Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Dispatches from the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream: Let’s Demand Cheap Desalination

Sarah Karaybill over at the Gristmill has posted a link to a Technology Review article by Aditi Risbud about the recent development of carbon nanotube-based membranes with an extraordinary range of exciting applications.

According to the Technology Review piece:
The new membranes, developed by researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), could reduce the cost of desalination by 75 percent, compared to reverse osmosis methods used today[.] The membranes, which sort molecules by size and with electrostatic forces, could also separate various gases, perhaps leading to economical ways to capture carbon dioxide emitted from power plants, to prevent it from entering the atmosphere....

[LLNL chemical engineer Jason] Holt estimates that these membranes could be brought to market within the next five to ten years... Eventually, the membranes could be adapted for a variety of applications, ranging from pharmaceuticals to the food industry, where they could be used to separate sugars, for example, says co-author Olgica Bakajin, a physicist at LLNL. "Practically, the next step is figuring out how to take a general concept and modify it to a specific application," Bakajin says.

The application that has Karaybill particularly excited is water desalination. And no wonder! As she points out: “The technology could potentially provide a solution to water shortages both in the United States, where populations are expected to soar in areas with few freshwater sources, and worldwide, where a lack of clean water is a major cause of disease.”

Preventable deaths from treatable water-borne diseases, as well as from the drinking of contaminated water supplies are an ongoing global catastrophe. Meanwhile, appalling aquifer depletion, desertification, the proliferation of slums without remotely adequate infrasctructure or social support, and the ongoing relentless mismanagement of our precious water commons via privatization all actually define contemporary corporate-military models of urban development in the present day. For some more details, check out two fine books with the same title (but different subtitles), Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst by Diane Raines Ward and Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit by Vandana Shiva, and also Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq de Villiers.

These are issues that all progressives need to make a priority here and now. And this is especially true for technoprogressives who are post-naturalist environmentalists and who advocate dense smart green urbanization as a key struggle for both global social justice and sustainability, and who are looking for ways to repudiate suburban sprawl that don’t involve romantic pastoral fantasies of some kind of relinquishment of technoscientific civilization (the consequences of which would likely be genocidal whether deep ecologists and luddite greens are willing to deal seriously with this entailment or not).

Now, I can’t help it, I just think it’s cool for one thing that Karaybill, like a growing number of contemporary green-minded folks these days, thinks things like nanotubes are cool. It wasn’t too long ago when I felt I had to keep a pretty strict demarcation between friends I could talk about my sustainability preoccupations with, as opposed to friends I could talk about my emerging technologies preoccupations with for fear of getting dismissed as naïve or worse from either side, even if, for me, it seemed like there was a deep and profound confluence between these preoccupations. So, I thought this post was really heartening.

But I do want to conclude this post by turning in perhaps a slightly more contrarian way (or maybe not so much, actually) to her own conclusion for a moment. Speaking of the new membranes and all the sunny projections made for them in the Technology Review article Karaybill writes: “Cleans up water, works against climate change. An amazing technology indeed. And will it come into widespread use anytime soon? My Magic 8 Ball (which always tilts toward skepticism) is skeptical.”

Of course, I understand exactly where she is coming from here. Every green-minded person knows all too well the way in which logically possible but somehow it seems never, ever concretely available technofixes have been proposed again and again as “rebuttals” to reasonable assessments of technodevelopmental risks and costs driven by profit-driven nationist-driven corporate-military models of global technoscientific research, development, and diffusion. Also, everybody knows that you need to take technoscience press releases with a grain of salt, whether they are published in the hopes of whomping up investment dollars in private industry or grant money in academia. So, sure, I’m skeptical, about these marvelous membranes, too. You'd have to be an utterly hype-notized technophiliac not to be critical of claims like these.

But skepticism cannot be the end-point for technoprogressives. It has to be the point of departure.

So, I say, let’s demand funding for more research and development along these lines. I say, let’s demand desalination.

Readers of Amor Mundi already know I’m a big fan of the Apollo Alliance, a technoprogressive campaign to develop renewable energy alternatives to oil and gas as quickly as possible, providing new jobs, cheap clean energy, and an incomparably more stable geopolitical scene.

It seems to me that technoprogressives should organize a comparably ambitious project to employ nanotechnologies for desalination for the billions who are migrating to seaside mega-cities and for the on-site purification of water for the world’s most vulnerable populations. Like the Apollo Alliance this would be a direct progressive political movement to take up technoscientific research and development and turn it to the solution of urgent human problems rather than to short term profit-making for established elites. And like the Apollo Alliance it would be a profound assault on the disastrous anti-democratic model of enterprise that drove primitive extractive industrialization throughout the bloodsoaked twentieth century.

If the Apollo Alliance and comparable campaigns represent democracy’s fledgling leave-taking from the feudal petrochemical aristocracy, desalination would represent the equally necessary repudiation of the privatizing water wars through which that very aristocracy is already hoping to maintain its power and privileges past Peak Oil.

3 comments:

Tom FitzGerald said...

Water is a human right: "demand" was exactly the right word to use.

Queries:

1) Is nanotube desalination likely to be cheaper/more practical than some kind of solar distiller?

2) How affordable is it right now?

3) What exactly do desalinators do with all that salt? I'd rather worry about the environmental effects of that salt now rather than later, if this is as promising as it sounds.

Anonymous said...

As far as what desalinators do with the salt, in cases of oceanic desalination, its easy. Set the desalination process to only desalinate 10% of the water that comes in. The slightly higher salinity leftover seawater gets pumped back into the ocean to remix. The salinity levels of the ocean itself should see very little actual impact as there is a huge amount of seawater to work with. Localized salinity levels at the remainder effluent pipe should be monitored to ensure minimal biological impact. If there is an impact, decrease the desalinated water percentage to 95/5. There is a whole lotta ocean, and we will probably never need to desalinate every single gallon we get our hands on.

De Thezier said...

Hmmm....

Have you read Will the World's Oceans Be Our Next Drinking Tap? by Scott Thill

http://alternet.org/environment/73512/