Will Technology Alone Save the Environment?

One of the most popular pages on the internet’s premier discussion platform and troll dungeon, Reddit, is r/ShowerThoughts. Its premise is self-explanatory – it acts as a space where users can post thoughts which came to them in the shower. These range from the controversial springboards for debate (‘Basic survival skills should be part of the curriculum’) to insightful observations (‘Anyone who loses their virginity this year will do it in the Year of the Cock’). I had one of my own the other day: for a species which tries so hard to deny its own morality, we are obsessed with the apocalypse.

From Revelations to Sharknado, nothing seems to ignite our imaginations so consistently as the prospect of one thousand years of darkness. Not that we should need fiction to remind us that we are all doomed. Scientists have been trying to tells us that unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% in the next ten years then more than a third of all living species around the world will face extinction. And yet still those who point out this existential threat are too often condemned as alarmists – modern-day millenarians preaching the end-times.

I can only imagine the reason for this is that they have comforted themselves in the assumption that things will always sort themselves out. Either so-called ‘climate change’ will prove itself to be a very elaborate Chinese hoax or our lords and saviours studying STEM will strike upon some sort of panacea which will save the planet in the nick of time.

I’m here to tell you that treating scientists as high-priests nurturing the secret to salvation is not only naive but actively damaging in the fight against environmental disaster. As it turns out, the most celebrated silver bullets of technology – namely electric cars, in vitro meat and fusion power – are distractions from a more fundamental issue: consumption; for we will never reach a truly sustainable settlement with nature whilst we continue to use the resources of 1.6 planets.

From Revelations to Sharknado, nothing seems to ignite our imaginations so consistently as the prospect of one thousand years of darkness.

First in the crosshairs of this article is the futurologist’s wet dream protagonist, Elon Musk, who has become the face of corporate social responsibility with his numerous tech projects angled towards environmental sustainability, the most famous of which is the Tesla car. The Model S has become the best-selling electric car in the world and is set to take some sizeable bites out of the profit margins of traditional gas guzzlers. Cue applause.

The problem is these cars have to be made out of lightweight rare metals which must first be extracted from the ground at great cost to the environment. This is because rare earth metals only make up 0.2% of whatever is pulled out of the ground, meaning the other 99.8% must be dumped back into the environment along with all the chemicals used in the original extraction process.

To compound the problem, these materials are not easy to extract in the first place as many mines depend on rock-crushing equipment and coal-fired furnaces for the baking of the metals, all of which bleeds carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As David Abraham, author of the Elements of Power, points out, this is simply ‘shifting pollution’, especially since the manufacturing of an electric car releases more carbon dioxide than the construction of a conventional car, mainly because of the metals in the battery. Furthermore, manufacturing a car generates on average as much fuel as driving it, so actually it would be more economical to continue driving a fossil fuel-emitting car than to buy a ‘green’ car and stimulate demand in the automotive industry.

In vitro meat, another icon of the modern green revolution, may also prove itself to be a false prophet. The potential advantages are almost too good to be true: nearly half of all land and 30% of fresh water is used just for the upkeep of livestock, but if we started growing meat from stem cells in factories then we could massively reduce the pressure we place upon environmental resources.

There was no doubt a similar sense of optimism when tractors arrived in the early 20th century to replace horses and mules which in 1913 used up 28% of American harvested land just for feeding. But any environmental relief which the mechanisation of agriculture brought about was more than offset by the increase in fossil fuel emissions. In vitro meat could be beset by a similar problem if the environmental costs are simply shifted elsewhere. Dispensing with livestock may save us having to feed billions of animals each year but carneries would still have to be powered by industrial energy.

In vitro meat, another icon of the modern green revolution, may also prove itself to be a false prophet.

Then there’s elusive holy grail of fusion power. Science’s infectiously enthusiastic media darling Brian Cox has painted an entrancing future in which commercial fusion reactors pump out ‘free and effectively infinite’ fuel for human consumption. Whilst this would surely be a vital step along the way towards environmental stability, the burning of fossil fuels account for around 70% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation, industrial agriculture, landfills and industrial production of cement, steels and plastics are largely responsible for the remaining 30%.

Clean energy is but one dimension of the fight to save the environment. Scientists predict our tropical forests will be non-existent by 2050 whilst the world’s topsoil could be depleted within 60 years. If trends continue then by 2100 we could be producing up to 11 million tonnes of solid waste everyday.

The fact of the matter is that we are simply consuming beyond the means of this planet. Global material extraction has increased by 94% since 1980 with no sign of stopping. As reassuring as Brian Cox’s mancunian cadence might be, it is likely that free, unlimited energy will only boost consumption further – it is already estimated that the world’s shipping miles, air miles and truck miles will double by 2040.

This is not just a long-winded way of saying that we should unanimously reject the material world and become trappist monks, although no doubt that would help. Rather, we should recognise that environmental degradation is an economic problem and not just a scientific one. It seems axiomatic that if we continue to insist upon growth at all costs then one day we will outstrip the resources of the earth, yet very little effort is made to challenge this mindset, and those that do are usually dismissed as sandal-wearing eco warriors. If we aren’t going to face this reality then we might as well content ourselves with Michael Bay disaster movies until the Flood comes for all of us.