Implications of a machine economy

The opportunity cost of gadgets in the fight against climate change

Technology can be our savior in averting extreme climate change. But technology will not do that by default, because in the end it is just another tool that has to be handled properly to be useful. Using the wrong tech, or using the tech wrong will result in opportunity costs that harm its potential. Instead, before solving the tech we must better define what the tech should solve.

In this post we’ll use a current example of where gadgets have great potential, but risk coming up short: reforestation drones.

The pitfalls of drones for reforestation

Using drones for reforestation is not a new idea. With the news of fires devastating rainforests in the Amazon, promoting reforestation by drones seems like a no-brainer. But like most neat, plausible solutions for complex human problems, it is also wrong1. This post expands on possible practical problems, and on the opportunity cost of singular solutions like gadgets2 when solving the big problems of our time.

How easy is planting trees with drones?

Planting trees with drones is probably best done by planting seedpods. Seedlings are more vulnerable than seeds or seedpods and also heavier3. But planting a forest is more than loading up a drone with seedpods and randomly – or purposefully – shooting seeds towards the ground.

The seeds have to sprout quickly to outpace any existing vegetation, and to avoid being eaten by animals. In order to germinate and grow the seeds need to be in the ground at the very least; if there’s existing vegetation the seedpods will probably just lie on top of the vegetation and won’t grow into plants. And even if they manage to reach the soil, an area covered with grasses and shrubs will also quickly shade out the sprouting tree seedlings. A forest can’t grow if it can’t even sprout.

How it is solved now

These are not new realizations. In fact the gif below acknowledges these problems. However, it does not sufficiently solve them because in my opinion it solves the problem from a solution’s point of view: “how to make reforestation drones work”.

An example of a neat, plausible – but likely wrong – solution for complex human problems. Source.

Is it better to plant on bare soil then?

A logical conclusion would be that bare soil is better for planting trees with drones. A clean sheet. But in reality bare soil is usually worse. And here we get to the core of the problem: ecosystems.

Bare soil almost certainly means that there is likely no mycorrhizal system holding the top soil together. No plants means there is too little photosynthesis providing the mycelium 4 with sugars. This means there’s no energy input into the ecosystem. The result is the topsoil dying off.

Why we shouldn’t spoil topsoil

When the topsoil dies, it is hard to bring it to life again.5 Those worms, insects, bacteria, and fungi are gone. Dropping seedpods from a drone is not going to bring them back, and without this complex underground ecosystem a forrest is not going to grow back.

Did you know topsoil has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms, and is where most of the Earth’s biological soil activity occurs? If you are talking about sequestering CO2, topsoil is your answer; not trees.

Did you know topsoil has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms, and is where most of the Earth’s biological soil activity occurs? If you are talking about sequestering CO2, topsoil is your answer; not trees. And certainly not any technological innovation6. For more background on the importance of topsoil, not only for absorbing carbon but also to better manage water7 and feed people, read this Guardian article.

Full Image
Source: United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)/Wall Street Journal.

The point of bringing up top soil is to show that even well intended innovations can come up short solving their intended problems, while not addressing the underlying causes in the first place. That inevitably leads to opportunity costs, which we increasingly can’t afford in countering climate change.

The problem of reforestation is deforestation

But even if we park the CO2 sequestering, forests have many redeeming qualities which make a case for more forestation. And the real question drone solutions are trying to answer is: how do we get more forests?

This post originally intended to dive into more problems concerning drones, such as regulations for operating drones8, the energetic cost of staying airborne9, optimal sowing strategies10, and data based AI models for seeding strategies and maintenance11. Now, these are all examples of obstacles that we can solve relatively easy. If we overcome all these hurdles, will a tree planting drone make more forest?

What the opportunity costs look like

In my opinion, using drones to plant more trees is only useful once we’ve sorted some other problems. Because even mature German forests are suffering from draught and disease, so just planting more trees is not the solution. Forestation is not an engineering problem, at least not in the first place, and should not be treated as such.

This is where the inherent danger with technological solutions like reforestation drones comes in. They lull us into a sense of comfort.

This is where the inherent danger with technological solutions like reforestation drones come in. They lull us into a sense of comfort. We rest assured that things are taken care of. But they are not. Because even if these machines work as intended, they don’t take away the motives that led to resilient ecosystems like forests not being able to survive. They don’t really solve anything, because they weren’t designed to deal with the underlying problem.

The bigger picture

Every choice we make has an opportunity cost 12. And while I don’t want to take away too much from the tremendous effort people have done making innovative drones,13 it is important to realize that presenting a solution might not necessarily solve the actual problem. In fact, it could aid in problems becoming bigger by not addressing the underlying issue correctly in time.

The limits of gadgets

I love the idea of (semi-) autonomous machines fixing our problems. It implies lower costs, less human effort, and more precision in execution. However technology is more complex than just the machine. You need to envision the machine in its future surroundings to even stand a chance of finding a working solution, on top of its mechanics working properly.

‘Surroundings’ not only refer to a physical location, but also a legal jurisdiction and a prevailing culture. The most important thing to realize with this is that technical solutions – no matter how ingenious – can’t fix political problems. And deforestation is a geopolitical and economical problem to start with. No fancy autonomous AI solar powered seed dropping drone swarm14 is going to fix an economic system that goes against it.

Technical solutions – no matter how ingenious – can’t fix political problems

Technology is an optimization, and implicitly a specialization. This means it will not adapt easily to different circumstances. Think of different geological, meteorological, political, cultural, and legislative environments for a start. But in my opinion any optimization should be tailored to the environment it is supposed to support. Otherwise the tech will adapt its environment to its own limitations. And that will ultimately lead to ecosystem collapse.15

The real problems for forests: It’s the ecosystem, stupid!

Fire burns faster than trees can grow. And all the while soil degrades. And a reason forests burn is because to some people it is better that way. And no amount of planting can counter that.

But even when forests are not set on fire or cut down there are still problems. Waldsterben16 – due to combination of dry summers, storms and pests – is destroying woodland that is part of Germany’s cultural identity17. We can’t plant our way out of trouble, because we can’t even keep mature forests alive. And these are only a few examples of problems with forests. What we have to realize is that the true problem of forests is not a lack of trees; it’s the ecosystem stupid!18 We need to stop looking at the problem like a tree, and instead see the forest.

Every problem exists in a complex interaction with its surroundings. Change one factor, and you might change everything. Or not. In economics, an externality 19 is “the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit”. In natural ecosystems that cost is rarely addressed, which results in “adapt or die”. And right now, there’s a lot of dying happening and we’re not sure if we can help nature adapt fast enough to help us sustain our current civilization.

A new perspective

These are complex problems. And there is no simple solution, at least not looking from the current paradigm. The big question is: how do we solve a problem when it’s always part of something bigger or broader?

Behind the scenes we are working on an idea that recognizes the importance of ecosystems, and converges with trends in automation, energy and consumption. Three major components are:

  • A mindset that promotes availability over ownership, resulting in abundance without the need for a higher industrial output.
  • A new economic model that reduces the need for energy storage with increased renewables on the grid.
  • A concept to combine the efficiencies of standardization with the resilience of decentralization.

Each of the items on the list above seems like a colossal effort in their own right, but we see possibilities to solve them together when we converge autonomous automation, sustainable energy, and increased consumption into a new paradigm. As you might have noticed, they go beyond engineering and consider psychological aspects of change.

Our ideas are based on what we learned from studying natural ecosystems in the past two years. They translate rather elegantly to human civilization. And we’re seeing building blocks for this new ecosystem of ecosystems emerge all over the place right now. We hope our ideas will become the glue between all the interesting technological developments that are going on now, and will help build a sustainable world for everybody.

About the author

Bas van Sambeek

Communications strategist, specialized in the positioning of high tech products. I help innovative start-ups and fast growing companies in high tech industries clarify their story through positioning and storytelling.

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Implications of a machine economy