Why Sustainability Requires More Than Technological Advances

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By Michael Tlusty

Technology is often seen as a path forward to achieve sustainability. This theme occurs throughout current-day blogs (for example see this discussion by Gabi Zedlmayer on TriplePundit).  However, this idea is not new. A quick search of Google Scholar finds multiple references, and, for example, in 1994 René Kemp stated: “Of the various options open to society to reduce the environmental burden, technology is widely considered as the most attractive option.” This sentiment still prevails, as evidenced by General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt who claimed that for achieving sustainability, “Technology is the only answer.” But is it?

To fully understand the role of technology in achieving sustainability, we must first acknowledge the role that technology had in providing us the means to stray off the pathway to sustainability in the first place. The technological innovation of artificial nitrogen fixation via the Haber–Bosch process was the critical development that put us on the “Great Acceleration” pathway that led to our current sustainability-challenged landscape. The increase in synthetic nitrogen production allowed for greater food production and tracks closely to the global human population increase. This burgeoning population led to the sustainability challenges of today, including water and air pollution, disease and human health problems, reduced biodiversity, soil and ocean acidification, and climate change.

Instead of “leveraging technology for sustainability,” we are caught in the cycle of using technology to mitigate the problems we caused with our prior increase in technological knowledge. The innovation of nitrogen fixation occurred during World War I when there was a critical need for nitrogen for weapons. Post-war, the nitrogen was then used as fertilizer, leading to the increased food production.

A similar case of war-time technology being co-opted for food production, then leading to sustainability challenges, occurred post-World War II when battleship technology was used to create efficient fishing vessels that led to the overfishing of many species (see Paul Greenberg and Boris Worm’s New York Times article).

This cyclical switching of technological innovation from solving to causing sustainability issues occurs beyond military technology. Comedian Stephen Fry eloquently discussed on the Infinite Monkey Cage Podcast the transition to oil-based fuels as being initially beneficial, as it replaced a product coming from sperm whales that were being hunted to extinction. Yet, as with most things technological, we have now become reliant on excessive oil usage, and are searching for technological solutions to remediate the innumerable problems associated with this energy source – including once again harming whales from the noise of ships transporting oil-based products across the oceans.

Ultimately, the interface of technology and sustainability was posed in Wayne Visser’s blog, quoting Ray Anderson (CEO of Interface), who questioned whether we could have technology reduce — rather than increase — our impact on the environment and society. It is the unintended consequences of an innovation, often brought about by success and overuse of the technology, that ultimately end up challenging the system’s sustainability. Without the technological innovation of synthetic nitrogen via Haber-Bosch, the earth’s population would be half what it is today. If this were the case, the multitude of impacts that followed the population increase would be greatly reduced. As a global society, our great acceleration has placed us on a path where we need technological innovation to combat the unintended consequences of our prior actions. At some point, we will counter the second law of thermodynamics and reverse our inevitable progression toward entropy. Advances in renewable and restorative systems will be mandatory. Until these truly sustainable developments occur, we will need to embrace the additional solutions outside of technology to help us meet our sustainability goals, if nothing more than to provide the time to develop the renewable and restorative innovations.

The good news is that simple behavioral changes are helping us reduce our consumptive patterns from what we desire to what we biologically need. This is important, as creating more does not ensure sustainability (as with our examples of more synthetic nitrogen, more fishing or more oil). Behavioral reductions can happen by simply reducing our calorie intake, our portion size, or by seeing the beauty of the imperfect world and reveling in eating all produce, not only those perfect unblemished ones (see the Twitter feed @UglyFruitAndVeg). We are also aware of the tremendous amount of food waste, and in eliminating this, would increase food by 40 percent.

However, solutions are not all-or-none phenomena. We do need restorative technologies to reduce our impacts on our planet, but we cannot wait for the single solution so we can take a technologically-aided large jump to be sustainable.  To more rapidly travel down the path toward sustainability, we need innovation, and more importantly, we need to couple that to simple, non-technological and immediate steps.

Image credit: Flickr/Brisbane City Council

Dr. Michael Tlusty is the Director of Ocean Sustainability Science at the New England Aquarium. His work focuses on aquatic protein production, and how it can be improved to achieve sustainability goals. 

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