Friday, November 27, 2009

Technological and Environmental Arrogance and Ignorance

This is not my anecdote but of someone I worked with for several years in the 1970s. He worded for an aerial survey company and part of their job was to do magnetic surveys and aerial mapping. The company had a contact in he South American country of Guyana. They had a camp on one of the jungle rives to support some of their survey work. It cam about that some of the electronic equipment at the camp failed and he was asked to go there to repair it. He was taken there along with another employee on board a jet helicopter. The helicopter carried his equipment as well as some supplies for the camp. The helicopter could not land at the camp and so landed on a sand bar in the middle of the river. A power launch from the camp would come to pick them up.

Everything went as planned. The helicopter landed on the sandbar and they unloaded their equipment. The helicopter took off on its return journey and they waited there for the launch. They stood beside their equipment as he said like waiting for a bus. Then the realization came upon them. They were standing on a sandbar in a jungle river. There were caiman (a form of alligator) swimming around them in the river. My colleague’s fellow employee observed that they didn’t even have a pointy stick to defend themselves.

What I took from this is how we take the protection and comforts of our technological society for granted. They cam to the sandbar as full-fledged members of a technologically elite species. They were at the apex of nature and had no fear of other species. The helicopter left and they were on their own. They were no longer invulnerable but were intensely in danger. At any second, a major predator could have attacked them.

I find this anecdote relevant to many of the environmental debates that go on. It is not just one side that forgets this vulnerability. It appears that it is a common blind spot for all political discussions on the environment. The environmentalist sees nature as beneficent but forgets that nature is beneficent if one is a the top of the food chain. For members of vulnerable species, nature is the process by which they get eaten. Those opposed to environmentalism believe that our technology is all powerful and independent of nature. They forget that our technology rests on the basis of the exploitation of natural systems. If these systems are disrupted then there is no guarantee that our society can devise technology to address the disruption.

So we have a technological and environmental ignorance coupled with a technological and environmental arrogance. Owe forget hw dependant we are both on nature and technology. We engage in futile disputes that deny that reality of one side or the other. This is what I see as so wrong, in the current environmental debates and especially of eh AGW debate. We need nature and we need technology. Without either we are vulnerable and will not survive..