Ezra Klein on the technology trap

Tom Toles

Showing hopeful signs that maybe he hasn’t bought into the Breakthrough myth, Ezra Klein:

There’s something to this line of thinking. We really don’t know what we’ll be able to do by the year 2100. America’s best scientists are studying the problem. China just committed more than $700 billion to funding clean energy research over the next decade. We’re human beings. We’ll think of something.

But will it be enough? The example I’ve been using to show the limits of techo-optimism has been the BP spill. We could’ve stopped it from happening, but we couldn’t reverse it once it happened. And we know a lot more about managing oil spills than about manipulating the atmosphere. But reading Atul Gawande’s article on dying brought another example to mind: cancer.

Cancer, of course, has been a long-term problem. For decades now, we’ve put an enormous amount of money into researching cures and treatments. We’ve thrown our best minds at the problem. And we’ve made some remarkable advances. But not nearly enough of them. Insofar as we’ve been waging a war on cancer, there’s a very good argument that we’re losing, and it’s not clear when, or whether, we’ll turn it around. Sometimes, the best minds and a lot of money are enough. That’s been the case in computers. As this proposal for more energy research says, if our technology had been left in 1975, the iPod would cost $1 billion and be the size of a building. But sometimes, money and minds are not enough. We can’t solve problems so much as try and prevent them. And the death of cap-and-trade means we’re not going to hedge against the possibility of our failure.


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