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The Promise of Technology

We’ve learned how to forecast natural disasters pretty well, but remain powerless to prevent them. Many of our current environmental problems are the result of the industrial revolution, and it’s high time to give technology a chance to clean up its own mess.

Fossil fuel dependency must end

More energy research is always helpful, but many promising technologies are already here. Biofuels are being made from plants or materials like wood chips or sawdust, and when biofuels are combined with wind power, and solar energy (and conservation) we could power our economy well into the next century.

Nuclear power may be in our future, but storage and disposal of spent fuel rods is still problematic. Nuclear‘s made a steady comeback in Europe, however (nearly 80% of France’s power is generated by nuclear plants). Unfortunately, such plants take ten years to build and require massive investment, and we still don’t have a public consensus on building them.

Wind looks promising. In The Netherlands and Denmark, wind power is the preferred renewable alternative energy source. Wind farms are also popping up in the U.S. Today’s windmills are nothing like their 17th century ancestors. They are the product of sophisticated aerodynamic engineering, computer testing and modeling, and constructed of composite materials able to withstand the toughest elements. With each turn of the blade, we’re spared CO2 and sulphur emissions that would have been released into the atmosphere had coal been burned to generate electricity.

The life-giver

We turn to our sun for heat and light … and energy. Passive and concentrated solar power is gaining momentum, especially in states with ample sunshine days like New Mexico. Though we only have very few megawatts of solar power generating capacity now, solar is rapidly gaining more converts.

In the 70’s, the Federal government responded to an oil crisis with an ambitious program of incentives to conserve energy and diversify our energy use. Unfortunately, the need was too far ahead of the technology, and when world oil prices declined, we went back to our own wasteful ways.

Today, technology is up to the task, and we are more aware of the economic and national security implications inherent in oil addiction. It’s time to bring back these incentives on a broader scale. The quest for national energy independence must be a defensive strategy as well as an ecologically progressive one. We can reduce our dependence on fossil fuel by combining conservation with technological diversification.

Gas isn’t a disease; it’s a symptom  

Gas prices are sky high in Europe where a gallon of unleaded gas goes for about $6.50. While the marketplace dictates prices, their governments levy high taxes on auto purchases and on large engines. It’s no surprise that fuel efficiency is a key buying factor there. While many opt for a small car or no car at all, they CAN because of their excellent public transportation systems.

Technology + Conservation Equals Success

What’s the cost of throwing things away? Our monthly trash bill doesn’t cover actual costs. It takes energy to collect refuse, to dump it, to separate it and energy to manage the landfill. While we must throw some things away, we ought to consider those costs as part of our buying decision. Technology insures obsolescence, but also provides options for more ecologically-driven decisions. Countries like Germany are tackling the problem with ‘recycling surcharges’ which are part of the purchase price of some items like computers, proving that when governments think conservation they become full partners with technology. To make more informed lifestyle choices, we need better information on the potential impact of our choices. One way to get that information might involve creating a partnership with industry, to provide some ‘environmental impact’ guidelines to tell us before we buy a product how long it will take to recycle it.

We have an extraordinary ability to adapt, but adapting is something you do when you haven’t planned for contingencies. We know what the problem is with our environment. We just need to let technology help us solve it.

Stephan Helgesen is Director of the Office of Science and Technology for the State of New Mexico.


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