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allenby braden thumbBraden Allenby is the author of many books regarding earth system engineering and management, and other issues of sustainability. Allenby has been a pioneer in raising the issues of industrial ecology, and the need to better understand our impacts. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Allenby recently at the 2012 GeoDesign Summit where he gave a keynote. Among the topics that were addressed are the engineering response to climate change and the need for new ways of thinking about how we manage our impacts.
Braden Allenby is the author of many books regarding earth system engineering and management, and other issues of sustainability. Allenby has been a pioneer in raising the issues of industrial ecology, and the need to better understand our impacts. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Allenby recently at the 2012 GeoDesign Summit where he gave a keynote. Among the topics that were addressed are the engineering response to climate change and the need for new ways of thinking about how we manage our impacts.

allenby braden copyV1: I’ve enjoyed your book Reconstructing Earth for some years and recently completed your latest book alongside Daniel Sarewitz on The Techno-Human Condition. Was the evolution of thought from Earth System Engineering and Management (ESEM) to trans-humanism a natural progression?

ALLENBY: I began by looking at traditional environmental science and policy back at AT&T, and I became dissatisfied with that, because the focus at the time in the late 70s was almost entirely on cleanup. So, you were regarding environmental issues that you took care of only when you already did what you were going to do, wether that was to manufacture something or build something. In an intellectual sense, the environment was just overhead.

A couple of people at AT&T and myself put together industrial ecology and design for environment and other efforts to try and drive environmental considerations into product design and manufacture. The idea was that if you really wanted to look at this, you have to do it at the design and manufacture stage, which is true of almost any artifact from infrastructure to a cell phone. Most of the subsequent impacts are built into the initial design decisions.

Industrial ecology limited itself in part because it came out of the environmental movement. It has proven difficult to migrate into broader issues of social and cultural costs and benefits and to move away from a focus on energy and materials. Because that was where they started and those are the concerns of the environmental movement. We got people to think about product design and facilities, but we didn’t get them to think about Earth systems.

It’s clear that that’s where we need to go, because if you’re going to work with an Anthropogenic Earth (which is what we have), you’re going to have to start thinking in terms of not just the subsystems, but you also have to think about the systems at the broadest scales. That introduces a level of complexity and difficulty that we have not begun to think about, and so we tend to avoid it.

Look at climate change. The problem is that we thought that because we managed CFCs pretty well that we can do climate change. And because climate change is a concern of environmentalists, we thought we could raise awareness through only an environmental perspective. We’ve failed miserably at both, because both lead you to an over-simplistic analysis of the situation.

The statement that climate change is a problem is a hypothesis, because maybe it’s a condition. If it’s a problem then we can solve it, with things like geoengineering. But if it’s a condition then what you have to do is learn much more complex ways of mitigation and adaptation, and you’re into a far different ball game. By positioning it as a problem, like we have done with the UN initiative, the Kyoto Protocol, and with geoengineering, what you’ve done is that you’ve dramatically oversimplified the problem, and have prevented yourself from being able to understand it and address it. That’s why we need to begin working into the complexity implied by our systems engineering.

Most people think of earth systems engineering as for example nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and carbon cycles. Trans humanism enters here, because what we are on the verge of is an era where the world is completely open to our design. Where material at the nanoscale, and where the human and all of its aspects is open to our design. Taken together, that’s totally unprecedented, and it raises issues of complexity that we aren’t even beginning to think about.

V1:  I have to confess coming away a little discouraged particularly in the final chapter of the The Techno-Human Condition, where you discuss the difficulty of the challenge to get a grasp on the complexity around us.

ALLENBY: It’s hard to talk about it, because on the one hand you have to be clear enough so that people understand that this is not the same world it was a hundred years ago. The levels of our impact and our ability to affect change are different, and you need to drive that home or else people will fall back into their old patterns.

The UN approach to climate change has been the attempt to apply old patterns that were adequate for relatively simple systems. You have to shake people out of their old habits of thinking, but the problem is that it is a very depressing thing, because we don’t know how to deal with the problems that we have.

The way that I conceptualize it for myself is first things first. If people don’t understand that we have a whole new set of conditions, then we’ll never get them to think about the right things. If we can get them to think about this, then they’ll begin coming up with solutions.

I think there are strong arguments that a lot of the ideas about democracy fail when you get to a sufficiently complex state. If that’s the case, and that’s only a hypothesis, then there will be a lot of people that are very unhappy, myself included.

V1: The have and have nots have really come into the fore on a global scale, with governments trying to understand this dichotomy, and what policies have affected it.

ALLENBY: And it will get worse. Right now, depending on where you’re born, it’s almost a two-fold life expectancy difference. If you’re born in Japan, the United States or Northern Europe, you’re looking at a life expectancy of around 80 years. If you’re born some places in Africa, you’re looking at 45 years. You’re really looking at pretty severe inequalities, which aren’t the traditional economic equalities, although that has something to do with it.

Is the human lifespan 45 years or 80 years, and that’s a pretty fundamental question. Now, we have scientists at Stanford and Harvard that are looking to deliver a lifespan of 150 years, and maybe the first person to live that long has already been born in the United States. If that is the case, then you’re talking about a fundamental jump in inequality, and it isn’t a trivial kind of economic issue that you solve by the United States giving money to someplace else. The problem becomes an issue of different human varietals, and that will only increase.

If you look at economic pressure, the first thing that it did with employment patterns is that it created a division of labor. A factory with blue collar labor was differentiated, and then you had the railroads. In factory capitalism, if I was the factory owner I also was the accountant and did the law and the lobbying. Now with the railroad you have to have white collar differentiation, because the world became too complex. Now, we are getting to a point where we’re going to be differentiating the human, because the homogenous human becomes a huge source of inefficiency.

The problem with doing that is that humans have been tricky when they deal with interpersonal differences such as race, sex, gender, etc. We’re still having trouble with that, so what’s going to happen we start differentiating people in significant ways. What happens when the haves are fundamentally different from the have nots, and they already are.

It’s becoming a matter of physiology, and not simply of money. If I grow up in a networked society my brain is going to be hardwired fundamentally different than if I grow up without exposure to those technologies. Everything else equal, I will always be more competitive and adaptive to a high-technology environment than someone that tries to catch up to me. That’s a pretty profound difference.

When I was at AT&T, we talked about the digital divide, and we worked to get these tools into poorer areas. We thought you fixed it by providing the tools. If we’re dealing with differences in how the brain is hard wired, then you have a more fundamental divide than you thought you did, with greater complexity.

V1: When you look at the impacts of globalization, it’s really fascinating to consider the implications of jobs on that complexity. Most things are manufactured in Asia now, where much of the environmental impacts rest. If you look at the maker movement, that might shift at least in part back to a more local economy.

ALLENBY: The manufacturing part is really interesting, because up until now, in general labor has been an important enough part of the cost so that it drives a lot of location behavior. It’s going to be a very interesting question to see if that continues to be the case. The maker movement is really fascinating, moving into the post mass-consumption society. You get into the diamond age idea of machines that create what you want when you want it, and that’s really what people are creating now.

The implications are becoming fascinating, because I’ve essentially negated traditional labor as an input. Intellectual capital becomes a critical input. We’re really shifting to  an economy that again favors the educated elite, and from multiple angles that’s what we’re seeing where they pull away from the others. That creates a potential to huge issues going back to class, but class in a much more complicated world.

V1: I really liked the ongoing dialogue in the book about managing our future. Rather than stopping these complex things from happening, deciding what we want and managing outcomes.

ALLENBY: It’s really frightening to accept the policy and civil implications of the technologies that we’ve already created. As an example, people talk about water in Phoenix all the time, saying that it will limit the southwest, and that water is the new oil. All of that is of course bullshit, because if I put oil through a cracking process and put it in my car it becomes CO2, it has changed. But if I put water in my bathroom and it becomes sewage, it is still water. There are some pretty fundamental differences there.

The question is, what is water, and it turns out that water is a price point issue. If you tell me that Phoenix will run out of water, that never will be so. If you tell me that water will become much more expensive, well that’s certainly possible. I may need to put in desalinization plants in California and pump water to Phoenix, and that will be more expensive, but it’s doable.

The same is true of climate change, because we can create carbon capture technology. Climate change isn’t pre-ordained, it is a price point issue. If we pay enough to stop climate change, we can stop it. People don’t really care that much, and it makes it very different. Part of the problem that we have is that a lot of these ideologies built into our personal psychologies become less valid as the world gets more complex.

All of our ideologies are ways to simplify a complex world. Marxism was an ideology to help simplify a messy and ugly capitalism world so that it could be managed. It got carried away with itself, as all ideologies do, but that’s what it was. Environmentalism as an ideology is a way of doing the same thing. If I’m an environmentalist, I know what matters because Aldo Leopold told me. If it is good for the ecosystem, it is good, which provides the ethic. What if the world is too complex than that, and if it supports mutually exclusive and conflicting world views as part of the way the system actually works? The ideology fails, and they become a way of simplifying the world, and then they slide back into moral judgments about people that disagree with you. That’s where you get serious problems.

Once you’ve split off those that you deem are evil away from you, you break down the ability to have democratic politics. I think you see that in this country, and you may be seeing that in Europe, which is an effort to continue the integration of democratic policies at larger scales. It bodes ill, if what we’re doing at the same time is actually changing what humans are, because the potential for discrimination becomes huge.

V1: You make mention in your book along those lines, that you have to be careful if what you’re wishing for is fewer humans, because to get there however it comes about, is hugely disruptive.

ALLENBY: There are those that think that reducing population would be a good idea, but I don’t know how you get there ethically and morally, particularly in the timeframes that they’re talking about. George Sessions was the only person I’ve found to make some mention about what the carrying capacity of the Earth is, and he said about a billion people. I don’t know how you get there from here.

V1: The need to enhance our modeling capability, at both a spatial and temporal scale, is something that you’ve talked about in order to get a better understanding of impacts. Has that been GIS in your mind, have you come across GIS in your applications?

ALLENBY: I think that GIS is part of it. I think that the efforts to construct new ways of conceptualizing large data is clearly part of it. We’ve got the Decision Theater at ASU, and all of the GIS going on. All of this is part of developing the capability.

I think that what we’re not doing yet is taking the step away from incremental improvements over what we have. We need first to understand what the phase space issues are with the problems that we are addressing. We saw that this morning with the model about economic growth in Alberta, Canada.

Implicitly with a GIS, I have selected geographic boundaries. For some things, that’s perfectly reasonable, but for other things that isn’t reasonable. What’s driving the entire question of why you want to grow more people in Alberta, because in winter, it’s a pretty cold and windy place. What’s driving population growth in Alberta is the fossil fuels, and the fossil fuels are clearly a different level of network. Asking why Alberta is able to build all these things brings in financial flows that are again regional and global in nature.

You need the GIS, but I think you also need other structures until you begin to develop a  n-dimensional form in a phase space that I can’t define yet. I think GIS is clearly part of it, but I think that it’s also tied to incremental improvements to the way that we’re doing things now. That’s as it should be, because otherwise it won’t get used, but I think we also need to conceptualize a phase space that would begin to give you a modeling structure that brings in some of the elements that GIS can, along with other contexts.

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