Can technology save the world? In short: No, not by itself. A sweeping set of changes in the way we interact with the planet is needed to stabilize our rapidly deteriorating biosphere and avert a bleak future. Technology is simply a tool to help us achieve these changes. A dangerous argument, however, is when decision-makers and influencers say our impact on the planet is not a concern, and changes in our behavior are not needed in the near future, or ever, because technology will save us. Sounds ridiculous, but various forms of this argument are commonly invoked in government and international forums, particularly when profits and votes come into play.
Environmental denialists and conservative think tanks parrot several pollyannic arguments that humans are too clever to fail. And they argue what we need is more unregulated economies to foster technological advances. The media oftentimes reinforces this same attitude by headlining how that ‘this’ or ‘that’ new advance will help save the world without placing its potential contribution in the proper context. The danger in this is that real conversations and substantive actions to improve the situation, now, when it is most needed, fall to the wayside.
So, what kind of technological advances can really help save the world? In short, they are technologies that will enable humans to back away from the “planetary boundaries” essential to a habitable Earth. Johan Rockström and others propose nine planetary boundaries needed to maintain favorable, livable conditions on our planet: global freshwater use; land system change (ex. loss of natural habitat and agricultural lands); climate change (increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and its subsequent warming); ocean acidification; stratospheric ozone that protects us from intense radiation; the biogeochemical nitrogen (N) cycle and phosphorus (P) cycle; the rate at which biological diversity is lost; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading. A measure of terrestrial primary (plant) production (TPP) has also been recommended by Steven Running as an important planetary boundary.
For a technological advance to really help us, it must be able to diminish the impact of our destructive behaviors, reduce harmful waste products, or enhance economic and social conditions at global scales in a way that planetary conditions and processes can be pushed towards a more favorable, sustainable state. In other words, while a new technology may be very clever and useful for a portion of society, if it does not efficiently reach enough people at a reasonable cost, and does not drive significant, positive changes in our planet’s vital signs, then its contribution is wholly limited.
Energy Needs & Climate Change
So what are examples of technologies that can help save the planet? If scientists figure out how to utilize energy from controlled fusion reactions, then world-changing shifts in our current energy use (fossil fuels, hydropower, nuclear, biofuels) and a reduction in harmful by-products will occur. Fusion drives our sun, but safely replicating that process on Earth to create a sustainable energy source has eluded us so far. Improved solar, wind, and tidal energy technologies will help, but they will have to replace a significant percentage of fossil fuel to really slow global warming and acidifying oceans. However, technologies do not have to be complex or expensive to make a real difference. The GravityLight, an electricity source generated by the slow fall of a lifted weight, can bring power to billions around the world and, consequently, reduce the need for fuel wood, coal plants, and hydroelectric dams, resulting in less deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and fewer aerosols in the atmosphere.
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Technological advances in agriculture that might greatly increase productivity on less land and with less need for poisons (ex. herbicides, pesticides, fungicides) can increase food security, reduce the need for conversion of natural lands, and improve the quality of life for humans. Fewer pesticides will also help pollination systems rebound and natural ecosystems be more resilient. Agricultural advances have the potential to benefit many farmers on the frontiers of biodiversity loss if employed correctly. Moreover, we are increasingly seeing the genetic modification of crops and cultivars, which has many controversial benefits and drawbacks. Cell phones, money transfer apps, micro-financing services, and accessible weather forecasting are other technology-based tools that are helping millions of farmers and marketers in developing countries; the more efficient and fair their farming is, the less natural habitat will be lost. We will also see greater food security and social stability as a result.
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Environmental Justice & Well-Being
The emergence of rapid, real-time global communication and networking at all levels of society will make innovative technologies more accessible and should act as a vigilant watchdog on those who commit crimes against the Earth in the future. Technologies that help ensure that most people are well-fed, healthy, and enjoying democracy and justice will all contribute to a more stable social and political environment Simple technological advances, such as needleless vaccinations and innovative designs for outhouses, may help bring a major reduction in disease in many parts of the world, making for a better quality of life and enhanced stability.
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New tools for those trying to stem the hemorrhaging of biodiversity offer an important contribution. Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are currently counting elephants, rhinos, whales, and orangutans, mapping forest loss and fire damage, and tracking poachers, whalers, and loggers around the world. GPS, remote camera technologies, portable solar panels, bar-coding to control the wildlife and tropical timber trade, inexpensive ultralight aircraft, and comprehensive online databases of invasive species have all helped customs agents, protected area managers, and conservationists maximize limited resources and manpower.
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Technology that can better reduce the most harmful waste products―like greenhouse gases, chlorofluorocarbons that destroy stratospheric ozone, radioactive waste, and toxins and other harmful compounds like endocrine-disruptors―are certainly useful if significant volumes can be cleaned up to markedly improve conditions for the entire biosphere, in general. For example, nanoparticles are being tested for their ability to absorb pharmaceutical compounds in drinking water and carbon dioxide at power plants— a trick gleaned from sea urchins that use nickel to turn a seawater’s carbon dioxide into shell. Recent proposals to build enormous arrays to trap waste plastic in ocean gyres have also garnered much attention and represent a concept advocating action at an appropriate global scale.
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