“Gift to Big Oil.” “Toxic.” “Dangerous.” Planet of the Humans, which criticizes the idea that green energy will solve the climate crisis, has made a lot of people very upset. Some critics have gone so far as to equate its argument with climate denialism or demand that the film be taken down. While the documentary is far from perfect, far worse is the shallowness of the discussion about the film. Both Planet of the Humans and the critical response of it illustrate everything that is wrong with our fact-obsessed culture, one in which perspectives on controversial topics aren’t honestly engaged with but merely “debunked.”
Most of the critics have zeroed in on parts of the film that are outdated or potentially misleading. The 8% efficient solar panels shown early on of the documentary are now 22% efficient. Most electrical grids are dominated by natural gas rather than coal, greatly improving the relative carbon footprint of an electric car. While the share of different renewables in Germany’s total energy mixture—which includes transportation and home heating—do hover around the single digits, altogether they comprise some 40% of electricity production.
But the facts used in the rebuttals are usually themselves only slightly less simplistic or equivalently misleading. Life-cycle analyses of electric vehicles (EVs) show that they have approximately a 30% advantage in cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions, but their impact on water sources and aquatic life is higher because they require exotic mined materials. So, while critics do have a point that the carbon outlook on electric vehicles are better than what director Jeff Gibbs implies, they don’t actually provide much to counter his argument that EVs may not actually be good enough to deliver on promised environmental outcomes. Will their carbon advantage balance out the harms if we end up building billions of them? Likewise, isn’t it deceptive to only use electricity production statistics to tout the progress made by renewables, since all energy use outputs CO2?
Neither do critics prove themselves to be dispassionate fact arbiters when they cherry pick parts of the documentary to shore up their own narrative of it as misinformed energy heresy. Much has been made of co-producer Ozzie Zehner’s statement in front of the Ivanpah concentrated solar facility: "You use more fossil fuels to do this than you're getting benefit from it. You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place, instead of playing pretend." Critics aiming at a “gotcha” moment have used this quote to portray Zehner as so obtuse as to believe that no solar technology has a better carbon footprint than fossil fuels. The more reasonable interpretation is, of course, that he’s talking specifically about the Ivanpah solar facility that he’s standing right in front of at that very moment. At this point, critics’ claim to the moral or factual high ground starts to seem suspect.
The underlying problem with the whole debate is the widespread belief that “the facts” will tell us that we are on the right track, that clear-eyed carbon accounting will clear out all the messy political and moral debates inherent in the climate crisis. If only. We get simple answers only by making simplifying assumptions and using reductive metrics, blinding ourselves to the multifaceted ways that our technologies often harm both people and the environment and obscuring far deeper questions about what humanity’s relationship with the planet should be.
The focus on “debunking” distracts us from the recognition that the climate crisis poses far more complex question than the mere carbon footprint of alternative energy technologies, that whenever we generate energy we commit ourselves to doing harm. The framing of PVs and wind turbines as “green,” “renewable,” and “zero-carbon” distracts us from how all energy technologies lead to deaths (animal and human), ecosystem destruction, massive levels of extraction and processing of raw materials, pollution, and even the disruption of our experience of non-human spaces.
If we get too caught up in the dream of green-energy-fueled progress, we risk sleepwalking through the innovation process, ignoring deeper problems until it is too late and setting ourselves up to repeat the same kind of mistake that we made with fossil fuels. In massively expanding wind or tidal energy, will the potential effects on wildlife be worth it? Is it a fair trade to give up the ability to climb a mountaintop in Vermont and hear nothing but the rustling of the trees? Will the probable environmental and sociopolitical consequences of mining rare earth metals in South American and African countries be a worthy sacrifice?
Even then, it is unclear if promises of a 100% renewable consumer society can ever be delivered. Even though a life-cycle analysis of an individual car or photovoltaic unit can produce a nice-looking number, things become far more complex at higher scales. Take Stanford professor Mark Jacobson’s proposal, which would require nearly two billion roof-top solar installations along with thousands upon thousands of tidal turbines, Ivanpah-like facilities, and geothermal plants. One would think they were reading a proposal to terraform Mars, given the sheer material requirements of such an endeavor. And even then his proposal has been pilloried for simplistic assumptions about the power grid, environmental constraints on hydropower capacity, and land use. Gibbs’s core worry that the green energy dream may be a deceptive illusion remains an important one, for the dream remains but a speculative future, one that we are by no means guaranteed to achieve.
To be fair to the critics, the documentary tends to be pretty ham-fisted, and that main point gets lost as Gibbs chases a tale of corporate greed and corruption. My sense of the film is that Moore’s and Gibbs’s voices are too loud, and that the perspective co-producer and environmental scholar Ozzie Zehner is only present in disjointed fragments. For those who feel the urge to condemn the documentary to the dustbin, I recommend taking a look at Zehner’s 2012 Green Illusions.
Surprising as it may seem to viewers of Planet of the Humans, Zehner actually concludes halfway into his book that he believes that the world will eventually be powered by renewable energy, just not in the way that we usually think. He contends that the least expensive and most environmentally beneficent way to shut down a coal plant is to not have to replace it with anything. That is, energy reduction beats green energy any day of the week. But the dominant media narrative is suffuse with speculative ecomodernist hopes and dreams of a world almost entirely unchanged from what we enjoy today, albeit powered by PVs and wind turbines. So, we dedicate far too little money and effort to all the ways that we could use far less energy, needing not only fewer fossil fuel plants but also significantly less green energy to replace it.
Zehner’s book further parts ways from Planet of the Humans by actually providing solutions. A key part of his recommendations is that none of them actually require us to “sacrifice” for the climate. There’s no bleak demand for energy “austerity” here. For example, he advocates designing cities to require far less driving and be made up of denser, more energy thrift housing. Such neighborhoods would provide residents with a level of community engagement that they likely haven’t enjoyed since college (if ever) and a quality of life difficult to find in most contemporary American cities.
Especially noteworthy is Zehner’s answer to the population question. Because Gibbs leaves the viewer to read between the lines when he proposes population control, critics have taken it upon themselves to assume the worst possible interpretation, linking Gibbs’s suggestion with something called “ecofascism” and “far-right hate groups.” (Does that also count as misinformation or is it merely misleading?) Despite the left-wing tendency to dismiss the idea inherently racist and “problematic,” Zehner’s proposal for population control couldn’t be more progressive: gender equality. He simply notes that cultures that afford the equal right of women and girls to go to school and have careers produce fewer babies. That’s certainly not ecofascist by any stretch of the imagination. But why wasn’t that in the film?
So, the problem with Planet of the Humans isn’t so much that it is factually flawed. (I mean, if other large-scale technological controversies are any guide, many critics would use even more minor empirical failings to dismiss an inconvenient perspective in its entirety.) Rather, the real limitation of the film is that it lacks a compelling vision of the future. It too easily allows others—whether it be “big oil” or nuclear energy fanatic Michael Shellenberger—opportunistically fill in the void with their own self-serving conclusions. It allows critics to dismiss it as a paean to ecofascim or nihilism. But Gibbs’s film still alerts us to something important: the need to pause and reflect upon exactly where all this “green” industrial energy activity is supposed take us. But will the critics be too preoccupied with “getting the facts right” to really hear it?
Although Elon Musk's recent cryptic tweets about getting approval to build a Hyperloop system connecting New York and Washington DC are likely to be well received among techno-enthusiasts--many of whom see him as Tony Stark incarnate--there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical. Musk, of course, has never shied away from proposing and implementing what would otherwise seem to be fairly outlandish technical projects; however, the success of large-scale technological projects depends on more than just getting the engineering right. Given that Musk has provided few signs that he considers the sociopolitical side of his technological undertakings with the same care that he gives the technical aspects (just look at the naivete of his plans for governing a Mars colony), his Hyperloop project is most likely going to be a boondoggle--unless he is very, very lucky.
Don't misunderstand my intentions, dear reader. I wish Mr. Musk all the best. If climate scientists are correct, technological societies ought to be doing everything they can to get citizens out of their cars, out of airplanes, and into trains. Generally I am in favor of any project that gets us one step closer to that goal. However, expensive failures would hurt the legitimacy of alternative transportation projects, in addition to sucking up capital that could be used on projects that are more likely to succeed. So what leads me to believe that the Hyperloop, as currently envisioned, is probably destined for trouble?
Musk's proposals, as well as the arguments of many of his cheerleaders, are marked by an extreme degree of faith in the power of engineering calculation. This faith flies in the face of much of the history of technological change, which has primarily been a incremental, trial-and-error affair often resulting in more failures than success stories. The complexity of reality and of contemporary technologies dwarfs people's ability to model and predict. Hyman Rickover, the officer in charge of developing the Navy's first nuclear submarine, described at the length the significant differences between "paper reactors" and "real reactors," namely that the latter are usually behind schedule, hugely expensive, and surprisingly complicated by what would normally be trivial issues. In fact, part of the reason the early nuclear energy industry was such a failure, in terms of safety oversights and being hugely over budget, was that decisions were dominated by enthusiasts and that they scaled the technology up too rapidly, building plants six times larger than those that currently existed before having gained sufficient expertise with the technology.
Musk has yet to build a full-scale Hyperloop, leaving unanswered questions as to whether or not he can satisfactorily deal with the complications inherent in shooting people down a pressurized tube at 800 miles an hour. All publicly available information suggests he has only constructed a one-mile mock-up on his company's property. Although this is one step beyond a "paper" Hyperloop, a NY to DC line would be approximately 250 times longer. Given that unexpected phenomena emerge with increasing scale, Musk would be prudent to start smaller. Doing so would be to learn from the US's and Germany's failed efforts to develop wind power in 1980s. They tried to build the most technically advanced turbines possible, drawing on recent aeronautical innovations. Yet their efforts resulted in gargantuan turbines that failed often within tens of operating hours. The Danes, in contrast, started with conventional designs, incrementally scaling up designs andlearning from experience.
Apart from the scaling-up problem, Musk's project relies on simultaneously making unprecedented advances in tunneling technology. The "Boring Company" website touts their vision for managing to accomplish a ten-fold decrease in cost through potential technical improvements: increasing boring machine power, shrinking tunnel diameters, and (more dubiously) automating the tunneling process. As a student of technological failure, I would question the wisdom of throwing complex and largely experimental boring technology into a project that is already a large, complicated endeavor that Musk and his employees have too little experience with. A prudent approach would entail spending considerable time testing these new machines on smaller projects with far less financial risk before jumping headfirst into a Hyperloop project. Indeed, the failure of the US space shuttle can be partly attributed to the desire to innovate in too many areas at the same time.
Moreover, Musk's proposals seem woefully uninformed about the complications that arise in tunnel construction, many of which can sink a project. No matter how sophisticated or well engineered the technology involved, the success of large-scale sociotechnical projects are incredibly sensitive to unanticipated errors. This is because such projects are highly capital intensive and inflexibly designed. As a result, mistakes increase costs and, in turn, production pressures--which then contributes to future errors. The project to build a 2 mile tunnel to replace the Alaska Way Viaduct, for instance, incurred a two year, quarter billion dollar delay after the boring machine was damaged after striking a pipe casing that went unnoticed in the survey process. Unless taxpayers are forced to pony up for those costs, you can be sure that tunnel tolls will be higher than predicted. It is difficult to imagine how many hiccups could stymie construction on a 250 mile Hyperloop. Such errors will invariably raise the capital costs of the project, costs that would need to be recouped through operating revenues. Given the competition from other trains, driving, and flying, too high of fares could turn the Hyperloop into a luxury transport system for the elite. Concorde anyone?
Again, while I applaud Musk's ambition, I worry that he is not proceeding intelligently enough. Intelligently developing something like a Hyperloop system would entail focusing more on his own and his organization's ignorance, avoiding the tendency to become overly enamored with one's own technical acumen. Doing so would also entail not committing oneself too early to a certain technical outcome but designing so as to maximize opportunities for learning as well as ensuring that mistakes are relatively inexpensive to correct. Such an approach, unfortunately, is rarely compatible with grand visions of immediate technical progress, at least in the short-term. Unfortunately, many of us, especially Silicon Valley venture capitalists, are too in love with those grand visions to make the right demands of technologists like Musk.
On my last day in San Diego, I saw a young woman get hit by the trolley. The gasps of other people waiting on the platform prompted me to look up just as she was struck and then dragged for several feet. Did the driver come in too fast? Did he not use his horn? Had she been distracted by her phone? I do not know for certain, though her cracked smartphone was lying next to her motionless body. Good Samaritans, more courageous and likely more competent in first aid than myself, rushed to help her before I got over my shock and dropped my luggage. For weeks afterwards, I kept checking news outlets only to find nothing. Did she live? I still do not know. What I did discover is that people are struck by the trolley fairly frequently, possibly more often than one might expect. Many, like the incident I witnessed, go unreported in the media. Why would an ostensibly sane technological civilization tolerate such a slowly unfolding and piecemeal disaster? What could be done about it?
I do not know of any area of science and technology studies that focuses on the kinds of everyday accidents killing or maiming tens or hundreds of thousands of people every year, even though examples are easy to think of: everything from highway fatalities to firearm accidents. The disasters typically focused on are spectacular events, such as Three Mile Island, Bhopal or the Challenger explosion, where many people die and/or millions bear witness. Charles Perrow, for instance, refers to the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island as a “normal accident:” an unpredictable but unavoidable consequence of highly complex and tightly coupled technological systems.
Though seemingly unrelated, the tragedy I witnessed was perhaps not so different from a Three Mile Island or a Challenger explosion. The light rail trolley in San Diego is clearly a very complex sociotechnical system relying on electrical grids, signaling systems at grade crossing as well as the social conditioning of behaviors meant to keep riders out of danger. Each passenger as well as could be viewed as component of a large sociotechnical network of which their life is but one component. The young woman I saw, if distracted by her phone, may have been a casualty of a global telecommunications network, dominated by companies interested in keeping customers engrossed in their gadgets, colliding with that of the trolley car. Any particular accident causing the injury or death of a pedestrian might be unpredictable but the design of these systems, now coupled and working at cross purposes, would seem to render accidents in general increasingly inevitable.
A common tendency when confronted with an accident, however, is for people to place all the blame on individuals and not on systems. Indeed, after the event I witnessed, many observers made their theories clear. Some blamed the driver for coming too fast. Others claimed the injured young woman was looking at her phone and not her surroundings. A man on the next train I boarded even muttered, “She probably jumped” under his breath.
I doubt this line of reasoning is helpful for improving contemporary life, as useful as it might be for witnesses to quickly make sense of tragedy or those most culpable to assuage their guilt. At the end of the day, a young woman either is no longer living or must face a very different life than she envisioned for herself; friends, family and maybe a partner must endure personal heartbreak; and a trolley driver will struggle to live the memory of the incident. Victim blaming likely exacerbates the degree to which the status quo and potentially helpful sociotechnical changes are left unexamined. Indeed, Ford actively used the strategy of blaming individual drivers to distract attention away from the fact that the design of the gas tank in the Pinto was inept and dangerous.
The platform where the accident occurred had no advance warning system for arriving trains. It was an elevated platform, which eliminated the need for grade crossings but also had the unintended consequence of depriving riders of the benefit of their flashing red lights and bells. Unlike metros, the trolley trains operate near the grade level of the platform. Riders are often forced to cross the tracks to either exit the platform or switch lines. The trolleys are powered by electricity and are eerily silent, except for a weak horn or bell that is easy to miss if one is not listening for it (and it may often come too late anyway). At the same time, riders are increasingly likely to have headphones on or have highly alluring and distracting devices in their hands or pants pockets.
Technologically encouraged “inattention blindness” has been receiving quite a lot of attention as increasingly functional mobile devices flood the market. Apart from concerns about texting while driving and other newly emerging habits, there are worries that such devices have driven the rise in pedestrian and child accidents. British children on average receive their first cell phone at eleven years old, paralleling a three-fold increase in their likelihood of dying or being severely injured on the way to school. Although declining for much of a decade, childhood accident rates have risen in the US over the last few years. Some suggest that smartphones have fueled an increase in accidents stemming from “distracted parenting.” Of course, inattention blindness is not solely a creation of the digital age, one thinks of stories told about Pierre Curie dying after inattentively crossing the street and getting run over by a horse-drawn carriage. Yet, it would definitely be act of intentional ignorance to not note the particular allures of digital gadgetry.
What if designers of trolley stations were to presume that riders would likely be distracted, with music blaring in their ears, engrossed in a digital device or simply day dreaming? It seems like a sensible and simple precaution to include lights and audio warnings. The Edmonton LRT, for instance, alerts riders of incoming trains. Physically altering the platform architecture, however, seems prohibitively expensive in the short term. A pedestrian bridge installed in Britain after a teenage girl was struck cost about two million pounds. A more radical intervention might be altering cell phone systems or Wi-Fi networks so that devices are frozen with a warning message when a train is arriving or departing, allowing, of course, for unimpeded phone calls to 911.
Yet, the feasibility or existence of potentially helpful technological fixes does not mean they will be implemented. Trolley systems and municipalities may need to be induced or incentived to include them. Given the relative frequency of incidents in San Diego, for instance, it seems that the mere existence of a handful or more injuries or deaths per year is insufficient by itself. I would not want to presume that the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Service is acting like Ford in the Pinto case: intentionally not fixing a dangerous technology because remedying the problem is more expensive than paying settlements with victims. Perhaps it is simply a case of “normalized deviance,” in which an otherwise unusual event is eventually accepted as a natural or normal component of reality. Nevertheless, continuous non-decision has the same consequences as intentional neglect.
It is not hard to envision policy changes might lessen the likelihood of similar events in the future. Audible warning devices could be mandated. Federal regulations are too vague on this matter, leaving too much to the discretion of the operator and transit authority. Light rail systems could be evaluated at a regional or national according to their safety and then face fines or subsidy cuts if accident-frequency remains above a certain level. Technologies that could enhance safety could be subsidized to a level that makes implementation a no-brainer for municipalities.
Enabling the broadcast to or freezing of certain digital devices on train platforms would clearly require technological changes in addition to political ones. Currently Wi-Fi and cell signals are not treated as public to the same degree as broadcast TV and radio. Broadcasts on the latter two are frequently interrupted in the case of emergencies, but the former are not. Given the declining share of the average Americans media diet that television and radio compose, it seems reasonable to seek to extend the reach and logic of the Emergency Alert System to other media technologies and for other public purposes.
Much like the unthinking acceptance of the tens of thousands of lives lost each year on American roads and highways, it would too easy to view accidents like the one I saw as simply a statistical certainty or, even worse, the “price of modernity.” Every accident is a tragedy, a mini-disaster in the life of a person and those connected with them. It is easy to imagine simple design changes and technological interventions that could have reduced the likelihood of such events. They are neither expensive nor require significant advances in technoscientific know-how. A sane technological civilization would not neglect such simple ways of lessening needless human suffering.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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