Environmental technology | can it solve the issues?

Environmental technology sounds like the solution to many environmental issues. Humans are, after all, great innovators and have engineered many a solution to a vast number of challenges. 

But before we consider the environment, it is worth thinking on some technological history...

The first mass market production of motorcars came courtesy of the Ford Motor Company in the 1900’s. The model T began rolling off the production lines in 1908 and reached 15 million units sold by 1927. These were chunky, ponderous and marvelously liberating engineering marvels.

Less than 20 years later came another marvel. The Supermarine Spitfire did its own version of liberating in the Second World War. The speed and power of the merlin engine was a stunning advance on the model T and all it took was a couple of decades and the necessity of war.

The first handheld mobile phones were clutch bag-sized behemoths that were barely mobile. That was just a few decades ago and now we have more computing power in our smartphones than was used to send men to the moon. Commerce rather than necessity fueled that technological advance — there is a lot of money to be made from consumer technology.

There is no doubt that, when we want to, humans can create extraordinary technologies. All we need is a little motivation.

This begs an important question...

Can technology solve environmental issues?

Jason Pontin is the editor and publisher of MIT Technology Review a company owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that identifies and explains the likely impact of new technologies 

Pontin suggests that four things are needed before big problems can be solved with technology...

  1. Political leaders and the public must care
  2. Institutions must support its solution 
  3. It must be a technological problem
  4. We must understand it

You can listen to a TED talk that explains the logic behind these ideas.

Can we have environmental technology solutions?

It is easy enough to consider each of Pontin's four requirements for major environmental issues.

Political leaders and the public must care.

There is good evidence that the public care about the environment and that, to a degree, politicians do respond to their public. However, this is not universal caring either for all environmental issues or by all of the people.

People have a strong NIMBY response — not in my backyard — that makes them care about local issues, especially those that impact upon lifestyles or livelihoods.

But we also have a reflex “hard to be green when you are in the red” response that makes it easy for environmental concerns to be trumped by personal matters.

Institutions must support its solution 

Much of our environmental capacity exists in government institutions and Universities. These are not our most nimble, problem solving places. They are usually bogged down in legislative and academic pedantry respectively and are not directed at solutions to big problems. They tend to stick with the smaller, more detailed stuff.

Business is suitable fleet of foot but only dances if there is profit to be had. Most of our list of environmental issues sit on the wrong side of the balance sheet. This supports some services providers but the lack of a scalable upside does not attract investment.  

It must be a technological problem

There are environmental issues where technology could deliver a full or partial fix: emission reduction, alternative energy, recycling and resource recovery, domestic water supplies, maintenance of crop yield, are good examples.

But not all of our environmental problems are like this. Many come about because we made choice over the use of natural capital and no amount of technology can bring that capital back — for example, extinction is forever 

We must understand it

Clearly we don’t, not fully anyway. 

Even a cursory glance at global climate change issues demonstrates that even with a small army of scientists on the case there are ambiguities and unknowns. 

After the best part of three decades working in NRM I can say that we know more than we think but less than we ought for most environmental issues.

Pragmotology of environmental technology

In reality we are 

  1. not aware enough 
  2. have weak institutions and
  3. do not fully understand most environmental issues. 

This means environmental issues easily fail on three of Pontin’s four criteria.

And it also means that while environmental technology will assist and some solutions will be found by engineering, the environment and our reliance on it is more than a physical thing.

We have to feel it, think it and find our intuition in it as well. Or, of course, we could live in a bubble and see what once was through VR goggles. 

› environmental technology

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