Monday, November 17, 2008


Today I attended the first day of the IEEE Energy2030 Conference in Atlanta, a gathering primarily of engineers with a few industry executives and government officials . . . and one philosopher. The general topic was the creation of a sustainable energy infrastructure, somehow, between now and 2030.

In the course of the day I detected a number of basic assumptions at work in the background, mainly unquestioned but, I think, eminently questionable.

1) Growth in per-capita GDP is good in itself.

2) Growth in per-capita GDP is the only relevant index of human progress.

3) This is so regardless of distribution (except perhaps that developing countries should be allowed to catch up with developed countries.)

4) "Quality of life" = "standard of living" = per capita GDP

5) "Quality of life" is not negotiable; it is not to be compromised or seriously questioned in any way for any reason.

6) Sustainability = producing enough energy to support growth in per-capita GDP indefinitely.

6) Consumers are motivated entirely by desire; desire grows without limit.

7) No real initiative toward sustainability can or should be expected from consumers.

8) Policy "engages" with consumers by manipulating their behavior ("incenting" them) to adopt more efficient means to fulfilling their desires.

9) “Incent” is a verb.

10)For the most part, policy and engineering need not engage consumers at all (working quietly in the background while consumers do whatever they want).

11) Personal freedom = doing whatever you want without limitations.

12) Properly structured markets are MAGIC.

13) All problems have solutions.

14) Most solutions are to be found in technical innovation.

15) Solutions in any case are to be worked out by experts - engineers, industry executives, and government officials - and introduced into the system from above.

These assumptions are not entirely surprising, given the audience; the poster I presented in the late afternoon session was already a response to some of these very assumptions. What was surprising was that the assumptions did not always remain in the background: they were sometimes asserted with fervor, and contrary assumptions were sometimes vehemently denounced. A favorite image: anyone who calls for any sort of restraint on the part of consumers wants them to suffer the ultimate indignities . . . warm beer and cold showers.

Over the next few days, I'll post installments of the paper I submitted to the conference. It begins with a quotation from VP Cheney . . .


Doc Nagel said...

I don't see how you could come up with a more perfect operational definition of technocracy.

I can't abide cold showers, so if you could put in a word for me about that, I'd appreciate it.

Lulu--Back in Town said...

That list makes my head hurt.

Echo Chris above, but I'm okay with warm beer.

Robert Kirkman said...

Depends on the beer, I suppose. The Europeans in the audience may have been puzzled by the insistence on cold beer as one of the two indices of human well-being.