How about an Award for
by Bill McNeill Ross
I read a dispatch in Maura Welch's excellent Boston Globe 'Business Filter' blog about Exxon's enormous profits, coming "at a time when U.S. consumers have seen what many call price-gouging, and little is being done to develop new sources of fuel."
Why is that? We've seen that when we are deeply dependent on energy sources located within foreign lands, conditions can become more difficult to control than expected, and costs can run quite high. One shudders to think what tiny fraction that investments in renewable, 'green energy' represent, across both government and business, vs. research on more efficient ways to pump oil out of the ground.
MIT presents an award every year, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, which is the largest single cash prize for invention in the United States. It's given to an individual 'who demonstrates remarkable inventiveness and creativity, and a proven commitment to inspiring others.' This is a wonderful thing, of course. MIT doesn't stop there: the Sloan eBusiness Awards 'recognize outstanding achievements by companies and individuals who have made innovative contributions in eBusiness.'
But once, reading about the most recent recipient of one of these awards, I found myself wishing someone gave an award specifically for helping to un-do a lot of what technologies have done; things like toxic waste, or fluorescent lights, for instance. True, the damaging technologies might turn out to include some past awardwinners. But sometimes an institution's gotta do what an institution's gotta do.
How about plastic? Doesn't it seem like very single item you buy these days has a layer if not two of plastic? As I understand it, that stuff is not going to go away. According to The Observer, plastic bottles can last for 450 years. The 500 billion plastic bags a year used worldwide will each take from months to hundreds of years to break down, and as they decompose, toxic particles seep into the soil and water.
Currently, it is being left to some hoped-for genius in the 22nd century to figure a way to break plastic down into its basic elements, so that those molecules can peacefully re-enter the ecosystem. Said inventor will surely have plenty of raw material to experiment on, thanks to us. Let's hope Buckminster Fuller was right when he argued that, 'Pollution is nothing more than an unharvested resource.'
Wouldn't it be nice if MIT or someone was giving an annual award for that sort of achievement? Technology, after all, is the application of science, presumably to problems that people have. And we've got some problems, people.
Has anyone planned how we're going to keep track of all those nanobots they're designing now, for instance? You know, the ones that will be invisible to the human eye? That's going to be a growth business at some point in the near future. And what about climactic climate change, with all those low-lying coastal cities in the world slated to be enjoying progressively higher tides in the coming years? We're going to need some very innovative ideas indeed.
Trying to fix the problems created by introducing technologies too hastily is a very difficult proposition, and one that can easily get discouraging. So we should also keep moving forward on positive efforts, like on generating energy in a clean and powerful manner, or a technology that performs some vital task in a newly simple and inexpensive way. (But let's require that it be a vital task, something that people objectively need, rather than one that they can be convinced they want.)
Let's give MIT its due: the Lemelson Foundation describes their work as, 'to inspire and recognize inventors, with a growing emphasis on those who harness invention for sustainable development where the needs are greatest,' which puts them halfway there. But we need a prize, and its attendent publicity around the country and globe, that's focused on promoting regenerative, earth-cooperative models.
Elsewhere at the school and in the Globe (Sept. 2004), researchers demonstrated that using a process similar to the photosynthesis, our cellphones and laptops could soon draw power from a coating that's related to spinach. Shuguang Zhang, associate director of MIT's Center for Biomedical Engineering, explained, 'Billions of years of evolution have taught plants to use sunlight efficiently.' You just can't ask for a greener power than that.
(c) 2006 by Bill McNeill Ross
© 2017, William McNeill Ross