Judging by the comments on our most recent discussion board (you can review them here), most of you have mixed feelings about modern advanced technology. You see the great benefits in medicine, communications, and other areas, but you wonder about privacy, economics, and society. It may be, though, that future questions about uses of technology will not be ethical but practical.
As part of the college freshman composition class that I teach, I have students survey each other to understand their audience better. I’ve joined in the activity since I’ve been working on this blog. My question recently was about how my students expected the world to be in one hundred years. Their answers were mixed, although pessimism predominated, but one thing they all believed was that the trajectory of technological innovation would increase at the same speed and in the same direction as it had in the past.
At this point, I did what I always have to do, which is try to make them define technology. They use the term lightly but consistently to mean only cutting-edge electronic applications, usually ones that enhance mental capacity or so-called leisure as opposed to the ones that increase our physical abilities – so cellphones and self-driving cars they consider “technology,” but bulldozers and container ships they don’t. Technology to them means edgy, sci-fi stuff; they take bulldozers and container ships – and pick-up trucks, central heating, ballpark lighting, spoons, and all the unnoticed paraphernalia of our lives – so much for granted that they don’t see them as technological innovations. And because their “technology” has been expanded and (apparently, at least) innovated during their short life times, they expect the trend to continue until we are all living like the human blobs in Wall-E. They worry about that, in a vague way, but they also think it will be cool to have space travel and go to other planets – “will be,” not would be or would have been.
I believe, from what I read and hear, that the majority of Westerners agree with my students. The challenges of the future, as they see it, are the ethical choices that must be made between helpful and harmful high-tech applications. I agree that every choice we make, now and in the future, has an ethical component, but I also believe that the laws of economics and thermodynamics will determine which choices we’ll be able to make. Rather than asking whether we should colonize other planets, for example, we’ll be left asking if we can.
There is a fundamental truth that these prophets of cutting-edge technology are not considering: fossil fuels are running out. It was inevitable that they would. Nothing that could only be created under unique conditions over millions of years can be expected to renew itself during the brief span of the Industrial Revolution. While there is legitimate argument about when coal, oil, and gas will run out, nonetheless there will come a point that they must.
But they don’t even need to run out to have an overwhelming impact on our whole civilization. They only need to become too expensive to mine, process, and transport. No mining company can stay in business if it is spending as much producing its product as it can make selling it. We have already found and extracted the cheap stuff, and that’s what we’ve built our expectations on. The electricity and transportation we demand will inevitably become more expensive and less available. As a result, we can anticipate greater inequalities of access to the gains of the Industrial Revolution as well as the inevitable social tensions that will follow.
The usual response at this point in any discussion is, “They’ll think of something.” I will suppress my urge to insist that “they” be defined and just move to the main point. Yes, humankind is a creative species. But consider these points: our species was around in its present evolutionary form for hundreds of thousands of years without having made many innovations at all, at least in the way modern people would see them; our ancestors remained hunter-gathers for millennia, slowly inventing pots, baskets, clothes, and dogs. Innovation was happening, but the pace was glacial.
Inventing pottery By Pp391 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
The timeline people use to support their claim that technological innovation presses ineluctably onward and upward usually begins only a few thousand years ago, for the well-read; most others begin with their grandparents. But regardless, for most of our time on this planet, we did not innovate rapidly; we lived in a steady state.
And even then, as the pace of innovation picked up over time, the sorts of things that were invented – while hugely important for our species and our planet – wouldn’t even be considered “technology” by my students and those like them. Inventions like the compass, the moldboard plow, and the caravel are emphatically not what they are thinking of when they say, “They’ll think of something.” If we can’t afford container ships and combines, these optimists are not anticipating that the technological innovations that we’ll come up with in response are going to be sailing ships and sophisticated horsedrawn farm equipment; they’re picturing drones and space-shuttle farms.
A technological innovation By Jeff Kubina from Columbia, Maryland – , CC BY-SA 2.0
When you think about it, it’s obvious that the “technology” my students and others are talking about was a result not just of human ingenuity but of the Industrial Revolution. The easy, concentrated energy of fossil fuels made possible the lockstep progession of technological and population explosion that has created the modern world. Can we assume that the things “they” will think of will keep us on the same trajectory once that energy source runs out? I don’t think so.
Of course there are alternative forms of energy that are becoming more efficient and affordable every year, and that’s a good thing. But ironically the alternative energy sector as it now exists relies entirely on fossil fuels. We need to recognize that fossil fuels are essential in the whole supply chain of a windmill or a solar panel, in mining the raw materials, shipping them, manufacturing them, transporting the manufactured products, even the advertising and government subsidies – will this process still be affordable when the Industrial Revolution reaches the bottom of the barrel?
We need to have longer memories than we do. The last two hundred years are not representative of the life of our species. They were built on a foundation that is not sustainable, and when it crumbles, our capacity for innovation may need to be replaced by our capacity for renovation. Old technologies that were designed with the limits of economics and planetary sustainability in mind will once again become valuable, and our lives will have to change drastically as a result.
That’s not all a bad thing, although the transition will be pretty awful, I imagine. All of the sane reforms I and others write about will become, maybe not inevitable, but certainly desirable options once we view the world and ourselves without the distortion of the fossil-fuel lottery pay-out. Some day soon we will have to go back to living on our yearly income. We will still be inventive when that day comes, but our inventions may look more like clever PTO shafts on horse-drawn farm equipment and less like space travel. There will be solar, wind, and water power, and maybe there will be things we haven’t thought of. But there is nothing we can anticipate that will allow us to live in perpetuity as the richest Western countries currently live. Fossil fuels are limited; nuclear energy has never been economically viable; and the pollution and waste that our technology has produced have guaranteed that our future will be unimaginably different from our recent past. So while in one way yes, “they” will think of something, it will not be something that will enable us to live the same extravagant lifestyle that even the poorest of my students take for granted.
I make this point about the end of the Industrial Revolution as we know it to clarify my assumption that the increasing inaccessibility of resources will force an end to the current trajectory of technological complexity. Although I think it’s essential for sane living that we recognize the limits imposed on us by the universe – in fact, that may be the single best definition for the word “sane” – none of the human-shaped institutions and practices I’d like to see are reliant on the collapse of the fossil-fuel society. Whether you accept as I do that we will soon be forced to live a simpler life or whether you expect the snowball of technological civilization to keep rolling, it still makes sense to carve out for ourselves a comfortable way of life, in balance with our resources and surroundings, that gives us the space to become truly human.