In 1898, delegates from across the globe gathered in New York City for the world’s first international urban planning conference. One topic dominated the discussion. It was not housing, land use, economic development, or infrastructure. The delegates were driven to desperation by horse manure.
The situation seemed dire. In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s third-story windows. A public health and sanitation crisis of almost unimaginable dimensions loomed.
And no possible solution could be devised
The solution turned out to be the Automobile. This was much more than just a technological fix, it also transformed the way we worked and lived, it arguably assisted in the democratisation of the word and played its part in a new era of prosperity in the Western world.
Today we are faced with a similar dilemma with Climate change. We know that it is a pending disaster and it is on such a colossal scale that our individually puny efforts seem completely inadequate to form even a part of the solution.
Given the speed of technologic development that we are seeing today, it is very likely that the next 50 years will see more technology driven change than has occurred in the last 250 years since the beginning of the industrial revolution. It only takes a few moments of imagination to see how society has been transformed in that time, and the potential capacity to use that change to both solve the global warming problem in the long term and mitigate its effect in the short term.
Just imagine for a moment what the world might look like if we had an internet running at 1Tbps speeds instead of the current 24Mbps that is the norm. We would immediately stop worrying about new airport runways, high speed trains, extra bypasses and focus on the requirements of the 21century’s infrastructure. It would significantly reduce the amount of travelling that we do, and at the same time transform the way we work, educate, manage our health and socialise. And that is just one strand of the transformations we are likely to see. New materials that transform the thermal efficiency of our buildings, generate power, light our environments and enable us to grow foods, all have transformative power.
Just as the rise of the car eventually resolved the horse manure problem, so new developments can resolve the climate change problem. But it will not happen automatically, it will be the result of a concerted effort by all of us to ensure that the political and economic environment is conducive to those changes that will help. Nor will it be an unalloyed benefit – dangers and disadvantages abound. The question of how and who makes the right choices at all levels should worry us all.
It is here that I am most concerned. A recent survey discovered that the level of scientific literacy both here in the UK and in America is below 24% (and the bar to qualify as scientifically literate was already worryingly low!!). In America no politician who want to win an election can admit to believing the Darwinian explanation for our very existence. The forces of conservatism both traditional and modern, are building in strength and risk choking off the best chances we have of evolving society into something more sustainable. There is a long tradition of vested interests strangling scientific progress in order to preserve their self serving status quo.
Our job as citizens is to give change a chance and be engaged in the battle.