Can Technology Save the Planet? Our opposable thumbs got us into this mess, and they can help get us out, says futurist and science fiction writerBruce Sterling.
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I have few illusions about the ways people interact with technology. So let me be clear: Society's problems do not get solved by merely inventing new stuff. Breakthroughs are easy to publicize, but genuine environmental victory means annihilating some major evils perpetrated by our great-grandparents. The bad old stuff has to be torn up and junked.
That requires changing the way we understand technology. Right now the term technology simply means "things invented since I was born." These can be itchy and frightening things, freighted with unknown implications for good or ill. They're things of shock, awe, wonder, and suspicion. They're headline makers.
Technologies invented before I was born are basically invisible to me. It scarcely matters how powerful and dangerous they are. Since I'm used to them, I'm blind to them. I regard them as normality, the fabric of the universe.
Today nobody calls railroads technology. They are thought of as old-fashioned, cuddly objects with praiseworthy public-transit applications. But when railroads were young, they did most every fearsome thing we dread from new technologies. They exploded and derailed with horrific regularity. They turned cities inside out. They caused financial booms and panics, massive government corruption, vast migrations, wildfires, pollution, and the comprehensive slaughter of the American bison. Railroads were hell on wheels.
Yet railroads are still powerfully transformative, just as they were when every red-blooded boy wanted to be Casey Jones, the insanely daring train engineer. We still think in that flawed way, only with newer toys. (For us moderns, technology is a synonym for computers.)
In the case of electricity and running water, these technologies are visible only by their absence. When people nowadays lack electricity and plumbing, we don't think of it as a normal way of living. We call it camping out, or poverty. But electricity and plumbing are at the root of the most profound threats to the continuity of our civilization — climate change, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and salinization, water-table depletion and water shortages, exhaustion of fossil fuels, and the bio-accumulation of various toxics in water, food, soil, and the bloodstreams of all living creatures. Electricity and plumbing aren't evil and wrong. But we've trained ourselves to take their presence too much for granted. We don't yet see technology as an ancient, comprehensive, continually unfolding set of artificial processes, spread through every level of society.
Once we fully deal with the darker consequences wreaked on our world by our desire for pretty table lamps and nice hot baths, we'll become far more civilized. And the technologies that can dig us out of, rather than deeper into, the abyss will make more sense. Fortunately, environmental calamity captures our attention better than other political and social concerns: It's based in tangible and physical reality. Acid rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
Even our civilization's death grip on creaky old fossil fuels is loosening. Already, major European oil companies are perfectly capable of talking sense: BP sincerely hungers to be "Beyond Petroleum," while the honcho at Shell, an outfit chastened by fraud allegations, rides a folding bike to work and uses fluorescent bulbs at home. ExxonMobil posts the biggest profits in the world, but that's not a sign of health and good management; it's a sign of reckless mania.
A clever environmental campaign would explain to the rich how much they are suffering at the hands of old tech. A wealthy American with an environmentally caused cancer has the same bio-accumulative toxic burden as the rest of us; the ultimate environmental reality show would be something like Wrecked Florida Beach Homes of the Rich and Famous. Extend that metaphor to other groups that don't easily embrace environmental messages and you can show fundamentalist churches ripped to shreds by F4 tornadoes, or Sagebrush Rebellion ranchers who haven't seen a drop of rain in months. People understand suffering once it's divorced from the abstract and imposed on them.
We need to grasp the artificial environment from a full, long-term, holistic perspective. We can see just by looking at our own hands that we are uniquely suited to manipulating artificial objects. Humans are especially good with fire and edged weapons because they were discovered and invented not by us, but by our prehistoric ancestors. Furthermore, stone tools and fire are potent and dangerous technologies. By the standards of all other living creatures, they are fantastic, unimaginable, and horribly deadly. Today climate change is happening because of fire.
Stone tools and fire have also caused massive losses in biodiversity. If mega-creatures were still wandering Yosemite and Yellowstone, they would be a boon to ecotourism. But they're not around, mostly because Stone Age humans ate them all. That particular mass extinction has humanity's opposable thumbprints all over it. The ancient peoples who killed large Pleistocene animals had no way of measuring what their technology was doing to the natural world. It's hard for anyone to think 50 generations ahead. But we're gaining the ability to do so.
In the era of global warming, catastrophic change caused by humans is no longer limited to one region or even one continent. The atmosphere is tainted with emissions from pole to pole. Grass is growing in Antarctica. Nobody can "conserve" a landscape from planetary changes in rain, heat, and wind. The job at hand is aggressive restoration: We need to use technology to tear into the artificial environment the way our ancestors tore into the natural one. That means intervening against ongoing damage, as well as ripping into the previous technological base and rethinking, reinventing, and rebuilding it on every level of society. We need to imagine the unimaginable to avoid having to live with the unthinkable.
The consequences of bygone technologies are with us now; they've merely been rendered invisible by yesterday's habits of thought. When we see our historical predicament in its full, majestic scope, we will stir ourselves to great and direly necessary actions. It's not beyond us to think and act in a better way. Yesterday's short-sighted habits are leaving us, the way gloom lifts with the dawn.
Bruce Sterling has written several novels, including Zeitgeist (2000) and The Zenith Angle (2004). His nonfiction includes The Hacker Crackdown (1992) and Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years (2002). He is "Visionary-in-Residence" at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
On the Web
The Viridian Design Movement is Sterling's effort to promote high-tech, stylish, and ecologically sound design. World Changing provides "models, tools, and ideas for building a bright green future" and offers a wealth of Web links to green-technology news, discussions, and resources. The Dead Media Project is a collection of "research notes" on obsolete media technologies, from Incan quipus and Victorian phenakistoscopes to the video games and home computers of the 1980s.