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China and Stuff

Monday 31st January 2011

I watched this TED talk the other day (which is always a great way of killing some time), and thought it was really quite fascinating:

I don’t think it’s a completely bad thing that things like this are happening. China was poor, it’s getting richer. This is good. If that happens, it’s also sort of predictable that China will grow big, considering the population.

The thing is, we need to be aware this is happening. I think there’s a sort of implicit complacency in the Western world. We assume we’ll be at the cutting edge, that we’ll always hold all the power; we’re the most advanced now, so we must always be the most advanced nations in the world. But that’s not true. In many ways, it sort of feels to me that we’re already starting to almost stagnate in many ways. Things like the green movement are really dangerous for this. Because that movement is all about trying to reverse development, to eschew technology to take us back to a supposedly “sustainable” way of living – these are the real conservatives. Except the only way to truly be sustainable is to embrace that technology.

Look at where most of the big engineering projects happen now: the middle and far east. They seem to have the same zeal for those projects as we had back in the Victorian era. It’s great. And where are we now? Protesting against High-Speed Rail, because it’ll go through a field a mile away from my house and it’ll spoil my enjoyment of the 6 o’clock news. We’re campaigning* against things like the Severn Barrage – successfully, as it turns out – because yes we need the electricity and of course it’d be great for flood control, but it might endanger the habitat of this group of birds which don’t actually live anywhere near the proposed site. And on the subject of protests; in Egypt, they’re protesting to overthrow the government, for free elections. This weekend in the UK, (mostly stupid) people were protesting to get companies like Vodafone to volunteer to pay more tax – and I do wonder how many of the protesters do likewise. It’s mad!

Anyway. I sort of got off-topic and started ranting. Do watch the video, it’s interesting.

* From the site – “The expert charged with silt modelling and tidal impacts, has his post sponsored by Halcrow. How could his evidence ever be independent?” – that expert taught me fluid mechanics, and was my undergraduate personal tutor. I find it stupid that whoever wrote the site accuses him of bias.

Posted at 9:49 pm | Posted In: EngineeringPoliticsRant Tagged:

10 Comments:

Dickie

Monday 31st January 2011, 9:58 pm

More from the Save our Severn site – “But his models have glaringly obvious flaws. The extensive plastic models are shown with steep sides”

Okay, not everyone is likely to understand on first glimpse why models are distorted. But if you’re going to suggest it as an “obvious flaw” of a model, then you might just look silly to those who do.

Andy

Monday 31st January 2011, 10:21 pm

You’ve got sustainability wrong(ish). Sustainability is mostly not about contracting economically (i.e. reversing development), because that’s pretty damn difficult, and immoral.

No, it’s about finding ways to live within our means. I’ve seen the energy use growth curves, and they scare me shitless. I look at how much we have to shrink our CO2 output by to: a) Prevent dangerous levels of warming and b) Not be hypocrites about what we tell the developing world, and it scares me shitless.

We cannot, repeat cannot, live like we do now in the West forever. You scale the Western (and god help us, American) lifestyle up to include the whole world, and we’re royally fucked. Totally shafted. In a geopolitical and environmental shit-creek without a paddle.

As China and others develop to the point where their populations start to live Western-style lives using Western-style amounts of energy, things are going to get really, really bad, accelerating both the occurrence and severity of energy crises. I fear the coming of the Oil Wars.

The NIMBYs are the fuckers who have to be swept aside, because things like improving our rail infrastructure, and generating energy from new renewable sources is vital. But big iron engineering projects aren’t the whole solution and they never can be. A lot of it is just going to be finding ways to live more efficiently on small scales, which is damned difficult.

Honestly though, (and this is after watering down the comment a bit) when it comes to it, we may have to reverse some development (they are scary, scary curves) The real question is if we can manage it over a number of years, or have a really sharp, violent contraction when (not if) the brown stuff hits the fan. And I do mean violent; as things like available energy sources dwindle, it’s suddenly going to become really economically viable (if not necessary) to fight absolutely tooth & nail for them.

Dickie

Tuesday 1st February 2011, 12:23 am

Maybe I wasn’t clear. When I said “[the green] movement is all about trying to reverse development”, I was talking about some of the people who claim to be in favour of sustainability and who advocate this idea of reversing development (IIRC the Green Party are guilty of this to a big extent), not about the concept of sustainability itself. I was most definitely not advocating that idea myself, or equating it with sustainability. Frankly, those who do so are ignorant.

I agree with much – but not all – of what you’ve said. As a planet, we have a growing demand for energy and shrinking reserves of the materials we extract it from. Clearly this is not sustainable, clearly things need to change. I think (hope!) that it’s possible to do this without reversing development. Indeed, I reckon that many of the things which are sustainable are actually things which stimulate growth. If we use energy more efficiently, then we spend less on energy, and we get growth. If tomorrow, someone invents/discovers a completely sustainable source of energy, well then surely that would be better/more efficient than extracting oil or whatever, therefore cheaper, therefore stimulating growth.

Like I say, I’m hopeful this is the case. Whether it is, is simply a question of timing. If we don’t find a sustainable energy source before the oil runs out then yes, things will contract and contract fast. From much of what I’ve seen, people (actually, by that I mean industry) are well aware of the need for sustainability, and are very much trying to act upon it (even if they are sometimes impeded; at the moment I’m working on a report for one of the engineering consultancies about sustainability in the water industry, and it’s amazing how frequently EU/government regulation is completely at odds with what we might deem to be sustainable. But I digress).

Really, the point of the post wasn’t really anything to do with sustainability. I just got a bit off-topic and happened to mention it!

Lucy

Tuesday 1st February 2011, 10:23 am

I’m with Andy on this one, I’m afraid, pretty much word for word. Yes, technological development resulting in more efficient energy use is a good thing. But we simply cannot afford to maintain all of the comforts of our current ways of life forever – technological developments simply aren’t enough to compensate, and it’s ostrich thinking to pretend otherwise.

Jenny

Tuesday 1st February 2011, 11:11 am

Ditto Lucy and Andy. Of course we should try and ‘do’ sustainability by using all of the knowledge, all the years of research and development that we’ve had the benefit of thus far, and developing new technologies in order to face up to these environmental challenges. But basically, sacrifices are going to have to be made, and we can’t *all* manage to live like we do in the west.

Basically, if we do our bit, plough on with the vagaries of British public transport, stick on a jumper, not the heating, and re-use the odd carrier bag (etc etc) then industry and government have to do the rest. And it’ll be difficult (well, a tad inconvenient, tbh) for all of us but surely it’s better than oil wars and all the rest of it? I think there’s a place for old-fashioned economies and there’s a place for energy-saving new technologies, and new ways of getting energy and water, and the only way we’ll survive is to use *both* those routes.

Dickie

Tuesday 1st February 2011, 11:20 am

This post is absolutely NOT about sustainability, energy, or any of those sorts of issues. I mentioned the “green” movement to make a different point, not to comment on sustainability. I was NOT saying that our current way of doing things is sustainable. I didn’t actually make any comment either way in the OP, but my reply to Andy should make that perfectly clear. I don’t actually disagree with much that he wrote!

I’m not saying anything more because I don’t have time, and it’s not relevant. Suffice to say, many of the solutions that are put out there, the things some people say we should do to be sustainable, are deeply terrible ideas that would make things worse. To reiterate, when i say this, I am NOT saying there isn’t a problem.

Lucy

Tuesday 1st February 2011, 2:39 pm

I think it is relevant, actually, although I accept that we were focussing on a different side of the topic than the one you intended.

Enjoy your coursework, which is I presume is what you are currently doing.

Dickie

Tuesday 1st February 2011, 3:06 pm

Interesting and important, yes. But not really relevant to the thing i posted, or what I wrote subsequently.

Lectures, by the way. Writing replies in coffee breaks :) coursework comes next week…

Jenny

Sunday 27th February 2011, 9:28 am

Alright, but how many times have you commented on a blog post I’ve written and taken it way off-track?! I also can’t see why – if sustainability *does* bring with it a certain amount of stagnation, which is not something with which I necessarily agree – that’s a bad thing. Surely better to fall behind as compared to other countries like china, than to continue winning but at a greater cost to our planet?!

Dickie

Sunday 27th February 2011, 1:54 pm

Haha, fair point! I don’t think it was going off-track that I protested, so much as the fact that you’re all arguing against something I didn’t say! I accept that I what I wrote in the post may have led to that misunderstanding, which is why I wrote quite a lengthy reply to Andy’s comment which clarified what I meant.

As to whether sustainability brings stagnation, well that’s not something I’ve argued. In fact I suggested the exact opposite; that I think that if done properly, sustainable development should drive economic growth & prosperity. In fact, I don’t think it ever could come down to Growth vs Sustainability, that you can have one or either but not both. By definition, maintaining unsustainable activities cannot lead to long-term growth!

My remark in the post related not to whether sustainability is a good or bad thing, but rather to those people who cynically use environmental issues to further their own political agenda. Groups like the Green Party. There are people who think that to be sustainable, we have to enact policies which would lead to stagnation or deflation, and they seem to think this is a good thing!

As I said in the post: “that movement is all about trying to reverse development, to eschew technology to take us back to a supposedly “sustainable” way of living – these are the real conservatives”. I’m talking about particular groups and ideologies, NOT the concept of sustainable development.

“Surely better to fall behind as compared to other countries like china, than to continue winning but at a greater cost to our planet?”

We already have fallen behind China in terms of GDP, and (at current rates of growth) we’ll fall behind it in GDP per capita in a few decades. Little to do with sustainability, and lots to do with China being a bloody big country with a very large population!

And that has massive ramifications. Because it means that we in the West are losing the power we once had. We’re not the dominant world powers any more, especially Europe; or rather if we are, we won’t be for long. It’s a huge shift in power, and we in the West need to alter our view of the world accordingly (in that video, the guy mentions that we’re “sleepwalking into oblivion”. It’s an interesting observation). Personally, I think the way the world is changing is absolutely fascinating, and so I’m amazed that the commentary here has focussed upon a misinterpretation of something I said about sustainability, rather than the issues mentioned in the talk.

Also, I don’t think it’s helpful to think of it in terms of “winners” and “losers. China and other developing economies are becoming wealthier because they can manufacture and export goods cheaper than we can. At the same time, the West benefits because we get to purchase those goods for less. We both win!

The “winners and losers” idea, taken to its logical conclusion, leads to protectionism. And protectionism is a Very Bad Thing; you only need to look at poverty in Africa to be convinced of that.

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