I went to replace the battery in my electronic scale this morning when I realized it uses one of those button cell lithium types. I probably have every kind of battery on the market dumped around my place in bowls except that one and it took me back to something I think about quite a bit. It’s the idea that a society can be primitive or advanced and the question of how we quantify that.
I think the average person would consider us to be pretty “up there” – not quite Atlantis material, but certainly no Apocalypto. Still, I wonder how progressive our progress really is. What is the purpose of advancement? Is it about moving forward or is it about moving closer to a goal? Because if there’s a goal, what is it and how close have we really gotten?
When I look around at all of the incredible technology we’ve developed and the speed at which we’re evolving as a species because of it, there’s one frightening truth that stands out:
All of it can be negated by the flip of a switch.
We’ve progressed beyond the point of sustainability, because the technology we depend on to maintain and preserve life as we know it by and large requires power.
We always talk about resources and the fact that projections paint a dismal picture of what the future will be if we continue to consume things that are finite, but we only ever seem to speak of the loss of power in the context of science fiction.
When I say “power”, I’m talking about electrical energy.
In my opinion, mechanical energy is the only truly sustainable energy we’re capable of harvesting – and what I call sustainable isn’t to be confused with renewable. To me, renewable energy replenishes itself. That doesn’t make it sustainable.
Take solar energy, for example. It’s probably the first thing called to mind when you think of a renewable energy source, because like Annie said, the sun’ll come out tomorrow! But we’ve already seen a number of limitations to solar energy, the most obvious being that we don’t always have access to sunlight.
Then there’s the matter of the technology required to harvest solar energy and convert it into electrical energy. Technology we incidentally wouldn’t be able to manufacture without the electrical energy it makes. Good thing we have other ways of producing electricity that aren’t solar, right?
Renewable energy is fantastic and necessary, but when I call energy sustainable, I mean that it’s a source of power requiring nothing more than our power – manpower – and what we’re able to build from the natural world. Because those are the only two resources we’re guaranteed by logic to always have:
The planet we live on and ourselves.
If we lost either of those resources, this discussion would no longer be a discussion because there wouldn’t be anyone around to discuss it.
Ancient civilizations may have mastered engineering with a focus on mechanical energy because they weren’t advanced enough to utilize electricity and/or didn’t know what it was, but which is more primitive?
A society capable of thriving for hundreds or thousands of years without any of the electrical boons we require just to get through the day, or a society like ours that would collapse practically overnight if its primary power source were eliminated?
Which infrastructure is more advanced? Certainly not ours, given the destructive potential of something as absurdly simple as pulling a plug. I’m likely in the minority with this sentiment, but I think we’ve progressed so far that we’re going backwards – and not only in terms of technology.
Look at what happens when there’s a blackout. Things start to break down immediately. The food is gonna spoil! We can’t see in the dark! Everybody scramble for flashlights and supplies and eat like you’ve never eaten before!
Kill the power in the middle of a heat wave and old people start dropping like flies because there’s no A/C. And you better hope that generator kicks in at the hospital, because half of the people in there are only alive thanks to the machines they’re hooked up to.
We know what happens when there’s no internet for five minutes. Imagine what would happen if it were permanent – if the internet stopped being a thing entirely?
Of course, it’s never as bad as all that and we make it through these brief moments without power by falling back on more primitive ways of doing things. Why? Because the more primitive ways of doing things are sustainable.
Doesn’t that make them better?
If we got the whole “progress” thing right, why do all of the solutions to modern-day problems resemble the past?
I’m not saying the advancements we’ve made are bad or that we shouldn’t have made them. I’m just putting it out there as food for thought that we may be shooting ourselves in the foot by continuing to move forward in ways that make us this dependent upon things that can be rendered useless this easily.
Indulge my stupid little mind for a moment and look around you. Take a walk through your house. Down the street. If we no longer had electrical power, how much of what exists in your environment would still serve a purpose? How much of what you own would still have any functional value?
Those things reflect the type of engineering and technology that will move us forward into the next phase of our evolution. Improving upon those things, taking cues from those things, is how we’ll refine ourselves to ensure that we progress in a way that’s sustainable
Everything else is glitter. Breakthroughs that allowed us to grow too much, too quickly. Pretty luxuries that created needs to fill.
Or maybe I’m just mad that I gave away my perfectly good mechanical scale for this electronic piece of shit that needs a fucking battery.