Thursday, June 28, 2007

Beyond the Magic Bullet

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong - H. L. Mencken

The search for a “magic bullet” is a legacy of the twentieth century. During the early years of the new millennium, this quest has morphed into a search for a “theory of everything”, which seeks to explain all physical phenomena by a single theorem. It is an exercise which surfaces in strange forms across the public landscape. In recent times we have seen the impact of this thinking in relation to climate change, water shortages, and Indigenous Affairs. Although an evidently complex search, the ‘theory of everything’ approach in public life is attractive, as it is easily saleable.

The industrial era introduced us to the concept of economies of scale, in which it was recognised that the cost of production of any particular item could be reduced by manufacturing in larger quantities. Over the course of the past century we have consequently seen the proliferation of mass production, initially in the manufacturing industry, then spreading out into farming, health care, and human services. It has become accepted lore that the most economic and efficient answer to any problem lies in finding the correct solution which can be replicated on a large scale.

Until the internet.

The Internet maintains its effectiveness and integrity by disaggregation: breaking up its major functions across a wide range of smaller users. It is less vulnerable to attacks or problems at a single point, which, even if effective, are more likely to reduce its effectiveness than destroy it altogether.

Disaggregated solutions are anathema to governmental thinking. In the past six months we have been introduced to solutions for power generation, carbon reduction, increased water security and, most recently, Indigenous disadvantage, through the attractiveness of the “magic bullet” – a public policy theory of everything which addresses the (complex) problems and offers a digestible solution which appears simple and reasonable, and ultimately saleable.

The push for nuclear energy production within Australia makes an interesting starting point. We are so locked into the notions of economies of scale that the idea of building another (or a series) of large-scale electricity production centres seems the only sensible (and economic) answer. But what if we adopt the internet approach, which recognises the advantages of disaggregation, and the potential infrastructure already in place? There are literally millions of household roofs around the country which make ready mounting points for solar panels – millions of local collection and generation points which are capable of feeding power into a local network, bringing the places of generation and consumption much closer, and obviating the substantial loss of power (up to 80%) over the length of transmission lines currently in place. This disaggregated and connected approach has the added advantage of making the power generation process much less vulnerable to the types of outage we experienced in January of this year. Whilst the cost of solar panels is presently relatively high, the economies of scale arising from such increased production and technological development will inevitably reduce the unit cost over time, as well as increased effectiveness and efficiency arising over time. The cost of developing nuclear power stations and other conventional options for mass generation requires billions of dollars of investment over many years, technology which is locked in for a generation or more. Such massive forms of technology are less easily upgraded. By way of contrast, I have upgraded my modem and computer twice since first accessing the internet over a decade ago.

The historic separation between places of production and places of residence is already breaking down, flowing from the advent of the internet and the ability for many to telecommute. Why not add breadth to this experience by building on the potential productive capabilities of the home in relation to electricity generation? In stark contrast to the NIMBY response to nuclear power stations, solar panels are welcomed and much more likely to be a GOER (Generated On Every Rooftop) option. Much like the introduction of pay television, and (hopefully) high-speed broadband, a GOER philosophy is ideal for progressive roll-out.

The magic-bullet approach has also been well-rehearsed in our responses to the current drought. As we seek to ‘drought-proof’ our future, the major focus has been on large-scale solutions, culminating with last week’s announcement of a major desalination plant by the State Government. Left to one side has been the capacity of local and disaggregated solutions to ameliorate the significant problems. Writers in this publication in the past week have drawn attention to the significant water run-off wasted in our urban centres. Discussion of grey-water alternatives has also sidelined, making way for the theory-of-everything approach garners the headlines. Acknowleding that a range of encouraging small-scale moves have been undertaken in local water collection in recent times, little public energy is expended in developing workable and replicable models of small-scale, local solutions, beyond the introduction of water restrictions.

When the solution to such problems is cast in terms which require billions of dollars of expenditure in large-scale single-location facilities, the general public is both disempowered in its response and marginalised in the debate. Such paternalistic positioning also creates a disconnect between the problem and the solution. The contribution of the average citizen - who is responsible for energy and water consumption - to the solution, is primarily through taxes and charges. In contrast, when the solution is disaggregated and localised, the citizen’s connection is enhanced. Those who have to rely on tank water have developed a greater connection in understanding and behaviour between drought and water usage than has the average mains-connected water consumer in the city. The impetus for lifestyle change is much more urgent where the available tank water can be easily measured and connected to individual and household actions.

A further problem emerges in the public consciousness when there are quantum leaps in electricity generation and water supply capacity. When new power stations and water desalination plants come on-line, they convey the idea of a problem solved, which often reduces the urgency to change local behaviour. Disaggregated solutions, on the other hand, empower citizens to be part of the solution by contributing to the available capacity and through greater understanding of the impact individual lifestyle choices make. The converse has never been more evident than in our Federal Government’s response to greenhouse emission targets: our contribution is so small that it doesn’t matter. Under this logic, if there isn’t a magic bullet, then the will to be involved is diminished.

There is no doubting the ability of the magic bullet approach to draw attention to the problem and to provide the impression that action is being taken – witness the response to needs in Indigenous communities over this past week. This issue and the mooted action highlights the paternalistic assumptions and further disempowerment at the most crucial level of all – where behavioural change needs to take place. At the same time it diverts attention away from similar problems in the wider Australian community.

The internet has become the most powerful means of communication yet devised, and one of the most effective and pervasive vehicles of social transformation. It has proved to be adaptable to change and improvements in technology, whilst at the same time one of the most difficult to regulate and control, because of its disaggregation. It continues to power forward because of the level of ownership at the grass roots. It is a lesson governments do well to learn as they seek to tackle the significant social and environmental issues of our time.

The old dictum “You won’t solve a problem by using the same thinking that created the problem in the first place” offers a timely reminder for a fresh approach. The most powerful movements in history have arguably been grass roots movements. In the face of the present enormous challenges which identify quantum shifts taking place in the environment and the community, our government needs to be embracing quantum shifts in the way it addresses the challenges. The people stand ready, able and capable of being part of the solution.

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