Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Technological Optimists, Climate Change, and the Lack of Historical Reference

Florida sea levels and population

I love history, and have always been torn between my interests in both the function of the physical world (biology and the environment) and the function of reviewing historical events as a means of bettering the social world (history and other social studies). Historians interpret the past for many reasons, including to gain understanding of how both desirable and undesirable circumstances can be replicated or avoided (respectively) in the future. Consider the "technological optimist" view of history. I suppose the purest form of technological optimist would look back and note that society has always been improving - advances in medicine, food systems, transportation systems, the internet - to name only a handful of technological advances - have helped society increase wealth, human lifespan, and overall well-being. And increased access to information regarding calamities and human violence arguably mask the fact that, as some commentators have argued, society is overall becoming less violent. In other words, society is continually improving. Even though we can look back at some of the empires that have existed in the past, and arguably trace their fall to environmental calamities (see Easter Island, the Mayan civilization, the Roman Empire, etc.), modern society has no doubt moved to a place where it can avoid some of those pitfalls through technology. Thus, a technological optimist would at his or her most optimistic view society as fully capable of engineering its way out of the seemingly dire environmental challenges faced today.

In my International Environmental Law class we discuss the IPAT formula: Human Impact (I) on the environment equals the product of P= Population, A= Affluence (consumption), T= Technology. Thus if technology increases sufficiently, then it can offset population growth and increased consumption to reduce environmental impact. Of course, some commentators highlight the virtually impossible impact technology would need to have in order to offset the current rate of population growth and increased consumption (see Paul Ekins, The Sustainable Consumer Society: A Contradiction in Terms?, International Environmental Affairs, Volume 3, Number 4, at 242-257 (Fall 1991)). It seems clear then that reductions in both consumption and control of population growth will be necessary ingredients to any future that is sustainable.

I am somewhat 1/3 technological optimist and 2/3 pessimist. My family's Christmas dinner conversations involve my brother and I arguing over whether the future will be like Star Trek (his view) or The Road/The Postman/The Book of Eli (which I tend toward). Now, nothing I am about to say is groundbreaking, but it is helpful to ask: what does history tell us about the role of technology in achieving sustainability? How likely is it that we will be able to innovate fast enough to forestall calamity and continue to improve society the way we have done in the past? There are two important factors we see today for which there is no historical reference: population growth and the rate at which we have released greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 4.5 billion years this earth has never seen as dramatic of an increase in a species with such profound impacts on the environment as it has in the last few centuries with humans (as strikingly depicted in the chart at the beginning of this post). Thus, making projections about our future based upon the past is of far less value with this new variable thrown in. Also, while carbon levels and other GHGs have fluctuated in the atmosphere for millennia, never before has such a sudden release of fossil-fuel gases taken place over a two century period. These two variables should cause even the most optimistic technological optimist to proceed with caution when harnessing the value of history in projecting future outcomes.

On the flip side, all too often I hear discussions of the I=PAT formula framed as if each variable were completely independent. Of course, I tell my class that the "Affluence" (or consumption) variable is in large part only a problem because of what we are consuming. That is, we are consuming non-renewable substances in large part - products, goods, and services that are themselves made of non-renewables and that are produced using non-renewable energy sources. In fact, technology plays a key role in increasing the impact of both the "T" part of the equation AND reducing the "A" variable. If technology can change what we are consuming, to make the product/service as well as the energy inputs providing it renewable, then we are left with only the "P" variable as a primary challenge. As I've discussed before, perhaps one day our vehicles made entirely out of recyclable metals and renewable plastics (from lignin in pine tree bark), will be plugged into (via renewably created extension cords) power sockets in homes built out of renewable materials and powered by solar panels (an obviously renewable energy source), while the solar panels themselves are made out of the same recyclable metals and renewable plastics from biological sources. In other words, the 1/3 technological optimist in me sees a world with a closed loop system of consumption (affluence), and technology plays a key role in that future.

Ultimately, the most recent history of advanced civilization includes an almost complete reliance on the consumption of non-renewable, fossil fuels. If we are unable to project our future based upon history given new variables of population growth and GHG emissions, then we will need to change the game and foster a new variable of our own - that is, technology that we have never before used to make modern society a completely renewable society. Otherwise, I will win my bet with my brother, which I really would prefer not to do.

- Blake Hudson

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Excellent post! Thank you!

Posted by: Elzi | Jan 9, 2014 6:26:24 AM

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