Escape Key

It’s part of our contemporary condition to feel simultaneously blessed and cursed by technology.

By James Bennet

To an extraordinarily powerful human mind, one that can reckon the dimensions of galaxies and conjure the worlds they might contain, the problems that bedevil our species must seem, sometimes, like pretty small potatoes. More than 50 years ago, the physicist Freeman Dyson calculated the number and force of nuclear detonations required to power gigantic rocket ships to the moons of Jupiter. He went on to imagine trees that would grow in airless space and help us colonize the comets. Is it any wonder, as our longtime contributor Kenneth Brower writes in this issue, that Dyson has emerged as a formidable skeptic of fears of global climate change, assured as he appears in the faith that technology will allow us to elude any danger?

The notion that science will save us “is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe,” warns Brower. The only solution to global warming, he writes, “will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behavior.”

Yet there may be limits to what we can hope for from human behavior as well. Just to stabilize the amount of carbon gathering in the air, the entire world would have to reduce its per capita emissions to the level of Kenya—and each American now accounts for as much carbon as every 25 Kenyans. But, of course, Kenyans and everyone else want the same power-hungry technologies that are so embedded now in Americans’ lives we hardly notice them. For our cover story, James Fallows set out many months ago to discover what technical innovation might meet that demand while creating a clean energy future.

But as Fallows considered the gee-whiz possibilities of solar, wind, and so forth, he found himself confronted with a stubborn problem: the only path to that future lies through our cheapest and most plentiful source of energy—coal. And he discovered that, having reached the same conclusion, a network of scientists and businessmen in the United States and China is doing the hard work of devising ways to release coal’s energy while locking down its carbon. Technology, to them, is neither a sedative that dulls our alarm nor a rocket ship that will spirit us away from our problems; it is a pick—one fairly humble tool among many, including changing human behavior to increase conservation—with which we can hack our way toward a solution.

It seems part of the contemporary condition to feel simultaneously blessed and cursed, liberated and trapped, by technology. This theme is threaded through the history of The Atlantic, and certainly through this issue. Elsewhere in these pages, Megan McArdle, our business and economics editor, argues that the practice of medicine would benefit profoundly from data-crunching computer technology; while Alexis Madrigal, our technology editor, bemoans the blows that the same sort of technology is dealing to romance. And Christopher Buckley, vividly describing his year aboard a tramp freighter, worries that shipboard TVs and DVD players, fixtures of what he calls “our relentlessly connected age,” may have put an end to the “splendid isolation” he discovered at sea.

To that observation I’d add what my father once told me about sailing, that it was good for his sense of scale. Instead of barreling down a highway in a car or soaring over the planet in a jet—instead, indeed, of crossing the solar system in a nuclear-powered rocket—I’ve spent some of my happiest days with him, working with the wind, inching over the curving ocean toward an infinite horizon.

I had a little sailboat of my own once, and spent a fair amount of time in pleasant isolation. I sold that boat to a friend a few years ago, but I’ve found a way to remind myself of times disconnected from the grid. The marina where my friend keeps the boat has a live-streaming camera mounted at the harbor’s edge; any user can control the camera through his browser, provided no one else got there first. I sit at my computer in Washington, point the camera with my keyboard, and watch my old boat, live, bobbing happily at its mooring.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/12/escape-key/308301/