Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Can technology save the planet?

From the Weekend Australian - Are we courting disaster with our modern environment-bashing lifestyles? Can ingenuity rescue us? Elizabeth Walton reports, in this mid 1990′s prediction of whether technology can save the planet.

The pages of history are illuminated with images of prophets who got it wrong. Take 18th century author Thomas Malthus, who predicted future mass starvation as a result of am imminent population explosion. Within a few years a flare shot out over Malthus’s darkened Europe that he could never have foreseen - a light which shone into the dawning of a new era called industrialisation. The machine driven tractor ploughed straight through the inefficiencies of the farmer’s labour, increasing food production, and humanity’s ability to cater for the masses along with it.

Technology outsmarted the doom sayer, and has continued to do so ever since. The oil crisis of the 70s warned that dwindling fuel supplies were threatening the future of the motor car – until new technology led to discoveries of offshore oil deposits, and if that supply should run dry, technology will deliver the means to extract oil from shale – at present an expensive exercise, but bountiful enough to drive humanity well into the foreseeable future.

Technology carries improvements in quality of life by the truckload. But the price tag of these improvements is often damage to the environment – sometimes irreversible damage, such as the destruction of rain forests and pristine wilderness. Resources are finite, but humanity seems to have lost its fear that supply will not meet demand.

“When human population resource is greater than the planet’s resources, the inevitable outcome is population crash,” says Professor Valerie Brown, from the faculty of environmental management and agriculture at the University of Western Sydney. We are now on countdown, she warns.

Major weather pattern changes will occur within 20 years. Supplies of fresh water will last another 30 years. Fisheries and forests may hold out a little longer. “The World Resource Institute and UN Development Program indicates 15 million children died from environmental disasters in 1997,” Brown says.

The alarm bells are certainly ringing. Clear felling of forests is causing mud slides. The burning of fossil fuels is creating pollution, or worse, erosion of the protective layers of the biosphere which make life on earth possible. Technology is a mass destruction weapon the human race has launched against an innocent global enemy – nature. But could that demon also be the saviour?

Technology has improved upon nature’s imperfections, minimising the length of time between planting and harvesting. The harvest, one the catalyst for festivals and celebrations of life based on farming cycles, is now timed to suit market forces, rather than seasonal change. Even forest growth is hastened by new technologies.

The Queensland company ForBio is using genetic markers to isolate fast growth DNA chains, which are propogated and tenderly nursed by robots. The result is that a Malaysian teak forest, which once took up to 80 years to mature, can now reach maturity within 20 years.

Marlene Roy from the International Institute for Sustainable Development says that much of the technology required to life the planet out of its uncontrollable spin towards environmental destruction is already here. “The challenges, however, reside in socio-political systems and human weakness – not with technology,” she says.

The message from the Rocky Mountain Institute – an environmental think tank  in the US – is simple. “RMI believes that existing technology can get us most of the way to sustainability. We can achieve a high standard of living without using vast resources or compromising quality of life,” says RMI spokesman Auden Schendler.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs, efficient showerheads and eco-friendly cars – when combined with sustainable corporate and social systems – can be used to double quality of life, while using radically fewer resources, he says.  ”Granted, one billion Chinese with cars would be an ecological disaster. Technology has to be complemented with intelligent government policy.”

Evidence of global warming continues to mount – the cost over the long term will be rising sea levels, melting glaciers and more frequent storms.

But not all is doom and gloom. Think of primitive humans, who rubbed sticks together to light fires. The idea was simple – and so is the concept of pointing solar cells at the sun to harness energy.

Professor Martin Green, director of the Centre of Photovoltaic Devices and Systems at the University of NSW, predicts that solar cells will be the cheapest form of electricity within 50 years. “Large fields of cells in sunny areas will generate electricity, which will be transported cheaply over long distances or stored chemically by extracting hydrogen from water,” he says.

A futurist might speculate that solar cells could provide infinite energy if they were installed closer to the source: the sun. Yet this idea goes right to the heart of criticisms of the “technology fix”.

The weak link is often the method of delivery, not immature technology. Placing solar generation satellites in orbit would offer little benefit to Earth because the power has to be distributed to consumers. Brendon Corry, of Derby Hydro Power, says a study conducted by the Western Australian government in 1963 found that the Kimberley region has enough tidal power to supply the whole country. The problem is that the power hungry population resides thousands of kilometres away.

Food production presents a similar scenario. Geoffrey Lawrence of the Institute of Sustainable Regional Development at Central Queensland University says: “The issue is to distribute food more evenly, not simply to produce technologies to produce more food. We have butter mountains and milk lakes throughout the developed world at a time of mass starvation in developing nations.

Even information technologies are affected by inefficient distribution.

Chris Devenport, spokesman for the Global Information Service at the Northern Territory University, says “technology is of little consequence if the information stemming from it is not available”.

Who ever masters technology and distribution – and the social political whims that control them – will inevitably master nature. A totally controlled world would remove the problems created by nature behaving badly. There would be no hurricanes, no El Ninos, no doubts. “Technology may be likened to a two edged sword,” says Jacob Doeleman, an economist at the University of Newcastle. “One edge threatens and cuts the environment, the other defends it.”

Doeleman says at the tip of the sword is the Environment Replacement Theory. If this wins out, artificial environments will render the natural environment completely irrelevant. Agriculture will go high rise – first floor, beans, second floor, chickens, third floor, bananas. The ground floor will become an abstract idea of the past.

The big question then becomes whether the human body, which needs food and exercise, might itself become irrelevant. Human consciousness may be the only future environment. After all, the body is simply a life-support system for the soul, isn’t it?

Doeleman comments that the much-touted self-sufficient Oracle biosphere experiment of the early 90′s was a failure. None of the eight humans sealed inside for a two year stint lasted longer than one year. Whether the environment survives becomes a question of whether humanity can survive.

Just as Malthus worked i the dark, so to do today’s scientists. Nature’s spontaneous creations are disappearing before her secrets can be revealed. We have no idea how long it will be before the sun sets permanently over nature’s horizon.

“We have a relatively short time – and forever,” says John Elkington, an adviser on sustainability. “The natural environment will see massive natural changes in the future, whether in the form of global warming or glaciation.  We may or may not be able to adapt. Our highly tuned agri-industrial and urban civilisations, however, are highly vulnerable to such changes. We have a sporting chance – but only if we are prepared to exert every sinew in pursuit of the goal.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the University of Queensland’s Valerie Brown. “The next half century will determinee whether the human species becomes an insignificant rump, or re-establishes a new high culture,” she says.

“At the moment, I cannot see even the beginning of a turn around. Humanity can only hope that this era’s seers will open their eyes in time, and not be blinded by the light. The only alternative seems dark indeed.”

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