In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.
The London Times, 1894
Most of us by now are aware of the challenges we will face in coming decades – climate change, water shortages and mass extinction of species to name a few. Many believe that technology will solve all these problems. That we can continue to consume as usual because human ingenuity will, as it always has, find technological solutions to our most pressing problems. Lets review the four most important technological innovations of the last century to find out if our faith is warranted.
THE GREEN REVOLUTION
Thomas Malthus predicted that overpopulation would result in widespread poverty, famine and war. Population did grow from 1 billion in the 1800’s to 7 billion today. However, food production also grew rapidly as a result of a set of technological innovations, known as the green revolution. The hunger and poverty that Malthus predicted never came to pass (at least for those lucky enough to be born in the developed world). The key elements of the green revolution were hybrid seeds, chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. They are the foundation that makes the modern world possible by freeing up people from having to grow their own food. They are also the source of some of the most serious environmental problems today.
The petrochemical fertilisers are causing vast dead zones in our oceans and rivers. Chemical pesticides are contaminating our soil and water, and causing the loss of biodiversity. Hybrid and GM crop varieties produce increased yields, but require much greater inputs of water and fertiliser. The irrigation required to grow high yield varieties is resulting in the alarming depletion of ground water. According to Lester Brown, our current farming practices based on the green revolution, are now a threat to world food security. The solution has now become the problem.
Before the invention of antibiotics, everyday ailments commonly resulted in unimaginable pain or even death. All the surgeries conducted today are made possible only by antibiotics. However, most of us are unaware of the fact that over 60% of all antibiotics produced are not consumed by humans. Instead, they are being fed to livestock not to prevent disease but to enhance growth, so we can buy cheap meat. As a consequence of this widespread use, drug resistant bacteria are proliferating.
A recent Australian report says there is ‘a genuine threat of humanity returning to an era where mortality due to common infections is rife’. According to Australia’s top scientist, the overuse of antibiotics is threatening to return us to a world where deaths result from minor ailments such as sore throats and cut knees. England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, warned in a March report that untreatable infections posed a “catastrophic threat” to the population.
In the 1900’s, there was a horse-manure crisis. In New York, a population of 100,000 horses was producing 2.5 millions pounds of manure a day. The streets were covered with manure and air was thick with flies. The technological solution came in the form of cars and buses powered by fossil fuel. The manure crisis was averted.
Today, transportation constitutes 28% of total CO2 emissions. Technology eliminated the localised problem of manure on city streets and replaced it with a global climate crisis that threatens all of humanity, especially those too poor to afford a car in the first place.
In the 1970’s, the world was concerned about deforestation. Forests were being cut down to make paper. Once again technology came to our rescue. The computer and the internet would reduce our paper consumption. It was even given a wonderful name, “the paperless office”.
Not only did paper consumption continue to rise, but the proliferation of computers and electronic devices has resulted in mountains of electronic waste. In 2010, the US produced 2.4 million tons of electronic waste, of which only 27% was recycled. The waste contains a toxic, cancerous brew of lead, cadmium, mercury, and chromium that will poison our air, land and water for generations to come. Household energy consumption is also growing at a rate of 4% a year due to the our insatiable appetite for the latest gadgets.
In light of this history, we may want to re-examine our blind faith in the ability of technology to save us from ourselves. Instead we may want to consider curbing our endless appetites. If the whole world consumes at the same rate as Americans (or Hong Kongers) we will need to find 4 more planet Earths. The solution lies not in technology, but in ourselves.
It may be time to ask ourselves…Do I need to eat so much meat? Do I need another disposable dress from H&M? Do I need the latest iTV or iToilet? Can I set the air conditioner warmer? Do I need to fly somewhere to discover a place visited by millions of people each year? Can I walk or bike instead of drive? Will we be happier and healthier devoting more of our time and resources to playing sports, volunteering, creating art, making music, cooking for friends, learning philosophy, reading a good book, or simply enjoying nature rather than consuming it? Each of us needs to answer these questions in our own way, and it will be our collective response that will determine if we will repeat the past.
The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.