Accelerated Technological Diffusion: My new research project, and why Bill Gates should give me some money

Bill Gates is trying to save the world again. Last December, he announced that he was getting involved in the climate change game. He has invested $1 billion of his own money, and persuaded a few other billionaires to do the same, to fund energy innovation to radically decrease carbon emissions.While we should be critical of the fact that one man can have so much power in solving big global problems, I think that Gates should be applauded for getting more involved with climate change.

I also think that maybe he should think of giving a little bit of that $1 billion to me, for my project on accelerated technological diffusion.

It’s a big ask, I know. But Bill, if you’re reading this, hear me out. Here’s the problem with your plan: We can’t invent our way out of this mess. You need a lot more than innovation to get real technological change. To demonstrate that, let me show you a graph of the uptake of the auto mobile in the United States:

USA cars.jpg

The first recognizable car was built by Otto Benz in 1886; more than 30 years before the x-axis on this graph even begins. And yet it takes until the mid 1920s before even a tenth of the American population owns cars. That’s four decades between the invention of the car technology and anything that can plausibly be called widespread use. Meanwhile, we have to make radical cuts in our carbon emissions by 2050: Just three and a half short decades from now. So inventing new technologies is, at best, half the battle.

In addition to innovation, we also need technological diffusion, which refers to the process by which a technology becomes widely used. The fact that diffusion often happens very slowly, as demonstrated above, doesn’t seem to bode very well for Bill Gates’ plans to save the world through innovation. What’s the point of inventing some radical new energy technology if almost nobody uses it until the 2080s?

The good news is that that doesn’t have to be the case. There are examples of accelerated diffusion, in which new technologies, including energy systems, diffuse in a decade or less. Benjamin Sovacool’s recent paper on the subject provides a useful list of these, including liquefied petroleum gas stoves in Indonesia, which went from 1% to 25% use in just three years! The fact that liquid petroleum stoves aren’t exactly green is besides the point. The point is that if gas stoves can diffuse quickly, then maybe solar panels and wind turbines can as well.

Unfortunately, Sovacool doesn’t say too much about how this rapid diffusion occurs. Others have already done research on the mechanics of technological diffusion; most of which is based on adoption models,  which see technological diffusion as a kind of viral spread. If your neighbour gets a rooftop solar panel, then you are more likely to do so as well. And so like the flu or a Buzz-Feed article, rooftop solar panels gradually diffuse across the whole neighbourhood.

The nice thing about these adoption models is that they are easily modelled mathematically. The problem with these models, however, is that they were originally developed with institutions and business such as public health agencies, agricultural extension services, and marketers in mind. These groups all have the same basic goal: Get a population of potential users (doctors, farmers, and consumers respectively) to use a new innovation. The problem is that because these institutions were typically quite powerful, there is no account in adoption theories of how powerful interests might block the diffusion of the new technology. Also, it was never the job of any of these groups to build the infrastructure, production capacity, or technological systems to support the diffusion of these new technologies. That was somebody else’s job, and so most adoption models say nothing about the construction of technological systems, much less socio-technical systems.

That’s where I come in. My new project is on accelerated technological diffusion, from a socio-technical systems perspective. That means that I’m going to be trying to understand not just how the users of a technology can be persuaded to use it, but also how businesses can be persuaded to manufacture and sell it; how politicians can be persuaded to subsidise it; how engineers can be persuaded to devote their time to improving it; and even to how celebrities and other cultural leaders decide to say good things about it. I’m also going to be trying to understand how these different groups influence each other. You can have the best new technology in the world, but unless you have a plan to make all of these things happen, it isn’t going to be going anywhere very quickly.

I’m going to be working on this using historical case studies. I’ll be looking at how technologies have gathered a lot of support from a lot of different kinds of people and institutions very quickly in the past, and trying to explain how that happened, and how it could be made to happen again with sustainable technologies. This is going to be essential if any of Bill Gates’ innovations are going to get out of his well-funded research labs and onto peoples’ rooftops, roads, and power grids. So Bill, if you’re reading this, I’d be happy to accept some of your foundation’s money to support my work. A few hundred thousand should be a good start. I accept cash, cheque, or paypal.

A Review of Sanders and Clinton’s Climate Change Platforms

It’s hard not to get excited about the year-long circus that is American Presidential primary campaigns. This time around it’s particularly interesting. If you’ve been paying any attention at all, then you won’t need me to tell you that this is a banner year for anti-establishment candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties, in the form of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and, to a lesser extend, Ted Cruz. It’s also an interesting election cycle for anybody interested in climate change, because for what feels like the first time ever, climate mitigation is taking centre-stage in the Democratic primary debates. Both Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton have prominent sections of platforms devoted to the problem, and at the most recent debate, candidate Martin O’Malley repeatedly mentioned his pledge to get the United States to a 100 percent renewable energy system by 2050.

O’Malley is out of the race now, so in this post, I’m going to do a brief, transitions theory based evaluation of Clinton and Sanders’ climate policies. Transitions theory, if I can boil it down to its most fundamental facts, would go something like this:

  • Even if the new technologies are better than the old ones, they will still face an uphill battle to replace them.
  • Technologies are embedded in socio-technical systems, which encompass not just technical elements, such as consumer devices and infrastructures, but also social elements, such as policies, cultures, user habits, and business arrangements.
  • Established technologies are entrenched in socio-technical regimes. For example, a transportation system based on the private automobile is very difficult to change because it is embedded in a regime that includes all the roads, traffic laws, drive-through restaurants, and all the other car-centric institutions that are typical of western society.
  • New technologies need sheltered niches to survive, where they are protected from competition with the regime, but are unable to challenge it very seriously.
  • The socio-technical landscape, which encompasses big events such as wars, economic and political shifts, or new cultural movements, can play an important role in destabilising regimes and allowing niche technologies to break through. Unfortunately, it is usually too big to influence directly.

These facts suggest a few general guidelines for any President of the United States interested in reducing the carbon emissions of her or his country:

  • It is absolutely critical to put pressure on the regime. No matter how much funding you give to engineers working on solar panels or electric cars, these products will never make any meaningful impact on the market unless the massively powerful commercial, technological, social, and political influence of fossil fuel dependent industries is curbed.
  • Encourage the development and commercialisation of sustainable technologies. This is a more radical proposal than it sounds. It is not sufficient to just apply a carbon tax and hope that the free market takes its course. Nor is it sufficient to fund a few research labs and call it a day. You need strong incentives spanning from the most basic scientific research, all the way through the research and development process and to the consumers who will actually adopt these new technologies into their lives. In other words: you have to pick winners.
  • Take a systems perspective on the problem. Technologies rarely exist in isolation. An electric car won’t work if it doesn’t have charging stations, and those charging stations won’t work if there isn’t a good legal framework and financial arrangement to sustain them. Think about the problems that remain unsolved, the social practices that remain unchanged, and the infrastructures that remain unbuilt, and direct your resources at them.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at the climate change policies of the two Democratic contenders for President: Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Clinton’s climate policies include heavier regulations for the fossil fuel industry as well as some support for renewable energy. She proposes a lot of the usual policies: Stricter pollution standards on coal-burning industries, an end to oil and gas subsidies, and stronger standards for methane emissions. Some of these are effective ways to challenge the fossil fuel energy regime, but there isn’t a lot there about transportation, agriculture, industry, or any other sector that emits carbon. One encouraging sign is Clinton’s commitment to reform the federal fossil fuel leasing laws to leave some fossil fuels in the ground, even if it is probably not radical enough.  Change “some” to “most”, and we might be talking.

One good part of Clinton’s proposals is her promise to support coal communities, which she says will be “an engine of US economic growth in the 21st century, as they have been for generations.” I hope Clinton understands that the only way that coal communities can continue being an engine of economic growth is if they stop being “coal communities”. If you leave that concern aside, however, this proposal shows some understanding of the political challenges of decarbonising the economy, and at least a token interest in engaging with them.

Clinton’s headline proposal is her plan for “500 million solar panels”, with which Clinton proposes to generate enough energy to power every single home in the United States. It’s a nice idea, but there isn’t very much detail mapped out. How, exactly, will she be ensuring that these solar panels get built? Subsidies? Favourable regulations? Will my Aunt and Uncle in Michigan wake up one day to find Hilary Clinton on their roof installing a solar panel herself? We need to know more.

Strengths: The ambition of the “500 million solar roofs” plan, and the political savvy Clinton shows in her support for coal communities. And the pledge to leave fossil fuels in the ground is a nice touch.

Weaknesses: It’s very light on the details, and seems to be almost entirely focused on energy. There’s almost nothing there about industry, and very little about transportation or agriculture.

Bernie Sanders’ climate policies are, predictably, framed in terms of his opposition to the 1%. The first thing listed on Sanders’ climate change platform is a pledge to suppress the fossil fuel lobby, most obviously through Sanders’ much-publicized proposal to repeal the Citizens United decision that allows private interests to make unlimited campaign contributions. Sanders also wants to ban fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House, end fossil fuel subsidies, and “bring climate deniers to justice”. Let’s hope that justice involves some new legislation roughly analogous with libel law, and possibly a prison sentence or two. The clichés are in there too: A price on carbon, and an end to fossil fuel subsidies. So Bernie clearly wants to put some pressure on the fossil fuel regime.

Sanders also has a few encouraging suggestions for what to on the clean energy side of the equation. He proposes lots of investment in wind, solar, and geothermal power, although unlike Clinton he doesn’t specify any numbers other than “billions of dollars in solar investments”. Sanders wants solar net metering, which will allow people with solar panels on their roofs to sell energy back to the grid. He’s also got some encouraging, and fairly specific suggestions for the transportation sector, including support for cellulosic ethanol and algae bio-diesel, as well as electric vehicle charging stations, high-speed rail, and walkable cities. Sanders has no suggestions for industry, however, and like Clinton, he does not consider agriculture at all.

Strengths: The technological and policy literacy evident in Sanders’ proposals. He has a pretty good understanding of the specific technologies and policy initiatives he wants to support. And he wants to get very aggressive with the fossil fuel sector.

Weaknesses: Perhaps too much emphasis on the power of the fossil fuel lobby. I get that that’s Bernie’s central issue and a huge part of his campaign narrative, but there’s a lot more holding back on climate action than just lobbyists.

All in all, their proposals are…not bad. Clinton demonstrates a bit more political aptitude with hers, but Sanders is a lot more aggressive. Sanders also has a much more specific plan, which shows detailed knowledge of the technologies involved in a transition away from fossil fuels, while Clinton’s only pro-renewable policy basically amounts to “build solar panels”. Sanders also gives detailed consideration to transportation; a subject on which Clinton says virtually nothing. So the official endorsement for President of the United States, from this Canadian living in England, goes to Bernie Sanders.

That being said, even Sanders’ proposals leave a lot to be desired. He needs more specificity, he needs to consider more sectors than just energy and transportation, and he needs to make it clear that he understands that climate change isn’t just another excuse to yell at the bankers. This is a complex problem that requires complex solutions, and to the extent that it is possible to talk about complex things in a US presidential election campaign, I hope we hear more complexity from both candidates.

Negative Carbon and the World Wars: A Very Brief Historical Study

I’ve been thinking a lot about negative carbon technologies lately. This could be because it looks more and more like we’re going to be needing a lot of negative carbon emissions in the coming decades. Even if everybody follows through on their pledges, the emission reductions agreed to in Paris could still take us to a 3.7 degree global temperature increase. If we’re going to keep the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees, it is looking more and more like we are going to have to take up the slack with something that is going to take carbon out of the atmosphere to compensate for everything we’ve been putting in.

This is not an ideal situation, because it turns out that it’s actually very difficult to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at anything like the rate that will be required. CO2 is a very inert gas, which means that separating it out from the rest of the gases in the atmosphere requires a lot of energy. This leads to a lot of unanswered questions. How, exactly, do you go about taking carbon out of the atmosphere? Nobody has perfected any reliable technique yet, save for a few examples of biomass power generation with carbon capture and storage built in to it. Of course, we may well get over the technological hurdles, but that still leaves us with the fact that all of the techniques proposed thus far look like they’re going to be astronomically expensive. Wikipedia links to three studies assessing the costs of negative carbon technoloies. The estimates range from 54 euros (54 US dollars) per ton of CO2 captured, to $600 per ton. When you consider the fact that the carbon emissions of industrialised countries tend to be measured in gigatons, you see how big the problem is. Taking the United States as an example: To offset the 5.3 gigatons of carbon they emit every year at a cost of $600 per ton, it would cost $3.2 trillion, or about 20 percent of the entire US GDP. Even at the lower estimate of $54 per ton, it would cost $576 billion, or about 3 percent of their GDP.

The technology might get cheaper before we wind up having to use it. But what if it doesn’t? What if our only hope to salvage anything like a healthy climate is going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, just to offset American emissions? Can we expect governments to spend that kind of money?

With today’s political values, the answer to that question is a resounding “no”. No country is going to spend up to 20 percent of its GDP on pulling carbon out of the atmosphere just because it might be a nice thing to do for future generations. But what if the situation becomes truly dire? How much money would a modern country be willing to spend on carbon mitigation if the world is being ravaged by drought, floods, hurricanes, heat waves, and famines? How much will the United States be willing to spend on pulling carbon out of the atmosphere when Miami starts to sink under the Atlantic ocean. To answer this, we have to look at how governments have spent their money in desperate circumstances in the past. So I did a bit of googling to find out the proportionate costs to the United States of the most expensive wars during the twentieth century. Here’s what I found:

So it is possible to muster the political will to spend ten or twenty percent of a country’s GDP on a single cause if that cause is closely tied with self-preservation from fascist takeover or nuclear annihilation. The good news is that the percent of GDP that the United States spent on its wars during the twentieth century would in some cases be enough to offset its entire carbon footprint, even with a $600 per ton price-tag. If the cheaper estimates are more accurate, then you could do it with a level of spending comparable to what the Americans spent in the cold war.

The bad news is that this comes with a lot of caveats. Firstly, it isn’t exactly clear how even catastrophic climate change compares, on a socio-political level, with a world war. Maybe without a clear human enemy to fight, you can’t muster the same political will. Maybe catastrophic climate change will cause a world war, which will soak up all the resources that could otherwise be used to deal with the root of the problem. Secondly, we have to recognize that funds are not the only constraining variable we need to be talking about. It takes time to up-scale a new technology to the point that it can influence the atmosphere of an entire planet. And shortages of land, labour or raw materials might set a maximum amount of carbon we can sequester per year that is lower than we need. That’s to say nothing about the ethical concerns about negative carbon technologies.

This is just a very basic back-of-the-envelope musing about a topic that is in the climate change news a lot these days. Please don’t take a 1000 word blog post to be a thorough economic or historical analysis. If I were to make one substantive argument out of all this, it’s that in predicting how the climate crisis will unfold, we need to look at times in history when human politics, economics, and psychology has been under a lot more pressure than it is now. Perhaps that pressure can translate into real action. But we probably shouldn’t count on it.

Climate Change and Storylines

The reason for the several-month unannounced hiatus since my last post is that during that time I was finishing, submitting, and defending my PhD thesis. You’ll be happy to know it went well. Perhaps sometime in the next few months, I’ll write a blog post that summarizes it in detail. For now, however, I want to flag up an interesting intersection between my PhD research and my interest in climate change.

My PhD, for those of you who haven’t read my Simpsons-based introduction to it, is about discursive storylines in socio-technical transitions. In more comprehensible terms, that means that I was looking at the ways people understand old and new technologies, when a new technology is in the process of replacing an old one. I did this using two historical case studies of the transition from a rail-dominated transport system to a road-dominated transport system in the United States and the United Kingdom. So essentially I was using a lot of newspaper, magazine, and political archives to look at how people talked about trains and cars while trains were being replaced by cars.

In doing so, I noticed something interesting: People’s representations of rail and road transportation typically have only a passing relationship with the reality on those transportation systems themselves. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • In the 1920s, the United Kingdom was faced with a rash of deaths by car accidents. This was horrifying, because that kind of sudden accidental death in a public space was completely foreign at the time. The solution that was most often proposed for this, however, is somewhat counterintuitive from a modern perspective: Both experts and laypeople typically suggested that the answer was to build more roads. This, they argued, would make the road system more efficient and safer, and would virtually eliminate car accidents. Even George Orwell believed this: On page 12 of The Road to Wigan Pier he writes that “The danger of accidents would disappear if we chose to tackle our road-planning problem seriously, as we shall do sooner or later”. What Orwell failed to realize is that building more roads had the effect of encouraging more car travel, which in turn meant more accidents. The basic storyline that roads, not cars, were at fault for car accidents was nevertheless very compelling.
  • During the 1930s, the railroads of the United States petitioned the Federal Government to extend Interstate Commerce Commission regulations to the road transportation industry. Interstate Commerce regulations, which were put in place starting in 1887 to curb price-gouging by monopolistic railways, were now giving the railways a major disadvantage against the new, road-based transportation system. The Congressional debates about extending these regulations to the railways, however, revealed that many congresspeople were still very worried about unleashing the railway monopolies to do as they liked, despite the fact that the railways would never again have a monopoly over anything. The view that the railways were inherently monopolistic and not to be trusted, which was by then several decades old, was firmly engrained in the minds of many American lawmakers.
  • As the first British motorways were being built in the 1950s and 1960s, they were portrayed as a modernising, civilising force that would ensure safe and efficient transportation into the indefinite future. They even made postcards of the motorways. Here’s a quote from the Daily Mail in 1955, predicting what motorways would look like in the future: “Along the wide, multi-track motorways leading to the sea the holiday traffic surges in orderly streams. Police helicopters and convertaplane patrols of the newly merged Royal Automobile Association hover overhead”. Anybody today who has driven on the M25 would scoff at this, but at this time the view that motorways were a futuristic and exciting change was difficult to challenge.

A postcard from Britain’s golden age of motorways.

I have not recounted these anecdotes so that we can scoff at them. Even the most knowledgeable experts can be seen to have indulged in this kind of thinking. The problem, however, is that some problems are simply too big to contemplate rationally. A transportation system is an immensely complicated thing, comprising perhaps more moving parts than anything else humans have ever built. Add to that all the money, laws, and personal motivations associated with it, and you have something that you could not understand thoroughly even if you spent your whole life reading about it; much less if most of your knowledge comes from listening to the news on the radio while driving your car to work.

So because we can’t keep all the relevant facts in our head at any one time, we take a cognitive shortcut. We construct storylines. Marteen Hajer, who developed the concept of storylines to account for environmental politics, describes them as “narratives on social reality through which elements from many different domains are combined and that provide actors with a set of symbolic references that suggest a common understanding” (Hajer 1995, p. 45). We use storylines to fill in the gaps of our limited understanding of complex phenomena. But we don’t all use the same storylines. That’s because we have different assumptions about the world, and different myths that appeal to us. Some people, such as the road boosters in Britain, believe in the inevitability and inherent goodness of technological progress, and so they interpret the facts in a way that can be used to tell that story. Others, such as the American railroads’ detractors, believe in the inherent corruption of big business, and construct storylines with that fact in mind. Similarly, today, people’s predictions about the future tend to line up with science fiction movies: Star Trek, Blade Runner, or Mad Max.

Which brings me to the subject of climate change. It might not be an exaggeration to say that climate change is perhaps the most complex problem that any human mind has ever grappled with. It involves complex interactions between five of the most complex systems we know of: The atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the ecosphere, the geosphere, and what might be called the sociosphere: The halo of human action that surrounds our planet. Each of these systems is difficult enough to model on its own. Keeping track of the interactions between all five of them is virtually impossible.

That’s not to say that we haven’t made progress. Climate science has proved convincingly that fossil fuel emissions are taking us to a very bad place. But figuring out exactly what is going to happen becomes very thorny, especially once you add human societies, the source of the carbon emissions, into the mix. So instead we tell stories. There are a lot of storylines that have emerged in response to climate change, each of which speaks to much older cultural myths. Here are just a few of them:

The Icarus Storyline: Humankind is flying too close to the sun and is about to come crashing back down to the ocean. We aren’t going to solve the problem, and we’re doomed.
The Apollo Storyline: Humankind is infinite in its creativity and ability to solve problems. We will, through some combination of renewable energy and geoengineering, fix climate change.
The Socialist Storyline: We cannot solve climate change so long as we are wedded to an outdated capitalist economic system. We need to throw out the bankers, and then we will have an economy that does not destroy the Earth.

I’m sure you can probably think of a few more. The point I want to make here is that each one of these storylines can be told in a way that is convincing, both in terms of its internal consistency, and its correspondence with observed facts about the world. They all start from largely the same basic information, and fill in the gaps with compelling narratives.

What this suggests is that none of these storylines is likely to be true in its entirety. History is rarely so clean-cut and binary as these storylines make it out to be. (And this is not the first time in history that climate change has been an important problem). It’s complicated, contingent, and it can almost never be expressed in terms of whether a given problem (such as the Mongols, the Black Death, or colonialism), is “solved” or not. Actions have consequences both foreseen and unforeseen, and both positive and negative. And nobody can predict the future.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be worried about climate change. We should be extremely worried about climate change. But let’s acknowledge our own limitations. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. The best we can do is tell each other stories about it. Surely that fact is both scary and motivating enough all by itself for us to go out and do something about it.

Further reading:

Hajer, M.A., 1995. The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process. Clarendon Press.
Hajer, M., Versteeg, W., 2005. A decade of discourse analysis of environmental politics: Achievements, challenges, perspectives. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 7, 175–184. doi:10.1080/15239080500339646

Rethinking the Cult of Disruption

Uber is in the news again: In Paris, a protest against the company has turned violent, with some aggrieved taxi drivers going so far as to throw rocks at perceived Uber vehicles. In my experience, these kinds of occurrences at protests are usually the result of complex chains of events occurring on the ground which are rarely if ever covered in any detail in the mainstream media, so I’m not going to discuss the rock-throwing. Let’s just say that the Parisian taxi drivers have some legitimate grievances against Uber, but that throwing rocks is probably doing a lot more harm than good, and leave at that.

Would you believe that this scene is the result of a personal transport app? Photo from the New York Times.

I am, however, interested in these protests as an example of the kind of conflict that emerges around new technologies, particularly when labour gets involved. We usually see two opinions on this kind of situation. Inevitably, one group of pundits will say that the French cabbies are standing against progress to protect their own narrow interests. A second group of pundits will argue that Uber, a rapacious Bay Area tech company, is determined to hollow out the entire taxi industry and reduce taxi drivers with to independent contractors with no job security or meaningful benefits-a view that has recently been vindicated by a California judge’s decision that Uber needs to treat its drivers as employees.

The second storyline is not completely implausible, but it has led to some campaigns against Uber that seem to suffer from some of the same hubris displayed by the Luddites who embarked on a campaign of sabotage against English industrialists in the nineteenth century, because machines and factories were pushing traditional craftsmen out of work. This comparison is often used in a perjorative sense, but that is not how I intend it. The Luddites had some very legitimate grievances, and if you read their history with a bit of empathy, you will see something heroic in their struggle. I am not positing any vague sense of technological ‘progress’ which Luddites stand in the way of. Technology does not progress linearly, but evolves fits and starts, in directions which are most often chosen by powerful people, but which are by no means pre-determined. Some technologies, furthermore, have bad consequences attached to them. Not all innovation is good.

My point in making the Luddite comparison is that regardless of the justice of their cause, the luddites lost. This was partly because of a ruthless crackdown by the British government, but even without that, is there any scenario in which the luddites’ campaign of vandalism would have shut down the industrial revolution? Probably not. To take another example, the entertainment industry, often supported by governments, has been trying to suppress online distribution of media in favour of more traditional distribution channels for nearly 20 years now, and they are still losing. The lesson here is that technology doesn’t get un-invented, and once people start using it, they are likely to continue to do so. That means that services like Uber are probably here to stay. The question, then, needs to be what form they will take. That should be the emphasis of Uber’s critics.

Supporters of Uber often frame it in terms of the consumer, and argue that disrupting existing bureaucracies, institutions, and business structures to create more competitive services will be good for taxi users. There is some truth to this. This report on the taxi industry demonstrates that the average inflation-adjusted taxi fare has not meaningfully decreased since the 1950s, and that just 57 percent of a taxi fare goes to drivers’ earnings-the rest going to mainly to vehicle maintenance and the owner’s earnings. Drivers deserve a decent living of course, but there’s a trade-off here, because there are many economically marginalized people who depend on taxis during the course of their lives. A decrease in taxi fare is therefore a good thing, especially if it is the result of cuts in vehicle expenses or owner profits rather than drivers’ wages. It is therefore not entirely fair to see Uber’s shake-up of the industry from the sole perspective of the taxi drivers.

At the same time, however, we should be wary of the “cult of disruption“, which assumes that all change, especially if it is technologically-driven, is good. Just because a technological innovation is making an industry more efficient does not mean that those efficiency gains are accruing to the consumer. It is just as likely that new technology will be used to squeeze the workers a little bit harder while investors simply pocket the profits without offering consumers any kind of discount.

So we can understand any technological disruption as shaking up the relationships between three key groups of stakeholders: Workers, consumers, and owners. Under neoliberal capitalism, the owners have the upper hand. They own most of the financial assets, which includes most of the investments in companies like Uber, which in turn are pushed to maximize their shareholders’ profits at all costs. That means that while workers or consumers might see some improvements from time to time, most of the benefits of any new technological development are going to investors and owners. What if, however, the benefits went elsewhere? What if rather than breaking machines, the Luddites had set up their own cooperative factories, and found ways to integrate mechanical production into their cottage industry? What if the Parisian cab drivers created a co-operative version of Uber, making the tech-bros simple employees hired by cabbies to code an app for them? The result could be a taxi service that cuts out middlemen of all kinds and puts more money in the hands of both taxi users and drivers. There is no guarantee that this will succeed, but it has a much better chance of success than hoping Uber just goes away.

Critics of the cult of disruption have gone to great lengths to tell us that not all disruption is good, and they’re right about that. But we can say with just as much certainty that not all disruption is bad. Critics of Uber should be thinking of ways to leverage Uber’s technology not just to compete with Uber itself, but to change working arrangements to benefit both consumers and workers, rather than just owners.

On the Tesla Powerwall

I might be in danger of becoming an Elon Musk fanboy, so feel free to call me out on it if I become too sycophantic. There are definitely reasons to be skeptical of people like Musk, if for no other reason that we shouldn’t pin all our hopes for climate justice on a handful of billionaires. But Musk legitimacy has a knack for implementing good ideas, while his public profile helps these ideas attract public attention and investment that they might not otherwise have access to. Plus, he seems to be one of the only members of the technological elite who really understands the urgency of the climate problem.

The Tesla Powerwall’s space-age aesthetics and connection to celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk might actually be huge assets for the future development of the technology.

So even though I’m a bit late to the party (I’ve been on vacation and then very busy for the last few months), I have to write a bit about Musk’s latest Big Thing, namely the Tesla Powerwall. The Powerwall is basically a big Tesla car battery for your home. It comes in three sizes: 7 kWh, 10 kWh, and a scalable 100 kWh Powerpack which is intended for commercial and industrial uses. There are two main ways that consumers and businesses might use the Powerwall. The less radical one is to hook it up to a house that is connected to the electrical grid, in order to provide insurance against blackouts or brownouts, and allow the user to take advantage of times in the day when electricity from the grid is cheapest. The more radical proposal, is to hook the Powerwall up to some roof-mounted solar panels so that you can still get power from them even when the sun isn’t shining. This, in theory, could allow you to live completely off the grid.

A few analysts have thrown a bit of cold water on the powerwall. The PowerWall will sell for between $3000 and $3500 in the United States, but end-users consumers will likely pay more due to installation costs and retailer markups. If you buy one, you’ll also need an AC-DC inverter, to say nothing of a full set of solar panels. For that, you get a finite amount of power discharged over the lifetime of the PowerWall, because the batteries will eventually degrade. That means that the effective cost per kilowatt-hour of the powerwall is 15 cents per kWh, plus whatever you’re paying for your solar panels or electricity from the grid. The average American retail price of electricity is 12.5 cents per kWh, so it seems like the financial case for the Powerwall isn’t quite there yet.

As with any such assessment of a new technology, however, the word “yet” is a pretty big one. The Powerwall, like any new technology, has the potential to improve its performance and reduce its price. And a 50 percent decrease in its costs per kWh might start to make it attractive. The question, then, is whether Tesla (or its competitors) will be able to realize that kind of an improvement in home battery technology. That depends on two things: The basic limits of what the the batteries and the processes used to manufacture them are capable of, and the economic, social, and political context in which the batteries will be developed. I’m no expert on the first of those two things, so I’m going to consider the latter.

I have said in a previous post that a crucial question you have to ask about a new technology is not whether it is effective or affordable in the present day, but whether it has a viable niche. Is there a group of users, however small, who can financially support the Powerwall enough to support its further development? If so, then we can expect the Powerwall’s performance to go up and its price to come down.

In answering this question, my tardiness is actually a bit of an advantage, because the first two months of the Powerwall’s history can give us some idea of the kind of uptake the idea has had. The results of even a brief bit of googling are…encouraging. Here are a few potential early adopters I’ve found for the Powerwall:

  • Rich People. The evidence for this is that the Powerwall has already sold out through the middle of 2016. Given that the financial case for the technology as it currently exists is so flimsy, how can we account for this? It could be a case of overzealous retailers who will get burned when trying to sell the Powerwall on to end-users, but another explanation, in my mind, is that people with disposable income are interested in the Powerwall regardless of the financial case, or lack thereof, for it. And why not? It looks cool; it’s a conversation piece; and it lets you feel like you’re sticking it to the man a little bit and helping to tackle climate change. This makes the Powerwall roughly comparable to buying a flashy car, or to shopping at an expensive organic foods store. Nobody ever said that consumers make their choices based on financial calculations alone, after all. Rich early adopters were a big part of how the early automobile, then an unreliable and exorbitantly expensive technology-got a big boost. This illustrates why you need to consider cultural, aesthetic, political, and social elements of new technologies, rather than just relying on financial and technical analysis.
  • Movie Theatres. And other businesses for which it is extremely costly to lose power even for a short time. For these guys, the extra cost of the a bank of powerpacks might be easily justified as a way of providing security in the event of a power outage. Cinemas and other similar businesses are therefore likely to be some of the first commercial customers for the new technology.
  • Remote Areas. Admittedly, the cost of the technology might be a barrier here, particularly because many remote areas are not very wealthy. But many parts of Africa already use solar power rather than relying on the electrical grid, meaning that there could be some potential for this kind of battery technology there if some way can be found to make this technology work in the local context.

If even one of these markets proves to be fertile soil for the Powerwall, then the result could be a rapid reduction in the battery’s price per kWh, which will open up further markets, thereby making it even cheaper. There is probably a limit to how cheap it can get, but until we reach that, we can at least hope that the Powerwall might eventually emerge as something that can allow distributed solar a fighting chance against the traditional, carbon-intensive grid.

Perhaps, however, it’s a mistake to see this entirely in terms of market dynamics. Energy systems can be subsidized. Indeed, they already are. So why not subsidise the Powerwall? If framed correctly, it could become a very popular policy, allowing households to reduce their dependence on the power grid, cut their bills, contribute to a more sustainable economy, and buy some really cool technology to boot. A 50% tax break on any home energy storage might be a plausible option, particularly in sunny areas that stand to get the most from the Powerwall, or areas with state-owned energy firms which will be less likely to lobby against this kind of policy. This is an opportunity for the kind of proactive transition management that we should be encouraging our governments to do. We should do what we can to push for it.

Gaia Isn’t a Socialist

I’m going to start with a memorable passage from the graphic novel, The Watchmen, in which super genius Anthony Veidt is discussing super-being Dr. Manhattan (whose human name is Jon) with a reporter:

“VEIDT: Jon? Right-wing? (Laughs) If there’s one thing in this cosmos that that man isn’t capable of doing it’s having a political bias. Believe me … you have to meet him to understand. I mean, which do you prefer, red ants or black ants?
NOVA: Uh…? Well, I don’t have any particular preference…
VEIDT: Exactly. Well, imagine how Jon feels.”

It makes a lot of sense. How could a being so much more powerful than us, who could destroy the Earth with a thought possibly concern himself with our politics? Obviously he wouldn’t; any more than we would take a side in a battle between two warring ant-hills.

Of course, there is no Dr. Manhattan in the real world. But that doesn’t mean that that basic logic doesn’t apply in some cases. Case in point: The Earth. It is a convenient comparison, since Dr. Manhattan is essentially a god, while the Earth has probably been worshipped as a god by more cultures than any other entity on the planet. And, like with Dr. Manhattan, it makes perfect sense that the Earth, an entity so old that the entire history of the human species is barely visible on its timeline, would care very little about human politics even if it had a consciousness. The processes that shape the Earth extend thousands of kilometres down through layers of molten rock, and billions of kilometres out into space. Even the thin veneer on which we, and the rest of the Earth’s biosphere, exist, admits us as only a bit player. We humans are outnumbered by an unimaginable number of insects and microbes. The natural systems that shape our lives, from the inner workings of the cell to the global climate, are so elaborate that we will probably never fully understand them. Of course, in recent decades we have learned that we have an impact on the Earth. But even the damage we’re doing through climate change is filtered and magnified through a bewildering array of complex natural systems, from Siberian permafrost to Atlantic algal blooms to meltwater deep under Greenlandic ice sheets. Gaia is bigger than us. She was here long before we showed up, and will almost certainly persist long after we are gone. Like Dr. Manhattan, she simply doesn’t care about our petty little arguments.

Its about a week past Earth Day, the traditional day for environmentalist soul-searching, but I think it’s still an appropriate time to reflect on this fact. It’s an obvious fact, and one that has been made by many other people besides me, but it has been forgotten by far too many people who profess to care about the environment. Many seem to have come to believe that Gaia is a socialist, and that the best way to spare ourselves from her wrath, particularly in the form of climate change, is to overthrow capitalism.

This is not a new perspective, but it has been made popular by Naomi Klein’s recent book, This Changes Everything. And there is a certain truth to it: We would probably have an easier time dealing with climate change if the profit motive wasn’t constantly getting in the way. Political philosophies of all varieties are the present-day detritus of historical struggle. Socialism, capitalism, fascism, and all other political movements are nothing more than the accumulated intellectual baggage of past political battles. While, from a human perspective, some political ideologies are certainly better than others, none of them is a perfect model of reality, and none of them contains a fully-formed solution to a problem as big and inscrutable as climate change. It would be an astonishing coincidence if they did.

I think that most people who have given the climate problem more than a moment’s thought realize this, and that’s why I find it hard to resist seeing the “capitalism vs. the planet” narrative in a very cynical light. It often seems to be little more than a thinly-veiled attempt by traditional socialists to co-opt environmentalism for their own political advantage. That makes perfect sense from the perspective of socialists, for whom Gaia would be an excellent ally.

But while this might be good for socialism, is it necessarily good for environmentalism? I suspect that the answer is no, based mainly on the phenomenon of Al Gore. Al Gore is, of course, the most famous climate activist in the world. He was one of the first people with a significant public profile to really call attention to the seriousness of the problem, with his movie/film phenomenon, An Inconvenient Truth. Here’s the problem, though: Al Gore is an ex Democratic Vice President and a failed Democratic candidate for President. In the polarized political climate of the United States, that meant that republicans saw anything associated with Al Gore to be bad. As soon as Gore stamped his political brand on climate change, Republicans turned away in revulsion. That’s why today we have Republican senators throwing snowballs on the senate floor in an attempt to argue that climate change isn’t happening.

With that in mind, is it really a good idea to associated climate activism with a socialist ideology? If the political mainstream rejected climate action because of its association with Al Gore, then what do you expect them to do when it is associated with Karl Marx?

Keep in mind that there is nothing in this argument which says that the “capitalism vs. the climate” proposition is factually wrong. It may very well be correct that we can’t address the climate crisis without first eliminating capitalism. If it is true, however, then we’re probably screwed. Socialists have been trying to challenge the fundamental basis of capitalism in Western societies since before the turn of the 20th century, and but for a few very isolated and deeply problematic cases, they have never succeeded. We have a few decades to respond to climate change, if we’re lucky. Do you really want to make it contingent on a socialist revolution that has failed to happen for over a century?

So by all means work towards socialism, if that’s what you want to do. But in the meantime we have to try to answer the climate crisis by any means necessary. That means capitalistic market incentives, such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes, in addition to explicit government support of more sustainable technologies, and radical environmental justice movements. It means a role for consumer activism and maybe even the intervention of a few benevolent billionaires. All those mechanisms have their problems, but at least they can be implemented without a fundamental re-ordering of society.

Like Dr. Manhattan, the Earth transcends politics. It is a physical, chemical, and biological entity which recognizes no ideology. That means that while politics will inevitably play a role in fixing climate change, they need to be limited to an instrumental concern. This is the mindset that we need, because the unfortunate truth is that everybody will have to make political compromises in order to solve the problem. If we insist on trying to make Gaia a socialist, or a capitalist, or a feminist, or anything else, then we will accomplish nothing more than undermining our own fragile existence on Earth that much faster.

I leave you with these wise words from rapper Prince Ea:

And to betray nature is to betray us,
to save nature, is to save us.
Because whatever you’re fighting for:
Racism, Poverty, Feminism, Gay Rights,
or any type of Equality.
It won’t matter in the least,
because if we don’t all work together to save the environment,
we will be equally extinct.

Can we have innovation without billionaires?

Lately I’ve been reading a financial blog written by one Mr. Money Mustache, who managed to retire after just 9 years of work as an engineer. His radical philosophy of personal finance can be summed up by his mantra that “luxury is just another weakness”. In practical terms, this means that the best way to manage one’s finances is to avoid excessive luxuries, live well below your means, and invest your money wisely to reach financial autonomy as quickly as possible. A few days ago, Mustache published a post arguing that once you achieve that coveted financial autonomy, you will probably continue to fill your time with work. Unlike the day-job, this work is undertaken to provide a sense of purpose and direction rather than out of necessity. Here’s the argument in his own words:

“My best days are the ones where I accomplish something truly difficult, preferably in both mental and physical realms. And my worst days are those that I just spend sitting around. So I’ve learned that work is an incredibly powerful source of happiness. The key is that it must be creative, social and engaging work that brings you towards a purpose you believe in. So if a friend asks me to spend a day helping him haul steel beams and welding them into his foundation so he can resume progress on a dream house, I’ll be right over. “

Mr. Money Mustache is not the first person to articulate this idea, which is, I think, actually pretty intuitive. Answering the criticism that a Basic Income would cause everyone to sit around all day, shutting down the economy, proponents of the idea often reply, “is that what you would do?”. Consider that question yourself: If you no longer had to work for money, what would you do with your time? I think more of us would answer in a way that is more similar similar to Mr. Money Mustache, than Peter Gibbons of Office Space, whose answer is that he would sit on his ass, watch TV, and do nothing.

This might seem a bit tangential for a blog about the politics of technology, but you should bear in mind that the issues of personal finance, consumption, technology, and sustainability are all very closely interconnected. Technology is, after all, almost inseparable from work. Whether you’re talking about a space-ship or a plastic cup, it takes work to design a prototype and put it into production. Often it takes work to use it, although sometimes its use reduces the amount of work required (which can cause problems). Today, I want to talk about what implications Mr. Money Mustache’s philosophy has for the production of new technology.

The neo-liberal economic paradigm, are fundamentally based on the idea that we need to offer lavish rewards to the people who make society better. When asked to provide examples of such people, neoliberals often point to people who develop new technologies. That’s why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are such common poster-children. They earned their wealth by developing useful technologies, argues the conservative, and therefore their wealth is justified. If we don’t structure our economy to offer lavish rewards to people like Gates and Zuckerberg, then we won’t enjoy their contributions to society. This is basically the entire plot of Atlas Shrugged. But is this actually true? If we removed the chance for inventors and technological entrepreneurs to become billionaires, would all innovation cease? I think that’s very far from proven. Consider a few things:

First of all, successful entrepreneurs are, almost by definition, not stupid people. At the outset of their project, they are probably well-aware that the odds of successfully commercializing their idea actually pretty slim, and that the odds of becoming wealthy from it are even more so. Kickstarter is littered with great ideas that were never funded, and quite possibly were abandoned as a result. A savvy entrepreneur with a good idea might have a decent chance at making some money, and perhaps even earning a living. But if a smart person really wants to get rich, they’ll probably have a higher expected return on their investment by going to medical or law school, or getting an MBA. That’s not to say that the potential for obscene wealth isn’t present in their minds when they start designing a new technology, but if they’re savvy, then it’s unlikely to be their prime motivation.

Secondly, there was a fascinating experiment done by Sam Glucksberg in 1962 which sheds some interesting light on the motivations behind problem-solving. Participants were sat at a table with a candle and a box full of thumbtacks, and instructed to find a way to suspend the candle from the wall. This is a standard problem-solving task, which most participants eventually solve when they realize that they can stick the the box the thumbtacks came in to the wall, placing the candle upright in it. For Glucksbert’s experiment, researchers promised one group a financial reward for solving the problem quickly, while a control group was given no added incentive. Surprisingly, the group without the incentive completed the task faster on average. One explanation for this is that while rewards might be useful for motivating some kinds of tasks, for problem-solving tasks they are actually just a distraction.

When you consider these two points in light of Mr. Money Mustache’s statement, then a very different account of the motivations behind new technology emerges. The implicaiton is that inventors invent not because they want to become billionaires, but because they enjoy inventing. Solving the problem and making a new thing is its own reward. My hypothesis is that a lot of technological entrepreneurs are mainly interested in finding a way to make their interest in developing new technologies earn them a living. Everyone needs to keep the lights on, after all. But perhaps the potential to get rich isn’t actually that big of a motivator.

If this is true, then it is a huge blow to the neoliberal account of technology. It suggests that we could radically restructure our economy to give more to the underprivileged and less to the wildly successful, and the John Galts of this world would still be motivated to make cool stuff for us. Here’s another possible implication: How many intelligent, driven, and innovative people do you think are out there slaving away at minimum-wage jobs, working meaningless office jobs because they can’t afford to quit, or are struggling to survive in conditions of economic destitution? How many great, world-changing ideas are languishing in the minds of people who don’t have the time or the energy to bring them to fruition? What if we took the pressure to make ends meet off of these people? What might these people create if they were given a basic income, or if they were able to earn a living by working fewer hours? And how does that compare to the innovations that we might lose if we fail to motivate the entrepreneurs who won’t pursue their ideas unless they have the opportunity to become a billioniare? I can only speculate as to the answers to these questions, but I have a feeling that they might make neoliberals very uncomfortable.

The story of the entrepreneur who works hard to improve life for all of us, and is justly and richly rewarded for it, is a foundational myth of our Western capitalist economies. It goes right back to Samuel Smiles, who developed it as a response to a controversy over nineteenth-century patent law. When I say it is a ‘myth’, I don’t mean to say that it is necessarily false. Rather, that its importance is independent of its truth. Myths are stories that we tell each-other to make sense of the world we live in.

But what if this story is false? What if we could enjoy all the benefits of a high-tech society, without having to suffer the side-effect of rampant economic inequality? That would have profound implications for technology, the economy, politics, and culture. So maybe we should be so quick to accept the story of the heroic entrepreneur who needs to be enriched to make his efforts worthwhile.

Gentrifying Transportation

I’ve already gone on record saying that I generally like self-driving cars. I lean towards the techno-utopian side of things, and so a technology that can allow people to cut down on car ownership, while still being able to affordably enjoy the benefits of occasional car use seems to me to be the perfect way to make a (mostly) car-free lifestyle available in cities that were built primarily with the private automobile in mind. People can walk, cycle, and take public transit for most of their errands, while being secure in the knowledge that if those options are ever inadequate, they can always call a self-driving cab to pick them up for far cheaper than a manually-driven taxi ever could.*

There is a critique of self-driving cars from the more techno-skeptic left, however, that I haven’t really addressed yet. This is most commonly expressed as a simple phrase: “We already have such thing as a self-driving car. It’s called a bus.” People espousing this perspective argue that we should focus on improving public transportation services based on existing technologies, because initially expensive high-tech alternatives are of little value to the underprivileged. Self-driving cars, or Google’s w-fi equipped buses, they argue, are just a distraction which will mainly benefit rich people who already have access to transportation.

This argument is not a bad one. A future transportation system which uses self-driving vehicles to undermine the prevalence of personal car ownership definitely has social risks. If governments choose to support these vehicles rather than more conventional mass-transit options, then it’s nothing less than a gentrification of mobility. We have already seen something like this occuring in San Francisco, where chartered buses taking high-tech workers to their suburban corporate campuses are crowding out regular city buses which the city’s less privileged classes depend on. Whether our future transportation system depends on buses, self-driving cars, bicycles, or anything else, we need to make sure that governments continue to support options which some option which is comfortable, safe, convenient, and affordable for the poorest members of any given society. A free public system is one example of a policy that could help get people out of their cars without throwing the poor under the bus.

While it is a reason to think carefully about the kind of transport policies we support, however, these concerns are not reasons to reject fancy high-tech options out of hand. We are currently in a cultural battle over sustainable transportation. And, given that Jeremy Clarkson continues to attract public sympathy even after he assaults a colleague on set, I’m afraid that we’re losing.

For people who can afford to have options, the way they choose to travel is about much more than the simple utilitarian attributes of cars, buses, or bicycles. It is also about identity. Why else would anybody buy a sports car? Most people’s daily commutes are congested, meaning that a fancy car is no more fun to drive, and unless you live in Germany, there will likely be no opportunity at all to drive it at its top speed without risking a massive traffic ticket. Like clothing, means of transportation are fashion statements. People buy them because they “turn heads”.

In popular consciousness, then, if a Ferrari is the equivalent of a tuxedo; a BMW is the equivalent of a business suit; and a minivan is the equivalent of some nice but casual weekend-wear, then what is a bus pass? At best, it’s an outfit assembled from the local second-hand shop. I’m not defending this view. Buses should get a lot more respect than they do, and there are lots of successful people that ride the bus. But we need to acknowledge that these cultural story-lines are real, and that they have a real impact. Ask most habitual drivers to describe to you the interior of a city bus, and even if they have never been on a bus before, they will probably tell you all kinds of horrible-sounding things about rude drivers, filthy seats, and sketchy-looking fellow travellers. Even if the bus isn’t actually like that (and most aren’t, for the record), choosing to ride a bus rather than drive a car has implications for people’s identity.

This does not mean that we should give up on trying to convince the middle classes to take public transit. Public transit has a very important role to play in making our transportation system more just and sustainable. But we’ve been trying to do this since congestion first became a major problem in the 1960s, with very little success. Do you really think we are going to change deeply-held cultural views about transport in the next few decades?

I say “the next few decades”, because that is the time scale we’re talking about when we talk about solving the problem of climate change. During that time, We have to get the middle classes out of their cars. Transportation contributes 13 percent of global carbon emissions, which, incidentally, are causing Antarctica and Siberia to literally fall apart. Miami and Bangladesh are probably already doomed. We can’t afford to wait for a cultural revolution in which the majority of first-world commuters give up their materialism and embrace public transit. We have to work with what we’ve got.

That means that we have to embrace new forms of sustainable transportation that fit with people’s existing life-styles. Self-driving cars and private luxury commuter buses have the potential to be that. High-speed rail allows people to make intercity and even international trips without resorting to air travel, which is massively polluting. These things are actually viable options for the millions of people who will never take a bus. This is a bit of a compromise solution. Gentrification is always dangerous, whether it affects land or modes of transportation, and it has to be managed carefully in both cases. But we can’t make saving the planet contingent on our social and economic justice agenda, because that agenda will be meaningless when the full effects of climate change start to hit home. We need to act now, and act aggressively, even if it means taking some risks with our other political concerns. So the answer, I think, is all of the above: More, and cheaper buses, but also a few fancy high-tech alternatives. At least for the near future.

*Yes, this has some pretty important implications for labour relations. I’ve addressed them here.

Infrastructure, Pipelines, and the Moral Dilemma of Sustainability Transitions

If you follow American politics at all, you’ve by now probably heard the phrase “America’s crumbling infrastructure” many times. American politicians, including President Obama, are beginning to latch onto the issue, and propose programs to address it. Internet Comedian/investigative journalist John Oliver recently devoted an episode to the issue:

The consensus seems pretty clear: The American government needs find a few billion dollars lying around and use it to make some very substantial repairs. Certainly it’s an appealing political program: Put a bunch of people to work creating shiny new infrastructures that will make people’s everyday lives easier and safer. The only problem is getting the politicians to agree on where to find the money.

That’s the popular narrative, anyway. I, however, have a quibble: Some of America’s transportation infrastructure is bad. Not just in the sense that it’s falling apart, but in the sense that even when functioning perfectly, it does bad things. I want to talk about highways in particular. The American highway infrastructure perpetuates a transportation system that killed over 30,000 people in 2013, wastes billions of person-hours in traffic jams, leads to dependence on increasingly scarce and dangerous oil supplies, and of course contributes to pollution and climate change. If Americans go on driving as much as they do, then every single one of these problems will get worse. The problem is that an infrastructural system, such as the United States’ highway network, is a bit like a muscle: by repairing it, you strengthen it. If the US Federal Government invests in another round of highway building, then the new and refurbished highways will be built a little bit bigger and a little bit better in order to accommodate future anticipated traffic. That will just lead to more cars on the road, and more resources being devoted to supporting them. So what if, instead of repairing all the highways, the Americans only repaired the most essential highways, and put much more money into effective regional rail and public transit systems?

I know what you’re thinking, and no, they probably can’t do both. It’s hard enough to make a big fiscal commitment to one major national infrastructural project; doing two at once would require the government to walk a fiscal and political tightrope. People will inevitably think that their local highway improvement project is inadequate, and will complain when they see money going to trains that they believe they will not use. That means that the government has to take a fairly brave stand against highway interests in order to stat to change the transportation system towards something a bit safer and more sustainable. To encourage a transition, you have to nurture alternatives, but you also have to put pressure on the existing system.

There is, of course, a glaringly obvious problem with my logic that I have ignored up until now. While the perpetuation of the car system threatens lives, economies, and the very planet in the long-term, the abysmal state of American highways threatens lives now. Many Americans, regardless of their views on the matter, have little choice but to drive on the highways if they want to be able to do things like go to work and buy groceries. A failure of the American highway system, such as a major bridge collapse, would endanger a lot of people. That makes a very compelling case for investing in highways, regardless of what the sustainability implications would be.

This problem was also illustrated in Vice News’ recent mini-documentary. Pipeline Nation. It’s pretty chilling stuff, illustrating the  If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, scroll to TIME, when an EPA administrator spells out an environmental case for new pipeline construction, at about the five-minute mark.

“If I were king of the world, I would be replacing pipelines, and if I was king of the EPA, I would be helping people replace pipelines…The biggest factor for risk is the age of the pipelines…From my standpoint as a spill responder, I would like to see lots more newer pipelines. I drove to get up here. You drove to get out here to come talk to me.  We need the oil, and as long as we do, I would like to see safer infrastructure.”

My proposal about highways above might have seemed very radical, but it is basically the same thing that climate activists, including Naomi Klein, are proposing about pipelines. Their strategy is to strangle the oil industry by impeding its ability to get its product to market, thereby helping to keep the oil in the ground. It’s not necessarily a bad strategy, but the spill responder quoted above lays out a pretty good case against it: As long as no new pipelines are built, the existing pipelines will be used, and they will cause spills. To make matters worse, when oil companies can’t use a pipeline, they put the oil on trains. This can be extremely dangerous: In 2013, one such train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, devastating the town and killing 47 people.

If the Energy East pipeline had existed in 2013, then the Lac Mégantic disaster would not have occurred. And if the Keystone XL pipeline gets built, then it is a safe bet the absolute rate of spillage of southbound tar sands oil will go down. But at what cost? These projects will reinforce the oil extraction industry, making it that much harder to transition away from it and leave the oil in the ground. If we can’t manage to leave the oil in the ground, then climate change will cause a lot more devastation down the road than one train explosion ever could.

Lest any fossil fuel lobbyists stumble across this post, I should say that I absolutely do not support the construction of the Keystone XL, Energy East, the Trans Mountain Pipeline, or any other major oil export project. We need to be phasing out fossil fuels, not expanding the infrastructure used to extract and burn them. But there’s a moral dilemma here that the climate movement has not adequately addressed. What, exactly, are we going to say to the people who are put at risk when we block unsustainable infrastructure? How many additional car accident deaths are acceptable in the process of adjusting our infrastructure to create a car-free transportation system? How many oil spills and train explosions are we willing to accept as the cost of strangling the oil sands and other major oil extraction projects? There is no easy answer to this question, which is why we need to start thinking very hard about it.