The pattern of most presentations by environmentalists, like Al Gore’s movie, Inconvenient Truth, is to show the dire situation we are in followed by a word of hope; such as “but we have the answers, we just need the will to put them into practice” – the answers being something like green technology.
The twenty-five year period following WWII is the period of the greatest rise in environmental pollution as well as the period of the greatest technological advances. The two go hand in hand. Looking to technology to solve environmental problems is a lot like looking to increased economic activity to fund environmental legislation. One of the most effective environmental technologies of the last century was the invention of asbestos, a product unequaled in its durability and insulating properties. The flaw in scientific/engineering solutions is that although we can create procedures that with certainty will result in a specific outcome, we have no way of knowing or controlling all of the additional outcomes. There will always be unintended consequences and by trying to solve the problems resulting from these unintended consequences in the same way, we further magnify the number of problematic unintended consequences.
1) My father was a civil engineer who worked on the Los Angeles freeway system in the 1950s. The freeways were designed to connect the remote suburbs with the commercial center of Los Angeles, allowing commuters to live in spacious homes with nice yards, but with a reasonably short commute to work. The unintended consequences were the housing developments that sprang up all along the freeways which then created more traffic problems. By trying to solve these new traffic problems by widening and building more freeways, the urban sprawl got out of control, making commuting a nightmare for all of Southern California.
2) A biology professor from Harvard gave me this example. He said missionaries in Africa, trying to better the health and sanitary conditions in remote villages introduced water systems that brought water into the center of the villages, making cleaning and sanitation easier and reducing the work load of the women that had carried the water up hills and distances to their homes. But water near the habitations meant mosquitoes, which resulted in an increase in malaria. Scientists, knowing the monkeys did not get malaria, tried experiments using monkey blood in humans. Monkeys do carry AIDS, resulting in the world outbreak in AIDS.
Just as solving traffic problems with more freeways, or solving health problems with medical research and technology, have increased the problems by magnifying the unintended consequences, so trying to solve environmental issues with new technology will almost certainly result in a greater degree of environmental problems.
Source reduction is the only solution.
While education is valuable and important, if it is not accompanied by the actions of source reduction, it may be a greater harm than solution. I had a friend who was fond of saying “Your actions speak so loudly that I can’t hear a word you are saying.” The dominant image I was left with after seeing Inconvenient Truth was that of Al Gore wheeling his suitcase through airports – an image which celebrated the most wasteful form of travel, modern grandiose inefficient architecture, as well as presenting the image of a heroic individual who “understands” the problem as the answer.