Thursday, June 03, 2010

Technology and the Politics of Hope

Can technology save the future? There are a lot of answers to that question, such as "Maybe, if we use it right," "If it doesn't, what will?" or "Sure, if we can afford to buy it from China."

Technology can't prevent a lot of what may happen, not anymore. But it can help us deal with it. And it can make everyone's future better than it might otherwise be, while it may still be able to save the farther future. The future is an adventure, and technology should be part of it.

In an eloquent address at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, President Obama described his efforts dealing with the economy in the political context, and as an expression of his philosophy of government. He also talked about the future, the contributions of new technologies, and specifically, the crucial role of renewable energy technologies.

"But there’s no natural lobby for the clean energy company that may start a few years from now," he said. "There’s no natural lobby for the research that may lead to a lifesaving medical breakthrough. There’s no natural lobby for the student who may not be able to afford a college education, but if they got one could end up making discoveries that would transform America and the world.

It’s our job as a nation to advocate on behalf of the America that we hope for -- to make decisions that will benefit the next generation -- even if it’s not always popular; even if we can’t always see those benefits in the short-term."

He praised Pittsburgh as an example of a community working for the future, transforming itself from the rust belt to green technologies, health care and education. "All of this came to be because as a community, you prepared and adapted and invested in a better future -- even if you weren’t always sure what that future would look like."

President Obama also said that putting a price on carbon pollution is essential to creating a new energy economy, and he pledged to support climate and energy legislation. "And, Pittsburgh, I want you to know, the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months. (Applause.) I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can. (Applause.) I will work with anyone to get this done -- and we will get it done."

The Pittsburgh speech was Obama's clearest statement yet as President of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. defined as the politics of hope--the politics that looks forward to the future.

Elements within the U.S., but also efforts elsewhere in the world with stronger government backing, are advancing clean energy technology and capabilities. But as this report shows (among others) is that clean energy is a key to the future of the U.S. economy, not just domestically but in international trade. These opportunities are forging new economic models.

But we are in danger of being left behind. China is advancing more aggressively. Apart from the Climate Crisis itself, this is the greatest challenge to our ability as a nation to safeguard our country's future, and to participate in the world's future.

In a general sense, there are lots of ideas out there for technologies that cooperate with nature rather than fight it. Some combination of them could be revolutionary beyond our imagination, in providing clean energy, in helping us deal with the effects of the Climate Crisis, and even to address its causes directly.

Though we're tempted to see massive projects as evidence of success, the technologies that will give the future the best possibilities will be small-scale, extremely efficient, easy to replicate and use locally by individual families and communities, very hardy, flexible and adaptable.

There are dangerous technologies, too, battling for attention and development money, that appeal to our arrogance. The roles and powers of technology have been themes of thought and art since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and those issues are even more pressing today. We are in many ways dominated now by powerful technologies gone wrong: our extractive energy technologies, our wasteful, destructive and cruel technologies for feeding ourselves, and the other wasteful, destructive and suicidal technologies of our society, such as our technologies of violence and war.

And there is also the apparently strong current--stronger that we might have imagined in this day and age--of opposition to science and the most settled scientific questions. A resurgence of impulses we associate with the Dark Ages. This, too, as much as powerful technologies gone wrong, threatens the future.

In this regard, I am haunted by a scene in the 1953 movie version of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, which relocated the action from England to southern California. At one point, the scientists at Cal Tech trying to study how to defeat the Martian invaders, must evacuate to a lab in the mountains. But before they can get there, a panicked mob waylays their truck, destroys their equipment and injures several of the scientists. I wonder if metaphorically this isn't what's happening now, and I fear it suggests what may happen.

Fortunately at the moment we have a President who has a vision of the future and a commitment to science and knowledge. (Also on Wednesday, while at the White House receiving a Library of Congress award for songwriting, Paul McCartney quipped that "it’s great to have a president who knows what a library is.") He is supported by enough Democratic members of Congress to at least get a bill increasing funding for science and science education passed, despite a pathetically cynical GOPer maneuver.

Technology by itself won't save us. But together with the politics of hope, maybe it can help give the future a chance.

The President says he has no doubt that we will create a better future. I have doubts. But doubts don't matter. What you believe will happen doesn't matter. What matters is believing that working towards a better future in whatever ways you can is how you want to live your life.

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