Monday, September 22, 2008

The Limits of Technological Optimism

Tonight I was reading about the zero-infinity problem in the proposed Restatement Third of Torts.

I'd run across a description of the zero-infinity problem before, but not by that title.

So, I did some quick searching and found this short explication of the zero-infinity problem in risk analysis:

The zero infinity paradox recognizes that risk is defined as probability times consequences.

But if the probability of an event is very low, nearly zero, and the consequences are negative infinity, infinitely negative, how do you think about that as a planning problem?

That was the problem of nuclear war... So the proposition then with respect to that very low probability, but very, very, almost infinitely negative disutility event, namely a general nuclear war in which all Americans might die... so everything possible had to be done to prevent a nuclear war.

That didn’t mean surrendering, but it meant doing everything that was technically feasible. And at what level of effort? At whatever level of effort it took. |Link|(emphasis added)
I also ran across the following excerpt of an article on the limits of technological optimism which mentions how the zero-infinity problem limits our ability to foresee the outcomes of our actions.
"Technological optimism" is the doctrine that a growing number of technological improvements in such areas as food production, environmental quality and energy will sustain life as human population soars.

It evolved as a response to the Malthusian study The Limits to Growth... Professor James Krier of the University of Michigan Law School believes that the technological optimists may be wrong.

Krier describes how the marginal costs of pollution control increasingly rise. He faults biologist Barry Commoner for neglecting population growth as the cause of pollution and positing the postwar technological transition as its cause. He argues that population growth forced this transition as science searched for substitutes for dwindling resources.

Krier criticises as "an article of faith" the technological optimists' belief that "S-curve" patterns of technological advance will always arrive in response to the "J-curve" of exponential population growth.

He thinks that the technological optimists may be deluding humanity by predicting the continual emergence of technological breakthroughs at ever-increasing rates.

He favours growth policies that would allow humanity to ease into a steady state of resource use and minimise the maximum cost, which would be a global crash after technological innovation fails.

Krier laments that modern technology can worsen pollution and invites problems of latency, irreversibility, "zero-infinity" risk and remoteness.

He thinks that appropriate technologies which have failed economically may fail politically because the political process has been captured by opposing interests. Krier urges that the population crisis should be addressed instead.

|Link| (emphasis added, minor editing for spelling) Abstract of Andrew D. Basiago, The Limits of Technological Optimism, 14 Environmentalist 17 (1994).

That's a nice explanation of my disquiet whenever someone insists that we've always found ways to stretch petroleum to meet our needs and the technology will always keep up with human demands.

I've seen this idea in the pages of the Economist magazine and asserted by some of my closest friends who are bright, articulate people that I respect immensely.

Hope is not a method.

We must plan for the good and the bad, not simply believe in technology will solve all our problems. Technology may solve our problems, but that's a hell of a bet upon which to hang our entire civilization.


Jason said...

I think I've just been called out. Let me think about it and get back to you.

Neal R. Axton (USA) said...

You and Joe6paq actually...

Mun Mun said...

Excuse me while I go bury my head in the sand.

You're freaking me out, man!