Iron on Troubled Waters

The difference between the engineers and the druids is profound. Engineers are the ultimate optimists; every problem can be solved given enough money, brainpower and determination. Druids on the other hand are pessimists; technology fixes are at best weak and temporary Band-Aids that will only delay the inevitable. Though I cast the two camps in stark contrast, I mean no offense, for each world view is informed by legitimate professional experience. Professional engineers are solid optimists by nature and share the collective experience of creating myriad wonders, from landing a human on the moon to launching the digital revolution.

In contrast, geologists, oceanographers and environmental scientists tend to be pessimists, a natural reflection of their study of past extinctions, wrenching climate shifts and a knowledge that eventually everything dies out or erodes into the sea.

I have great respect (and sympathy) for both sides, but I despair over the fact that the engineers and the druids are pulling in opposite directions. Engineers want us to flee into the future, while druids enjoin us to retreat to the past. Druids remind the engineers that their industrial innovations created the global warming problem to begin with, while the engineers argue that it is too late for passive footprint-reducing measures alone to succeed. I find myself in the uneasy center.

Take nuclear power. I am certain that conservation is a hard sell to an electricity-addicted public and do not doubt that burning coal will suffocate us all in greenhouse gases, but I also wonder whether we are smart enough to build idiot-proof nuke power plants that won't yield a harvest of unanticipated sorrows.

Planktos' plans may be modest compared to mega-projects like nuclear plant construction, but its business model also makes druids uneasy. Planktos is a for-profit company that believes it can do good while also doing well by selling carbon offset credits created by the CO2-gobbling phytoplankton growing on its iron dust. As if the profit motive alone wasn't enough to stoke druid skepticism, the efficacy of carbon offsets -- a quintessentially engineerlike scheme to allow polluters to purchase compensating beneficial greenhouse reductions -- is being questioned. Engineers believe ships like the Weatherbird II will save the planet, while druids warn that it is a flashy quick-fix lining speculator's pockets at the cost of false comfort or perhaps even irreparable long-term environmental harm.

Like so many debates of the last decade, including of course the fight over the Iraq War, the tug of extremes is leaving the center as empty as the ocean around the Weatherbird II. Urgency is the enemy of the middle in this debate, for it compels us to either flee forward or retreat back. I eagerly await the results of the Planktos pilot, but I doubt that it will help druids and engineers find common ground. As the old Irish saying goes, "Is this a private fight, or can anyone join?" Let us hope that the middle can at least be heard and perhaps even get in a few punches of its own.

Paul Saffo is a technology forecaster based in Silicon Valley. You can read more of his essays at www.saffo.com.

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