Can Technology Save the Environment?

November 14, 2011 | Linus Blomqvist,

In the conservation and environmental communities, technologies like nuclear power and GMOs are usually spoken of as threats to the environment and biodiversity, or at best as superficial "techno-fixes" that "fail to address the root cause of problems." In a recently published paper in Biological Conservation, Barry Brook (blog) and Corey Bradshaw (blog) ask if this aversion to technological solutions is tantamount to ignoring a way of dealing with the ultimate, rather than just proximate, drivers of biodiversity loss. Conservation might be winning battles, but it's losing the war. Can this be changed?

Conservation is usually concerned with the ecological and biological science underpinning the management of species and sites, as well as - to some extent - the socio-political context that determines the willingness of local people and other stakeholders to conserve biodiversity. However, Brook and Bradshaw argue, this "small-scale conservation and environmental education work undertaken by field biologists and on-ground conservation managers" - whilst excellent and needed - will "prove grossly insufficient at preventing a mass-extinction event if that is all we try to do." The reason, they claim, is that the conservation agenda largely omits technology, which may in fact be the best option for dealing with the root causes of the problems facing biodiversity rather than "tinkering around the edges on just the collection of biological data, addressing interesting but narrow conservation issues."

A large portion of the loss of species and habitats in rapidly developing regions like south and south-east Asia comes down to an insatiable demand for energy. Many of the sources used to supply this energy today require large amounts of land and natural resources - for example biofuels, hydroelectric dams and firewood for domestic heating and cooking. Hence, alternative and less damaging energy sources, including
fourth-generation nuclear reactors, may put these countries on a development path that spares vast amounts of land. So could GMOs and intensive agriculture.

Brook and Bradshaw thus rhetorically ask:

Can major river systems like the Mekong, Murum and Himalayan mountain valleys avoid major damming projects that would otherwise drastically alter their hydrological regime, fish spawning pathways and floodplain sedimentation and destroy the surrounding unique terrestrial biotas?

Can genetically modified crops and new forms of energy-intensive, but tightly controlled food production (e.g., vertical farming and building-integrated agriculture) be deployed to provide resilience in the face of potential monsoon failures, increased typhoon intensities and inundation of lowland fields due to sea level rise?

Are there large-scale alternatives to hydropower and water supply (such as nuclear and solar thermal electricity with associated multi-stage flash distillation for desalination)?

Are there alternative routes to sustainable prosperity for the indigenous land owners of Indonesia, which leave most of the forests intact, provide viable alternatives to swidden farming, and avoid the need for widespread and destructive biofuel plantations, timber production for ex- ports, and flooding associated with forest clearance?

Brook's and Bradshaw's piece, more than anything, should inspire conservationists and anyone concerned with the loss of natural heritage and biodiversity to think big, and abandon the long-held but ultimately ineffectual aversion to technological solutions to environmental problems. As such, it aligns with the recent work of other heterodox environmentalists like Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas. Together, they herald a new, more pragmatic current in conservation thinking that Breakthrough is following with great excitement.

Barry Brook blogs about this paper here and Corey Bradshaw blogs about it here.