A new discrimination

An article in KurzweilAI begins,

Plants could soon provide our electricity.

Why would anyone take this seriously? More than excitement, this line rouses a discerning reader to suspicion. It is bound to be centred on the word “soon”, implying in the near-future, imminently. You’re not sure which timescales people are thinking on but I’m sure we can agree 10 years sounds reasonable here. Will plants power your home in 10 years? Heck, in 50 years? It is stupendously unlikely. The suggestion itself – as embodied in that line – is disingenuous because it 1) overestimates feasibility at scale and 2) underestimates the amount of conviction, work and coordination it will take to dislodge the fossil-fuel, nuclear and renewable energy industries.

Indeed, the line that “plants could soon provide our electricity” begins to make sense only when its words are assessed individually instead of being beheld with the seductive possibilities the whole sentence offers. Could? Of course, they already do through the technology described in the article, called Plant-e. Plants? I don’t see why not; they are batteries of sorts, too. Provide? Plants are terrestrial, ubiquitous, very accessible, well understood and seldom dangerous. Our? Who else’s is it, eh. Electricity? Again, Plant-e has demonstrated this already, in the Netherlands, where it was pioneered. But cognise the sentence as a whole and you’re left with gibberish.

The article then claims:

An experimental 15 square meter model can produce enough energy to power a computer notebook. Plant-e is working on a system for large scale electricity production in existing green areas like wetlands and rice paddy fields. … “On a bigger scale it’s possible to produce rice and electricity at the same time, and in that way combine food and energy production.”

The emphasised bit (my doing) sounds off: it implies a couple dozen kilowatt at best, whereas the article’s last line says, “In the future, bio-electricity from plants could produce as much as 3.2 watts per square meter of plant growth.” Either way, a solar panel with a tenth of the surface area produces about 250 W (comparable to the first claim and improving, 10x better than the second claim). People around the world are already concerned that the world may not have enough nickel, cadmium and lithium to build the batteries to store this energy and may not have enough land to build all the solar cells necessary to “provide our electricity”.

In this scenario, why should anyone give a fuck about Plant-e as an alternative worth one’s time? It is interesting and exciting that scientists were able to create this technology but its billing as a reasonable substitute for the commonly known sources of energy, and “soon”, suggests that this is certainly hype, and that the people behind this announcement seem to be okay with disguising an elitist solution as a sustainable one.

Second, said billing also suggests that there is less certainly – but plausibly – a misguided, white-skinned belief at work here, that, notwithstanding details about intraday variability of power generation, soil conditions and such, agriculture and power consumption in the Netherlands are both similar to those elsewhere in the world. But the social, economic and technological gap between these endeavours as they happen in Northwest Europe and Southeast Asia is so large as to suggest the article’s authors have no clue about the socioeconomics of electric power or are at ease with the wilful disregard of it.

Announcements like this don’t harm anyone but they certainly offend the sensibilities of those forced to grow, grow, grow while on the brink of the worst of climate change. It is crucial that we keep innovating, finding new, better, more considerate ways of surviving impending disasters as well as reducing our deleterious footprint on this planet. Let us do this without suggesting that a nascent, untested (at scale) and currently infeasible technology may provide a crucial part of the answer where numerous other governments have failed.

Through this exercise, let us also awaken our minds to a new form of discrimination in the Anthropocene epoch – lazy, short-sighted, selfish thinking – and call it out.