5 Things Bringing Us Closer to the Future of WALL-E
Posted March 17, 2011
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For those of you who haven't seen the movie WALL-E, it's a story set in the future where Earth no longer has the capacity to sustain life. The atmosphere is toxic. Garbage dwarfs our infrastructure. Chemical spills plague the Earth. Soils are incapable of yielding plant growth. Humans have rendered the Earth uninhabitable. We only manage to survive the catastrophe by living in an artifical environment aboard a spaceship. Could this really be our future? Due to my affinity for Pixar movies, and that the future presented in the movie is plausible, I often approach issues looking to answer the question "would this bring us a step closer to WALL-E?". I think everyone should take that approach, because there's a lot of evidence to suggest that the future presented in WALL-E is happening right before us.
1. Carbon Capture & Storage.
Alberta's economy is based on the extraction of non-renewable resources. Leading the growth in the industry are the oil sands, a particularily carbon intensive resource to extract. As such, Alberta's been feeling increasing pressure to curb it's greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon capture and storage, CCS, is the proposed solution to decreasing emissions. By capturing and storing greenhouse gases, Alberta can meet emissions targets without a negative impact on the economy. The best case is that this techonology works, will capture carbon permanently and will do so at a rate worth the cost. The worst case is that the technology fails, and is not economically viable for the amount of emissions captured.
Assuming CCS works like a charm, a moral hazard is presented - we would rid ourselves of the the largest impediment to non-renewable resource extraction, greenhouse gases. There would be less incentive to reduce our consumption. We would go on extracting resources at increaed rates, over-consuming them, all the while building infrastructure to capture carbon. We would replace our natural systems of carbon capture, like forests, with artificial infrastructure that can handle our growing carbon capturing needs, and go on to create an overdeveloped artificial world not unlike the one in WALL-E. Once our oil resources become too expensive or run out, all our CCS infrastructure would become the monuments of a previous failed generation. It sounds like the worst case scenario for CCS, that it never works, is actually the best case scenario and vice versa.
2. Climate Control.
Geo-engineering is the large-scale deliberate modification of the Earth's environment to satsify our needs. The concept isn't new, one could argue we have already been doing this since our first civilizations used agriculture, and certainly since the industrial revolution. We have been changing the composition of the atmosphere, forests, rivers, lakes and oceans throughout our existence, and now exponentially so. Our climate is also changing, and we are poised for large spread disasters of sea-levels rising and droughts. What's our solution? Stop changing the composition of our environment? Think again. How about deviating our environment's composition even further, intentionally? University of Calgary scientist, David Keith runs down the idea:
To avoid a global warming catastrophe, David Keith suggests we should spray the atmosphere with chemicals to reduce the amount of sun exposure, and thus cool the planet. In his speech he mentions some downfalls of such a plan, such as that same moral hazard mentioned above that carbon capture also presents. There's a ton of other pitfalls as well, such as an un-ending dependency on this process, to not risk heating the planet up too much should we stop the chemical spray. Or the reduced amount of sunlight negatively affecting plant growth. The idea is completely insane, but what's more insane is that David Keith is absolutely right with his speech. Geo-engineering is an unavoidable conversation and it's better to be informed. How did we corner ourselves like this? If intentional geo-engineering is our only way out, WALL-E suddenly seems a lot more plausible.
3. Growth as the Measure of Economic Success.
As long as we are around, we will always strive to innovate and prosper. We want our society to be one that fosters our well-being. At the heart of this is a successful economy, one which allows us to meet our needs as easily as possible so we can fulfill our desires. So how do we measure if our economy is succesful at bringing about prosperity? Growth, measured through increases in the gross domestic product - the sum of the cost of all products produced and services rendered. The more we buy and sell stuff, the more economically well off we are. There's no way we can have a future like WALL-E if we focus on growth, because we would see it coming when ecological impacts hinder our ability to grow. Or would we? By the GDP measure, we can't see ecological impacts now. Lets look at oil sands development:
The merits of oil-sands aren't on trial here, but rather the point that GDP completely fails to see how we are growing and at what expense. We wouldn't be able to see WALL-E style destruction coming if we fail to measure it. If marine eco-tourism brought in the same revenue as shark-finning we would value them as equal by the way we define success. Business that creates short term profit at the expense of long term costs shouldn't be valued the same way as those that don't.
4. Government Public Relations.
My hats off to you environmentalists out there, doing your best to increase public awareness of environmental issues, and pressuring corporations and governments into being responsible, all while being attacked as facists, communists and nazis by a small but very vocal minority of people who don't understand what those words mean. You are making an impact, and the ecological well being of our world is in the public consciousness like never before. Governments have recognized this and are responding accordingly, just not in the way we were all hoping. When governments around the world tightened their belts in wake of the recent recession, environmental budgets were slashed, but communication budgets expanded. Governments aren't as interested in promoting the environment as they are promoting that they promote the environment. The Canadian government has cut environmental spending but marketing spending is at all time highs. Take a look at the Alberta Government's environmental budget, and contrast it against the environmental communication budget: (images via Greenpeace Canada)
In WALL-E, the mega-corporation Buy N Large, (which also forms government), has marketing campaigns running everywhere painting a rosy picture of their environmental cleanup, despite it's failure. Not a hard thing to imagine here in the present, is it?
5. NIMBYism on the International Stage.
Already there are parts of the world resembling the scenes from WALL-E. As highlighted in a previous article, the developing world is often used as a garbage dump. We let this happen because the problem is "out of site, out of mind", but for how long? When we see heinous environmental damage in our neck of the woods, we act to stop it, but when it's somewhere else, we are complicit in allowing to happen. This is known as NIMBYism, "not in my backyard". Specifically it refers to the practice of home-owners opposing new development or change only because it's in their area. But it's a broader problem, it's the idea that things aren't okay with someone only when they personally affect that someone. It's great that people stand up for their rights and oppose negative development, but not if they're only opposing it because they think others should make the sacrfice instead.
If you're not willing to accept a toxic waste dump in your area, why is it okay for it to be anywhere else? Longterm environmental destruction for short term economic advantage shouldn't be tolerated, even if it's out of sight. Otherwise, it will catch up with us and like WALL-E, it might be too late.