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Technology and Sustainability in the Age of the Anthropogenic Earth. Roy F. Weston Lecture University of Wisconsin November 20, 2008 Brad Allenby Founding Director, Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Engineering

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technology and sustainability in the age of the anthropogenic earth

Technology and Sustainability in the Age of the Anthropogenic Earth

Roy F. Weston Lecture

University of Wisconsin

November 20, 2008

Brad Allenby

Founding Director, Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management

Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Engineering

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Arizona State University

“We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it.”

Stewart Brand, 1968, Whole Earth Catalogue

“The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.”

William Gibson

“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

Vishnu, Bhagavad Gita, Robert Oppenheimer at Trinity Test, 1945, White Sands, New Mexico


So long as we do not, through thinking, experience what is, we can never belong to what will be.

The flight into tradition, out of a combination of humility and presumption, can bring about nothing in itself other than self deception and blindness in relation to the historical moment.

Source: M. Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translation by W. Lovitt (New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1977), “The Turning,” p. 49; “The Age of the World Picture,” p. 136.

  • Sustainability is too often a self-absorbed mechanism for avoiding the complexity of the Anthropogenic world
  • It has become a means of ensuring a comfortable blindness and evading moral responsibility
  • It is a potentially useful cultural myth, but only if its role is properly understood
the railroad
The Railroad
  • Required uniform, precise system of time, thus created “industrial time” and associated culture
  • Created need for, and co-evolved with, national scale communications systems
  • Created modern managerial capitalism (modern accounting, planning, and administration systems)
  • Created modern capital and financial markets (railroad construction was the single most important stimulus to industrial growth in Western Europe by 1840s)
the railroad1
The Railroad
  • Instantiated US integration of religion, morality and technology, both pro and con: “If God had designed that His intelligent creatures should travel at the frightful speed of 15 miles an hour by steam, He would have foretold it through His holy prophets. It is a device of Satan to lead immortal souls down to Hell.” (Ohio School Board, 1828).
  • Transformed landscapes at all scales: Chicago existed, and structured the Midwest economically and environmentally, because of railroads.
  • Changed US economic and power structures: enabled Manifest Destiny, and created scale economies of national markets that drove shifts from local/regional business to trusts
  • Changed US culture from Edenic Jeffersonian agrarianism to technology-driven New Jerusalem)
key concepts
Key Concepts
  • “Earth systems” include economic, technological, and cultural systems, not just physical systems.
  • Technology as major earth system, especially the Five Horsemen:
    • Nanotechnology
    • Biotechnology
    • Robotics
    • Information and communication technology (ICT)
    • Cognitive science
  • The human/natural/built integrated systems of the Anthropocene cannot be understood through just one worldview, be it scientific, theological, or postmodern (mutually exclusive but equally valid ontologies).
  • Focus on systems
  • The world as design space (e.g., from withdraw from using fossil fuels to designer atmosphere)
  • The human as design space
key concepts1
Key Concepts
  • Complexity:
    • Static (e.g., proliferation of NGOs/virtual communities)
    • Dynamic (the beer game)
    • Wicked (e.g., human intentionality, reflexivity of social systems)
    • Earth systems scale (e.g., biomass and economics, land use, hydrological system, and nitrogen/phosphorous/sulfur)
  • Radical contingency driven by foundational technological evolution: both the world and the designer are subject to design
  • Because technology systems are auto-catalyzing, accelerating technological evolution highly likely
case study the autonomic city
Case Study: The Autonomic City
  • Trend 1: increasing integration of ICT at all scales in urban systems: smart materials, smart buildings, smart infrastructure, regional sensor systems of all kinds – and all interconnected.
    • And increasingly virtual: highly complex Net-based systems (e.g., Google Earth) are being mashed against these evolving “smart urban components” to create far more complex information topographies.
  • Trend 2: ICT itself evolving to be qualitatively more complex:
    • autonomic ICT at all scales, from chip, to PC/assembly, to global communications networks
    • Piggybacked on Net, an auto-catalytic, self-designing system
  • Result: The Autonomic City, already here, profoundly different from anything we know, but essentially invisible to us
the autonomic city portents
The Autonomic City: Portents
  • Remember October 19, 1987 – “Black Monday” – Dow Jones dropped 22% in one day. Main reason: internal systems dynamics (multiplying independent computerized trading programs with “sell” floors working in an integrated system), not major changes in market fundamentals.
  • This was simple system: What happens at much more complex urban systems level? Who’s even looking?
  • Note that the trick is in the interplay of technology with cultural and economic systems at many different scales.
case study the human as design space
Case Study: The Human as Design Space
  • Leon Kass, Chair of President’s Council on Bioethics: “Victory over mortality is the unstated but implicit goal of modern medical science.” (Nature editorial, 2004, 432:657).
  • Some consider significant lifetime extension probable within decades, with “synthetic biology” approach that applies engineering models and systems to biology. ICT view: “Engineering and Aging” – using “engineered negligible senescence” to control ageing will allow average ages of well over 100 within a few decades (IEEE Spectrum, 2004, 41(9):10, 31-35).
  • Two separate discourses – bioengineering and ICT - claim “functional immortality” within 50 years (beyond horizon where most observers feel able to predict at all)
changing the human evolution of cognitive networks
Changing The Human:Evolution of Cognitive Networks
  • Cognition (including memory) dispersed over Net, enhancing individual cognitive power and changing nature of wetware-based cognition (“intelligence” changes from fact-based to “navigate different realities gracefully” based). How do we educate for this change?
  • Drugs: “At least 40 potential cognitive enhancers are currently in clinical development” (The Economist, Technology Quarterly, September 18th, 2004).
  • MRIs (brain hardwiring) of young developed country “digital natives” different than that of their parents, or non-Net youth. The real digital divide is already biologically based.
  • Nicolelis at Duke: monkey with brain implants moves mechanical arm in next room; Schwarz at U. Pitt: monkeys with implants use mechanical arm to feed themselves. Latest trick: monkey at Duke makes robot in Japan run on treadmill.
changing the human evolution of cognitive networks1
Changing The Human:Evolution of Cognitive Networks
  • Kennedy at Neural Signals: cone implant entirely sealed within brain enabled completely paralyzed patient to move cursor; Donoghue at Cyberkinetics: implant multiple needle electrode in patient, who within two months could open email, change television channels, switch lights on and off, and operate robotic arm (Braingate to be on market 2007-08).
  • Wolpaw/McFarland – external cap allows paraplegic control of cursor
  • DARPA and DoD?
the human as design space implications
  • Given economic, national security, cultural competitiveness, psychological and other drivers, it is highly unlikely redesign of human and nature will be stopped
  • What happens when humans become integrated combinations of technology and biology, with designs dictated by whimsy, fashion, money or industrial demand (note much initial genetic work is being done for professional athletics; plastic surgery as fashion; cognitive enhancement as mechanism for competitive academic and professional positioning).
  • What will it mean to have to be facile in a number of different “realities” – many “Digital Natives” already are.
  • Major social conflict when religions realize that all components of the human are contingent, and it becomes clear that meaning is manufactured and historically/culturally contingent, and wholly anthropogenic.
case study 3 ambient air capture of co2
Case Study 3: Ambient Air Capture of CO2

Technology for ambient air capture of CO2 being commercialized (approx. $200-$150 per ton CO2)

Global climate change is not inevitable, but a pricepoint issue.

Focus on fossil fuel use is obsolete, as is existing regulatory/treaty process (strong institutional and individual opposition as a result)

Undermines use of global climate change as lever for social engineering

Relevant question becomes much more fundamental: what kind of world do you want – 280 ppm equivalent? 360? 550? - and who gets to choose? Distributional effects are potentially significant.

principles of earth systems engineering and management
Principles of Earth Systems Engineering and Management
  • Only intervene when necessary, and then only to the extent required, in complex systems.
  • The capability to model and dialog with major shifts in technological systems should be developed before, rather than after, policies and initiatives encouraging such shifts.
  • The network that is relevant to a particular analysis is called forth by that analysis. Accordingly, it is critical to be aware of the particular boundaries within which one is working, and to be alert to the possibility of logical failure when one’s analysis goes beyond the boundaries.
  • The actors and designers are also part of the system they are purporting to design, creating interactive flows of information (reflexivity) that make the system highly unpredictable and perhaps more unstable.
  • Implicit social engineering agendas and reflexivity make macroethical and value implications inherent in all ESEM activities.
principles of earth systems engineering and management1
Principles of Earth Systems Engineering and Management
  • Conditions characterizing the anthropogenic Earth require democratic, transparent and accountable governance, and pluralistic decision-making processes.
  • We must learn to engineer and manage complex systems, not just artifacts, understanding that such systems cannot be centrally or explicitly controlled.
  • Ensure continuous learning.
  • Whenever possible, engineered changes should be incremental and reversible, rather than fundamental and irreversible. Accordingly, premature lock-in of system components should be avoided where possible, because it leads to irreversibility.
  • In working with complex systems, seek resiliency, not just redundancy.
personal authenticity
Personal Authenticity
  • Perceive and accept world as it is, not as you wish it to be (even if you want to change it, this is a necessary first step)
  • Eschew ideologies: they embody particular ontologies; represent the dead hand of past verities; and are static frameworks in period of rapid and accelerating change
  • Recognize humans and cognitive networks as contingent and stochastic
  • Question most closely that which you most believe

“He, only, merits freedom and existence

  • Who wins them each day anew.”
  • Goethe, Faust
trends we should care about
Trends We Should Care About
  • Welcome to the Anthropocene (Nature editorial in 2003) – welcome to the human earth.
  • Technology, especially the converging foundational streams of nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology (ICT), and cognitive science, is critical locus of accelerating evolutionary pressures.
  • The world is becoming much more complex and information dense, and information structures are growing at every systems level – and information is culture; accelerating ICT evolution is accelerating cultural evolution.
trends we should care about1
Trends We Should Care About
  • Natural systems become integrated with human and built systems, and subject to their dynamics (e.g., reflexivity, intentionality) – examples: genetic engineering and IP; carbon cycle and sulfur cycle management. There is no “natural history,” only human history.
  • Professionals and firms are being charged by society with responsibility not just for their actions, but for their technology systems (cf: Monsanto and genetically modified organisms).
  • Sustainability is becoming a powerful mythology
trends we should care about2
Trends We Should Care About
  • Ethical structures (macroethics) appropriate for complex adaptive systems have not yet been developed.
  • Highly likely that technological evolution will become discontinuous in terms of cultural ability to adapt (human as design space meets fundamentalism).
  • Foundational values and cultural constructs become contingent over much shorter time frames (swamp/wetlands; jungle/rainforest; wilderness evil to good; natural/supernatural to natural/human).
  • End of Cold War destabilized global power relationships (fundamentalism vs modernity – in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, environmentalism, Hinduism, and elsewhere).
trends we should care about3
Trends We Should Care About
  • Terrorism and national security increasingly drive technological evolution (e.g., reversing cognitive enhancement to create cognitive de-enhancement weapons).
  • Role of nation-state changing profoundly, leading to multinodal governance/power structure.
  • The NewGreat Game continues: horses are EU, US, Japan, China, India, Russia, others. This drives competitive technological evolution, especially of NBIRC.
  • Technological change undermines our language and the disciplines we try to use to understand and model our world. Evolutionary biology segues into synthetic biology, and the biodiversity crisis becomes a cusp as biology changes to a design space.
  • Our ignorance is profound, and hidden by ideology, fundamentalism and fear.