Everything put together falls apart

Science fiction writer William Gibson (Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive) once remarked, “When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.”

The diverse effects of our changing climate (wildfires, superstorms, droughts, ocean acidification, and so on) suggest that in fact our world is beginning to “come apart.” The complexities of the problem (its mechanisms, its progression, its predicted dangers, its political economy, its moral and legal implications) generate an extraordinary variety of human reactions.

(The sociopath in the White House calls it a Chinese hoax, but his very existence as US president may be one of those “come apart” symptoms).

Usually better informed than the general public, most scientists deem climate change a real threat to human civilization, dire almost beyond description.

Rex Tillerson, former chairman of Exxon-Mobil (before being hired—and then fired—as Secretary of State under Trump) dismissed climate change as “an engineering problem.”

Various studies have concluded that we already possess all the technology necessary to address climate change, but we lack the political will. We can deal with it, but will we?

In April of 2018, the 70th Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado, featured author, educator, and entrepreneur Tony Seba as its keynote speaker. His lecture entitled Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation is both startling and hopeful in its predictions.

He opens his talk discussing a disruptive technological shift that occurred in society over a century ago, the change from horse-powered to gasoline-powered transportation. Two photographs taken less than a decade apart of the same New York City block seem nearly identical. But in the first, of the dozens of vehicles of every description on the street, only one is gasoline-powered. In the second, only one is horse-drawn. This shift occurred in less than a decade. He argues that another similar shift is about to occur, this time from oil-driven power to electric.

In Seba’s analysis, several converging technologies are expanding in their efficiency and power so rapidly that economic forces alone will spur consumers to change their transportation choices.

Solar power continues to decline in price and to rise in efficiency, as does battery storage, virtually eliminating the need for central generation and long-distance transmission.

Electric motors are nearly five times more efficient in turning energy into power than gasoline engines. On a per mile basis, electric cars are ten times as efficient (because electrons are cheaper to move than liquid fuels). Gas vehicles have about 2,000 moving parts; EV’s have about 20.

The continuous improvement of autonomous (self-driving) vehicles will make car ownership an obsolete, expensive, and unnecessary feature of daily life, freeing up income and space. Why would consumers invest $50,000 in a new vehicle, one that sits dormant 96 per cent of the time in a costly space, when fleet-driven autonomous vehicles can provide needed transportation for about $1000 a year?

We may reasonably deplore the job loss and disruption from the projected GM closure in Oshawa. However, General Motors’ proposal reflects its planned future in promoting transportation as a service rather than as an automobile manufacturer for mass markets.

These changes may not happen overnight, but as in New York a century ago, they’ll likely come sooner than we imagine. While much in our future may seem threatening, not every novel change need be feared.

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