Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Can Technology Save the Earth?

Humans as a species are obsessed with finding cures or fixes for our problems, but rarely ever address the underlying ills. It’s like taking Tylenol every time you have a headache and ignoring the contributory conditions that set off the headache in the first place. How much Tylenol can you take? How much toxicity can your body process before reaching an impasse? Meanwhile, has Tylenol helped change the underlying condition at all?

Technology is like Tylenol. It’s cheap, convenient and scalable, and serves as a terrific cure for many of our ills. I’ll bring in Jevon’s Paradox here. It’s a universally accepted fact that when something is affordable, we will simply use more of it and/or use it more frequently, with little regard to the consequences. Fast food is a great example.

In terms of environmental impact, take the simple example of cell phones. I just read on digitaltrends.com (http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/mobile-phone-world-population-2014/) that in 2014 the number of active mobile phones worldwide will reach 7.3 billion – that’s more than the current population! Sure, cell phones are cheap and phone plans are attractive, and you simply cannot discount the convenience or utility of owning one. But what is the overall environmental impact of a phone, from production to use to disposing/recycling. (I wonder if there’s a life cycle environmental impact analysis (LCA) on cell phones out there.) Multiply that by 7.3 billion. Phew! And that’s just one product. Imagine the combined impacts of the gazillion products on the market today. Can the natural systems sustain that level of abuse?

Let’s examine the resource depletion aspect of technology. Technology, as we know, is the way by which natural resources are converted into goods and services that have practical utility: food, beverages, clothing, shelter, transportation, etc. The higher your affluence level, the more goods and services you will buy and enjoy. We do understand that Earth’s carrying capacity is a finite number. So, what happens when we run out of natural resources? Are we going to revert back to the lifestyles of the ancients? For how long? Can the natural systems recover from human abuses? How long will that take? Are we eventually going to lay down the sword like defeated warriors and prepare for death?

We gloat about technological advancements, I confess I’m a tech gloater, how it has helped change the world for the better, yada yada yada. True. But technology can only advance as far as the laws of physics will allow. Then what? Should we continue to rely on technology as the ultimate problem-solver?

My personal belief is that we should each take responsibility to reduce our individual footprint, starting today, in our homes, with ourselves, our families and begin to prioritize needs vs. wants, and make an attempt to fit our needs into our surrounds as opposed to tailoring our surrounds to fit us. Your brain is what you need to develop a vision. Technology is a tool, and when used appropriately, it can help realize that vision.

Happy Earth Day!


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