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Time Shows the Limits of Journalistic Imagination February 4, 2007

Posted by Jim Satterfield in Economics, Environment, Futurist Spec, Politics, Technology.
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Time Magazine writes about the inherent environmental footprint of air travel. But is it really as cut and dried as they make it sound? If you leave it to the free market system with no government intervention it probably is. If you look at the short term they’re probably right. But think about it a little differently. How many new materials that are strong enough for many uses on airplanes still aren’t being used because of a short term view of cost effectiveness? How much room for improvement is there in engine design and mightn’t there the possibility of an entirely different kind of engine that just hasn’t been invented yet?

Not according to this article, which this quote makes obvious.

“It’s not like having leaky home windows you can fix with double glazing,” says Leo Murray, a spokesman for the straightforwardly named green group Plane Stupid, which led the criticism of Prince Charles.

In addition there are other possibilities that are ignored. While the kind of adaptations that the environmentalists cited in this article aren’t going to happen (The elimination of air travel and “learning to live locally” being their only solutions.) there are other, wider ones that aren’t really the kind of sacrifice you might think. If for the sake of cutting back on the problems inherent in the modern commuting nightmare we can finally get uberconservative business management types to accept telecommuting and videoconferencing as normal and not career destroying, wouldn’t that open the door for even more imaginative ways to help the environment? Imagine a modern lighter than air craft, faster and safer than the old ones that people are used to thinking about. There is already research in this field, such as the Aeroscraft and the P-791. Imagine that even if you feel you must travel to Asia for business that you ride in a craft that is a descendant of these efforts and use telecommunication and videoconferencing to stay in touch during the necessarily longer flight time and you aren’t stuck in the current airline sardine can configuration. Should the cost per passenger be similar to current costs it would even open the door to leisure travel.

As far as the government involvement I mentioned earlier I’d like to see government sponsored equivalents to the X-Prize for various goals to help with most environmental goals that tend to produce market failures and then tax breaks for implementation of them by industry. I think this approach would help encourage the market to do what it does best…but only when it’s encouraged when it comes to some things.

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1. double-soup tuesday - February 4, 2007

But think about it a little differently. How many new materials that are strong enough for many uses on airplanes still aren’t being used because of a short term view of cost effectiveness? How much room for improvement is there in engine design and mightn’t there the possibility of an entirely different kind of engine that just hasn’t been invented yet?

Of course there may be — I don’t think that most people doubt it. However, we talk of people as a social group that spans time, and not as an individual that does not. The market has reduced the cost of technology in the last 15 years, yet only the presently living can take advantage. Same in the future. Some may be helped but most will not benefit from it if they’re dead.

I think this approach would help encourage the market to do what it does best…but only when it’s encouraged when it comes to some things.

The market is horribly wasteful. That’s how we got where we are; by assuming that it is efficient in all things:

To make the case for “no technical solutions”, Hardin notes the limits placed on the availability of energy (and material resources) on Earth, and also the consequences of these limits for “quality of life”. To maximize population, one needs to minimize resources spent on anything other than simple survival, and vice versa. Consequently, he concludes that there is no foreseeable technical solution to increasing both human populations and their standard of living on a finite planet.

2. Jim Satterfield - February 5, 2007

I think of the mind set of some people as being a membership in the First Church of Free Market. Absolute faith of the blindest sort seems to be the order of the day in that church. There is no problem beyond the power of Market and Market is infallible.


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