The world is facing a number of ecological problems, from global climate change to the wasting of finite resources. Technological optimists suggest that through scientific discovery and entrepreneurial innovation, we can invent new technologies that allow us to climb out of these crises. But is this the case?
Examples of Eco-Friendly Innovation
It’s easiest to understand the potential for technological innovation on the environment by looking at some real-world examples.
· The electric car. Early iterations of the electric car are somewhat controversial, because the electricity they run on was generated by processes potentially even more environmentally destructive than burning fossil fuel directly. But modern innovations in both electric cars and electricity generation have changed this dynamic. These days, electric vehicles are extremely efficient and they’re only getting better; people still have access to high-powered and independent transportation, but the amount of pollution generated you sharply reduced.
· Bidets. The bidet isn’t really a new invention, but modern iterations are more efficient and powerful than ever before – and they have the potential to reduce literal tons of waste every year. Seemingly innocuous habits, like wiping with toilet paper, can add up to insane amounts of wasted finite materials. Sometimes, all it takes is one invention to practically eliminate that waste.
· Solar energy. Solar energy has long been acclaimed for its renewability, its cleanliness, and its scalability; even a fraction of the sun’s power would be more than enough to sustain us indefinitely. However, until recently, it was much more expensive to generate solar power than any other form of conventional power. Only now are we starting to fully realize its benefits.
· Plastic alternatives. Plastic was a major leap forward in technological innovation, but now its ubiquity and inexpensiveness are leading to excessive waste and pollution. It’s only a matter of time before industrious companies and individuals start churning out materials that have all the advantages of plastic, while still being biodegradable enough to make waste a nonissue.
· Pollution mitigation. Better technologies also have the capacity to mitigate or eliminate pollution. For example, as you read this, there are currently giant machines cleaning plastic and other debris from the world’s oceans.
The Problems With Relying on Tech Innovation
Of course, there are some inherent problems with relying exclusively on technological innovation to get us out of our various climate crises.
· Pace. Some aspects of global climate change are already past the point of reversibility. For example, as the global ice caps melt, the earth will become less and less capable of reflecting an adequate amount of sunlight away from the planet, thus warming the oceans and heating the ice caps further in the process. This is a potentially catastrophic feedback loop that is not especially reversible. While we may develop technology that allows us to reduce our levels of pollution or prevent further climate change from occurring, these effects are already beginning to manifest and will require a different solution.
· Expense. Developing an idea is the easiest part of the technological innovation process. You may have an amazing idea on your side, but if you don’t have the money to pay for its research and development, it might as well not even exist. For example, imagine a hypothetical reality in which clouds of nanobots could actively remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere, reversing some aspects of climate change in the process; now imagine that it would cost trillions of dollars to launch a sizable enough fleet to make a significant change. Who has access to this kind of money? And would they consider spending it on something like this?
· Consumer preference and stagnation. In capitalist economies, consumer preferences are the driving force for innovation. Companies don’t want to develop new technologies that make the world better in some conceivable way; they’re only interested in developing technologies that customers will pay lots of money for. Sustainability may be on their radar, but it’s still a secondary concern. Because of this, our best and most prominent tech companies will be unlikely to quickly merge the world that provides better environmental outcomes.
· Government impediments. We also need to acknowledge that government intervention can be counterproductive. Excessive regulations, cronyism, and corruption all stand in the way of legitimate technological innovation. Certain governments may be able to put together a spending package incentivizing environmentally friendly technology development, but there’s no guarantee these funds will work as intended – and they might end up being misused.
There’s no simple answer to the central question. It seems obvious that someday, some technology could be powerful enough or innovative enough to address some of our biggest concerns regarding the climate and the environment.
But at the same time, innovation may be too slow or too unfocused to make an impact on the areas where we need it most.