Our Fraught Relationship with Technology

By Keith Kloor | September 19, 2013 12:46 pm

For those of us fortunate enough to be born into the right circumstances, life is good, with antibiotics, modern dentistry, vaccines, climate-controlled homes, big-screen TV’s, smart phones.

The sum of this, however, is worrying to some: What is the toll to the planet, to the ecosystems that support us and the rich diversity of animals and plants? Are we, collectively, altering the earth in such ways that threaten our future existence? This is the concern that a number of scientists have expressed in recent years. Others have pushed back on such a gloomy prognosis.

There is a familiar ring to this debate. (Indeed, there is a new book that captures the ferociousness of it.) For decades, grim warnings of imminent “collapse” and “tipping points” have animated environmental discourse. Here is what Barry Commoner, one of the giants of modern environmentalism, wrote in his classic 1971 book, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man & Technology:

If we are to survive, we must understand why this collapse now threatens. Here, the issues become far more complex than even the ecosphere. Our assaults on the ecosystem are so powerful, so numerous, so finely interconnected, that although the damage they do is clear, it is very difficult to discover how it was done. By which weapon? In whose hand? Are we driving the ecosphere to destruction simply by our growing numbers? By our greedy accumulation of wealth? Or are the machines which we have built to gain this wealth–the magnificent technology that now feeds us out of neat packages, that clothes us in man-made fibers, that surrounds us with new chemical creations–at fault?

These assumptions and questions are still driving the conversation today. At least this is the contention I have made. Yes, there are new wrinkles, such as the climate change imperative and a new overarching framework, but the underlying themes articulated by Commoner over 40 years ago remain much the same.

One of these themes–our fraught relationship with technology–was taken up in a recent symposium called, “The Longevity of Human Civilization: Will We Survive Our World-Changing Technologies?”

My first thought: Well, we’ve made it this far, haven’t we? And jeez, look at where we started.

But I get that it’s a fun parlor game to think about what may finally do us in–or save our asses. And the issue of how we use our technological prowess is central to any musings over the fate of humanity. This particular conference–sponsored by NASA and the Library of Congress–asked big questions:

Will human civilization on Earth be imperiled, or enhanced, by our own world-changing technologies? Will our technological abilities threaten our survival as a species, or even threaten the Earth as a whole, or will we come to live comfortably with these new powers?

This dispatch from Paul Voosen in The Chronicle of Higher Education gives a nice flavor of the event’s discussion. He reports:

There was much talk of the Anthropocene, the idea that the world has entered a new geological epoch dominated by humanity. It’s become a shorthand, a way to end the notion that nature is something pristine, that happens “over there,” apart from people, said Ursula K. Heise, an English professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“That’s completely true, and I agree with that, but that’s news really only to North American environmentalists,” she said.

Heh. I don’t think many of them have yet to fully absorb that news. I’m even starting to wonder whether environmentalism will ever be able to get beyond its nature-centric mindset and its notions of ecological harmony. Remember, the story is this: We’re either despoilers of the planet or we’re living in balance with it.

Technology, of course, muddies this simplistic narrative. As science writer Annalee Newitz says in an interview with Andy Revkin at Dot Earth:

If there is any kind of tool-making skill that humans excel at most, it’s creating dual-use technologies. Often, our greatest technological achievements — say, trains in the nineteenth century or computers in the twentieth — can be used to improve our environments and to degrade them. As we look to the future of our civilization, we have to bear in mind that our tools will never lead to an either/or proposition in terms of progress. There will always be ambiguities. The burgeoning field of geoengineering, which could one day help us draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere and improve the environment, could also be appropriated by the military to wage war with weather. Synthetic biology could be used to enhance the health and abilities of our species, or to launch a racial purity movement.

This is a smart observation that speaks to the double-edged sword of many of our technologies. If only such a nuanced perspective influenced our debates on energy, agriculture, and other sustainability-related issues.

For example, look at how the conversation on natural gas and fracking has been framed in the environmental community. Here we have a technology that has demonstrably helped reduce carbon emissions and air pollution. Yet many greens oppose hydraulic fracturing–fracking–the technology that unlocks the gas, citing poor industry practices and loose regulatory oversight. True, there have been legitimate concerns that methane leaks from fracking could negate the climate benefits of natural gas. But one major green group, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), has taken the lead in tackling this and other problems associated with the expansion of gas drilling. A new study now also suggests that the methane issue may not be as worrisome as some initially asserted.

None of this is to say that fracking is a silver bullet for global warming any more than chemotherapy is a silver bullet for cancer. But we know that chemotherapy, despite it’s adverse side effects, has saved and prolonged many lives. We know that chemotherapy is an imperfect treatment that buys people precious time. Similarly, fracking and natural gas may well buy us more time to innovate our way to a clean-energy future. (It may even help hasten the transition.) So why not seek to improve the technology and its use of it, such as EDF is trying to do?

Or does fracking, because of what it represents (the continued use of fossil fuels), have to be tagged as a bad technology? Before you answer, have a look at another article on the NASA/Library of Congress symposium, which frames the debate thusly:

Technology can extend human life and take us into space, but it is also destroying the environment and threatening the survival of other species and humanity.

This is the contrast that shapes our discourse on environmental issues and the tools we use to address them. Technology is either a force for good or bad. And specific technologies have to be one or the other. There is no spectrum in between.

  • Buddy199

    In other words, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Odd how so many greens can see only black and white.

  • mem_somerville

    I think about this a lot. For fun I read many historical biographies. But all the dead children in those are hard to hear about. Even the most prominent people of their day–the last one I read was Daniel Webster–had young children die of things that we can prevent today.

    And the times the trips took to get to NYC or Washington from Boston–no thanks.

    So yeah, I get that things here aren’t as charming and quiet and fossil-fuel free as they were in Marshfield in Webster’s time. But in so many ways things are so much better.

    I guess it depends on your frame of reference. I don’t think ~1813 would have been a fun place to be for a woman, no matter how pristine the air was, if you had TB. And I’m not sure I can see how you could both maintain that simplicity and have the opportunities we all have today.

    Most of the science folks I know remember the show “Connections” and consider that part of their formative influences. Technology evolved from much simpler things, just like biology has. Maybe not always in a straight line and not always perfectly. But it bends towards improvements. Trying to pretend that’s not going to happen seems bizarre to me.

  • jh

    “Well, we’ve made it this far, haven’t we?”

    I think that about sums it up. From an ecological perspective, humans long, long ago exceeded their “natural” environmental carrying capacity. We’ve been out on the technology limb since at least the dawn of agriculture. Ain’t no goin’ back now.

    Many environmentalists hold the same position towards technology that Republicans hold toward Obamacare: they oppose it because they fear that it will work. Technologies like fracking evolve. They get better. Left to themselves, the primary pressure for improvement comes from economics. But regulatory pressure can also be applied – carefully and modestly, with the clearest and simplest possible rules – where economic pressure is insufficient.

    The “planetary boundaries” concept is interesting and it seems reasonable on its face to presume there are such things. The problem with “predicting” them with models is that models are such a poor representation of Earth systems that they’re more likely to lead us down the wrong path than to lead to anything useful. Modelling, at this point, is for modelling’s sake. It’s an exploration of modelling, not an exploration of Earth systems. We can’t even tell from GCMs whether or not warming will increase or reduce storms. Sheesh!

    Your last link is also interesting: the biodiversity issue. Thus far, I’ve seen only one seemingly reasonable argument for preserving biodiversity: the potential for finding new pharmaceuticals. It’s an OK argument, but given the immense number of species and the time it would take to catalog and investigate the potential benefits of all the compounds they produce, the idea that we should preserve all of biodiversity until we investigate every last compound is beyond impractical, it’s laughable.

    The bottom line is that the concept of “nature” that exists in the environmental mind doesn’t exist in the real world and hasn’t existed in the real world since before the dawn of agriculture. It’s time to move on.

  • Martin

    Even this two-edged approach of ‘either helping and/or harming’ is a bit weak. There are lots of interactions, and some of them are defined by humans as being ‘harm’ or not; nature doesn’t care.

    For example clearing land for sheep results in a *change* in the environment – as does trying to change it ‘back’ – it depends heavily on your worldview if you call it ‘harm’ or ‘improvement’, and neither really makes sense universally. Harm to what? for how long? Corresponding benefits to what? etc

    • jh

      But it’s CHANGING NATURE! OMG!!!!

  • Mirna

    Breathing is natural. Burning dirty fossil fuels is not. Pollution from dirty energy adds extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and warms the planet. http://clmtr.lt/cb/yby

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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