Environmental forecasts are ”laughably ridiculous” if they don’t take into account technological innovation

This is a very interesting article by an environmental social scientist named Adam Dorr. He argues that any environmental prediction has no worth if it doesn’t consider technological innovation. He makes a comparison with Regional Transporation Plans of major US cities like Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco which try to plan and forecast for the next 40 years but do not include any discussion about autonomous vehicles, which make them ‘laughably’ unrealistic to say the least. 

He states that technological progress is not linear, but always accelerating, which you probably all already know as the Moore Law. For instance, an Apple’s iPhone 6 is over 200 000 times faster, 70 000 cheaper and 100 000 times smaller than the supercomputer used to put Apollo’s astronauts on the moon 50 years ago. Even though I don’t believe we’ll still make much progress with transistors, I do agree that with the advent of AI and cloud computing, our technological capabilities will still double at least every 2 years.

Scalable labour

Such rapid change is counterintuitive for the human mind and the implications for the environment are hard to grasp. With the advent of technology, we replaced human physical labour with machines. We replaced 100 men with shovels for one bulldozer. Yet, he states that the limiting factor in our work is still human labour, since we still need a human being to think and maneuver the bulldozer. The most obvious implication is that (environmental) problems whose extents are too large for human labor to deal with may become manageable via machine labor in the not-too-distant future.

One clear example is the task of removing carbon directly from the atmosphere and pumping it back underground where it came from, in order to address the problem of climate change. Today the cost ofgeoengineering the atmosphere with mechanical direct-air carbon capture and storage, or DACCS, on a gigaton scale would be in the trillions of dollars. It might therefore seem reasonable to the uninformed observer that DACCS will not be feasible for thousands of years. But machine labor provides a clear pathway to a million-fold reduction in DACCS costs on a relatively short timescale of just a few decades.

Miniaturization & Biothechnologies

Another point he considers is miniaturization. He states as an example that if you spill sugar on the sidewalk, nature will find a way to deal with it. Ants will come and take every grain of it. So, there’s never any accumulation of sugar on any sidewalk. Pollution is the spilling of material for which nature has no way to deal with. If you spill some plutonium residues on the sidewalk, nature as no way to deal with every fragment. With technology and miniaturization, we’ll be able to help nature take care of any kind of polluting particule.

Another major point is that all industrialization was made to fulfill human needs. We need to eat so we invent the cheeseburger. We’ve to feed billions of people so we create the meet industry. With the advent of technology, we’re finding new ways to satisfy the same needs with a lower ecological footprint. Plus we might soon be able with biotechnology to even change our basic needs, which are the reason why we pollute at the first place.

The bottom point

Dorr goes on with rebuttals for classic anti-technology arguments. Yet, the bottom line is that our centuries or millennial environmental forecast of the future have no worth considering the pace at which technological change happens. Our ability to tackle big problems is expanding exponentially, and that’s a function our brain wasn’t made to understand. I highly recommend the article to get a deeper understanding of his arguments.

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