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Spaceship Earth

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Here is Joel Achenbach writing in today’s Washington Post [2]:

Spaceship Earth enters 2012 belching smoke, overheating and burning through fuel at a frightening rate. It’s feeling pretty crowded, and the crew is mutinous. No one’s at the helm.

No one’s at the helm. That’s what makes Spaceship Earth such a potent metaphor for those who would like to be at the helm. Who wants to be on a spaceship with no one at the helm? Of course, Spaceship Earth is a pretty unusual spaceship. That gravity thing has us going around the sun pretty nicely year after year even though no one is at the helm. In terms of literally steering the ship, we apparently don’t need a captain. The ship steers itself. Thank God or nature as is your wont, but no person at the helm does seem to work pretty well.

But those who would use the metaphor to demand a need for action, it’s what’s happening on the decks and below-decks of the spaceship that have people alarmed–the belching smoke, overheating, diminishing fuel, crowded and so on.

Achenback continues:

Sure, it’s an antiquated metaphor. It’s also an increasingly apt way to discuss a planet with 7 billion people, a global economy, a World Wide Web, climate change, exotic organisms running amok and all sorts of resource shortages and ecological challenges.

More and more environmentalists and scientists talk about the planet as a complex system, one that human beings must aggressively monitor, manage and sometimes reengineer. Kind of like a spaceship.

Kind of like a spaceship? We’re pretty good at managing or re-engineering actual spaceships. Human beings have a mediocre track record for aggressively managing or re-engineering a modestly complex system such as a city. An even more complex system, such as an entire economy or Yellowstone Park or the entire planet? That we have no clue about how to do well. Monitoring, I can believe. Managing and re-engineering requires knowledge we don’t have. It also would require a centralization of power. What evidence is there that that power would be used wisely and well by environmentalists and scientists? Strangely enough, though, they think it’s a good idea.

Even the most modest efforts such as ethanol requirements have turned out badly. We can’t even aggressively manage the corn market for human good. The entire planet?

The rest of the article quotes “experts” who tout the virtues of science and technology and the potential for using them more aggressively. Achenbach suggests that human hubris on these fronts often leads to unintended consequences. He also points out that our knowledge is woefully incomplete:

A number of recent events have shown that complex technological systems are vulnerable to rare but consequential failures. The BP oil spill [3], for example, happened despite elaborate technologies and monitoring systems designed to prevent an oil-well blowout, or at least shut down a runaway well if the initial line of defense failed.

Investigators said that [4] engineering decisions eroded the safety margin in an attempt to cut costs. But the technology wasn’t as robust as engineers thought it was.

Even more humbling was the March 11 earthquake [5] in Japan. The earthquake wasn’t supposed to be possible. The seismic hazard maps showed that the maximum possible earthquake along the Japan Trench — the huge fault line where one plate of the Earth dives beneath another — could generate earthquakes up to magnitude 8.4. But on the afternoon of March 11, the fault broke and generated an earthquake registering 9.0, which was six times stronger than the theoretical maximum.

Hmmm. Evidently Spaceship Earth has a lot of Black Swans [6] along for the ride.

Lord, please save us from experts who would save us.