’s Secretary of Defense, overseer of U.S. escapades in Bosnia and Haiti and co-author of the modern ultra-consolidated form of the military-industrial complex. Among the board\’s assortment of technocrats and \’development\’ specialists include science fiction character Ray Kurzweil, hence tomorrow\’s session on reverse-engineering the human brain and the \”mass production of intelligence\” (from the brochure).

The speakers on energy oriented their discussion around the expected topics of solar power and carbon sequestration. The picture suffered from the usual self-contradictions that emerge when a \’free market\’ argument is put in democratic terms. There\’s no \”silver bullet\” solution for the energy problem, therefore coal, nuclear, and (sshhh!) oil need to be \’considered\’ along with renewable sources. But what this ultimately means, as all the speakers made clear, is that oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar, wind, and other renewables should be expected to compete for dominance with only minimal, \’neutral\’ government intervention. Everyone admitted that the technology and/or the economic plan are not there yet for most of the proposed solutions: Silicon PV cells are not expected to become cost-competitive with fossil fuels until 2030; the International Energy Agency (IEA) does not expect carbon storage programs to be effective until 2015. Fusion is still a wet dream.

At least someone (Robert Socolow of Princeton) finally acknowledged the costs of coal extraction not recognized by the market, i.e. mountaintop removal, the legally sanctioned poisoning of drinking water, the flat-out dispossession of the already marginalized people who live near extraction and burning sites. And the same someone acknowledged that 1/3 of the world is still without access to fresh water, a need that could be met with minuscule cost. Current 1st world resource use, not the imaginary threat of future 3rd world use, is the problem. Of course, we learn about these horrors through the proper channels (CNN, MSNBC, private institutes, universities), not the people who live there, the real experts. I can personally vouch for the vast breadth and depth of knowledge about their environment and the effects of coal extraction possessed by some of the Appalachian activists I met last summer, some of whom were even real live scientists.

Despite all rhetoric about the necessity of addressing climate change, no one (especially not Exxon-Mobil\’s R&D VP, F. Emil Jacobs) was willing to advocate the obvious step: massive publicly-accountable government intervention. \”We can\’t let government pick the winner,\” one of them said, and fair play was mysteriously put before life-or-death expediency. As with any deity, contradictory things seem to be expected of \’the market.\’ Can it, for example, simultaneously engineer the short term spread of carbon capture and sequestration facilities, which no one believes is any more than a transitional fix, while working toward a phase-out of fossil fuels in the long term? No one even knows what it\’s going to do tomorrow. No mention either of the decisive and sustained role played by the government in universalizing our catastrophic personal automobile-driven transportation system, crushing all potential alternatives, etc. These contradictions were masked by an irritating tone of PC optimism, where one subset of the 14 GRAND CHALLENGES is the “joy of living,” which translates into the rather anticlimactic prospect of computer-assisted education.

But it was obvious when emcee Moira Gunn entertained the audience with an anecdote about doing weapons inspection for the US Navy (discovering to her amusement that while running X-rays on Tomahawk missiles she was standing on the largest U.S. reserve of napalm — “see? Engineering is not boring!”) that I was probably not in such a like-minded crowd.

Anyway. Ideologues or well-meaning nerds? You decide.

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