Can Our Tools Ever Dismantle Our House?

I once overheard an intense argument regarding the path toward a sustainable human presence on Earth.  Given Cornell professor David Pimentel’s estimation that the world population will likely double in the next fifty years while it can only support about one to two billion people at the American standard of living, just how can humanity thrive?

The first and most obvious solution was that perpetual technological advancement would make continued, luxurious life on the planet possible.  One person contended, most eloquently, that it was in fact technology that had gotten humanity into its current mess, so technology could not be counted on as a means of redemption. (Bringing to my mind Audre Lorde’s famous article, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”).   I must admit that I spent years enamored with the person’s position.

And for good reason.  For instance, anthropologists widely agree that prior to the advent of agriculture, adult humans regularly lived into their seventies or eighties.  With agriculture and urbanization came disease and poor diet.  One of the greatest revolutions in history thus cut the human lifespan in half.  The food supplied by the “green revolution” was not really responsible for longer lives.  Rather, the sanitation age managed to bring humanity back to the life expectancy people had  thousands of years ago.  So much time and and so many horrible living conditions had elapsed, all to bring humans to the level of comfort and health they had enoyed before civilization ever began.

Of course, history can never be ignored.  The process of urbanization has been long, but steady.  While humanity may have been better off never starting with this experiment of ours, we have nonetheless embarked on an astounding voyage that has, oftentimes, come at the expense of our environment and our own health.  The human population has already reached six billion, and it will not slow down any time soon.  Earth’s resources will doubtfully ever be as plentiful for human use as they are today.

Given this reality, what are we to do?  Eschewing the need for technology, though poetic, unfortunately feels impossible.  The structure of the planet’s populations could not withstand a harsh return to pre-industrial or even pre-civilization modes of obtaining food and shelter.  Literally billions of people would perish.

I am left with the sense that new technologies–innovations for the betterment of humanity–will be necessary to maintain this march forward, wherever it goes.

And I am all too aware of how optimistic this perspective is.  The deleterious effects of over population and poor manipulation of the landscape can be seen all over the planet.  Today, technology and the global economy insufficiently provide for billions of people.   In fact, the World Health Organization has said over three billion people currently alive are malnourished.  The negative effects of the expansion of the human species are thus already very apparent.

But optimism is my only choice.  In the end, optimism about what the human race has already accomplished, and wonder at what it may some day accomplish, seem the only ways we ever have or ever will make ourselves and our world better.  Perhaps some day we just might figure out how to provide every human with what he or she needs to live a rich, fulfilling, and healthy life, while ensuring the same for posterity.  Such a goal may be lofty–but now that we have been to the moon, split the atom, recorded Abbey Road, and invented the Internet, what should our goals be?

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