The Environment and the Invisibility Ring of Gyges

golum with invisibility ring by todd1000

My precious ring!

King Gyges of Lydia ruled over what is now western Turkey from 716 BC to 678 BC. The legend of his rise to power began when the young shepherd Gyges entered a cave and found a magical ring which gave him the power of invisibility. He used this ring to seduce the queen, murder the king and take his place. In his Republic, Plato used the ring of Gyges to argue that no man is so virtuous that when given the power of invisibility, he would do no evil.

Our technological ring of Gyges

In ancient times our environmental impacts were obvious. Smoke and soot from cooking and lighting fires filled the air and stained the walls of homes. People lived amongst the middens of their own waste. No one could secretly consume more than their share or secretly poison their environment. The invention of agriculture led to cities and trade which increased the distance between populations and their ecological impacts. The invention of plumbing and sanitation removed people from their waste. Electricity allowed people to bring heat and light into their homes while sending our soot and smoke out of sight and out of mind. Like the magical ring of Gyges, technology gave us the power of invisibility. We rely on frail human morality to save our planet. It’s no wonder we’re in trouble.

Abundance isn’t enough

The simplistic solution is to build more power plants, drill more oil wells, desalinate more oceans. But this will fail. Somewhere in Ireland it is probably raining right now. As much as three meters of rain fall on Irish hillsides each year, ten times the average rainfall of Jordan. And yet, Ireland faces water shortages. Even if we had perfect weather control and sufficient nuclear power plants to desalinate the Red Sea, we would face Jevon’s paradox. That is, as supply of a resource grows, demand also grows– often at a higher rate. Ireland’s water shortages are not caused by lack of water. Ireland faces water shortages because the true cost of water is invisible. In 1997 the Irish government decided that citizens have the right to free water. Environmental economists could have predicted the outcome. More than half of this unmetered water leaked away before reaching a consumer’s tap. There is no incentive for conservation, so one of the rainiest countries on earth faced water shortages.

Information technology can destroy the ring

Technology gave us the ring of Gyges but technology can also destroy it. What do the ozone layer, the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the high arctic and Taiji Japan have in common? Each of these remote places concealed environmental disasters which were revealed through information technology. Information is also the key to solving society’s energy and water problems.

Avoiding information overload!

Paper or plastic. Free-range or organic? GMO or hybrid? Consumers already feel overwhelmed with environmental choices. Fifty-three percent of Californians voted against proposition 37 which would have required labels on GMO food products. How can we help consumers make wise choices without overloading them with information? Fine-grained water and electrical metering, carbon taxes and other economic tools can help us factor invisible costs into our personal choices. Big Data is another powerful tool. Dieters use smart phones to simplify healthy food choices. The same technology could reveal how much water and oil is consumed to get food onto your supermarket shelf. Government’s role should be to facilitate a truthful database. Our role should be to become environmentally literate so that this information is understood.

Image of Gollum by Todd Schweitzer (Todd1000) via

This article is entered in Masdar’s competition.

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7 thoughts on “The Environment and the Invisibility Ring of Gyges”

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