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Bruce Sterling’s Litany

Bruce Sterling, described as a “science fiction author, journalist, and cultural critic” (you just know that’s not good), offers a list of “10 technologies that deserve to die”. Rather than actually present novel ideas or an unexpected perspective, which would have made the article worth reading, he practices Earth-friendly commentary: recycling and reusing threadbare hippie themes and ideas.

Rather than a full-on fisking (Does anyone do real fiskings anymore? That seems so, I don’t know, last month…), I’ll just hit the high points of this bland attempt to be self-consciously clever.

1. NUCLEAR WEAPONS

“Ban the bomb!” In pointing that you can’t use nukes against terrorists (oh yeah?), he makes the oft-used implicit argument that the only nuclear threat the world faces today is from non-state actors. Not true. And turning his argument around, if nuclear states were to give up the bomb in favor of massively destructive conventional weapons as he suggests, what is to stop terrorists from using a daisy-cutter or MOAB (or jetliner…) if nukes are no longer available? Producing massive conventional weapons is bound to be much easier than producing or procuring nuclear weapons would be for a terrorist group.

While one might fantasize about nukes (or any other weapon) magically disappearing overnight, it isn’t going to happen in the real world. And the real world is too dangerous to dispose of our nukes in the naive hope that others will do likewise or forego their development in the first place. The genie is out of the bottle, and it isn’t going to go back in, no matter how magically we think. We’d best be grownups and deal with the world as it is — like chain mail and battleships, nukes are going to be with us just as long as they remain valuable as weapons, and not a moment longer. Whether that comes about because a new and more powerful weapon is developed or because defensive measures render them impotent or non-threatening remains to be seen, but an examination of the possible outcomes in this regard would have made a far more interesting topic for Bruce’s futurizing.

If the possession of nukes is indicitave of a “blatant death-wish”, what has stopped us, or is now stopping us, from using them? One might think that five and a half decades of deterrence, in which the button-fingers of each nuclear power were stayed, no matter what happened, by their lack of enthusiasm for being on the receiving end of massive retaliatory incineration, would suggest the nuclear powers place at least some minimal value on their own continued existence.

He seems to contradict himself here, in two different ways. First, he argues that conventional weapons, like daisy cutters, can be delivered with whatever size or accuracy is required by the military, while asserting that nukes are clumsy weapons. The specifically referred-to daisy cutters are ungainly things the size of a minivan, and since they are pushed out of the back of a C-130 and carry no guidance system, delivery pilots must take great pains with navigation and flight stability to achieve anything resembling accuracy (note also that, in Afghanistan, many of the BLU-82s used were dropped for psychological purposes — which an uncharitable critic or an al Quaeda sympathizer might characterize as “terrorism”). In contrast, nuclear warhead are typically compact, convenient packages about the size of a kitchen trashcan, when launched atop a missile they have an accuracy measured in tens of feet over intercontinental distances, and in some models the yield can be “dialed” to meet the requirements of target planners. Now, nuclear weapons may be “overkill” in many applications, but they are hardly “clumsy”.

Second, Bruce nominates land mines for oblivion in a later portion of the article, while here he recommends cluster bombs — a class of weapon which many critics regard as nearly as bad as land mines, and for the same reasons (a cluster munition will invariably leave a number of small, unexploded ordinance packages littering the target area, waiting to explode if disturbed).

2. COAL-BASED POWER

After an obligatory Enron reference, he throws this out: “Coal spews more weather- wrecking pollutants into the air per unit of energy than any other fossil fuel.” He points out that the US relies on coal for a quarter of its energy needs, but he fails to ask why that is the case.

Could it be, maybe, because people like Bruce, a couple of decades back, decided that nuclear power was a technology that deserved to die?

3. THE INTERNAL-COMBUSTION ENGINE

What luddite rant would be complete without a reference to hydrogen power as an “alternative power source”? Nevermind explaining where that hydrogen is going to come from, or what the environmental impact of water electrolysis or the conversion of fossil fuels (The horror!) to hydrogen might be. Pay no attention to the man behind the panacea!

(Of course, this luddite rant really isn’t complete, after all, since he fails to mention SUVs even once. Oh, well…)

5. LAND MINES

They’re already being phased out. Why are you griping?

6. MANNED SPACEFLIGHT

Now, here he makes some valid points — seemingly despite himself.

True, when you look past the romance, there’s not much to manned spaceflight…at least as presently conducted, by a couple of civil servants keeping house in a hundred-billion-dollar white elephant which can barely be supported because our One-Size-Fits-All National Asset Launch Vehicle fleet has been grounded indefinitely. It’s this lack of substance which is motivating the calls for a real goal for the manned space program, an increased role for private industry within it, and institutional and regulatory changes to permit private industry to develop its own independent operations in space — each a move towards correcting the existing problems and expanding human activities in space. Isn’t that to be preferred over the shrug of surrender Bruce advocates here?

Contrary to his assertion, it is NOT clear that flying around in the solar system is “bad” for one’s health. Like any activity, manned spaceflight has its own level of risk, and measures can be taken to minimize the health impacts to which he refers. The shorter a trip, the less radiation exposure is accumulated and the lower the likelihood of solar flares, etc. Spinning a spacecraft via tether can reduce or eliminate (depending on how fast you spin it) the deleterious effects of zero-gee. But for the transit times envisioned to anywhere currently under serious discussion (namely, the Moon and Mars), the effects of radiation and reduced gravity are already known to be small and managable.

He is right in saying that there is little point to a flag-and-footprints moon mission followed by a retreat, but that is less valid as an argument against manned spaceflight generally than it is against the kind of manned spaceflight program we have. Namely, an ineffectual government monopoly.

He introduces a chicken-and-egg problem near the end, by bemoaning the cost of access to space while asserting that we should stop flying humans to space until we can meet an unreasonable standard for affordability. If we’re not flying, how can we ever figure out how to fly more cheaply? Or if we do come up with ideas in that area, how can we ever test them out? This also affects safety and reliability of spacecraft. Sure, spacecraft are dangerous today (just as aircraft were in the ‘Teens and ‘Twenties), mainly because there are so few of them and so little useful experience. The chicken and egg problem is felt here as well — if there were more flights, more activity in space, we could develop more experience with a given spacecraft type, there would be business to support the evolution of new spacecraft types, and safety and reliability would gradually increase. More activity, not less — or none — is what is needed.

The remainder of the article is not worth commenting on, but for the last sentence:

A wise society would honor its young technical innovators for services rendered in annihilating obsolete technologies that are the dangerous hangovers of previous, less advanced generations.

I’d say his point here is much less valid in regards to old technologies than obsolete ideologies — the dangerous hangovers of previous, less advanced generations. I know I’d be the first to heap honors on someone who could finally put a fork in the ‘Sixties/’Seventies luddite boomer mentality.

2 comments to Bruce Sterling’s Litany

  • Carl Carlsson

    Nice response on #2. I’m in the power industry, and that one didn’t even occur to me. The shame.

  • Carl Carlsson

    Here’s a little more food for thought:

    The French wind power industry recently responded to a claim by the French National Academy of Medicine that nuclear is the means of power generation with the least impact on human health. They even ranked it ahead of wind, because of the pollutant by-products of steel, concrete and fiberglass used in the manufacture and installation of wind farms.

    I found the response from the wind power folks — that the materials used in the consturction of wind farms are the same as those used in the construction of houses and cars — unconvincing.