Under pressure (and heat)
On extreme temperatures in Europe, countries skipping the landline phase of telephone service, and getting comfortable with uncomfortable paths to betterment
With European countries experiencing some of their hottest temperatures ever recorded, it would be foolhardy to assume that we are witnessing a one-time phenomenon. The long-term condition of the climate cannot be extrapolated from individual weather events, nor vice-versa. But there is sufficient reason to believe that heretofore extraordinary events may well become more frequent that it would be prudent to at least consider the options available for addressing climate change.
■ Unfortunately, public debate about climate change devolves into absolutism -- on one side, doom-fanatics who unironically proclaim variations on a theme of "We're all going to die!"; on another, those who say that nothing is happening that can't be explained by sunspots or other bigger-than-life phenomena. Absolutism makes no sense in either direction.
■ It's fairly evident that to some extent or another, human civilization has made something of a mess by doing things like burning fossil fuels. But we are not members of a planetary suicide cult, and there are lots of ways we may be able to take certain productive steps that not only stem the tide of additional harm, but also produce tangible progress along the way.
■ But as is so often the case with technological process, we may have to make peace with transitional technologies that are imperfect along the way. The benefits aren't always obvious, but consider that technology is often adopted first by wealthy people (or societies) who enjoy the status of consuming the latest innovations. Then, as increasing adoption refines the technologies and processes involved, the same benefits spread to more and more customers until they become mass-market items. And in the process, the resulting leaps can permit the mass market to skip entire stages of less-efficient technologies.
■ Consider telephones: Many places that never built extensive infrastructure for wired telephone networks have been able to skip the landline phase altogether as wireless phones became cheap mass-market products. They couldn't have reached that state, though, without passing first through some transitional phases: bag phones, then brick phones, then clamshells, and ultimately on to smartphones.
■ Getting to the cheap, powerful, mass-market items used in the billions around the world today took going through some uncomfortable and imperfect transitional technologies along the way. But though the process may have looked superficially wasteful, quickly moving from one stage to another was worth it. As the futurist Ian Pearson wrote in his book, "Total Sustainability", "Someone poor who is forced to make their old kit last longer inevitably makes a worse impact than they may wish. Some environmentalists have worked hard to fight rapid obsolescence, but actually it is a very important contributor towards sustainability."
■ Nothing we can do, short of stopping the world altogether, is going to promptly reverse the anthropological contributions to climate change. But accommodating some of the short-run weather events may require doing some additional damage along the way: We may have to run more air conditioning in unconventional places, for instance, just to keep people from dying.
■ But it's important to keep eyes on the process and to remain open to the fact that perfect solutions don't yet exist. But technology doesn't improve according to straight-line projections. Sometimes it takes a long while muddling along in transitional phases before breakthroughs arrive to accelerate improvements far faster than the imagination permits. Denial and doomsaying alike are of no use along the way.