According to a recent study from the Pew Research Centre, a very large number of people on Earth place global warming top as one of the defining issues of our time. Yet, our behaviour for the most part is in complete disconnect with the reality of global warming and what it takes to fight it. Most of my friends, neighbours and colleagues own 2 or sometimes 3 cars. With a Covid-19 vaccine on the horizon, many have started organizing their next adventure trips to faraway places or their next flight to more pleasant climes. A recent survey has shown that, post-Covid, we plan to drive and fly more than we did before. Overall, as a recent poll shows, most people are likely to be supportive of action against global warming as long as they are not asked to change their environment-sapping behaviour and as long as they are not asked to pay additional taxes to cover the costs of any ambitious “green deal”.
The larger public’s unwillingness to adopt the emission-mitigating behaviours that would be required to rapidly reach carbon neutrality unfortunately permeates governments and corporations. For the most part, they display the same chasm between words and action. Many have committed to IPCC’s goals of reducing by 45% their carbon emissions by 2030 and reach carbon-neutrality by 2050 (or 2060 for China). But, if you examine past commitments, for example the targets committed in the COP21 Paris agreement and by how much countries have failed to meet them (as the very-respectable Economist has done recently), one feels rather despondent. Another recent Economist survey of the corporate world makes for similarly grim reading as it concludes that not much is being done. In brief: many words, little action.
Science and Technology under Attack
However, there is some hope. If changing our behaviours and habits in order to fully commit to a greener future is unlikely, could science and technology solve the climate and environmental crises? The latest film from Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore, “Planet of the Humans”, provides a powerful attack on the idea that there are technology solutions to global warming and environmental depredation. The entire argument of the film is that each new “green” technology feeds an infernal cycle of new and worse assaults on the environment. Whether it is solar power, use of biomass for electricity generation, or mining of new minerals for batteries, for Moore/Gibbs, science and technology generate more problems than it solves. In their opinion, the ultimate cause of our planetary ecological problems is to be found in just one issue: overpopulation. There are simply too many humans on the planet, and as long as human populations continue to explode, more and more resources will need to be extracted from the planet at the cost of the natural environment.
There are two aspects to Moore/Gibbs’ argument: 1- new green technology is problematic in principle and 2- we must reduce human overpopulation. Let’s examine both.
New technologies : good or bad ?
Let’s take the first claim that new technology is problematic in principle. It is clearly wrong. It has happened in the past (and surely may happen in the future) that a new technology in its attempt to solve a problem may have generated others, sometimes more difficult to solve and sometimes more damaging. The invention of plastic, considered at some point a “miraculous material”, has created more problems than it has solved. The electric car revolution is upon us but will it result in blighted landscapes where the Lithium that feeds batteries is extracted? We are entertaining the possibility to feed algae to cows to reduce their methane emissions but will this result in an increased pollution of our seas? The use of biomass in US power stations has resulted in millions of hectares of native forests being destroyed. Surely, we do tend to rush head long into new technologies without fully evaluating their impact on the environment and the climate. Yet, it can be easily counter-argued that electric cars are a good thing, particularly when they are produced and assembled in countries where energy generation has been at least partially decarbonised. Meat production, and thus cattle’s methane emissions, is bound to increase dramatically in the next few years, as more and more people start being able to afford it. However, the so-called “high-tech meat”, where meat is grown in vitro, might be the way to a future of zero-carbon meat production. Singapore has just approved the sale of bioreactor-generated chicken cells: they apparently taste just like…. chicken! The list is long of the potential benefit of new technologies, provided they are properly thought out and regulated appropriately to safeguard against their potential impact on the natural environment.
But perhaps more fundamentally, do we really have a choice? I would argue we don’t. Our unwillingness to change behaviour is so ingrained in our nature that it is folly to think that the vast majority of us would willingly give up on flying, adopt lifestyle choices that would reduce our dependence on cars, reduce our meat consumption, or move away from the convenience of plastic. There is really no way other than technology and science to get us out of the environmental holes we’ve been digging for ourselves. We can only hope that for any newly invented technology, extensive risk assessments are drawn and rigorous pricing methods incorporating all aspects of production including carbon footprint and environmental costs are imposed internationally.
Science and technology and its impact on human overpopulation
Now let’s take on Moore/Gibbs’ second argument that the ever-increasing number of humans is the ultimate (perhaps the only) cause of our race to environmental disaster.
It is indeed clear that the track record of humans in preserving eco-systems is overall abysmal. And that may not come as a surprise. It is well known in biology that, when an ecosystem is overwhelmed by a single species (plant or animal), this ecosystem is inevitably under threat and eventually, if nothing interferes to curb the overpopulating species (such as an expanded predator population or an infectious disease), the ecosystem dies. This is what we are witnessing with humans: rampant expansion of the human species has reached a level where most eco-systems in which humans live have deteriorated so dramatically that they will be struggling to regain a foothold if humans are to continue colonizing them.
Yet Moore/Gibbs are wrong: the solution to overpopulation is to be found precisely in science, engineering and technology. Indeed, for human birth rates to fall, science and technology-driven development is key. Every country in the world that has witnessed a dramatic increase of its collective wealth and education has inevitably seen a decrease in its birth rate (even before the invention of the pill). Wealth accumulation has been directly correlated with and indeed has been the consequence of technological, engineering, and scientific progress. Thus, science, technology and engineering have been the most efficient drivers in limiting the number of humans wherever they were able to thrive. So Moore/Gibbs may see technology as problematic, but for the issue they both care most about, human overpopulation, it is the sure cure to the problem.
a greener future