Guest Column: Environmental progress requires innovation

Michael Williams

Creativity ever important as resources grow scarce 

There is an undercurrent of modern environmentalism that calls for a neo-agrarian return to the land involving localization of food production, currency and commerce.

Michael Williams
Michael Williams

I am entirely supportive of local food systems and decentralization of commercial ventures. I’d say that more cooperative efforts in resource distribution at the ground level are ideal; however, it appears naïve that “going back” to the land is realistic for people at large. A bit of critical thinking would debunk this notion outright when the prospect of climate change is factored into our common future.

That said, climate change is particularly daunting when paired with the realities of oil and mineral depletion that we will eventually confront. I am skeptical that a return to agrarianism is a total solution to the issues that are staring us in the face.

We are Earth. What separates us from land bases is the stuff of NASA-style space travel. (For the record, I’m also skeptical of Mars colonization.) Current projections for 21st century global population sizes yield estimates of approximately 10 billion humans by 2050. This particular estimate is conservative compared to the more ominous projections of 12 billion.

For this article’s purposes, 10 billion people is enough to consider reassessing how we live with Earth’s ecosystems.

Our global epoch is unique: we are faced with virtually guaranteed resource shortages, weird weather and more humans to feed than at any other period in human history. We cannot all be subsistence farmers. Frankly, there isn’t enough land.

Taking cues from the past are grand. We have documentation of civilizations that lived with their ecosystems without overusing their resources and had qualities of life that are enviable. However, these societies largely had manageable population sizes.

Enter the distinction of modern society. Industrialization has both brought us radical technologies and rapid population growth. The child of industrialization, globalization, has produced unprecedented comforts (mostly in the form of petro-products) and commercial linkages that are more volatile than they appear. Consider, for a moment, how Wal-Mart shelves would be stocked during an abrupt scarcity of cheap oil.

In his book “The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet” (2013), Ramez Naam argues that since humanity’s inception, ideas have propelled innovation. He then lays out the notion that with contemporary knowledge and insights about our role on the planet, innovations could be made to address and potentially solve issues relating to overpopulation, ocean acidification, resource depletion, etc. This runs counter to the environmental movement’s underlying fetish with the archaic, pre-industrialized, Amish-style life that few of us have actually experienced.

Naam posits that it unfortunately requires disasters to motivate response to ecological issues. He writes that “it took the Cuyahoga River catching on fire—for the 13th time—before we created the EPA and passed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.” While this may be dismaying more than hopeful, regarding climate response he notes that “we’ve done it before.”

As renewable energy gets cheaper, as second- and third-generation biofuels come to market, as wind farms and solar panels sprout, a large part of the resistance to acting against climate will fade away. Innovation will make it easier to get the nation across the threshold of action.

There are a myriad of problems with every alternative energy option listed above and seldom are there ecologically inconsequential behaviors, even with alternative energies. But this is only a challenge to the environmental community to be creative, which is a good thing.

However, humans need innovation by people who experience their own geographic pressures. The politician of the United States does not know what’s best for Sudan, nor is the inverse true. The tendencies of governments to prescribe top-down measures typically translate as involuntary bandages to current issues, not future issues. Prevention, not mitigation, comes first.

We live in a period of unprecedented transfer of information. Thus, we live in a period capable of unprecedented innovations. These innovations, ideally, can prevent further disasters in the future, rather than mitigate current ones.

We apes have remarkable brains. To reduce our capacities to the use of social media and celebrity fetish is self-demeaning.

This article is a call for convergence with innovation that will yield a future that is both sustainable and just. For individuals skeptical to the likelihood of this kind of innovation, I would advise to research Boyan Slat for some encouragement. Slat is a 19-year-old engineering student who has developed floating booms to clean up plastic pollution in the oceans.

Plastic pollution has generated floating gyres the size of small continents that yield virtual dead-zones in the oceans, the global commons. This pollution (along with rising water levels) disrupts current flow that is vital to climate consistency. The ability to clean and mitigate this pollution is an astounding step toward a future hopefully characterized by corrections of history. To stand in the way of this kind of technology, from a solely romantic perspective, is both perverse and naïve.

None of the future 10 billion will ask to be born; their presence as part of this fragile planet is involuntary.

And yet they (we) will be forced to pay for the negligence and near-sighted behaviors that characterized previous generations. To say that we need to “go back” to ill-defined simpler times is neither enough nor realistic. To say that we need new paradigms with new standards of living and reasonable qualities of life is the basis of a common human future. Anything less will be 10 billion shots in the foot.