The cautious, well-informed gods: Engineering a human approach to climate change

A collection of ideas, thoughts and recent developments related to our environment.

Climate change, closely understood, is terrifying. The natural human response to such a bleak situation is despair.

But despair is not useful. Despair is paralysis, and there’s work to be done.

I feel that this is an essential psychological problem to be solved, and one that I’ve never seen mentioned: How do we create the conditions under which scientists and engineers can do great creative work without succumbing to despair? And how can new people be encouraged to take up the problem, when their instinct is to turn away and work on something that lets them sleep at night?

This is the humanistic thrust of Bret Victor’s essay, “What Can a Technologist Do About Climate Change?” His hopeful speculations on the future of human-computer interaction are here turned toward compiling a technical, exhaustive list of practical ways that the tech sector can turn money and smarts towards our biggest problem.

This list contains energy management measures of varying familiarity, including the multitude of elements constituting the smart-grid and clean energy. Victor focuses on the tools and media that are used to represent and design these systems. He advocates for model-driven tools for both design and publishing, to encourage examination, critique and, ultimately, the development of a more holistic and shared understanding. This is opposed to tools that encourage prediction-based discussion, which represents complex systems of climate change and energy management via limited sets of illustrative predictions, based on opaque sets of assumptions.

Modeling leads naturally from the particular to the general. Instead of seeing an individual proposal as “right or wrong”, “bad or good”, people can see it as one point in a large space of possibilities. By exploring the model, they come to understand the landscape of that space, and are in a position to invent better ideas for all the proposals to come. Model-driven material can serve as a kind of enhanced imagination.

Victor argues model-based tools would have a massive impact for involving scientists and technologists in the small and nuanced, yet important details of renewable energy projects. This is what he calls ”the stuff around the thing,” such as better inverters, mounting racks, and installation techniques for solar panels, not to mention the computational models for their optimal placement, and coordination with the greater smart-grid infrastructure. Energy is such a nebulous project that even improved video-conferencing could fall into this category, as it increases the popularity of remote work and thus reduces transportation.

The majority of the work on systems-level problems is toward such “stuff around the thing”—the constituent components of otherwise abstract solutions. The people doing this work must be able to identify where they are needed, articulate their contribution, and identify what adjacent projects might benefit from their work, or their unique and evolving tools.

More people would work on these types of problems if they were more clearly situated and coordinated with related projects that, together, constitute the greater programs or development trajectories. As with the publishing tools, “Modeling leads naturally from the particular to the general.” Relating the discussion to software development:

I’ve seen enormous effort expended on languages, tools, and frameworks for software developers. If you believe that language design can significantly affect the quality of software systems, then it should follow that language design can also affect the quality of energy systems. And if the quality of such energy systems will, in turn, affect the livability of our planet, then it’s critical that the language development community give modeling languages the attention they deserve.

The consequences for ignoring this issue are self-perpetuating, as those on the leading edge of technology become disengaged from the biggest issues of our time. Talent will continue to be lost to sectors whose “change the world” rhetoric is validated by attention from media, investors, professional peers, and popular understanding. In response, the “clean-tech” industries must internalize Victor’s broad perspective and humanistic ethos rather than become fixated on moonshot geoengineering projects, which would only serve to drive another bubble, burst, and drawn-out recovery of confidence.

Fears of geoengineering play into the narrative of a people done in by their hubris. But we’re past that point; we had the hubris and it did us in. Human beings now dominate the planet, and it’s folly to pretend that merely “minimizing our impact” will reverse the damage.

In 1968, Stewart Brand began the Whole Earth Catalog with the quip, “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” In 2009, his Whole Earth Discipline upped the urgency: “We are as gods, and have to get good at it.”

If we must be gods, we should at least be cautious and well-informed gods, with the best possible tools for seeing, understanding, and debating our interventions, and the best possible meta-tools for improving those tools.

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