I am an environmental social scientist by training, and over the last several years I have developed a rather unconventional set of views about the future of nature. The more I have examined and considered the environmental implications of technological change myself, the more I have come to realize how poorly these implications seem to be understood or even recognized by others across the environmental disciplines.
In short, I have learned that we are likely to see the arrival of technologies within just a few decades that to uninformed observers might seem to still lie centuries or millennia away. Science fiction, in other words, will become science fact far sooner than most of my colleagues would dare imagine. And on the whole the implications for the environment are not just extraordinary, but extraordinarily positive: problems that seem utterly intractable today may become solvable in the relatively near future.
Unfortunately, the blindness of the environmental disciplines to the tsunami of radically disruptive technological change barreling toward us is a pristine example of how otherwise highly-educated and intelligent people can arrive with gross overconfidence at spectacularly false conclusions when their reasoning is based on bad information or invalid assumptions.
I am very deeply concerned about this state of affairs because imminent technological change raises a wide range of environmental policy, planning, and ethics questions that I think we must begin to examine very carefully.
So to be clear, let me summarize my line of reasoning here at the outset:
- Technological change is accelerating, and is being compounded most especially by advances in computing.
- The implications of technological change over the course of this century are staggering.
- Technologies that seem thousands of years away to uninformed observers actually lie only a few decades ahead.
- Intelligent machine labor in particular is going to be a fundamental game-changer, but miniaturization and biotech will be a big deal too.
- The implications have the potential to be hugely positive for the environment because they may render previously intractable problems solvable.
- The environmental disciplines are either shamefully oblivious to, or are in near-total denial of, the technological prospects of the next several decades.
- As a result, the environmental scenarios on decadal scales or longer that are presented as plausible forecasts by the scientific community are, to the contrary, profoundly unrealistic – and unduly pessimistic besides.
- Some of this ignorance is genuinely innocent, although that is an increasingly unacceptable excuse.
- Some of this ignorance may be willful, and that is a serious concern with grave consequences for policy and planning.
- There are a number of good reasons to be wary of new technologies based on our historical experiences.
- There also seem to be a number of other more cynical reasons to dismiss the potential of technology to redress environmental problems.
- Regardless, there appears to be an increasingly cult-like antipathy toward technology across the environmental disciplines – as well as within the environmental movement that they inform – that is based not on reason but on a reflexive demonization and dismissal of “techno-fixes”.
- As the potential of technology to solve major environmental problems becomes steadily clearer to other disciplines such as computer science and engineering, and eventually to the public, the willful ignorance and reflexive opposition toward technology within the environmental disciplines risks becoming a form of outright denialism.