Technology will save us

A standard environmental insistence is that we can’t use the “technology will save us” argument. There is, according to the insisters, always something, some hard limit somewhere, which will prevent us from being able to innovate our way out of whatever problem it is we face. Therefore government control, bans, rationing, must be implemented.

We, as with Julian Simon, are entirely happy to agree that there really are hard limits. But they’re so far away as to be an irrelevance for human conduct. An example today:

A device that can produce electricity from sunlight while simultaneously purifying water has been produced by researchers, an invention they say could solve two problems in one stroke.

The researchers say the device is not only a source of green energy but also offers an alternative to current technologies for purifying water. These, they add, often consume large amounts of electricity and require infrastructure beyond the reach of many communities that lack basic access to safe drinking water – a situation thought to affect more than 780 million people worldwide.

This is not, as nothing is, an entire and complete solution to everything. That “as nothing is” being why planning doesn’t solve all our problems. Because what is needed is those small and partial solutions to parts of our total problem. Nibbling away at the edges rather than trying to leap for the one true root reform.

On the top is a horizontal commercial silicon solar cell and beneath this are several tiers through which saline, brackish or contaminated surface water is run. Waste heat from the solar cell warms the saline water passing immediately beneath it – the water evaporates, passes through a membrane and condenses to yield clean water, releasing heat in the process that warms the saline water in the tier below that – the process is then repeated for the next tier. The purified water flows out of the device and is collected.

There is nothing there that is conceptually difficult. There is indeed waste heat from solar cells. Why not use to evaporate and thereby purify water? The engineering might be a little tricky - attention would need to be paid to how the wastes are discharged and whether the piping will fur up etc - but it’s not as if we’ve got to spend another 50 years getting fusion right.

Every little step forward like this does keep telling us that technology will indeed save us. For the planet’s not exactly short of either sunlight or dirty water now, is it?