An engineer recently said to me that there’s no such thing as a perfect system. He was referring to software development, but the concept was not unfamiliar to me, as Utopia is something that political theorists have been discussing for centuries.
It is always there, whether referred to implicitly or explicitly in the academic literature. We all fall prey to its alluring qualities and I’m sure most students of philosophy entertain certain high-minded idealistic notions at some point in their university career. Most, however, realise that some compromise in life is inevitable and indeed probably even more desirable, as idealism can very quickly degenerate into ideological intolerance. This obsessive lusting after ever-elusive “purity” usually has pretty impure consequences at some point.
It is something that I think has really constrained the modern-day energy debate. In the past, regarding attitudes to nuclear energy and, more recently, around hydraulic fracturing and other carbon-based energy sources.
In the technological world, product design and execution is not so much a Platonic pursuit of the perfect ideal, but an iterative process of constant assumption testing. In fact anyone who has ever done anything creative or entrepreneurial will have experienced this first-hand.
But when it comes to issue politics, an all or nothing approach seems to be the prevailing method of choice. In a piece entitled “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power” George Monbiot writes: “Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”
Like others in the environmental movement Monbiot has become critical of the tendency, among his peers, to unscientifically vilify nuclear power. Similarly, Patrick Moore, founder and formerly a leading member of Greenpeace has long contended that the environmental movement’s initial scrutiny of the nuclear industry was necessary as it forced the overhauling and improvement of shoddy, harmful practices; but has also resulted in an overly cynical, biased view of nuclear power that wants the whole industry banned rather than acknowledging that it can be improved.
More recently, opponents of fracking seem to display a complete aversion to any sort of carbon-based energy fuel. Understandably, they would rather invest in clean, renewable energies as a long-term, sustainable solution. But can we really ignore the short to medium term economic advantages that the fracking industry could bring: job creation, lower energy prices, etc? Conversely, those who question whether or not these promised benefits will actually materialise are right to do so as well.
There is no such thing as a perfect system.
In programming we start with predefined constants, which all other functions reference. An incorrect predefined constant will result in a cascade of errors across the system, which is interdependent. When this happens we go back, revise, edit and adjust.
We do not bullishly persist in our error nor do we delete the entire scheme (only in rare cases).
Perhaps we should be prepared to do this with even our most fervently held ideals?
I’m interested to know your opinions on the nature of the energy debate. Is it too polarised, uninformative, ideological? Which side, if any, needs to adjust/modify their views? I’d particularly like to hear from those of you who have attended the FrackNation screenings that Daily Maverick journalist Ivo Vegter has been organising. Let me know in the comments below or if you are so inclined #frackdebate on Twitter.