State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Sustainability Requires Technology, Ethics and Political Will

From July 1957 until December 1958 the world experienced a period of increased global scientific cooperation called the International Geophysical Year. It was a period of great optimism and faith in the power of science, immortalized in Steely Dan cofounder Donald Fagen‘s 1982 hit I.G.Y. The lyrics of that song provide a sense of the late 1950s and of an era of technological optimism. In 1982, Fagen sarcastically sang:

…This dream’s in sight
You’ve got to admit it
At this point in time that it’s clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K….

Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone…

A just machine to make big decisions:
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.
We’ll be clean when their work is done.
We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young…

Just as Fagen was suspicious of technological predictions, my doctoral mentor Lester Milbrath had a profound distrust for what he called “technological fixes.” The environmental protection we sought would not come from advanced technology, but from changed human values. People would perceive the damage they were doing to the environment, slow down their consumption, reduce the rate of population growth and save the world. There were no “just machines to make big decisions.” Technology created the environmental crisis and it could not be expected to solve it too.

That was forty years ago and in the ensuing decades most of the progress we have made in protecting the environment required both technology and the value change needed to create the political will to apply technology to environmental protection. We may not get to Paris by rail in 90 minutes, but only new technology will enable us to maintain both political stability and economic growth without wrecking the planet. While the goal of protecting the planet is based on our values, without technological advances, our way of life cannot be sustained. The technological fix is on.

It is not just that we need more advanced technology to transition to a renewable resource-based economy. We also need more advanced technology and science to understand the impact of human actions on vital natural systems. The air, water and soil we require to stay alive cannot be degraded beyond repair. If that happens we will die. Earth systems science and observation is critical if we are to understand the conditions on our home planet and the dangers and opportunities presented by human-ecosystem interaction. We still have much to learn about our home planet.

The era of climate science denial tells us something about science communication that we need to internalize. Scaring people with doomsday predictions is a losing approach to building an understanding of the facts of earth science. The economic power of the fossil fuel industry has been translated into political power and has had an outsized influence on the communication of climate science. What is the lesson there? Is it that economic interests tend to protect themselves? That people who invest billions of dollars in fossil fuel extraction will try to make sure their investments pay off before they are driven out of business? We should have understood that going in.

The way to build support for reducing the use of an old and clunky technology is to hold out the vision of a more attractive and convenient new technology. Hopefully the new technology will create lucrative business opportunities for intelligent investors. We don’t need to punish people for using the old stuff; we need to provide incentives to promote the new stuff. Cable television knocked out broadcast TV and streaming video is about to knock out cable. No one campaigned about the evils of TV broadcasting and the dangers posed by rabbit ear antennas. Everyone was drawn to the idea of a thousand channels instead of 13. Cell phones have driven out landlines and smart phones are driving out cell phones. Electric cars will replace internal combustion engines when the batteries last for a thousand miles and electric cars are no more expensive than non-electric cars.

We are on a technological roller coaster and it’s too late to get off. That does not mean that all technology is good or that we should replace natural systems with human-made systems. There is a need for environmental ethics and for a value system that venerates other species beside our own. In any case, we do not have the ability to totally replace natural systems with technological substitutes.

Moreover, a value system that justifies wanton human destruction of fragile ecosystems is not compatible with the requirements of ecological sustainability. I would argue that the same values that cause many people to take care in how they treat their own bodies could be (and has been) extended to how they treat the “body” called earth. We pay increased attention to diet, exercise, mental health, physical health, wellness and medical care. We should pay a similar amount of attention to the wellness of our air, freshwater resources, land, and oceans. Many already do.

This care and concern is a system of values and ethics. However, this does not mean that we can retreat from our civilization and get back to nature. There are simply too many people and there is not enough nature to accomplish that goal. Anyway, more and more people are moving to cities because we enjoy the benefits of the technological world we have created.

Which leads us back to politics. What we are missing here in the United States is the environmental leadership that we had during the 1970s and 1980s when we showed the world how to grow an economy while building our knowledge of ecosystems and reducing the degree of damage we were inflicting on the natural world. Since 1990, technology has advanced and threats to ecosystems come from new sources. Yet our dysfunctional Congress refuses to pass new laws to regulate the impact of the high-tech and often toxic global economy. Additionally, we need to invest in the science and engineering of renewable energy, smart-grid technology, water filtration, sewage treatment, solid waste management, recycling, nanotechnology, and many other areas; and our federal government refuses to increase spending on scientific research.

The ideological divide on environmental issues was reinforced last week by Marco Rubio’s backward-looking energy policy of fracking and “drill baby drill.” In a recent article in the New York Times, Jeremy W. Peters and Coral Davenport reported that after observing that renewable energy breakthroughs would come from innovation rather than from regulation:

“Mr. Rubio’s speech emphasized extracting natural resources from the ground, as opposed to investing in less polluting options like wind or solar power, and struck a combative tone. He promised the crowd of about 300 that there would be major differences in how a Rubio administration would balance energy policy with environmental protection and how a Democratic White House would.”

Rubio should know that the right kind of regulation and tax policies can spur innovation, but even his “new generation brand” of Republican leadership can’t seem to get past ideology to understand the nature of the sustainability challenge. With over 50% of Republicans again accepting climate science as real, I had hoped that this type ideological posturing would end, but I guess that will need to wait until the presidential primary season ends, and the appeal to the nation’s moderate political center resumes.

We need a mature, realistic dialogue and a sophisticated partnership between the public and private sectors to make the transition to a sustainable, renewable economy. I believe there is plenty of political space to develop a consensus about how to do this.

A sustainable economy changes economic consumption; it does not reduce it. Lots of wealth will be created as we make this transition. We will protect valuable and vulnerable natural places both because we treasure those spaces and because human wellbeing requires them. We need to develop the technology of renewable energy and get over the 20th century model of resource extraction as the path to wealth. We also need to get over the environmentalist strategy of guilt and scolding and move on to a positive vision of a sustainable economy.

I am betting on technological development along with environmental education to facilitate the transition to a renewable economy. It can happen with or without the U.S. federal government. The goal of sustainability is built on public opinion that values the planet, and generates the politics needed to prevent environmental damage and fund the basic science we need to transform the technological base of our economy. If government does its part, the private sector will do its part. Consumers will also do their part and switch their consumption to less destructive products and services. And then Donald Fagen’s tongue-in-cheek prophecy will come true: “Here at home we’ll play in the city, powered by the sun.”

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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