Technology will save us--it's the mantra heard around the world when it comes to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and myriad other environmental and resource challenges. But, that mantra rarely comes with the proviso that technology often has unintended and even perverse consequences.
"Yes, yes," you will say, "we know that." Then, why, may I ask, is this almost never mentioned in the same speeches, op-ed pieces, and journal articles that tout the efficacy of one or another technology to definitively solve or at least help solve critical environmental and resource problems? It is because these pronouncements are polemics, or more properly, sermons meant to instruct us in the supposed invincibility of our technology.
Let us take just one example of a technology that is so ubiquitous that people rarely even think about a world without it: the automobile. The automobile was probably the signature technology of the 20th century, one that shaped culture and in turn shaped so many other technologies that serve our automobile-based culture. If humans had understood ahead of time that automobiles would result directly or indirectly in the following, would society have chosen to allow their widespread use?
- Climate change
- Health problems and mortality due to air pollution
- Pollution of groundwater from decrepit gasoline storage tanks
- Urban sprawl
- Hollowing out of many American cities
- Massive traffic jams
- Dependence on unreliable foreign sources of oil
- Serial military conflicts involving access to and control over oil
- Paving and development of prime farmland and forest
- Mass death and disability due to accidents on the world's highways
- An obesity epidemic related to loss of walkable living environments
- Massive public expenditures for roads, parking and other purposes related to automobiles (to the exclusion of other priorities)
I have not tried to be exhaustive. But, I think this list outlines just how deleterious the automobile has been not only environmentally, but also socially and economically. Now, of course, it would have taken exceptional clairvoyance to have foreseen all the perverse consequences I list. But that is just the point!
What allows those who are so confident about the salutary outcomes for their favorite technological fixes to pretend that there will be no perverse and even fatal consequences related to them? How can the technological optimists be sure that their solutions will not lead either to the opposite of what they intend or to other problems perhaps even more intractable than the ones they purport to solve? Perhaps the most readily obvious example is the notion that energy efficiency will result in a reduction of energy use. But the Jevons Paradox tells us that just the opposite happens by making energy cheaper due to a reduction in demand and thus subject to greater demand as more people take advantage of the lower prices.
The technological optimists seem to be unaware of how complex the energy, climate, forest, and other systems with which they propose to tinker are. They do not know the ecological dictum that you can never do just one thing. Each action ramifies outward into any complex system resulting in multiple unforeseen and often unwelcome effects.
But, all of technological optimism can be summed up in one desire: The desire not to have to change any of our current behaviors. And, yet it is our behavior that most of all needs changing. To be sure, even changes in our behavior can have unforeseen and sometimes perverse consequences. But I would venture that these unforeseen consequences would be far less troublesome than those related to new technologies provided that any changes in behavior are guided by two principles: 1) To increase the long-term resilience of human society and 2) to increase the margin of safety in the way in which we exploit the environment. For example, we could decide that the target for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be 350 ppm--below where it is today--as some advocate, instead of taking a chance that a much higher reading could put us past the tipping point that will lead to runaway global warming.
It is hubris to believe we can easily and precisely calculate the limits of extraction and pollution and then move right up to our artificially calculated limits and still achieve sustainability. Instead, we should take a path of much greater humility that acknowledges that we must build greater resilience and wider margins of safety into our physical infrastructure and our everyday practices.
Ultimately, I believe, we will be forced to live in a much lower energy society. And, that means that the set of behaviors that need to change most will be those that currently lead to overconsumption.