• 101 Innovative Inventions and Green Gadgets That Will Save Our Planet (if any of them worked)

    by Gabriel Cross

    I am a regular reader of the blog TreeHugger. Not so much because I am a good environmentalist, which I try to be, but rather because I enjoy being regularly infuriated by the assertion that some totally inane design concept is going to save the planet.

    Take, as an example, a system of cables and carabiners designed to allow cyclists to commute above ground (how would they get their bikes up there?). Or, as another: packaging for an electronic device that turns into the charger (with metal prongs sticking out, which would require more packaging to ship safely). The well intentioned folks over at TreeHugger churn out an almost daily litany of crackpot ideas like these, which they claim will solve some important piece of the sustainability puzzle. Most infuriating of all (and therefore most intellectually gratifying to me) is when they acknowledge the obvious and insurmountable difficulties of implementing these designs, and still hail them as important achievements in the march towards a sustainable society.

    Of course TreeHugger is not the only culprit, only the most notable. And I am not suggesting in any way that everything on TreeHugger is baloney, just some of the technological innovations that they highlight. And to be fair, when you commit to generating that much content, there are sure to be some quality control issues.

    That being said, however, the notion that some fantastical new technology is going to come along and save us from ourselves is not only annoying, it is actually dangerous. There is no deus in that machina. Of course there are occasionally some beneficial technological advancements, but generally not some sexy zip-line of the future item that manages to incorporate every green buzz word in its one sentence description.

    Take for example the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL). Lighting, after heating and cooling, is the third biggest consumer of energy in our homes.

    During the 1970s energy crisis, a GE employee named Edward Hammer was tasked with finding a more efficient way to generate light. He invented the first CFL in ‘76, but it never went into production because GE balked at the initial investment to begin manufacturing. In 1995 the first CFLs (which were basically the same design) were commercially available. They reduce

    the electricity required for lighting by around 75%, and last 8 to 15 times longer than incandescent bulbs.

    There are three important points in this example. One: there are no fun buzz words, pet projects, or sexy solutions involved at all. The whole business was very dry, pretty straightforward, and the result was indefinitely shelved because the People In Charge just couldn’t see it working out. You will notice that it is not a compact fluorescent bicycle design (honestly, bikes work pretty well, stop trying to… ahem… reinvent the wheel).

    Two: it took twenty years to get from design to production, and it is taking even longer to get everyone to adopt this new technology. As long as people dispose of these bulbs appropriately (as there is mercury in them), there is no downside to CFLs, they are just awesome, awesome, and awesome. But for some reason, 3/4 of Americans are still buying and using incandescent. The point is that most technological solutions to energy management meet resistance at every step, because people don’t like change.

    Third (or really third and fourth): there has not been another innovation of this magnitude in efficient lighting since, and lighting is only one small slice of the energy pie. While LED technology is developing rapidly and appears poised to overtake CFLs, they are currently too expensive for wide implementation. Even if they were ready to compete in a few years, the rate of brilliant innovations to reduce energy consumption for lighting would still only be about 1 per generation. Energy used for lighting, furthermore, is only one little piece of the puzzle. It has no impact on fuel burned for transportation and heating, e.g.

    I am not against technology, not hardly. But I do not have any faith that some new green gadget will somehow turn the tide of climate change. I do have faith that in my lifetime I will see two or three great advancements in efficiency per sector, but if we wait for those advancement to solve our problems we may find ourselves treading water in rising seas.

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