Need a way to always cook the perfect egg? Want to get somewhere faster? Want to go to the moon? Need to extract huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere before it’s too late? Then invent something of course! Because that’s what we do. Man the clever toolmaker.
There’s a scene in the latest BBC adaptation of Dracula (worth a watch, pretty sure it’s available internationally by now) in which The Count wakes up after a centuries-spanning nap and finds himself in a modern living room.
He’s awed by the abundance of goods and technology. “There isn’t a king or queen or emperor that I’ve known, or eaten, who would step into this room and ever agree to leave it again. I knew the future would bring wonders, but I did not know it would make them ordinary.”
Before long he’s sending emails and picking up meals on Tinder. As Dracula discovered, technology has made the world a smaller, faster and, for many, a more prosperous place.
We’ve welcomed in the digital age and consumer economies. An ever-growing number of us choose to live in cities, where our main contact with nature might be a walk in the park or maybe a weekend hike. We spend more time on our phones or computers than we do in nature or even outside.
Whether you think this is a good or bad thing is entirely up to you, but it’s a fact that technological advancement since the industrial revolution has come hand in hand with our increased environmental footprints.
Technology has improved our lives in many ways, but at the expense of the environment and maybe even our health. What’s going to save us from environmental catastrophe? Technology, of course! We’ll mine astroids and colonise Mars. Or, we’ll ascend into an alternative digital reality and leave the physical world behind. Riiiight.
Tech evangelists, usually rich men from Silicon Valley, make such plans because they can afford to and don’t live in the real world. Some of them seem to view evil robots as a greater existential threat than climate change. Most are hedging their bets.
Definitely not an evil robot
Back on planet Earth we have some fixing to do and yes, technology will be necessary because we’re going to have to drastically reduce fossil fuel emissions and remove a lot of carbon from the atmosphere. And that’s just to tackle global warming.
The race is on
The scale of the technological revolution required now is epic. We need to electrify everything and generate that energy from clean sources. We have to change the way we produce and consume food and make sure there’s still enough to go around. We need to usher out the era of single-use plastics and move to a circular economy.
As David Wallace-Wells puts it in Uninhabitable Earth, “every single one [industry] needs to be replaced at the root, since every single one breathes on carbon, like a ventilator.”
The good news is we’re already some way down this path. Green energy has seen a boom in recent years. There’s a growing green agricultural movement and—shameless plug—we’ve been busy developing and improving our plastic-free, circular mobile cases.
But there’s still a lot of innovating to do, and technology is only one part of the solution. We also have to overcome entrenched political, social and economic barriers, and in many respects this is more difficult than inventing the new technologies.
For example, if we covered 1-2% of the Sahara desert in solar panels, an area of ~43,000 square miles (~111000 square km) we’d collect enough solar energy to meet global demand. Rather simplistic, but it demonstrates that in some instances we already have the technology available, it’s everything else that needs to catch up!
Iceland invested a lot in geothermal power technology and are now world leaders with 100% of their electricity from renewables.
No 'Get out of Jail Free' card
There are those who see technology as a 'get out of jail free' card and hope some as yet undeveloped magic inventions will be the solution to all our problems. But fundamentally these inventions are just useful tools. We still have to transition them out of labs and into the real world. We may also innovate too slowly or find we reach a limit on how far we can go, as is increasingly the case with modern computer chips.
Therefore, we have to limit our impact now so it puts less burden on technology, aka ourselves, later down the line. For some top eco tips, head over to our handy guide on how you can do your bit to save the planet. 🌍
Do you work in the tech industry? Do you have views on the above or anything you’d like to share with us? Would you be up for being interviewed? If so, we'd love to hear from you :)