These days, we’re all fad dieters looking for some technological magic bullet to save us from our drudgery. From climate change and global poverty to war and extremism, the world is collapsing in front of us. And we stare, slack-jawed, at our phones, watching as the world burns and the seas boil while everyone loses their damn mind.
But there’s more money to be made selling diet pills than vegetables, so there’s no technology company looking to fix our problems. We can hope that some California genius will create the solution to our woes, but it’s not going to happen. Even the sales patter is the same: Buy our Atkins Juice and drink yourself thin for $10.99 per month. We’re helping you move toward your dream and making the world a better place at the same time.
Trust me when I say that I bought a crate of that stuff for way too much money and it did not work. And it stank. The thing that works, and has always worked, is the slow, reasonable proposition of eating right and getting some exercise.
The tech world doesn’t agree, though.
“When we help more people move with fewer, fuller and more efficient cars, we can save fuel and improve air quality.” That’s Uber’s pitch about how great for the environment Uber is now that everyone can become a taxi driver. The company’s former CEO, Travis Kalanick, once wrote that cities that welcome Uber will be ones “where people spend less time stuck in traffic.”
Transportation experts disagree, with Bruce Schaller writing that ride-sharing “added 5.7 billion miles of driving” in just nine metro areas. The former New York official said that Uber and Lyft do little beyond clogging the already-full roads with yet more cars. “Deadhead” miles, where cars shuffle between paid rides, help exacerbate the problem. The EPA says that one mile of driving emits an average of 404 grams of CO2; multiply that by 5.7 billion and the problem becomes clear.
Uber and Lyft, the latter of which admittedly promised to offset the carbon of its trips, do nothing to help the problem they’re designed to cure. Another study found that, rather than coaxing car owners to ditch their wheels, ride-sharing sucks people away from walking, cycling and mass transit. Consequently, these companies’ pitch is akin to advising someone who is drowning that the only way to survive is to drink a gallon of saltwater.
But we already know that more cars won’t solve the problem of congestion or air quality. We always have. Take Amsterdam, where cycle-friendly planning and segregated lanes let 58 percent of locals cycle every day. And no tech company made that happen; it was pressure from individuals who organized themselves and made their voices heard that forced the change. Holland’s association with big oil means it’s hardly a green paradise, but its transportation policies are facing in the right direction.
If we want to affect real change for both our cities and the environment, we also need better public transportation. It’s something that not too many startups are attempting to tackle because there’s not too much money to be made in it. Talk to enough people about Hyperloop, on the other hand, and you can almost see folks willing it into existence just for something more exciting.
The lack of good public transportation mostly boils down to chronic underinvestment in our existing networks, which are slow and unreliable, dissuading more people from using them. One report believes that the American economy is poorer by $340 billion each year thanks to the perilous state of its transport. In New York alone, delays on the subway — a daily hazard — cost locals up to $389 million per year.
Is it any wonder that we’re lusting for a way to get between cities in a reliable and efficient manner without flying? This isn’t something that needs a whizz-bang technological solution if we simply bothered to put the work in: the tedious, analog, tried-and-tested option of maintaining and supporting what we already have. There’s a reason that countries like Switzerland, France and Japan have railways that are the envy of the world.
You can see this tension between old-fashioned infrastructure and tech-company trinkets over in LA. Elon Musk’s Boring Company dug an experimental tunnel in the city to demonstrate a new form of transit. The 1.1-mile tunnel was pitched as a form of private subway for cars and people, with both running on top of skates. But at the initial demo, the company merely showed off a Tesla equipped with bumpers that will keep it running in the middle of the track.
It’s early days, and the technology underpinning the tunnel may improve, but at this point it’s hard to see a future for it. After all, right now it’s yet another road for cars, just underground, rather than a solution to improving mass transit. Rather than tackle the problems with the existing system, it serves to reinforce them, unsurprising given that Musk owns a car company.
The same sort of thinking undermines the arguments for extracting atmospheric carbon dioxide to create fuel. Companies like Carbon Engineering are building systems that will hoover up CO2 from the air, bond it with hydrocarbons and create synthetic gasoline.The pitch sounds great: We’re pulling CO2 from the air! We’re turning it into cheap fuel! It’s good for the environment!
Synthetic fuels are a neat stopgap, but they’re little more than that, because they’re still a way to burn carbon, the thing we’re trying to avoid. Especially since we’re already well beyond the “last-ditch” limit of 350ppm, stopgaps aren’t going to cut it if we want to keep on living. Not to mention that synthetic fuels are a pretty inefficient use of energy and are only clean-ish if entirely run with renewables. It’s the same issue that you run into with hydrogen: Once you’ve generated the power, you’re wasting a huge amount of it to create liquid fuels.
For all of this, we’re getting further away from the common-sense solutions that we could use to avoid our impending ecological catastrophe. This isn’t a secret. We need better public transport that is both powered by renewables and good enough to discourage car use. We need to move away from coal and gas as ways of generating power in favor of nuclear, wind, solar and tidal. Oh, and don’t forget that the one thing that would really make a dent in our carbon emissions is better family planning.
And we know that no startup, no billionaire visionary, no titan of industry is going to help us get where we need to be. So it’s time to stop expecting them to do so and start acting in a way that’ll actually make a difference. I’m going to walk into 2019 not waiting for a magic wand that’ll enable me to fit into those size 32 jeans I mistakenly bought from H&M. I’m going to start doing things, and I’m expecting all of you to join me before we all die from our apathy.