Can technology save us?
I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday. It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.
In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.
She then looks at how, since our governments announced they were not going to do so, private investors are now involved in a race to return to the Moon (and win a $US 20 million prize). Just after 11 minutes in, however, economist Marianna Mazzucato makes the point that private sector development would never happen unless governments first spent money innovating (just look at your Computer, iPhone, or SatNav).
This is followed by an examination of the invention of graphene (i.e. the repeated use of sellotape to produce a film of graphite comprised of only one layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal matrix). It is truly astonishing what graphene can do – including carry the weight of a cat…
After 23 minutes, a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all. However, Bronnin then presents the example of Professor Robert Langer at MIT. What he is doing – and enabling others to do – is truly amazing; including potentially doing away with the need for chemotherapy to treat cancer.
After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…
However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.
It presents the case for synthetic biology, which has now succeeded in genetically modifying cyanobacteria so that they use photosynthesis to produce ethanol. This is brilliant, but, it is still only recycling CO2 (it is not removing it from the biosphere). With this technology, we could stop the CO2 content of the atmosphere from rising (but it will not help get it down again).
In the final 10 minutes of the programme, Bronnin presents the inspiring case of the British inventor, Michael Pritchard, who miniaturised water treatment technology as a result of watching the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; when people were surrounded by water they could not drink… Indeed, to prove that it works, he even gets Bronnin (at 54 minutes) to drink water extracted from a tank including all kinds of unpleasant things including dog pooh…
For all these reasons, if you have not seen it, I would recommend that you watch the programme:
Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.
Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.
In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.
Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy – and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.