Can Technology Save the Environment from Us?

ecomodernist manifestoAs we wade deeper into the century more eyes are turning to changes that continue to appear around us in the biosphere. Increased focus combined with more powerful tools have allowed us to study increases, decreases, anomalies and misalignments with new degrees of accuracy that allow us to assess the magnitude of some environmental problems as far greater than previously realized while finding others that we did not even know existed. A growing consensus in the environmental community is that human activity is increasingly drawing on nature’s resources faster than the collective ecology can replenish them, resulting in calls to address how we interact with the world’s natural systems.

A group of 18 scientists, professors, engineers and pundits have collectively outlined a different map to reparation.  Instead of trying to refine our connection to nature, their proposal suggests disassembling it; a detachment from our reliance on the natural world that we have abused with increasing intensity. Titled the Ecomodernist Manifesto, the message calls on technological advancement to bridge the gap between the demands that humanity has come to place on the planet and the planet’s ability to meet them. However, rather than a galvanizing call for progressive change, the vision of the future described therein trades the fire of passion for the chill of objectivity in order to pursue a path of convenience rather than ambition.

Read a copy of the Ecomodernist Manifesto (here)

Anthropocene as Technology

While described as an environmental document, the manifesto takes proactive steps to separate itself from the majority of the environmental lobby. While pro-environment messages have increasingly circled their wagons around the prospect of climate change and its imminent, destructive repercussions, the Ecomodernist team starts with a different, if not opposite, path of acknowledging both climate change and the likelihood that humanity will imminently survive its negative effects. The document succeeds in landing outside of territory that could be called “doomsday” or “alarmist” as it dodges the grave warnings so many environmentalists use with the hope of spurring productive action (but have proven to also embolden opposition).

*In some ways this is a good thing. As mentioned before numerous times in this forum (like here), the environmental movement has made its own work more difficult by putting all of its eggs in the basket of climate change. That is not to say that the prospect of climate change is unimportant, but its singular focus limits the connections of all of the issues under the umbrella of sustainability to numerous different audiences. Especially when in many cases, progress on those issues (like water scarcity, air cleanliness, watershed health, soil quality) would end up being a boon to reducing atmospheric carbon.

In its simplest form, the Ecomodernist Manifesto is an industrial pitch centered around the unrealised, but hopeful, prospects of a technological panacea that will save us from our own wastefulness and ecological disregard. The idea of bountiful carbon free energy as cemented in systems that are currently outside of our capability (like nuclear fusion) or ways to manipulate carbon release (like carbon capture) is a positive if not cheerful vision of a possible future that doubles down on a specific output of human ingenuity. In the eyes of the document’s authors, humanity will advance enough to decouple itself from the forces of nature we rely on and reprogram civilization to counter its own negative impulses.

Without a doubt, it is a bridge-building message that seeks to entice the time, money and effort for technological advancement back to the table that stronger environmental language may have scared off. But the document’s reassuring tone comes at a cost– lacking to acknowledge the gravity of the costs that our lifestyle has and will continue to levy on the biosphere.

nuke plantCall to Arms or Ode to Convenience?

The document might be able to be classified as environmental, but it is certainly not sustainable. Sustainability is not a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle. Sustainability is the practice of the components of a functioning ecology that results in a dynamic equilibrium.

There are multiple dangers in placing all faith in a technological solution to our environmental transgressions. The simplest is the unknown of how long it will take to actually make these systems a cost-effective, functioning reality. It is worth noting that this document joins the pro-nuclear community in still existing without a great solution for what to do with nuclear waste–especially the possibility of producing a great deal more of it. As Dan Turello pointed out on over on Huff-Po, carbon capture also has quite a ways to go.

Geo-engineering solutions are far from being a get-out-of-jail-free card. Presenting them as realistic possibility is surely no grounds on the basis of which to make policy now.”

But more importantly a technological focus pointedly circumvents all of the environmental issues that are not technologically driven. The fact that Americans throw 40% of their food away is not due to a technological deficiency. The polluting of our watersheds due to the illegal disposal of industrial waste will not be solved with an abundant source of energy. It is true that “[Energy] allows humans to cheaply recycle metal and plastic rather than to mine and refine these minerals,” but our dismal recycling rates are not the result of the lack of technological capability. Bulging landfills or plastic-laden oceans were not created because of a lack of carbon-neutral power or technical know how. These are all critical issues that contribute to the degradation of the environment (including climate change) and the societies that rely on it.

And yet the Ecomodernist Manifesto neither claims much responsibility for these events nor levies much on its readers. Absent in the pages of reassurance is any sense of urgency or severity let alone remorse, traded instead for the promise that technology can come to right inflicted wrongs. Michelle Nijhuis’ New Yorker article correctly noted that “although their rhetoric may appeal to new audiences, it drives away those who most strongly share their goals.”

This proposition is a road map to mitigating symptoms rather than solving their underlying problems. Even then, upon reaching the end of the document what actions are recommended to anyone outside the circles of politicians or corporate executives? How does this document help change tomorrow for anyone who wants to partake in the solution? 

Turning the Ship is Shifting the Culture

Our current environmental trajectory is more a function of cultural norms than technological capability. Much like the state of affairs with our rate of recycling, the cost gap of recycling infrastructure and its tendency to serve as a barrier to entry for many municipalities is the result of a cultural evaluation rather than us being able to manufacture the means to handle our waste streams more responsibly. As a result, a cultural shift in curbside participation rates would provide a deeper and more resilient change to the industry than machinery to break down recycled plastic more efficiently.

While the text of the Ecomodernist Manifsto is written in an unmistakably positive tone, it takes a strikingly pessimistic stance on our society’s capability to solve it’s own culturally-driven environmental problems. An all out sprint to a technological band-aid implies that we have little chance (not to be confused with little means) of closing the wound without it. In many ways this seems similar to the idea of trying to monetize the cultural value of natural systems into “Ecosystem Services“–a practice that tries to ascribe value to the invaluable. Whether or not that position is one of realism or defeatism could be up for debate.

At least for now, we are still at a point of opportunity to alter the course that predictive analytics has charted for us, but the changes that stand the best chance of making a difference are those that are closer to the core of how we live. We should be focusing on changing what we do and why we do it rather than simply how we do it. Assuring people that technology will do most of the heavy lifting can create the complacent perspective that everyone who is driving a hybrid and LED light bulbs is “doing their part.” Waste can be perceived to be less of an issue because innovative tech will pick up the environmental tab. The result is a daily mentality that is not closer to a cohesive sustainable culture, but more removed.