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Science in the Fleet: The Promise of Technology as a Panacea for Human Impacts

FleetCover1-REACHToday marks the release of Fleet: Wide Open, part 2 of my serial maritime science fiction adventure. With half the story revealed, we now see the roll technology plays in both the history and the day-to-day operations of the fleet. Specifically, we see three major technological advances that seem as though they would have been major solutions to the environmental problems facing the fleet, yet somehow, the world continues to fall apart.

In our world and the world of the fleet, we often hold up technological innovation as a panacea for global problems. It’s easy to look towards the next big advancement as the solution to our current woes — from alternative energy sources to groundbreaking trash removal devices — but what is often lost in the hype is the human component. Yes, technology is a necessary component of global environmental solutions. You can even look at the arc of human advancement as one long series of bootstrap-hoists — we need to utilize dirty tech to access environmentally sustainable tech (i.e. you can’t develop the ability to produce solar panels without first harnessing the energy locked in fossil fuels). But technology alone is useless without also changing human behavior. This creates a major problem, as technological innovation is often used as a tool to bypass human behavior entirely, the assumption being that it doesn’t matter what the individual does, so long as the tech is in place to mitigate it.

The horse piles of New York

Around the turn of the last century, New York City was in crisis. Horses, the primary means of transportation for people and products within the city have an unfortunate byproduct — feces, lots and lots of feces. At its peak, more than 60,000 horses were depositing upwards of 500 tones of manure every day. The horse crisis itself was the result of a major technological innovation — more efficient fertilizer based on mass produced phosphate. Where once there was a major economic incentive to collect the manure and resell it as fertilizer, now there was also no incentive. And so, the mountains of feces piled up. It got so bad that one editorial expounded that, by the 1930′s piles of horse manure would stand three stories tall and the city would be awash in an unending tide of feces.

Of course, that future never came to pass, thank to another technological advancement — the automobile. By the early 1900′s, cars were on the rise and horses on the decline. By 1912, automobiles outnumbered horses in New York City. The horse crisis was over.

The New York City horse crisis is often pointed to by technocrats as an example of how technological innovations, even unanticipated innovations, can solve environmental problems, the obvious parallel being that, just as the car solved our horse manure problem, something new will solve our car problem. This approach is wrong on at least two front. First, the horse crisis was itself caused by technological innovation — better fertilizers that destroyed the initial demand for horse manure and the technological innovation that solved the crisis also yielded environmental problems. As a solution to environmental problems, technology, in this case, only re-distributed the environmental impacts,  and, in the case of the internal combustion engine, amplified them. Second, at its peak, the horse crisis was not technologically insurmountable. Turn-of-the-century New York had the capacity to handle the massive volume of horse manure, and had been doing so for several years before hand. What changed was the demand for horse manure, and with it, the incentives necessary for people to collect the waste off the street.

When I think about the ways we use technology to help save the environment, rather than looking exclusively at what that tech does, I also look at the ways it changes human behavior — does producing super-efficient hybrid cars increase production and consumption of new automobiles? Do massive solar and wind farms draw attention away from the fact that, ignoring the source of energy production, our power grid is woefully inefficient and needs to be restructured from the bottom up as well as the top down? Do massive ocean engineering programs actually cause lasting damage the ocean?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against technological innovation — I believe it is an essential component in reducing and reversing the damage we have caused to our global ecosystem, but neither do I believe that technology is a panacea, that we are just one innovation away from solving this problem.

These thoughts are what inspired me in the creation of the three major technological innovations in the world of Fleet — the nanomedic repair kit, the super-efficient fuel Veazel, and the bioengineered plastivorous-haden.

The Plague and the Cure

In Fleet, land has been rendered uninhabitable by an antibiotic resistant and massively pathogenic strain of Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that I previously described as the most dangerous organism in the ocean (at least to humans). The human response to Vibrio infection is to flee land, where most outbreaks occur, and form small floating collectives. Even larger vessels are susceptible, as anything with large number of humans trapped in a small area runs the risk of a fresh and rapidly spreading outbreak. This outbreak, in conjunction with sea-level rise is the primary driver behind the creation of the fleet.

But, in chapter 3, we encounter technology that seems like it would be the perfect solution to the plague. The nanomedic repair kit, a piece of fictional technology that uses an army of nanobot to repair damaged tissue, fight off disease, and even persist in the body, boosting the bearer’s natural heeling ability, seems like it should make short work of something like Vibrio. After all, it had no problem reigning in Salmon’s tetanus infection.

The unfortunate answer is that yes, the nanomedic repair kit can handle the Plague just find. Unlike her peers, Salmon now has total immunity to infection. So how did the plague manage to ravage the human race if the technology to stop it already existed? The answer is human behavior.

In the pre-Fleet world, the nanomedic repair kit was expensive. Only the very wealthiest could afford using it. Unfortunately for the world, Vibrio vulnificus isn’t a human exclusive pathogen, it persists in the environment. So, while the wealthiest were able to avoid the implication of the plague, those who weren’t so privileged faced constant and growing exposure to this new disease. It doesn’t help that the first outbreaks were in rural communities, where communication was more limited. Without giving too much away, the plague emerged because it was first treated like a normal bacterial infection, not a superbug. The infected were first brought into hospitals; once it was discovered how potent the bacteria could be they were quarantined.

Rather than an immediate and aggressive campaign to inoculate the infected using the nanomedic repair kit, society instead implemented an array of increasingly desperate mitigation and control policies. But Vibrio lives in the water and all attempts to control it failed. By the time people understood the magnitude of the problem, it was far too late. The disease had wiped out huge swaths of the human race and the last of the nanomedic repair kits were being jealously horded.

The Plague is the most striking example in the world of Fleet of a problem in which the technological solution exists, yet human behavior prevents it from being effectively implemented. In this case, the nanomedic repair kit, seen as an extremely valuable commodity, is horded, rather than rapidly distributed. During the darkest days of the Plague, scientists worked valiantly to find a cure, a new technological innovation, as it were, ignoring the fact that one already existed. And (without giving too much away), like the Horse Crisis of New York, the Plague has its origins in dramatic innovations in agricultural practices, innovations that  came with both large scale benefits and clear detriments to human society.

Ironically, even years after the Plague ravished the human species, the Admiral continues to use the nanomedic repair kit as a commodity, distributing it only to the injured whom she thinks will aid her most.

The fuel that couldn’t change the world

In Fleet, most of the ships are powered by Veazel, an incredibly efficient fuel the combines traditional fossil fuels, ethanol, and a series of proprietary synthetics that massively improves its performance. So you might ask yourself, why, if the pre-plague society had unlocked the secret to incredibly efficient alternative fuels, is the sea still 80 meters higher than today and the world still dramatically altered by global warming? The answer, of course, comes back to human behavior.

Simply developing alternative, environmentally-friendly fuel sources is inconsequential if it is not also coupled with changes in human behavior. We see this today with the conspicuous consumption of new, energy efficient automobiles. Several months ago I discussed how my choice to continue driving the same vehicle for 12+ years, rather than buying a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle, was an environmentally motivated decision. In the world of fleet, the advent of Veazel served as an absolution of environmental guilt. So long as you were driving the latest, most fuel efficient vehicle, it didn’t matter how often you upgraded, creating a culture of conspicuous consumption — an “eco-super-ego” that wears the trappings of environmental responsibility but seeks self-validation rather than environmental sustainability.

Technology is often the most direct manifestation of the eco-super-ego, since, for the end-point consumer, it provides the most visible expression of environmental awareness with the minimum amount of effort. Buying a hybrid car requires far fewer changes to you day-to-day life than committing to grow the majority of your own food or even something as like cutting the amount of driving you do by 50%.

Veazel allowed people to feel as though a solution to carbon-dioxide production had been reached, all they had to do was switch out their old, dirty vehicles, for shiny new super-efficient ones and go on with their lives. But technology bred complacency, and, while any given vehicle was, from the consumer’s perspective, far better for the environment, the net effect was increased production, increased demand for Veazel vehicles, and a greater net amount of vehicles on the roads and waterways. And, because alternative fuels only mitigate future damage and do not reverse that damage already caused, global climate change continues to grind on.

In Fleet, the cycle continues to be played out, albeit on a much smaller scale. The incredible efficiency of Veazel has left the fleet complacent in their own fuel consumption. Only when their fuel reserves become dangerously depleted do they realize just how critical their last few drops of Veazel really are.

The fish that eat plastic

Perhaps the most radical of the technological advances in the world of Fleet is the Plastivorous-Haden. For the uninitiated, the plastivorous-haden, or plasties, are biologically engineered menhaden designed to eat particulate plastic in the ocean. They are actually a hybrid between Brevoortia tyrannus, the Atlantic Menhaden, and several petroleum-eating fungus strains.

Plasties exist to solve a problem that’s very much present today — the proliferation of microplastics in our oceans. These microplastics accumulate in large oceanic gyres and are being colloquially referred to as “garbage patches”. Despite much of the activism around these accumulated plastics, there are no islands of trash in the middle of the ocean. These microplastics are spread out in minute quantities over huge areas. Still, the long term effects of these plastics in our oceans is unknown, and many groups have emerged to combat this crisis.

Of all the issues currently facing our ocean, microplastic aggregations, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, best represent the false promises of the purely technocratic solution. A quick search of the internet will reveal countless ocean clean-up schemes involving floating booms, robotic skimmers, fixed moorings, and any of a thousand permutations of the idea that we should just go out and scoop up the plastics. Nearly all of these solutions belie a fundamental misunderstanding of not only the magnitude of the problem, but of basic principles of oceanography. Most of these schemes, which will disrupt the delicate plankton at the foundation of ocean health, will actually cause more damage to the ocean that the proliferation of microplastics. Here is an example where the promise of technological innovation is actually shifting the focus away from human behavior (reduce our dependence on disposable plastics) and towards detrimental solutions.

Plastivorous-haden are the ultimate expression of exclusive dependence on technocratic solutions. A combination or ecologic and genetic engineering, the plasties overwhelmed the ocean. Sure, they solves the problem of ocean microplastics, but the problems they caused, the disruption to the ocean food web, far surpassed any other ocean issue. Now the fleet is dealing with not only a depleted ocean, but the voracious plasties that prevent new generations of food fish from taking hold.

FleetCover1-wideTechnology is a tool, not a goal

In all these cases, technological innovation was seen as the end goal — create a super-healing kit, make better fuel, develop a tool to eat plastic — rather than a means. Technological innovation is a tool, a very important tool in human development, but technology is not a goal unto itself. In the examples provided from both our world and the world of the fleet, these technological innovation could be used to solve the global crises which ultimately swamped the world, but to accomplish those goals, human behavior would also have to change. In my experience, the later is often a much more difficult proposition.

When we rely on technological innovation, when we expect that the next big invention will solve our problems, be it piles of feces in New York City, global climate change, ocean microplastics, or even pandemics, we forget that central to all these problems is human behavior, and if we don’t address the underlying motivations and incentives that allow those behaviors to propagate, all the technology in the world cannot save us.

We are, after all, only human.

Fleet: Wide Open, part 2 in my serial science fiction adventure exploring the consequences of a world where pandemic and global climate change have pushed the last few survivors of the human race to sea, is available today in the Amazon Kindle Marketplace. Check it out!

Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.

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