Monday, December 15, 2008

No Technical Solution

In his 1968 essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin made an interesting observation. He said that there is a class of human problems that have no technical solution. These are the kind of problems that we are constantly trying to solve by inventing better technology; problems like hunger, strife, poverty, disease, and so forth. They have been with the human race out of living memory and probably since before written history began.

To date, there has been no technological advance that has made humanity, as a whole, significantly "better off," whatever that means. We make advances in one area while giving up ground in another. Our artifice can give us new ways to deal with problems, but usually it also opens up entirely new possibilities for suffering at the same time. Think about nuclear power and prescription drugs as two examples.

Hardin's particular problem, the Commons, is another good example. It turns out that we can't simultaneously maximize the variables of population and luxury. In other words, it's not possible for every human being on the planet to live the "disposable" American lifestyle without completely wasting the Commons (i.e., the Earth). I think the assertion is rather unassailable.

Hardin's "non-technical" solution to the tragedy of the commons is aptly named "Mutual Coercion." He recommended the divorce of sexuality from reproduction and the elimination of the natural family as a human Right - a whole new direction for human morality. It's easier for us to enjoy luxury when there are fewer of us around. Hardin was a terrific advocate of The Brave New World; it's unfortunate that Aldous Huxley's prophecy was so dystopian. Perhaps I'll argue with Hardin's solution in a future essay.

What comes to mind, though, is this enormous $700 billion bailout for the Wall Street firms that got in trouble by owning bad debt. Our bleeding hearts desired for everyone to own a house; which is of course the American Dream. But we forgot that renting from the bank and "owning" are two very different things in the Real World, and so our charitable plan of easy debt backfired badly. It was pity that moved us, but it wasn't truthful; like most of the pity our politicians subscribe to in these strange times. A certain notion of property is at the heart of sane living, so perhaps I'll argue that point in a future essay too.

We are trying to solve a problem with $700 billion, a sum that could easily grow an astronomical number of healthy calories from common dirt. Oh, but we plan to buy bad debt from Wall Street speculators. Well, that was the original plan. Our pity said that it was all for the little guy's sake; to make sure he can keep his mortgage. Now it seems that the government wants stock instead, and also we mustn't forget the failing auto makers. So we will take our grandchildren's money (taxpayers won't suffer... yet) and apportion it to the Managers of Other People's Lives. If they go out of business, who will we work for? Freedom feels so strange in the 21st century.

We once solved another problem by drastically increasing the efficiency of our agriculture. We found that we could increase the crop yield of an acre of land to embarrassing proportions. What a fine tool in the fight against hunger! Of course, all of this excess grain goes to feed beef cattle and to make corn syrup, two products that have hardly increased the quality of life for those who still feel hungry. At least we breathed new life into the health industry which is now booming with heart patients and state-of-the-art synthetic pharmaceuticals. Dollars galore. So, you see how technology solves our problems.

Speaking of the health industry, I was a recent witness to a relatively trivial problem at my wife's family Christmas gathering. My wife's aunt accidentally split her palm open with a dull knife. My brother-in-law's wife happens to be a nurse, so she promptly began to apply some rather old-fashioned medicine: pressure and a napkin. But the talk was more technical; it seems we need technology even for simple problems. There are stitches to think about, and of course liquid bandages of the polymer sort. For the ignorant, such marvels include the polyvinylpyrrolidone variety, the methylacrylate-isobutene-monoisopropylmaleate spirit-based variety, or the isooctane solvent based types. All of these probably got their start from the rudimentary cyanoacrylates that Harry Coover invented, used to patch soldiers back together in Vietnam. Who hasn't accidentally glued a finger to something with a bit of superglue? Just keep that caustic stuff away from your eyes and you'll be fine.

My unfortunate wife showed up during the treatment and suggested that a bit of cayenne pepper might be a good idea to stop the bleeding. She's an herbalist, so she says things like that. Well, capsicum is a vasodilator and can equalize blood pressure, so taking it internally can stop light to moderate bleeding fairly quickly (I've even heard rather outlandish claims of cayenne stabilizing bullet-riddled kids, but I'm way too skeptical for that story). The old herbalists still use it topically, in the open wound itself. Of course, this advice is rather alien to the Certified Health Professional, to whom all healing has become an entirely synthetic pursuit. The professional reaction to natural cayenne as a healing agent was somewhat sharp and incredulous, finishing on a sarcastic note from the non-professional quarters (we often have a peanut gallery at those gatherings).

I remembered a time over the summer when I punctured my wrist with a sharp chisel; it's just how I use tools. My first thought on that occasion was how unhealthy I must have been. Blood is supposed to gush red, not purple. My wife wasn't around to help me, but I remembered her cayenne and I put some in my wound and applied pressure to stop the oozing. The wound itched for a day or two, then I forgot about it until the Christmas party. I was going to demonstrate my own scar with the anecdote, but I couldn't find it anymore. I guess I'm a satisfied customer.

Now think about it. If we didn't have pharmaceutical technology and people could just grow their own remedies out of the ground and care for themselves, where would all the jobs go? What would happen if money didn't change hands every time someone got sick or hurt (or if people just didn't get sick or hurt as often)? We'd go bankrupt. Think of the economy!

On a serious note... are there any "noticers" in the world today? Who is questioning the ridiculous but invisible premises of our modern ways? Look for some future essays.

1 comment:

Christy said...

Oh, we notice at our house...we do notice. And, it makes us sick. In my pessimistic view, I see that greed runs our choices. Technology equals money, so whether it is better or worse money always wins out. Greed, the root of all evil.