Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2215:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the problem of saving the world. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Two items in a recent issue of the Financial Times: one centered on James Lovelock, the other on the English Village of Ashton Hayes. Both are about ecology and the environment.

In the first, a reporter meets Lovelock over lunch. He's the person who gave us the Gaia concept. That's the notion that the biosphere is a large living organism of which we're one part. So too are fish, animals, insects, bacteria -- as well as the air and water we all live in. Gaia behaves in some ways just as we do. Wound it and it heals; threaten it and it protects itself.

Lovelock believes that Gaia is under threat, and that it's in the process of removing the source of that threat, namely us. With foresight and some luck, Lovelock thinks that twenty percent of us can survive starvation brought on by warming and other damage we've done.

To accomplish this, he says, we absolutely have to switch to nuclear power production immediately. "What about the waste?" the reporter asks him. "You can bury the waste in my garden if you're worried about it," he answers (clearly putting his priorities in order.) Lovelock points out that Gaia will survive and it'd be nice if its survival continued to include a human presence.

Okay, there's one view. The other view centers on Garry Charnock who recently engaged the people of Ashton Hayes in a plan to make the village carbon neutral -- to reduce the net production of carbon dioxide to zero. Villagers were generating some thirteen tons of CO2 per household each year. The British average was ten.

Together, they instituted huge changes while they agreed there would be no finger-pointing. The changes have included measures to reduce commuting, vastly increased and imaginative forms of recycling, rain-harvesting for water supply, and not-so-minor things like remembering to turn off the appliances.

And, in the first year, such benefits as thirty percent utility bill reductions increased community fervor. Still, Ashton Hayes alone is a drop in the bucket. Its real value is as a laboratory where we can learn which green ideas make sense and which do not.

In fact, the very zeal of ecological advocates has been the greatest single obstacle to environmentalism. Blindly banning DDT led to huge increases in malaria. High-minded enemies of nuclear power paved the way to terrible environmental damage. In Ashton Hayes, ideas are being tested, then retained or rejected. The project is being driven, not by blame, but by curiosity and hope.

So here are two views: Lovelock's is the more grim, but even it harbors a dimension of hope. I have a colleague whom, when I raised the question of the environment, quoted Isaac Asimov to me: "Some problems don't have solutions, they have only outcomes." Well, the ecological problem will certainly have an outcome. But we'd better not forget that we still have power to affect that outcome. The game is not over yet.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

F. Harvey, Apocalypse Soon. and R. Blackhurst, Village Greened. Financial Times, Life & Arts, Sat./Sun. April 28/29, 2007, pp. 1-3. (My thanks to Carol Lienhard who pressed these two articles upon me.)

Gaia wounded: NASA photos below show erosion of the Betsiboka Estuary in Madagascar. The estuary once allowed ships to travel inland. As a result of uncontrolled inland logging the channel is now clogged with silt and no longer navigable. Details Here.
Betsiboka Estuary

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.