Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Big Fixes, Small-Scale Fixes and Being Pragmatic about Technology

Large-scale fixes appeal to our innate desire for magical solutions which don't require any changes in our own effort or lifestyle. Unfortunately the unintended consequences of "big fixes" often swamp their marginal intended benefits.

There are always two "fixes" to all our problems: large-scale "fixes" over which we have little control, and small-scale fixes over which we have near-total control.

Large-scale "fixes" (in parentheses because they often exacerbate the problem) are inherently appealing to humanity's sense of grandeur and self-importance: we're going to reshape the world, etc.

Their basic simplicity is also inherently appealing: too many poor people in coastal cities? Cut down the rainforest and build a new capital. Poor African country is short of electrical power? Build a gargantuan dam. And so on. The large-scale "fix" is attractive because it offers a big, one-time fix that is controlled by the State or other central power. It also offers a concentration of money which is ripe for exploitation.

The Vietnam War (and all subsequent wars) wasn't just a distant geopolitical conflict; it was a profit center for the private firms which built the major bases. Once the war has been launched, then the money flow is so stupendous and politically powerful ("we must spend whatever it takes to win," etc.) that the opportunities for windfall exploitation are as numerous as our enemies.

War is itself a classic large-scale "fix": take what we want and kill anyone who resists.

The American psyche is expecially attracted to technological "fixes:" the bigger, more complex and costly the "fix," the more we love it. Soviet submarines are a threat we can't track? Solution: wire the entire world's oceans for sound with listening devices.

Terrorists might be planning an attack using cellphones or the Web? Solution: monitor every conversation, email, instant message and website on the planet. Throwing enough money and technology at the problem is always the American "fix," regardless of the scope or nature of the problem.

Large-scale "fixes" are intrinsically vulnerable to unintended consequences. By radically reducing meaningful complexity to politically palatable, crudely reductionist definitions of the "problem," the heavy-handed centralized "fix" ends up triggering a cascade of intensifying problems which only add to the initial problem-state.

Thus you cut roads into the rain forest for the new city, and you unintentionally open up the entire area to resource exploitation by forces which cannot be controlled from the central power center. Even worse, the poor people you intended to move to the new city have no livelihood there (they need a "slum" informal economy to make a living) so they resist relocation. The entire "fix" is a catastrophe, having mis-defined the situation, the actual causal factors and thus the initial problem states. Only the Power Elites profited--and only then, in short-term ways--from the boondoggle.

As I explain in Survival+, defining the "problem" also defines the "solution." In Afghanistan, we seem to have defined the "problem" as there are too many Taliban leaders hanging around the border, fomenting resistance, so the "solution" is to kill them all and let God sort them out (the classic 'Nam-era solution to insurgency).

Large-scale "fixes" are sledgehammers. The complexities of a problem--Afghanistan, Peak Oil, etc.--are discarded or compressed into a simplicity which lends itself to a large-scale "fix."

Political ideologies are constructed of just this sort of forced reduction of complexity to a deeply flawed but deeply appealing simplicity: we have to fight Communism everywhere it pops up, the solution to all economic woes is to cut taxes (especially those nicking the Power Elites), the best way to help poor, vulnerable people is to give them free money with no strings attached, and so on.

Once the "problem" has been defined and accepted in this reductionist, politically attractive fashion--a process I call the politics of experience--then the "big fix" which favors society's Power Elites and/or the status quo agenda is in effect inevitable.

Small-scale fixes are intrinsically messy, uncertain and difficult to quantify. Water purification is a key technology in Third World countries with no centralized system of distributing purified water.

The large-scale technologically appealing "fix" is to construct large Western-style water purification plants, at enormous expense. Ufortunately, all the complexities and costs were omitted, discounted or compressed into a simplistic reduction of the problem to a profitable and attractive-to-Power-Elites proposal: the best way to purify water is to purify it in a centralized plant where economies of scale can apply.

Unfortunately, the "fix" ignores the lack of a water distribution system, the leaky water pipes which not only lose half the water being purified but also allow sewage-tainted ground water to leach into the fresh water.

The enormous cost was doubled by bribes, embezzlement, theft of materials, sweetheart contracts with incompetent cronies of the local Power Elites, and so half the money ends up in Swiss accounts or in lavish palaces of the Elites.

The net result: The plant cost far more than it would have in a First World country, it fails to deliver the planned result--fresh water to the populace--and its intrinsic complexity of operation and high maintenance costs render it doubly useless, as it is often down for maintenance or closed for lack of operational funds.

It was, however, a very "sexy" high-tech "solution" with high political appeal to Western donors, States and investors, and high profit margins for local Elites.Everybody "won" except the intended recipients of the fresh water.

The pragmatic "fix" to purify water is decentralized, outside the control of Empires and Power Elites, extremely cheap and thus extremely unprofitable. It turns out that filling thin clear-plastic bottles with tainted water and leaving them in direct sunlight for half a day purifies the water for zero cost. Sunlight includes some very energetic photons, and these tiny packets of energy disrupt the cell walls of bacteria, viruses and other biological contaminants, killing them. (There are limits to this "technology;" sunlight does not extract heavy metals like lead from water).

This "fix" has no technological appeal and no profit margin to exploit, hence it is marginalized both politically and financially.

This rejection of pragmatic technology is widespread and often unconscious; we have lost awareness of our innate attraction to "sexy" technology, and we have been brainwashed into believing that there must be an enormous profit to be exploited to make a "technology" "work in the marketplace."

Here is another example, courtesy of frequent contributor Bart D., who resides in rural Australia. After reading an account online promoting a 2KW photovoltaic array with battery backup to provide fail-safe electricity for a large food freezer, Bart offered this critique/counter-proposal:

My response: Only quite wealthy people have the money to make this happen. A 2KW system here in Australia is out of most peoples economic reach. Here it is MUCH cheaper to buy a petrol generator and a 200litre drum of fuel to run your freezer for short term outages of grid power. If power failure were to look systemic you'd thaw your frozen meat supplies and smoke/dry them. That’s how central asian herders store their meat during their summer. I have discovered that a car makes an awesome drying oven for meat, tomatoes, apricots and onions.

Way more people have cars than 2KW solar arrays--so let's suggest using what you have before fretting over what you think you should be buying. You can't buy power security--you don't really need to. What people need to do is adopt low-tech adaptations using common materials.

I have 2 X 12 watt solar panels worth $120 each that I use to charge the battery on my old 1970's 'reserve' car and that powers the cars radio. My old car is worth $3,000. So my total investment of $3,240 gives me reliable transport, passive communication with the outside world, a greenhouse to start vegetable seedlings and a place to dry excess food reserves.

The 2KW system investment of probably $30,000 ($1000 per 100kw panel plus 10k for batteries and wiring and installation) powers a freezer that we can live without, a computer we don't need and a bunch of other stuff we can live without .... and that’s it. Its difficult to argue this investment represents any level of value for money for an average person.

We are entering a period of limited and decreasing incomes and resource scarcity, so let's try and frame 'preparedness' and 'solutions' with that in mind. Not jump the tracks and propose very costly solutions, unworkable to the bulk of people, to problems which can be solved better with genuine adaptive thinking than capital investment.

Thank you, Bart, for a description of pragmatic, low-cost, decentralized solutions which do not require huge capital outlays or a built-in "profit" for political and financial Power Elites.

There are certainly niches where high-cost, centralized production facilities that scale up are the best solution: semiconductor manufacturing plants are one example. Manufacturing semiconductors is impossible with low-tech, distributed assets. But any solution, be it centralized high-tech, or distributed low-tech, must work from anintegrated understanding of the problem being addressed.

Some useful questions to ask:

Is there a distribution system in place?

Is there a market for the goods/services which functions without Central State subsidies?

Does the solution leverage capital, skills and assets? Is it cost-effective?

Can production be maintained at low cost?

How dependent is the solution on long, easily disrupted supply chains?

Does the society/economy to be served with this solution have the appropriate behavioral and cultural value system to make use of this solution, and integrate it into existing cultural and economic systems?

Is the solution only affordable to the top 20% of wage earners? If so, then what solutions are available to the bottom 80%?

These are questions to ask of any proposed understanding of the problem-state and the proposed solutions. And as always, the most important question is: cui bono? To whose benefit? A truthful answer illuminates all that those who benefit disproportionately seek to hide, misrepresent or sell as beneficial to all.

We should also keep in mind this bit of wisdom: "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." (Leo Tolstoy)

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