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Archive for March, 2014

Metropolis

“In what follows we shall be questioning concerning technology.”

M. Heidegger

I have begun to notice something about the tenor of conferences and publications on solutions to the important issue of climate change. A particular word keeps appearing more and more regarding this problem. The word with such staying power is: TECHNOLOGY. The message is clear that technology will ultimately solve our problem of global warming. Given enough time, ingenuity, and stimulus (direct or via free markets), solutions will arise and save us from the worst consequences of global warming. These technologies will usher in a fossil fuel free age and perhaps even allow us to remove existing atmospheric carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to insure a sustainable, stable future.

Let me first state that I am not opposed to technologies important role in addressing the issue of global warming. Our warming world due to our use of fossil fuels is truly the greatest threat facing humanity. Many will dismiss this statement as hyperbole, but when you realize that in a mere 90 years our continued fossil fuel use will result in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels not seen for 30 to 40 million years then you begin to realize the immensity of this issue. When carbon dioxide reaches such levels Earth’s climate will be vastly different from anything known to the human species. So, avoiding this pathway back to the extremely warm past is paramount. If we are to continue to meet humanities growing need for energy, then a sustainable, safe replacement for fossil fuels is necessary and technology will clearly play a central role in meeting this need.

What I find alarming is the blind trust placed in this approach. At times it seems people are possessed by the presence of a holy ghost of technology. All we have to do is wait for the next generation of geniuses to find the solutions to our energy needs (of course we can’t wait too long!). I keep sensing the presence of belief. Believe and we shall be saved! The mood is what one finds so often in TED talks, in which technology is the panacea for all problems.

Belief leaves little room for reflection, which is what I find missing in these messages about technology. Yes, some do recognize that technology often creates new problems while solving old ones. But there is little time spent on turning a careful, reflective gaze on how potential new technologies may affect the world. I am speaking of the ethical questions surrounding our approach to solving problem like global warming, questions that account for the many complex interdependencies within the Earth system. It seems to me that we need to develop a different kind of understanding and relationship with technology than our old one of blind trust.

Often these ethical questions are paid lip service, “Yes, of course we need to consider the downsides to this particular approach, but let’s develop the technology first and then discuss such issues.” However, once the technology exists the temptation to implement it to ‘solve’ problems is often too great. It is only later that we look back with our ‘20-20 hindsight’ and see how new problems arose from the new technological fix. Why not hold reflective conversations about solutions at the same time we are developing them? I receive many announcements about upcoming conferences on sustainability. None that I have attended or see advertised reserve time for careful discussions regarding the ethical issues associated with proposed solutions for a sustainable future.

I guess we will figure that out after we get to the future…

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