With malice aforethought
22 July 2017 13:02 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Green tech is cool, but not because it’s green

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

Whenever you read about cool new technology, one of the main motivators is going “green”. It’s entirely the wrong reason to like technology, however.

We all think the Internet is pretty cool, as we swipe our fingers across our glossy smartphones and instantly connect to news and people the world over. But the digital revolution is only just getting off the ground. It isn’t just about connecting people. It’s about connecting everything.

The notion of an Internet fridge, a concept which, surprisingly, is 16 years old this year, was once the epitome of dot com hype. But it was visionary. The Internet of things will truly change the world.

Take motoring, as just one example. Two recent concepts illustrate the trend.

The first is what Ford calls an automated fusion hybrid research car. The third iteration of a development platform, it is a typical, if idiosyncratic, take on the notion of a car that takes a great deal of the human control out of driving a vehicle.

The basic idea is not new. Perhaps most famously, Google pioneered a self-driving car a few years ago. It comes with a whole host of questions, and they are not only technological in nature. What about ethical decision-making? What about liability?

Most manufacturers have a similar research programme in the works. Ford’s platform is very different from Google’s, in that it aims to assist a driver, because ultimately the driver retains responsibility for operating the vehicle. Using many thousands of data points obtained from visual input, it creates a 3D model of the vehicle’s surroundings, identifying such hazards as pedestrians, road markings, other traffic, and infrastructure near the roadside. The hope is to help prevent accidents, assist with parking and slow-moving traffic, avoid traffic jams, and navigate efficiently.

The second concept car is at the ridiculous sci-fi end of the market. Take a Tesla Model S, and give it to the lunatics at Rinspeed. This Swiss tuning company was founded in 1979 by Frank Rinderknecht, and first came to my attention with a vehicle that I still want really badly, like only the eternal boy in every man must have a car.

Dubbed the Rinspeed Yello Talbot, it was co-designed by Dieter Meier and Boris Blank of the electro-pop group Yello, and based on a 1938 Talbot Lago 150 SS. Seriously, check this out and tell me honestly why I must not have this car.

Since then, the Rinspeed insanity has not stopped. Focusing on hyper-futuristic designs based on existing vehicles, the company has produced one jaw-dropping concept after another.

The latest is a modified Tesla Model S. Since a driverless car doesn’t need much driving, the Rinspeed designers focused on what you might prefer to do in a vehicle while you’re not driving it. Hook the steering wheel out of the way, kick back and relax, of course.

Welcome to the Rinspeed XchangE, unveiled at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show in February. Frankly, I could do without the tacky grille, but as a development of automotive technology, it is visionary.

For me, the real end-goal of all these technologies is not just convenience for the wealthy few. It is to develop convenience, time-saving and affordable transportation for everyone.

In the developing world, what matters is affordability. True, even the poor don’t like a car known to sacrifice safety to earn the tag of cheapest car in the world, but there’s a great deal to be said for the idea of building cars for only a few thousand dollars a pop. Even in the rich world, affordability is key. Car & Driver compiled a great list of the least expensive cars to own in the US, for example.

The same goes for any other technology. It makes a great deal of sense, for example, to recycle, provided that it pays to do so. If it does not, it is a swindle. The same is true for any technology that promises “sustainability”. The term ought to be used to indicate economic efficiency, rather than some ideal of environmental impact that has to be achieved at any cost, and probably takes taxes, subsidies, or a combination of both to achieve.

It is a problem, for example, that the Rinspeed XchangE link above points to a site called “Green Car Reports”. It isn’t the “green” that matters. It is the technology, and what that can do for people. When something is economically efficient, it not only becomes affordable for our use. It by definition consumes fewer resources and produces less waste, which automatically becomes better for the environment. That new technology is “green” is a convenient side-effect. It shouldn’t be an objective.

In fact, some new technologies that green-minded types love are ironically counter-productive when considered purely from an environmental point of view. Take 3D printing, for example. It surely will change the world. However, it completely turns the economy of scale achieved by mass production on its head.

If you really claim to love the environment, not to mention the well-being of the working class, you ought to love cheap mass-produced plastic junk. By using plastic, you save vast amounts of rare hardwood. By employing a vast low-wage labour force you are raising the living standards of millions of people in the developing world.

Besides, it was factory production that created the middle classes, by giving them access to machines – irons, telephones, toasters, computers, washing machines and refrigerators – and household furniture that previously were the province of the wealthy, or didn’t even exist at all.

Refrigeration reduced food waste and food poisoning. Other devices were the time-saving and labour-saving kind that truly changed the world. It may not be quite as simple as suggesting that these machines reduced the amount of time we spend in domestic slavery or income-earning work, but it did allow us to replace much drudgery with more valuable kinds of activity – be it for profit or leisure.

Likewise, when we think of developing new ways to power vehicles or houses, it doesn’t do to think of it just as an environmental effort. That only leads to higher costs, less efficient use of our time, and even rising food prices.

Energy prices have only been rising, so it is sensible to economise wherever reasonably possible. One doesn’t do so by making other people pay for your expenses. Subsidising so-called “green” technology makes no logical sense. You economise by using less energy in the first place, and that requires clever technology, smart reduction of consumed resources, intelligent recycling of produced waste, and sensible re-use of materials.

Instead of a green economy, a far better way to think of it is as a blue economy.

I’m not greatly enamoured with the fact that the idea of a “blue economy” is promoted by Gunter Pauli, working for a UN-linked outfit known as Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives. The UN is a governmental organisation, and the “zero emissions” claim clearly – and mistakenly, in my view – references carbon dioxide emissions.

Carbon emissions are strongly correlated with economic development and technology progress. The link isn’t relentlessly positive, however. A 2012 study by the University of Science and Technology of China showed that for every 1% in economic growth, carbon emissions grow only 0.59%, and environmental pressures grow 0.84%. This shows that the relative pressure on the environment decreases as prosperity increases. Another study shows a stronger link, but more importantly, also finds that carbon emissions does not follow a Kuznets curve, rising with rising prosperity before falling again as new technologies improve efficiency. Counter-intuitively, emissions follows an N-shape, rising with rising prosperity, before falling somewhat, before rising again.

Tying technology futurism to carbon emissions is, therefore, not a sure way to achieve the “blue economy” vision of rising prosperity for everyone.

The upside, however, is that we can probably safely reject the single-minded focus on carbon reduction, in favour of a broader vision of pollution reduction, resource efficiency and prosperity growth.

The earth and its climate are old and complex enough to look after themselves.

It would be stupid to deny that human activity has some influence on the environment. It would be silly to doubt that one can find solid statistical evidence that confirms a link between human activity and climate change. However, the rhetorical significance of that statistical signal is based on the claim that climate skeptics deny that such a link exists. Or, to use the phrasing in this version of the report, that “deniers” claim that “climate change is not man-made”. That is just misrepresentation. They don’t, so proving that it is not a true claim attacks a straw man.

Conversely, it is equally daft to deny that climate alarmism based on the predictions of computer models has been dramatically exaggerated in the past few decades. As climate gadfly Anthony Watts puts it, 95% of climate models agree: the observations must be wrong.

Alarmists, of course, will claim that they never said that models were accurate predictors of the future because they are only mathematical representations of trends, or that the exaggeration of which they stand accused never happened. They’ll say this in the same breath that they repeat demands for urgent state-enforced action to mitigate rising temperatures.

Frankly, human influence on the environment is much more biased towards actual pollution with toxic chemicals (as opposed to merely contaminating the atmosphere with some plant food). “Tragedy of the commons” problems such as fisheries depletion and deforestation are far more serious.

Even the particularly invasive large-scale strip mining that is required to extract the “rare earth” materials needed for solar panels and wind turbine magnets has a relatively limited environmental impact, compared to the total surface area of the planet.

In short, one shouldn’t get too stressed about climate change, and certainly not worried enough to get into a quasi-religious guilt trip about the sinful excesses of your modest but comfortable modern life.

Let’s celebrate the human ingenuity that has lifted millions out of poverty, and continues to produce the advances that improve the lives of rich and poor alike.

Prince Charles once said that we have 100 months to “save the world”. He said that 61 months ago, and still, on almost every measure, the world continues to become a better place. As I pointed out before, 2013 was the best year ever, and both the right wing and the left wing agree on this point, rating it by such diverse measures as human health, happiness, prosperity, equality, war, disease, violent crime and bigotry.

I bet Queen Elizabeth is clinging desperately to life in the hope of outliving her idiot son, because like most environmental alarmists, the future king of England is talking out of his arse. Do you think that in June 2017, when his 100 months are up, Prince Charles will admit to the world that he was wrong? I don’t. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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