Impact looks at the greatest challenges that we face in securing the health and longevity of the environment of tomorrow. We present two divergent scenarios for how future technologies may or may not solve these issues.
To Fight Environmental Destruction, We Must Fight the very Nature of what it is that Makes us Human
“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”
– Benjamin Franklin, (1706-1790).
Certain quotes become more relevant with time. Over 200 years have passed since Benjamin Franklin uttered these simple words about the nature of humanity and our relationship with the environment, and yet I think there is no better summation of the way we live our lives in the 21st century.
At some point in the history of our evolution, the game changed. We are unique from every other species that currently exists or has ever existed on this planet, in that the primary goal in our lives is not necessarily to ensure the continued survival of our species. We live for now, and it is human nature to constantly seek to better our position, regardless of the potential cost to future generations. This single trait of humanity has been highlighted and portrayed throughout the ages. From statements such as those made by Franklin to modern day media, wherein visually captivating Hollywood movies romanticise our impending annihilation through a series of catastrophic scenarios. Many of the films, however, have a common ending – science saves the day. So why should science not be able to solve current problems such as global warming, population growth or competition for resources?
The fact is that, unlike before, these problems are all occurring at the same time, with experts concerned that all of these separate processes are accelerating one another. As Dr. Bob Scholes from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research put it, “There’s so many different things happening simultaneously … and all of this, in a sense, is the perfect storm, it’s all coming together”.
The implications of the combined effects of all of these issues are huge. As a simplistic example, global deforestation has resulted in an increase in the rate of climate change as less carbon dioxide is absorbed from the air by plants. This in turn is linked to the acidification of the oceans due to the increase in CO2, which results in a loss of biodiversity and puts greater strains upon food chains, including our own. This is one of the few more obvious relationships that we can actually account for. In truth, we have no idea what many of our actions have done or will do to our environment in years to come. It is therefore logical to assume that one single major technological breakthrough in the next decade would not be sufficient to prevent irrevocable damage to the global environment, at the present rate at which these processes are occurring. Surprisingly, however, this is not even the biggest obstacle; we cannot even start to climb up the ladder without two key elements to any plans that are made to address the growing enormity of these problems.
Firstly, enormous funding is required to develop and test new technologies in our battle against environmental change. Nations must bite the bullet and accept that the longer they wait to implement the proposed ‘revolution’ of green technologies, the more it will cost them in the long run, and all this at a time when governments worldwide are feeling the pinch as the financial crisis massively reduces spending for the foreseeable future.
Secondly, a clear direction and strategy is needed that is not doctored or watered down by government deliberations. To satisfy both of these conditions, the scientific community needs a voice – something which in my opinion it does not currently have nearly enough of.
You need to look no further than our very own House of Commons for an example of this. I was appalled to discover that of the 650 elected members of parliament, only one can be considered to be a ‘scientist’. It is all well and good to conduct independent scientific inquiries through commissioned research teams, but if nobody can stand up and provoke debate in parliament when the results come back, I fear that it is just money down the drain. Until some form of decision-making is put into the hands of those that we look to for solutions to these problems, Franklin’s well could dry up much sooner than we think.
There is a Solution; We just Need to Find it
What will our planet look like in the middle of the 21st century? This question is inextricably linked to the human population and our interaction with the environment. The need for profound changes in our ways has been argued and substantiated by many researchers and thinkers. Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the UN, recently wrote about the need for a “technological transformation to a greener, cleaner global economy” and a “comprehensive global energy transition”. These words appeared in the preface of the UN World Economic and Social Survey 2011.
In light of the deterioration of ecosystems and habitat loss, will earth be capable of supporting humanity in the future? Because, let’s be honest, it’s not about saving the planet. The loss of large-scale biodiversity has happened before and yet, there is still life on earth. This is about ensuring human survival; and not just bare ‘survival’ but healthy standards of living, in accordance with the World Health Organisation (WHO). This requires getting a grip on preventable diseases, to connect lives with welfare and the “ability to live harmoniously in a changing total environment”.
Future developments could include closed-loop resource cycles, sustainable land use and new tools for more efficient energy production. In my opinion, we should remain optimistic because of the following observations:
1) There is more knowledge available today than ever before. We have more data on the processes within ecosystems and a much better understanding of the influence of possible toxins upon them than ever before. However, progress is not only confined to research in the natural sciences alone. Economics, for example, found that some environmental policies induce accelerated resource extraction. Therefore, future political decisions can be more informed and may prevent such unwanted consequences.
2) The acceleration of technological change can be facilitated in part by non-state actors. Corporate sponsorships of research competitions like the Automotive X Prize (fuel efficiency) or the Virgin Earth Challenge (CO2 sequestration) serve to mobilise engineering efforts. Non-governmental organisations like Greenpeace call on corporations to accept more sustainable manufacturing processes. As an example, the Detox Challenge asks companies like Adidas, Nike, and Puma to avoid the use of toxic substances during the manufacturing process. For such calls to be effective, consumers need to be critical and demand more transparency.
3) Increased collaboration between states could help speed up technological change. The UN survey commends Japan’s Top Runner programme, which turns the most efficient product into a standard to be met by other manufacturers within a given time period. On the other hand, it states that more work is needed to ensure developing countries can access green technology in an affordable and utilisable way. Special regulations with respect to patent laws and dedicated funds might be the way to go.
4) There is no need to invoke a miracle like the singularity or cold fusion to solve our challenges. Instead, one can rely on the ingenuity and creativity of people, coupled with the means of sharing and shaping ideas together. Add to that the free access to learning material and the possibility of crowd funding and you will find that science, innovation and the use of technology have the potential to advance the evolution of man once again.
I believe that with economic, social and environmental dimensions serving as the three pillars of sustainable development, new policies implemented in coming years will also help control population growth. Taken together, these aspects could sustain humanity’s future.