Ed. note: The following remarks were made at the event celebrating 50 years since the publications of the Whole Earth Catalog.
Thank you to everyone involved with Whole Earth for the inspiring conversations you’ve sparked over the years, including the ones happening on this stage tonight. I feel honored to be here with you, and particularly to share the stage with Stephanie Mills.
I come from the Back to the Future generation. In just a few decades, we’ve made advances in technology that have put super computers in our pockets that we can charge with the power of the sun. Things we only dreamed of in science fiction and that feed the sense that someday, maybe when we have hover cars, the world will be different.
Throughout my life, there’s always been this deification of technology, this belief that technology will save us all, whether it’s from our own mortality or the damage we’ve done to the planet and other species. But there is no high-tech silver bullet that can change the realities of nature, including the fact that we’re part of it and that it has its limits.
Technology has done amazing things. Despite its drawbacks, I enjoy being part of the Age of Information as much as the next daily google user and I look forward to the longer life span that technology promises me. And there’s a long list of advances like solar energy and water purification that are a key part of mitigating decades of environmental exploitation.
But technology isn’t our savior. It’s a tool – and not even the most important one. We don’t need to wait for technology to save us, nor can we afford to do so.
In 1970, Norman Borlaug – the man whose technology transformed agriculture – dedicated his Nobel speech to topic of how the green revolution wasn’t going to free humanity from hunger unless those working to increase food production started talking with those working to decrease population growth.
The problem isn’t that we lack the tools to solve the biggest problems that are driving the wildlife extinction crisis, polluting the environment, and putting our own species at risk. We have the tools. Renewable energy technology has advanced far enough for us to meet our needs without fossil fuels. We know that diets that are more reliant on plant-based foods than animal-based foods can cut the devastating impact of agriculture on our land, climate, water and biodiversity. We know that universal access to reproductive health care, education and equality can reverse population growth.
There is still room for progress in making these solutions more effective, efficient and safer than they are today. But we don’t suffer from a lack of tools. We suffer from a lack of language. We don’t have the social discourse needed to increase access to these tools, to end overconsumption, to realize the cultural shift that’s needed for gender equity, agriculture that supports all life and an energy transition that’s not only renewable, but just.
In addition to those working on hunger and population, I would also bring to Borlaug’s table the people who are fighting for justice and against poverty, and those who working for a future where all species – including our own – can thrive on this planet. But it’s been nearly 50 years since Borlaug’s speech and, even now, many of these movements are barely on speaking terms.
If we’re going to make it to the next 50 years, we need the language to understand each other across issues, to mobilize people, to influence policymakers and the business community. We need to think outside the capitalism box. We need to acknowledge and accept the limits to growth. And we need to prioritize the tools that already exist. We know how our behaviors need to change. We have the tools of laws that exist to protect nature, like the Endangered Species Act, and laws that could exist to save our remaining wild places and create a healthier environment.
I don’t want to discount the progress that’s been made. If I wasn’t full of hope, I wouldn’t be able to do this work every day. We are starting to recognize how interconnected all these issues are to one another. And technology has opened new doors. But instead of fully using the tools that are already available to us, in many ways we’re still waiting for the Hover Car Era to begin.
And of all the tools we’re underutilizing, the most egregious one is half of the world’s population. Women are still oppressed and harassed, and are kept out of government and board rooms.
Whether we’re working on the details of policy, developing new tools or trying to crack the code of better communicating the urgency and solvability of the problems we face, it doesn’t start with technology. If we want a world 50 years from now that’s better than it was 50 years ago, we must embrace the solutions that are right in front of us, and have been for years, starting with equality, dignity and respect for nature and each other.