There is a dangerous delusion in the developed world. It is the delusion that we’ve engineered ourselves out of need. Technology seems to bolster recklessness. When you’re several generations removed from thirst and hunger you tend to believe in endless bounty.
The problem with this blissful nostrum is that there is no such thing as endless bounty. Though we are adept at overcoming limits we are still defined by limits. Perhaps our de facto faith in invincibility is due to the boundary breaking nature of our ingenuity.
This is not a Luddite screed. In fact I feel that technology is as natural and necessary as a meadow of lilacs. However not everything natural is good and lilacs are prone to wilting. Lilacs also grow out of the soil which is in essence a vast graveyard of former lilacs and assorted critters. Technology may be as captivating and integral to life as a lilac field, but the boundaries that were broken, sprang out of beds of deadly error and arduous strain.
Every modern marvel that helps us forget the perilous business of being a creature on earth was hard-won. Take the case of Newtown Creek which is a textbook example of a phenomenon known as ‘Legacy Pollution.’
As the United States and countries the world over were industrializing they were undergoing an unprecedented process. Unprecedented processes have by their very nature unforseen consequences. One unforseen consequence in Newtown Creek was the contamination of the surrounding watershed with various industrial solvents. Solvents that at the time weren’t yet known to be as catastrophic for life as they are. Solvents that cause exotic cancers and environmental degradation . Solvents that are the legacy of early industrialization. Hence the name ‘Legacy Pollutants.’
We still have a problem with pollution and environmental degradation. It is less severe and thus less noticeable. It is something that most of us only take note of when something like the Flint, Michigan event occurs. Though in a way the possibility of taking our resources and technologies for granted is arguably an impressive hallmark of our success, we must never forget that it is a delusion.
We must never forget that it is a delusion because like all delusions it is inherently dangerous. When we forget all the effort that went into maintaining the sanitation, food supply, and luxury that we currently enjoy we are in danger of ‘prosethetic addiction.’
A prosthetic is in this case a technological solution to an environmental issue. Not a bad thing in and of itself. The problem enters in when we get ‘prosthetic addiction’ which is something that is akin to constantly patching a leaky boat with ever dwindling amounts of plaster rather than taking the thing to a dry-dock. ‘Prosthetic Addiciton’ occurs when we think that solutions to pressing problems are quick and easy.
It is the result of a glib acquaintance with history. When you have the luxury of sitting in class to learn about history centuries can become sentences. A paragraph on legacy pollution (something that’s not common core AFAIK) will be a fleeting firing of neurons.
It’s just a few sentences. It’s hard to feel the health lost, the rivers destroyed, and the untold amount of energy that went into damage control in just a few sentences. Even if you do feel it, the feeling soon passes to be replaced by the immediacy of living.
You think about your job, your family, your friends, whether or not you’ll get to play pool Monday night, or if the cute brunette is single. These sorts of thoughts like hunger come unbidden. They are an inescapable part of the bric-a-brac of being human. No one should ever be shamed for them.
Though it may not be shameful to have a glib impression of history, to assume that Elon Musk et al will solve our problems, it is the nonetheless harmful. We should strive to overcome it. We should strive to be informed and aware of the things like water that we all depend upon. We should not outsource these things whole-sale to ‘experts.’
Historical glibness and hero leaning are the chief pillars of ‘prosthetic addiction.’ The cure to the addiction is ever greater attention from ever greater numbers of people. An attention that especially in the democratic republic that is the United States should be vigorously promoted as an implied duty of citizenship.
The first step to dispelling the illusion that all is more or less well, and that the answers to the few problems that remain are just around the corner, is to get some perspective on the limits of resources and good ol’ yankee ingenuity.
The focus in this series is water. Water is a renewable resource. One whose bounty is often overstated. It falls from the sky, sits in vast reserves beneath our feet, and takes up most of the surface of the earth. Why worry?
Well, for one only 3% of the water on earth is fresh and an even smaller percentage of that is readily accessible. Interestingly this comparatively miniscule amount of available water is still large enough to leave us with the aforementioned delusions.
Delusions that become more and more dangerous, as there are more and more people, using more and more resources.
I am a staunch anti-Malthusian. I do not subscribe to misanthropy or the notion that it is impossible for large populations to live well. I do however firmly believe that as more people and industrialization require more resources we must pay more attention to resource use.
That small precious supply of available freshwater that we have, may be renewabl, but is certainly not infinite. If we squander and pollute it the amount of energy and resources that we will have to expend, to do damage control, will have a vast ripple effect in everything from economy to agriculture.
This is not to mention the health and life of people and animals that will be lost from thirst and disease.
A huge cataclysmic environmental catastrophe on a global scale isn’t likely. The very idea itself reeks of the sort of alarmism that turns people off of environmental issues. It is not what concerns me.
What concerns me is lots of little disasters especially ones that are avoidable. Such small disasters like the Newtown Creek incidence alluded to earlier can in aggregate lead to quite a pickle. From conflict over water rights to higher food prices the cost of ignoring these ‘paper-cuts’ can become exorbitant.
As I pointed out in the last article it is fortunate that our steps towards a more efficient use of water seem to have been rewarded. Despite population growth since the eighties our water use has more or less stayed the same.
This happy news is due to advance in technologies and best-practice strategies. Though these technologies and practices have been efficacious we can and must do better.
Needs and populations are increasing and what is adequate now will not be adequate later.
While the technologies and practices currently employed are wonderful they are rather pedestrian fixes.
Many of these fixes have hidden costs. As with all worthy pursuits and processes there are no easy answers. Reviewing water efficiency progress is the best cure for ‘prosthetic addiction’ and its attendant delusions.
Some of the fixes are as dull as making pipes and containers less prone to leaking. Others are as common sense as reusing water for industrial purposes. (http://www.twdb.texas.gov/publications/brochures/conservation/doc/Industrialbrochure-final.pdf)
I am still researching and am sure that I’ll find more interesting examples and stories of responsible water use but I doubt that they’re going to be too terribly exciting. The fact that I have to overcome what I call the ‘boredom barrier,’ doesn’t mean that these aren’t vital pursuits; but does help to highlight why we have difficulty paying sustained attention to ‘mundane’ issues, no matter how important they are.
We may have come a long way since the 80’s but Las Vegas is a city in the desert. The water for this Oasis like many similar southwestern cities has to come from somewhere. This use-case has a litany of side effects that are economic, agricultural, and political.
Clearly there is still a lot of work to be done.