We need value changes, not technofixes: the Aswan Dam as a metaphor for climate change.

Submitted by naught101 on Thu, 03/15/2007 - 16:28

I had a very interesting lecture today, on thermodynamics, ecosystems, and human values relating to technology (lecture 4, Technology and Human Values, PHIL3910 at the University of Newcastle. I recommend it). It didn't give me a lot of information that I hadn't heard before, but Yin Gao's presentation definitely cemented a lot of that information in place for me.

One thing that did strike me, was Yin's case study: the Aswan Dam. I've heard of it before of course, but never paid a lot of attention. Almost as soon as she mentioned it, I saw the link with climate change. As she went on, the similarities blew me away. let me explain:

First, let's look as the Aswan Dam:
Background: before the Dam the Nile river flooded regularly, damaging cities and endangering lives. the flood was also the only irrigation for farmers on the floodplains, and s it only happened for a moth or so every year, the land was dry for the rest of the year and practically barren, for farming purposes.

The Idea: with the best intentions (I assume, I don't know a lot about the case) the British Government of the day (turn of last century) decided that lower Egypt needed:

  • Flood mitigation

  • Hydro-electricity, and

  • year-round irrigation

obviously these would be great things to have (might take some of the excitement out of life, though). the values are commendable: food security, safety, and the possibility to grow economically. but that's not exactly what happened.

The Fuck-up: all the benefits of the dam materialised perfectly as expected. the Nile now has no dangerous floods, heaps of hydro-power, and year-round irrigation-on-demand. Unfortunately, it also has:

  • less soil nutrients: the floods brought nutrient rich soils from the upper Nile. now Egyptian have to BUY fertiliser.

  • less biodiversity: the fish in the Nile delta, which supported a lot of people, lived off (down the food chain) sea grass, which lived off the nutrients of the flood-silt. Fish stocks dropped by about 2/3.

  • Dredging is now required to remove the silt from behind the dam.

  • Schistosomiasis, a parasite that lives in the flood-plain mud now has a year-round water supply due to irrigation. It is horribly debilitating and incurable. Infection rates jumped from 5% to 40%.

there are more issues listed here:

because the values behind the intentions for the Dam were too narrow (euro-centric, anthropocentric, economic focus), the dam created more problems than it fixed. or maybe the real problem was just that the fucking British wanted to turn Egypt into a little piece of Europe

It's probably obvious how this relates to climate change. if it isn't, try thinking of Fossil Fuels as the Aswan Dam of the now.

the problem: the problem we had before fossil fuels could roughly be summed up thus:

  • Life was fucking hard. get born, work hard, die unnoticed.

  • hard to find food.

  • burning wood and other stuff fucked up the local atmosphere, and there was not other easy way to produce electricity, the saviour, which brought great possibilities for knowledge and medicine and other things. (some sarcasm here, not sure how much)

  • it was waaaay to hard to make a quick buck.

The Solution: Burn fossil fuels. obviously these things are heaps cleaner and have a better energy-output than alternatives: wood, peat, tallow. And CO2 is only a tiny atom that's not toxic, and only makes up a tiny part of the atmosphere, anyway. right? I mean the advantages are obvious:

  • lots of heat, and electricity really cheaply

  • that means lots of goods, really cheaply (even peasants can afford a washing machine!)

  • plenty of ways to make heaps of money.

The Fuck-up: obviously you can't blame people for the scientific lack of knowledge in the 1800s and early 1900s. the problem is that we know NOW, that almost certainly - more certainly than the existence of God, or the right to freedom, or any other moral or ethical dilemma - that CO2 is changing the atmosphere, irreversibly (at least in our lifetime).

That brings real problems: more wildly dynamic weather patterns and rising sea levels make it harder to live: it's harder to prevent your house being blown over/burnt down/washed away, and it's harder to grow food to eat, given less-regular rainfall patterns, and harsher droughts. For the economists: everything will cost more.

That shouldn't be a problem. we also have technological solutions to deal with this. solar is here. wind is here. geothermal is here. efficiency measures are here. and we can definitely do away with a lot of the crap that clutters our lives and slow down a bit.

but it IS, because our fictional fucking right to have a lifestyle that removes us from anything uncomfortable, to ignore the destruction we are causing, to make as much money - another thing that doesn't actually have any energy value (ask a physicist) – as we could ever want, appears to be more important in the short-term NOW, than ours and other's rights to have any life-worth-living AT ALL in an environment that's still somewhat benign the only-slightly-more-distant-future.

The Real Answer.
It's pretty simple really. No amount of technological advancement is going to save us. You can design all the fuel efficient cars, nano-particle solar cells, or atmospheric carbon removal methods (and no, there aren't any viable ones now) you want, but you're not going to fix the problem. You're just prolonging it. Because even with every possible efficiency measure, if you continue to put money before the environment, before people, then you're going to continue to come up with solutions and methods that are blind to the adverse social and environmental outcomes until it's way too late to change you design, or adjust your policies. And then you're gonna want to come up with another technofix to make another buck off, aren't you?

People have been saying it for years, but the money seems to make people deaf. People before profit. Planet before profit. Economic rationalists fuck off.