Lean, green killing machines

The race is on between China and the US to equip their forces with eco technologies – and China is w

As the Taliban gunman hides from an approaching Apache attack helicopter, he may not care that the American aircraft is painted with chrome-free primer to reduce its environmental impact. Nor may he be impressed that the next generation of pilotless surveillance drones will be part-powered by solar energy.

The US military is rushing to embrace sustainability. Its primary motive is not ethical. It is trying to keep pace with China in a strategic race to harness clean energy. Any future conflict between superpowers will almost certainly feature eco-weapons and green tactics. The oil-burning Americans are starting to realise how badly they are lagging behind.

This emerging race presents eco-minded campaigners and technologists with a dilemma - should they welcome the huge budgets being committed? Should they, perhaps, even take the military dollar, or should they campaign against the uses to which it is being put?

China is already leaping ahead. The Beijing government is doubling its spending on green tech every year. Its budget is vast - at around $288m a day, according to a US Senate hearing in February. American commentators are beginning to warn how China sees this as a route to global primacy. Robert F Kennedy Jr, the environmental lawyer (and nephew of John F Kennedy), warns on his blog: "The Chinese are treating the energy technology competition as if it were an arms race . . . China will soon make us as dependent on Chinese green technology for the next century as we have been on Saudi oil." He concludes: "The arms race of the 21st century is already in progress."

Major General Zeng Fanxiang, deputy head of the Arms-Building Study Centre of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), declared in December: "Regarding weapons, we need to develop solar power, hydrogen, nuclear and other new energy resources." In a report posted on the Chinese ministry of national defence's website, he also predicted that climate change could alter the way battles are fought and called on the military to become more fuel-efficient.

Sun and sea

In response, the Pentagon is investing in solar technology and funding a major ocean-energy project. US military leaders hope that this surge will achieve energy security at home and abroad. It may also help the civilian sector to catch up with Chinese technology, which is devastating a domestic manufacturing sector that was gearing up to create thousands of jobs for the ailing US economy. In Britain, the promise of new green industries may be stifled at birth by Chinese dynamism.

Across the US, military bases are installing black-and-blue solar panels and other solar technology. Last year, Hill air force base switched on the largest solar panel array in the state of Utah. Green tech is also being harnessed to develop solar-powered battlefield radios, as well as tents with solar panels woven into their fabric to power military equipment.

Solar power and wind energy are, however, dependent on the weather and thus intermittent. No modern military wants to wait for a good breeze. So the US forces are being more ambitious. At a naval base on the Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia, scientists are developing a system called Otec (ocean thermal energy conversion) - a way to produce power using warm and cold seawater.

Warm water is sucked from the surface and cold water from far beneath. The two streams are used to heat and cool a closed system containing a refrigerant-like ammonia that boils at room temperature. The cold water condenses it into a thick liquid, which is piped to the turbine; warm water then vaporises it into an expanding gas that turns the turbine's blades. Once this process is complete, cold water condenses the ammonia again.During the 1970s energy crisis, the Carter administration funded research into Otec, but Reagan abolished it. Trials have now started again.

President Obama understands its military potential. He has also promised to end US "foreign oil dependency", claiming that it can be used as a weapon that allows "unstable, undemocratic governments" overseas to wield "undue influence over America's national security". His case has been bolstered by Somali pirates. In late 2008, the hijack of the Sirius Star, a VLCC (very large crude carrier) holding two million barrels of oil, exposed America's vulnerability. If a 60-warship multinational force can't beat a group of brigands, imagine how easily China or a nuclear-armed Iran could block the west's supplies.

The technological challenges of Otec are huge. The projected cost of a plant that generates 100-200 megawatts - enough to power 50,000 homes - is $1.5bn. But the potential benefits are dizzying. The oceans could be harnessed as an immense solar-energy store. If the US navy can make it work, Otec could change the future of clean energy.

In April, the US navy declared that it will obtain half of its energy from alternative sources by 2020. It has been conducting flight trials of the Green Hornet, an F-18 fighter aircraft powered by a blend of camelina-derived biofuel and conventional jet fuel. It is the first aircraft to break the sound barrier on biofuel. The navy secretary, Ray Mabus, also announced that the "Great Green Fleet" - a carrier strike group that will use no fossil fuels - would launch by 2016.

The US army is auditing the greenhouse-gas emissions of each of its units. "We recognised that we were big emitters as well as big fuel users," said Jerry Hansen, the US army's senior energy executive in December. Once again, this isn't about protecting the environment so much as defending vulnerable supply lines.

“The more the military thinks about green technology, the more it sees how it goes hand in hand with improving operational effectiveness," Elizabeth Quintana, head of military information studies at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, told me. "Afghanistan is the principal driver for Nato nations. Resupply convoys can be eight miles long and they in effect say: 'Please hit me with a roadside bomb.' Up to 60 per cent of the convoys carry fuel and water. If you reduce that need for supply, you save lives. Forward-operating bases are increasingly using solar panels and wind turbines for sensors and radars. It saves troops from being predictable targets when they regularly refuel generators."

In February, the institute hosted an inter­national conference on military eco-efficiency. Quintana believes that the world's armed forces may prove the most efficient at speeding up green tech development: "The military can turn things around much faster than other government departments. Their get-things-done attitude may put them among the most forward-thinking organisations in this area."

Conflicting interests

Ecological activists are wary of welcoming the military into their climate camp. "There is an uncomfortable pragmatism with which we have to take these things," says Doug Parr, policy director of Greenpeace. "The military's technological advances can't be condemned out of hand. And it would be wrong to suppose that we could stop all military conflict. But if our government is serious about achieving fuel security, there are other things we could do that would be more strategically effective.

“If we want to reduce our dependence on imported energy," Parr continues, "then lagging our roofs should be more of a national security issue than having a more sustainable army. If we all had electric cars, we would not need warships patrolling our oil supply routes."

Alex Randall, of the Centre for Alternative Technology, is also sceptical. "The military is developing these technologies so that they can fight wars in a post-climate-change future. Such conflicts are likely to be caused by a lack of natural resources . . . We would rather that funds were concentrated on technologies and policies that prevent climate change, and which thus prevent conflicts from happening."

The world's armed forces are busily developing forms of green tech that will, no doubt, be devastating in their effects. The emergence of "low-ecological-impact" weapons is a case in point. British and American scientists are deve­loping reduced-toxin explosives and lead-free bullets that don't poison battlegrounds.

The eco-war scenario goes further. A PLA treatise called Unrestricted Warfare from 1999 proposed the use of ecological tactics such as creating man-made earthquakes or other natural disasters. The prospect is revived in General Zeng's report, which says: "Effective meteorological weapons could be a key to surprise in tomorrow's information warfare."

Nuclear weapons halted the game for war hawks, as they meant that any conflict between superpowers would wreck the planet. Green tech has revived the possibility of a mass war in which the environment isn't destroyed.

Our worst nightmare may be the promise of a clean fight.

John Naish is an environmental campaigner and the author of "Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More" (Hodder, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge