Can we save the planet through technology OR conservation?

We have been warned about the consequences of global climate change. Most of us remain skeptics. Others believe that nothing can be done, but true believers see solutions through technology OR conservation. Since my post on the topic last week, one person sounding the alarm was named Time person of 2019, and the climate change conference in Madrid dissolved without major progress. We are either in deep trouble, no trouble at all, or it doesn’t make any difference because we are neither smart enough nor united enough to make the necessary changes to save ourselves and the planet.

According to the book The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann the problem is real, but there may be ways that we can save ourselves. The Wizard was Norman Borlaug who introduced the Green Revolution and is the icon for all the wizards out there. They believe that we can head off the existential threats of a dwindling food supply, lack of enough potable water, an energy crisis and global climate change through advances in technology. The Prophet was William Vogt who outlined his vision in his book Road to Survival where he advocates salvation by conservation. Are either of these options viable?

view of a globe featuring the countries of Africa
Is there hope for the earth?

Wizards of today are the scientists and technologists looking for technological fixes to long-term problems. Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) encountered many failures before he succeeded. For his efforts he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Borlaug started small and worked hard, but his goal was to go big. Technological solutions that succeed tend to go that way such as Big Oil, Big Wind, Big Solar, Big Ag, and Big Food. They emphasize efficiency, expanding to serve ever more people generally at lower costs. Examples include electric cars, wind and solar farms, precision agriculture, and ultra-processed food. Critics point to grand solutions, but, if technology is to get us out of the mess we are making on the earth, it will come from many little fixes that are not readily noticeable. Some examples include ways to increase crop yields while decreasing food waste, save water and energy through more efficient household appliances, and reduce carbon emissions and runoffs through advanced farming practices.

Prophets of today are found in the environmental movement. Most of them probably have not heard of William Vogt (1902-1968), but they get their inspiration from Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. Vogt anticipated much of the current movement and its angst. He advocated conservation and birth control to preserve nature’s resources. His emphasis was on small operations and local action. He undoubtedly would favor reduce, reuse and probably repurpose. I’m not sure that he would be all that excited about so many items that we recycle. Today’s prophets wish to take us back to a simpler time and away from the industrialized food system. They support organic farming; local food distribution; whole, minimally processed foods; and renewable energy sources. Some technology is appropriate, but it should be diffuse and applied locally.

Middle ground on almost everything these days is hard to find. I have mentioned Mann’s book to anyone who will listen to me and described potential solutions through technology OR conservation. Their response is invariably “Well it should come from both.” Unfortunately, there appears to be a clash of philosophies where many of the underlying assumptions of one set of adherents contradicts cherished beliefs of the other. Wizards and prophets can work together on small, local projects to make a difference in a limited area. Prophets tend to be anti-industrial and balk when wizards want to scale advancements up to levels that will make a difference across a state, a nation or the globe.

Food waste is seen as a global problem by both wizards and prophets, but an emphasis by prophets on whole, plant-based foods increases food waste which is in turn directed to compost heaps. Development and consumption of processed foods by wizards extend shelf life of perishable ingredients and can lead to less food waste but more garbage from packaging. Potable water is not available to large swaths of the population around the world. Any time a village can be brought on line to drink safe water by a prophet is a triumph, but one community at a time is not rapid enough advancement for wizards.

Renewable sources of energy are targets of both technologists and conservationists, but how do we meet the needs of rapidly expanding populations without developing complex infrastructures dominated by corporate entities? When I talk to people on either side of the great technology/conservation divide I perceive an us-versus-them construct rather than a how-can-we-work-together attitude. One perspective that seeks middle ground is advanced in Apollo’s Fire by Washington’s state governor and former Presidential candidate Jay Inslee. Although his specific solutions are sadly out of date, the “Ten Energy Enlightenments” described in the book are still valid today and steer a path between hardcore wizards and adamant prophets if either is willing to listen and act. A coalition of current and former state governors is seeking a middle path.

My take on the battle between the wizards and the prophets is that it is probably too late for conservation alone or an emphasis on small, local initiatives to make a significant impact. Implicit in the Prophet’s message was an emphasis on population control. Since William Vogt’s death, however, the world population has grown from 3.6 billion to over 7.8 billion, and we can expect a net gain of at least 1.2 billion more earthlings in the next 30 years. While birth rates have decreased in the West, the greatest increases in population are occurring in Asia and Africa, particularly among the poor. Looking to technology to delay, if not prevent, calamity is ironic as advances in technology have probably contributed to population growth and income inequality.

If we are able to succeed through technology, it won’t be through one big magical solution but through many intermediary fixes that aid us in conserving resources. Around the world researchers in governmental agencies and for-profit companies are designing machines to make life easier for field workers, technologies to conserve resources, and food products that improve the nutritional quality of diets. Some of these solutions may require individual sacrifices such as dishwashers that take longer than we like or toilets that don’t flush as we like. Don’t look to technology for a dramatic end to poverty, however, as the carrying capacity of the earth to support a Western European lifestyle is probably about 2 billion humans.

Next week: Is fake meat a healthy alternative to real meat?



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