Cheering For Green Tech - Critically

By Julian Darley
January 27, 2009 | Comments: 5

2009-01-26.Dallas-cheerleaders.jpgMetacognitive skills has a fine ring to it and is certainly a phrase a neophyte graduate student should learn to deploy with celerity not to say alacrity. Well, that's all rather splendid, but what does it mean and why should anyone be interested in it?

I am going to be as diplomatic as I possibly can here, because the problem I want to allude to is cultural, not confined to one country, and rather more serious in a time of challenge and change than when things are swimming along nicely.

Metacognitive skills essentially means being able to think critically, ideally not just to criticise but to critique - analyse deeply but make constructive suggestions when addressing problems. If I am to follow my own suggestion that critique is better than criticism, then I had better have some constructive suggestions to go along with this analysis.

I recently saw some presentations about some green technology corporations. The young presenters were earnest and clearly tried really hard to do a good job of presenting information about an area that is going to be vital to our future survival. The problem was there was almost no attempt to look at any of the downsides of the technologies presented. If this were an anomaly, this wouldn't matter, but there are grounds to think it is widespread.

Those who know more about the delicate art of American football than I do (almost everyone on planet Earth) may be quick to affirm that in the matter of cheerleading, being relentlessly cheerful and optimistic helps boosts the team's confidence, with the idea, I imagine, that the team will play better and win more points, goals, touchdowns or whatever is that one wins in what looks like a cross between rugby and wrestling.

Cheerleading may also necessary when trying to keep your stock price up or raise money for a new venture, especially an IPO (if those still exist). Given the way the system is currently set up this is understandable, whether one agrees with the system or not. I think one could now safely argue that a little more critical thinking applied to the housing bubble and 'irrational exuberance' in general may have been a good thing.

Clearly there is a lot more critical thinking going on in money circles than had been the case for a good while, but is that just a reaction to a really ghastly mess, or is it indicative of a more secular change in which the downsides and drawbacks to schemes are looked at as carefully as the glowing upside and potential rewards?

Of course it is not possible to answer this question accurately from an armchair, since it would require a mass of careful research which I doubt anyone would ever fund. However, for a host of cultural, educational and financial reasons, I think it is fair to say that trenchant analysis and careful critique is not exactly encouraged in the English-speaking world, especially not in lands west of the Atlantic. It's bad for business, to put it bluntly, and when so many people are losing their jobs, homes and ways of life, it is pretty reasonable to want to see business go better.

So now is a really good time to pipe down and send on the cheerleaders, especially in green tech, given that we must reduce carbon emissions and oil consumption for reasons I don't think I need to repeat. However, this might in fact be self-defeating and bad for green tech. We have seen this happen before - an idea with good intentions gets seized upon as a green saviour, and that part of the media which is not totally devoted to the goings on of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton waxes lyrical about the next great thing. Hydrogen cars and corn ethanol spring to mind, but there are plenty of other examples.

The next thing you know a newly formed industry is going bust, and we are looking round for the next horse to put in the race. Well, it's all part of the rough and tumble of the market, and if you can't stand the heat you should stay out of the kitchen, some might say. This might be alright for the fashion business, where a failed collection could end up in a Goodwill store, but in the matter of green technology, over the last thirty or forty years hopes have repeatedly been raised and then dashed, so much so that many have become cynical and disillusioned.

Again, one can argue that in the current financial storm which is causing many small and probably very worthy green tech boats to capsize, we don't need critical thinking skills, we just need to hang on for dear life. In Britain, where so many good ideas have died for want of capital and incubation, there are extra arguments for extolling cheerleading and eschewing metacognitive operations.

However, for all those that think that time is short and money uncertain, this is the time to apply critical thinking skills as early as possible in the process of innovation and to develop a culture in which critical thinking and a good understanding of logic, science and the scientific method is held in high esteem and encouraged from infancy.

This is a tall order, it is true, and finding the right balance between cheerleading and critique is not necessarily easy, and would suggest some perhaps unlikely shifts in the way business is done, but that doesn't mean that the suggestion is wrong. Furthermore, we are clearly undergoing great change already, and it is precisely during these times that it can be easier to suggest and influence deeper cultural changes.


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5 Comments

I was the facilitator of the student presentations. (Not the teacher.) I did collaborate with the teacher and suggested specifically ideas within the project that would encourage critical thought. Unfortunately, we did not see eye-to-eye and since it was her class project, I acquiesced to her decision. (Who am I but a Science teacher to judge what an Economics teacher does in the end.)
One concept that was salient, but missing in the rubric was http://www.eroei.com/ which did not help the students focus on what should have judged the real viability of the specific company's energy product.

I cannot agree more as I am married to a Brit and have seen my own country through another culture's lens. We might speak the same tongue, but the attitudes are different. Thank you Ronald Reagan. One can only hope that from the house of highest power will promote a change and critical thought will permeate. Years of ignorance does not change overnight. It does not matter which level of the socioeconomic strata that people come from in this country, money does not provide critical thought, just more opportunities. Critical thought comes about either innately for those very gifted, or by hard trials for the rest of us. Well, we have got some serious hard trials coming now, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

America, I hope that using your home as an ATM was worth it. Leveraging your debt, and hoping for a "Hail Mary" pass to come into the end zone is by odds very slim to succeed. (I hope you liked the football metaphor.)

Hi Julian,

I remember you from years ago when I checked a job ad for Post Carbon. Been semi keeping tabs on your work since. This article sounds like it is pointing towards proper risk management in environmental/economic affairs.

When I worked on touchy area of Salmon and sea lice in BC, I tried hard to get risk management as part of the study we were working on, but the most I could get in was modeling, but even that science is so shaky at this point that it ended up not getting published in our manual (for best practices of research in the field).

For large companies and the army, risk management is central to strategizing. Metacognition or go under. Well, as Alan Greenspan said, the strategists were "fundamentally" wrong in their reasoning about how the world works. As Naomi Klein might say, we are under shock therapy of a widespread type that makes New Orleans seem small in comparison now.

So, I agree with you, now IS the best time to implement solid environmental policy. It should be logical and the risks and benefits should be properly weighed from a holistic perspective. My own view is that the triple bottom line boils down to the environmental bottom line. Without an envrionment, without resources, clean air & water, healthy land to live on, there is no economy, no society. We've grown to the point where we are no longer a negligible influence on the global scale, and we need to practice stewardship responsibly, lest we *risk* going the way of Easter Island.

But this -- implementing reasonable stewardship -- in and of itself, is a challenge.

You seem as though you are partly at the heart of that effort. I wish you luck, tip my hat to your work, and wish I had a PhD in risk management as well as the handy dandy engineering knowledge of Scotty in Star Trek to engineer a miracle that I could offer to the cause in the nik of time.

how do you made that

resorting to T & A, classy move...and curious for a blog post that perhaps .01% of the world can understand.

When times are bad, especially this bad, it is tempting to put pictures of hot babes on the home page of a tech blog..

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