Paying off our ecological debt

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Trinity Street, Cambridge, during lockdown

It’s usually dangerous to draw analogies between computing and any other field except possibly mathematics, because the way we do things in computing is so bounded by technical constraints, business models, and naive modelling assumptions that trying to apply our approach in other domains is either laughably simplistic or clearly unhelpful.

However as I reflect on the state of the world as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic continues to disrupt so much about the lives of so many, it seems that one idea from our profession offers a useful way of thinking about what we are going through.

That idea is ‘technical debt’: the cumulative impact of taking the easy path to delivering a solution instead of doing it properly that will one day be repaid, either by redoing the work as bug reports come through, or through lost data, lost effort and lost trust in the software.

Technical debt is accrued for many reasons. Sometimes it’s just foolishness — I remember debugging some code that I’d written when I was a full time programmer and finding a function that was to be called only rarely and seemed to be failing.

When I looked at the source code there was an empty function with a comment /** Must finish this before release date **/ To my chagrin, I realised that I had written that, some months before.

Technical debt is also accumulated when projects are badly planned, under resourced or simply badly executed. Or it may be because of unreasonable optimism on behalf of the developers, who assume that things will be okay, or that certain edge conditions will never happen, or that users simply couldn’t be that foolish.

But whatever the reason, the end result is code that gets shipped even though it is not good enough. When product teams talk about ‘refactoring’ they often mean ‘sorting out a load of stuff that should have been done right the first time, but wasn’t, because we made the decision to do it the faster, easier, way.’

Technical debt can be paid down by doing the work, though sometimes we try to clear it by declaring bankruptcy and moving on, as Apple did when they built macOS X on the NeXTSTEP code base and simply threw out version 9. Of course even the new software has its own compromises, unknown errors and unexpected interactions — we just hope that the level of debt is lower so we can buy some time.

As for code, so for cultures, but in this case the nature of the debt is different and has much more severe consequences.

For the last hundred years or so we have been building up an unsustainable level of ecological debt by failing to address the consequences of extractive capitalism and its effect on the natural world.

We have developed systems that rely not on solving problems but on externalising all negative aspects of their implementation, from the poor health and poverty of employees to the proper disposal of waste to the construction of financial systems of unsustainable complexity whose collapse is inevitable.

We have acted as if finite resources are infinite, that fragile supply chains are immune to disruption, and that there will be a ready supply of people to be exploited and governments to offer incentives for acting in ways that do not safeguard the environment.

We have disregarded the complex interdependencies of the many life forms on our planet, inserted ourselves into every possible niche, destroyed habitats in search of short term gain, and forced humans into close promixity to many other species and their associated diseases, symbionts, and parasites.

And we have tried to ignore the consequences, until now when a virus has crossed species and found that we are both biologically and epidemiologically vulnerable: we catch it and we spread it, and it is not quite fatal enough to die out naturally.

SARS-CoV-2 and the Covid-19 disease it causes may be the form of the destructor, but we opened the portal a long time ago.

The industrial revolution, modern capitalism, neoliberalism and globalisation created the conditions in which it became likely that a disease would cross the species barrier, that it would spread rapidly through crowded cities following paths of trade and tourism, and that the supply chains of the materials needed to deal with the emerging health crisis — PPE and ventilators in this case — would be disrupted just as demand for them increased.

Some countries seem to have managed the pandemic effectively, and it looks likely that enough has been learned that we will be out of the current critical period within a few months. If that is the case then we need to decide what we want to happen afterwards. Not ‘after things go back to normal’, because the idea of normal was unsustainable and has finally broken, but ‘after the current crisis’, when we develop treatments and perhaps even a vaccine.

Those who have power and money in the old system will, of course, want things to be as similar as possible to the way they were, as it benefited them so much. They will try to persuade us that restoring the world that led directly to the current horror is the only real option and that with relatively minor tweaks we can make the risk manageable.

They will invite us to be nostalgic for a world where a tiny proportion of individuals have unimaginable wealth, where a few large companies dominate both markets and the shape of political possibilties, where the vast majority of people lack resources beyond what they can earn each day — and where for many that amount is barely enough to feed them — and where systems are designed to oppress and entertain but not to liberate, share power or delight.

They will want us to add covid to ‘flu and malaria as things that are just part of the natural world and ask us to believe that the risk of catching and dying from it is worth having our cars and cafes and concerts and open plan offices back. Afer all, we seem comfortable with around 1.4 million people dying each year in road traffic accidents and 1.5 million from TB, so there’s clearly a threshold effect here.

If we are to resist the efforts to snap things back to the world as it was but with more space between tables in restaurants and even harsher controls on people’s ability to escape oppression and seek refuge in other countries, then we need to have an idea of what an alternative might look like. After all, we seem to be having the revolution many were asking for, the one where the old order is overturned. We just need to decide what to do with it.

The problem is that most of our dreams so far involve the use of technologies that are the expression in silicon and glass of the very system that has accrued the ecological debt that we are now repaying. Like hippies in the 1960’s San Francisco who may have managed to turn on and tune in, but only ever managed to drop in to the welcoming arms of the consumerist world that provided their drugs, clothes and cars, too many of our dreams of a new normal assume that we can have all the tech without the extractive capitalism.

Even the Great Pause itself, this shutting down of so much of the industrialised world, has been made possible by technologies that are the product of the unrestrained operation of the very systems that have made it necessary. Many of us are relying on these technologies to get through this hard time, either working or staying in touch with family and friends, or being entertained as we stay home and try to stay safe, and so it is hard to see how we could do without laptops, tablets, phone and the network.

Perhaps the answer lies in reframing the goal. The point of capitalism is not to satisfy desires but to allow the accumulation and deployment of wealth, and the fact that we want or rely on the products of the factories or offices is a necessary precursor of that end, not the end in itself. In pursuit of that end politicians have placed free markets at the centre of their ideology and constructed social policy around the primacy of those markets.

What responses to Covid-19 around the world have shown is that the market is not primary, and that only a strong well-ordered state can preserve the basic infrastructure that makes the market possible.

It’s like the point where people realised that Newtonian physics could be completely explained by relativity but not vice versa: there is something beneath the economy, and that thing is the expression of the social bonds between us, which manifests itself first as society and only secondarily in the market.

If we use the current crisis to embed an understanding that the market is not the central force of human society, perhaps we can create the conditions for humane markets that respect the conditions of the natural world, and set our ambitions appropriately.

We don’t need to forget what we already know, but we can start to use that knowledge and technical understanding to build a world that values humans and other species, that acknowledges our interconnectedness, and that is not driven by consumption, profit and accumulation.

In that world we might still manage to have the network and the good that comes from it, without burdening ourselves with debts that no honest society could pay.

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