Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Other Drones Problem: The Tragedy of the Unexplored Commons

John Brennan's nomination hearings brought about a slew of articles about drone warfare.  On the one side, people like William Saletan in Slate argue that drones (or UAVs) minimize civilian casualties while safeguarding American soldiers.  Others, like John Kaag and Sarah Kreps in the New York Times remind us that the technological advances come with moral hazards we might not have anticipated.

But there is another ethical issue related to UAVs that doesn't have to do with war.  Or, if it does, it has to do with a "war against crude nature."

The technologies we invent in wartime don't go away when the conflicts end.  Already, UAVs are being deployed for a number of other uses, and we can expect their uses to increase.  I'm no flag-waving Luddite here.  The things we invent can be put to diverse uses, some helpful and some harmful.  But if we care about promoting the helpful uses, we'll need to be intentional about that.

UAVs are a brilliant platform for remote-sensing technologies.  They can cover a lot of ground and stay aloft for a long time. Drone aircraft are adding to our ability to conquer unknown spaces.  If you've used Google Maps to explore places you've never been before, you know what an aesthetic boost and letdown this can be: it's a boost to see what you've never seen, and at the same time, we find ourselves sharing Aldo Leopold's lament in "The River of the Mother of God": the unknown places are being replaced by maps, and our deep genetic need to explore runs up against the feeling that everything has already been seen.  When I lived in Madrid, I tried to make places like the Retiro park my places of natural exploration and solitude, but I couldn't escape the feeling that I was treading where millions of others had already trod.

We have a deep need for exploration, and so we need places that feel unexplored.

But that is a small worry compared to the bigger issue of the world's oceans and natural resources.  For the whole history of our species we have been able to act as though the world contained unlimited resources.  Our species is an explorer species.  We have "restless genes," as a recent National Geographic article put it.

Gone is the age of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea.  We no longer take to the seas in small craft and fish commercially with handlines.  The last century has pushed fishing fleets thousands of miles from the places where they will ultimately bring their catch to market.  We can no longer treat the oceans as limitless resources; we are fishing them out, and some species may collapse under the pressure and never come back.

In the race to find the last remaining schools of fish, we are beginning to use UAVs to scour the seas.  Where fishermen once looked for birds circling schools of sardines, robot airplanes now skim the waves and do the searching for us.

At the crossroads

Ethicists and game theorists refer to this as the "tragedy of the commons": if we each only take resources in proportion to what we can use, the resources can be shared indefinitely.  But if some of us take more than our share of the "commons" or the resources, they will have a short-term gain at the expense of the long-term gain of everyone.

The STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) are brilliant, and wonderful.  New technologies give us new access to the world, and they can save and improve lives. But they lack the ability to regulate themselves, which is why as the STEM fields grow, we need the humanities (and their critiques of technology) to grow with them.  If we are not careful, new technologies can also permit us to do great harm to our common world - and to ourselves.  If fish seems cheap and plentiful, stop to ask where it came from, and whether that source is sustainable.  If it's not, vote with your dollars and eat something else.

 Here is one of my favorite sources of fish news.

No comments:

Post a Comment