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Techno-Progressive or Techno-Radical?
Mike Treder   Apr 5, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Strictly from a point of political labeling, it wouldn’t be useful for us to characterize ourselves as techno-radicals instead of technoprogressives. But when it comes to some of the political positions and technological solutions we might deem necessary to promote, then preparing ourselves to think radically is probably wise.

Already many of the emerging technologies with which we are associated—genetic engineering, molecular manufacturing, artificial general intelligence—are radical in their implications both for individuals and for societies. While the IEET is careful not to endorse the uncritical application of such transformative technologies, we do encourage exploration of their potential along with thorough study of both pros and cons and sensible policies for their use.

As we confront the mounting challenges that the 21st century brings us, it’s likely that most or all of the these new technologies will be brought to bear at some point. But some of the problems in front of us are evidently too urgent to wait for the mature development of advanced nanotechnology or other futurist solutions. We may indeed have to begin now, or very soon at least, advocating relatively radical political positions, if we are to be true to our progressive mantle.

Just yesterday, it was reported that:

One Antarctic ice shelf has quickly vanished, another is disappearing and glaciers are melting faster than anyone thought due to climate change, U.S. and British government researchers reported on Friday.

They said the Wordie Ice Shelf, which had been disintegrating since the 1960s, is gone and the northern part of the Larsen Ice Shelf no longer exists. More than 3,200 square miles (8,300 square km) have broken off from the Larsen shelf since 1986.

Climate change is to blame, according to the report from the U.S. Geological Survey and the British Antarctic Survey.

“The rapid retreat of glaciers there demonstrates once again the profound effects our planet is already experiencing—more rapidly than previously known—as a consequence of climate change,” U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

“This continued and often significant glacier retreat is a wakeup call that change is happening ... and we need to be prepared,” USGS glaciologist Jane Ferrigno, who led the Antarctica study, said in a statement.

That’s at the South Pole.

And a day before that, a report from the other end of the Earth:

Arctic sea ice is melting so fast most of it could be gone in 30 years. A new analysis of changing conditions in the region, using complex computer models of weather and climate, says conditions that had been forecast by the end of the century could occur much sooner.

A change in the amount of ice is important because the white surface reflects sunlight back into space. When ice is replaced by dark ocean water that sunlight can be absorbed, warming the water and increasing the warming of the planet.

The finding adds to concern about climate change caused by human activities such as burning fossil fuels, a problem that has begun receiving more attention in the Obama administration and is part of the G20 discussions under way in London.

“Due to the recent loss of sea ice, the 2005-2008 autumn central Arctic surface air temperatures were greater than 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above” what would be expected, the new study reports.

That amount of temperature increase had been expected by the year 2070.

Last year’s summer minimum was 1.8 million square miles in September, second lowest only to 2007 which had a minimum of 1.65 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The Center said Arctic sea ice reached its winter maximum for this year at 5.8 million square miles on Feb. 28. That was 278,000 square miles below the 1979-2000 average making it the fifth lowest on record. The six lowest maximums since 1979 have all occurred in the last six years.

Anthropogenic global warming has significantly changed the physical state of the Earth. Climate chaos is already in evidence and will only grow more dramatic and more damaging in the years to come.

Too bad for us, but events are speeding ahead so fast—and so much ahead of what we expected—that timid or halfway solutions just won’t do much good.

Putting in compact florescent light bulbs, or recycling plastic water bottles, or driving hybrid cars might make us feel better, but they will have next to no impact compared to the scale of the problems we face.

Not only is global warming a clear and present danger, but other major crises also may require solutions sooner rather than later. International monetary and economic meltdowns, the destabilizing effects of failed states and the destabilizing efforts of non-state actors, uncertain relationships between rising powers in Asia with old powers in the West, and real-world issues like the deaths from starvation of six million children a year.

The poorer nations of the Earth, where most of those children die and where the severest impacts of climate change are likely to be felt, are calling on wealthy countries to do more:

At the 175-nation climate change talks taking place in Bonn, Germany a group of developing nations has urged that the greenhouse gas emission reductions proposed by wealthy nations should be increased to “at least 40 percent” below 1990 levels by 2020. These would be greater cuts than be proposed by most politicians in the wealthy world (though not below what some scientists say is required).

Reuters quotes a Norwegian official as saying that the strongest voice for the 40% reductions arises from small islands states (many of which could be uninhabitable because of rising sea levels), but that those reduction recommendations have broad support.

The Obama administration has the stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 (that’s a 17% cut from current levels), and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The EU has pledged to reduce emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, increasing that to 30% if other wealthy nations make similar pledges.

The UN Climate Panel said in a 2007 report that by 2020 cuts of between 25-40% would be required to avoid the worst effects of climate change. So, in short, the proposed cuts of the US and the EU both are insufficient.

Are we, as technoprogressives, ready to confront conventional thinking—even conventional progressive thinking—and support the kinds of sweeping changes that today’s and tomorrow’s monumental challenges might demand?

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


If you want to open up more radical debate, I know some people who would be more than willing to take part

I’m confused. Just four years ago, NASA wrote that the Antarctic sea ice was likely increasing:

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