Technology is the solution to environmental challenges – not the problem

Technology is the solution to environmental challenges – not the problem

by Tony Trewavas
article from Friday 7, July, 2017

IT IS TWO YEARS now since an Ecomodernist manifesto was published by eighteen prominent greens. Its eighty-four statements were a radical departure from traditional environmentalism that it rejected.  It remains a document well worth considering as we consider how technology and environmental concerns interact.

Humanity, it states, must shrink its environmental impacts to provide more space for nature. This view is incompatible with traditional environmentalist policy of accommodating mankind within the natural world.

Nature will not be protected by increasing human dependence upon it, more so because the human population is expected to increase not decrease. The Ecomodernist’s most radical departure is to embrace technology; by intensifying agriculture, energy extraction and generation, forestry and human settlement, land use is diminished and natural space increased.

The way is opened for recovery of planetary ecosystems on which formerly mankind was heavily dependent; and in certain parts of the world still is. It will decouple humankind from the natural world, thus ensuring its survival.

Traditional environmentalist agitation is usually based on the invalid claim that only their programme will  ‘save the planet’. Technology, commerce, consumption and energy are usually targeted as the villains amid claims that these current human activities will wreak ecological and economic collapse. Environmentalists favour some return to a condition (often not clearly defined) in which it is supposed mankind lived equitably and in harmony with the natural world. This ‘desirable’ state only ever existed, however, in the remote past when human numbers were tiny and relative land space enormous. Even small numbers of humans are thought to have disposed of the Mammoth and other, now extinct, mammals, 20-30,000 years ago.

Ironically it is by reducing present humanity to unspecified hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmer status that would certainly create the disaster, which their policy is supposed to avoid.

That mankind has damaged numerous world ecosystems is certainly obvious but as technology has developed it has increasingly removed human impact upon them. Technology is thus not the villain but intensifying its efficiency is the obvious direction in which decoupling will accelerate, the manifesto states.

Evident damage to marine fish stocks is exemplified by the loss of the massive Herring populations of the North Sea and complete loss of Cod off the Newfoundland coast. In comparison the intensification of aquaculture for marine as well as fresh fish will demonstrably reduce human impact on the oceans. 

Three quarters of deforestation took place before the industrial revolution. Desertification in parts of Africa has resulted from trees cut down to provide cooking fuel or charcoal production. Reforestation is, however, now increasing in various parts of the world as electricity and natural gas have replaced wood for cooking and heating, in most developing and developed countries. Both Whales and Penguins were hunted almost to extinction for oil to illuminate houses but were saved by the introduction initially of coal gas and now electricity.  Killer fogs and pollution from coal use in large cities such as London has now been replaced by natural gas central heating.

Desalination is the key to dwindling water supplies in many world areas. Technological development will render unnecessary, vast storage facilities where rainfall is highly variable. 

The intensification of energy generation has seen a progression from wood to coal to oil to natural gas and thence to nuclear energy, which the manifesto embraces. There is a progression towards the use of more energy dense materials but also towards effective decarbonisation thus indicating future policy direction.  Thorium in reactors can allay virtually all public concern over weapons proliferation, radioactive pollution, toxic waste and fuel that is costly and complicated to process. One tonne of thorium can produce as much energy as 2-3 million tonnes of coal.  Very cheap reliable electricity is key to accelerating technological development and land sparing.

Urbanisation is the ultimate means of decoupling mankind from nature. Currently over half of mankind, 4 billion, now live in cities, places of usually low fertility but whose area is at best 1-3 per cent of the planetary land surface. By 2100, 70-80 per cent are likely to be urban. Suburbanisation, low yielding farming, renewable energy generation and other land-hungry activities favoured by current environmentalists decrease space for nature. But it is agricultural intensification that has invoked the primary change in land use. In the UK in 1850, 50 per cent of the population lived on the land, now it is 2 per cent but wheat yields/acre have increased 15 fold.

For undeveloped and developing countries, intensifying agriculture will help decouple humanity and nature; low yielding agriculture will not suffice. GM technology can now generate crops specific to single species of damaging insects thus obviating chemical pesticide treatments and permitting proliferation of those more beneficial.

Ecomodernisation is the progressive evolution of social, economic, political and technological development. Material well-being, health, infrastructure and personal freedom have all advanced. It has liberated women from chattel status, children and ethnic minorities from oppression and capricious government but to continue requires a continuing commitment to technological development.

Professor Anthony Trewavas FRS FRSE is chairman of Scientific Alliance Scotland

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