August 19, 2013

Sustainable Consumption and the Technology of Sustainability

By: Steven Cohen

Source: Huffington Post

One of the consistent themes of many environmentalists is that we must reduce consumption and live more modest lives in tune with nature, if we are to promote a sustainable economic future. I do not believe that a frugal sustainability is either feasible or necessary. It's not feasible because with over seven billion people on the planet and a growing majority of them living in cities, it is too late to get back to the land and live as one with nature. There's too many of us, and not enough "nature" to go around. Sitting alone in the dark and eating bread and water doesn't sound too desirable either. I am not arguing that our goal should be excessive consumption and wanton waste, but that it's too late to turn back the clock and live without technology.

Instead, we need to use technology and human ingenuity to develop a new form of urban sustainability. This new form of urban sustainability will enable us to live spiritually and intellectually rich, meaningful and interesting lives, in cities that have learned to reduce their ecological and carbon impacts. The economic value of our consumption will grow as the material base of it will be reduced and be made more renewable and less toxic. This will require a shift in patterns of consumption and methods of producing goods and services, but it will not require a reduction in production and consumption.

It is reasonable to see this vision as an unrealistic delusion. It may be a dream, but the idea that people will willingly reduce their consumption of electronic toys, food, travel, entertainment and everything else is an even deeper delusion. Moreover, the process of losing what people now have, or preventing developing nations from growing, would be politically destabilizing. In this age of terror and the rapid "advance" of the technology of destruction, mass economic deprivation could be extraordinarily dangerous.

In my view, our only chance is a technological fix. Fortunately, that is something we spent most of the 19th and 20th centuries learning how to do. The economic opportunities and threats of the last two centuries were nearly all the result of technological advances, along with technological solutions to problems created by other technologies. Two examples of this process: (1.) We invented cars. People died in car accidents: We learned how to develop seat belts, air bags and safer cars and roads. (2.) We invented modern toilets and sewage systems to carry waste from our homes. Sewage polluted our water: We then learned how to treat sewage and reduce pollution in our rivers and lakes. The list goes on. The point is that we often fix the problems caused by technology by applying new technology; and we know how to apply technological fixes. On the other hand, each time the economy has contracted significantly, it has destabilized regimes and caused suffering, death and destruction. We do not know how to stop the economic merry-go-round, and I doubt we will ever learn how to do it.

At the present time we do not know how to develop a sustainable economy or a sustainable city, but we need to figure out how to do it. In my view, it begins with the basics and the development of less destructive ways to build our settlements, grow our food, supply our water and generate our energy.

Then we move on to personal consumption itself. Paying a personal trainer and using the facilities at a gym, is a less resource-intensive form of consumption than building an addition to your home, filling it with gym equipment and working out on your own. Investing in a geothermal home climate control system is less resource intensive than buying a gasoline powered home generator. These are all examples of consumption, but some are more sustainable than others.

The connection between economic growth and technological development should not be understated. The economy of the 21st century is still emerging and while I would not predict its path, some of its parameters are obvious. First, it will be based on a set of technologies now being born: nanotech and biotech. Second, ecosystem well-being and the need for renewables, rather than one-time resources, will present both opportunities and constraints in our economy.

The energy breakthroughs required to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will very likely be developed through applications of new technology to solar cells and energy-storing batteries. These technologies will be developed by an emerging public-private partnership between university-based research that is collaboratively funded and operated by government, nonprofit and private organizations.

Such a partnership is now being planned by Cornell University for a new campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City. But Cornell is a decade behind SUNY, since this type of public-private partnership is already an established reality in upstate New York. Last week, my colleague Bill Eimicke and I were treated to a tour of a relatively new institution in Albany that provides a clear demonstration that such an enterprise is not only possible, but is already well underway. Bill and I visited the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) and met with Dr. Alain E. Kaloyeros, its visionary creator and CEO. We were given an extensive tour of the most amazing academic research complex I have ever seen. According to the College's website:

"CNSE's Albany NanoTech Complex is a fully-integrated research, development, prototyping, and educational facility that provides strategic support through outreach, technology acceleration, business incubation, pilot prototyping, and test-based integration support for onsite corporate partners including IBM, Intel, GlobalFoundries, SEMATECH, Samsung, TSMC, Toshiba, Applied Materials, Tokyo Electron, ASML and Novellus Systems, as well as other "next generation" nanotechnology research activities."
New York State has built an impressive new research institution that could well spark a high tech renaissance in upstate New York. Students attending this college are part of an unparalleled effort to create a new kind of learning-by-doing experience. As the College's website reports:
"CNSE's more than $17 billion Albany NanoTech Complex totals 800,000 square feet of cutting-edge facilities with 80,000 square feet of 300mm wafer, class 1 capable cleanrooms, with more than 3,100 R&D jobs on site... NanoFab Xtension, an expansion now underway, part of which will house the world's first Global 450mm Consortium, will add nearly 500,000 square feet of next-generation infrastructure, an additional 60,000 square feet of Class 1 capable cleanrooms, and more than 1,000 scientists, researchers and engineers from CNSE and global corporations."
The College has also built a solar energy lab in Halfmoon, New York, and a photovoltaic facility in Rochester, New York, and staff there are busy applying these breakthrough technologies to the development of solar cells. CNSE's expansion has been a major priority of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and represents the kind of transformative institution that could provide the scientific base needed to spark the transition to a sustainable, renewable economy. It could also stimulate the long over-due revival of New York's long-dormant upstate economy.

Almost two centuries ago, DeWitt Clinton, first as Mayor of New York City and then as Governor of New York State, created a public-private partnership to build the Erie Canal. Started in 1817 and completed in 1825, the canal made New York State and New York City an economic powerhouse. Today, Governor Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have provided the leadership required to create the high-tech equivalent of the Erie Canal. The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering provides a unique environment and set of high-tech services that many corporations cannot provide on their own. Companies pay for the services they receive, but just like the tolls on the Erie Canal, companies receive unique value for the funds they invest. The SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is already demonstrating the economic potential of this partnership. Cornell's Roosevelt Island campus holds the potential to do the same. The impressive campus I saw last week Albany gives me great hope that we can develop the technology needed to build a sustainable economy.