Technology and Sustainability

John Marler, Vice President, Energy and Environment, AEG

John Marler, Vice President, Energy and Environment, AEG

Environmental sustainability means conserving natural resources so that we can continue to live and thrive over successive generations. However, today, we are squandering our natural resources at an alarming rate. In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity has exceeded nature’s ability to replenish its natural resources within a given year, was on July 29, the earliest ever.

We are dumping so much plastic into the oceans that it’s estimated that by 2050 they will contain more plastic than fish. And our greenhouse gas emissions, if not significantly decreased from current business-asusual rates, are on track to increase global temperatures 4-6 degrees Celsius by 2100. Such heating is expected to have catastrophic impacts on the health of the planet’s ecosystems.

Ironically, many of the technological advancements that were previously hailed as sustaining the human race have in fact helped create the grave situation we are now facing. 

Plastic, once viewed as a miracle substance, is ubiquitous in our natural environment, with micro-plastics now found in the deepest ocean trenches and in the highest mountain glaciers. 

Industrial agriculture, another one-time miracle, relies on large-scale monoculture, resource-intensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and increasingly unsustainable depletion of water resources. Our dependence on fossil fuels for energy production and transportation has led to the current climate crisis, an existential threat to our survival. While our reliance on technology has created today’s situation, innovation can save us. Technology is used today primarily to refer to something technical, usually a device of some kind, but also very frequently something digital, involving code and electronics. Technology though is the wrong mindset for thinking about environmental sustainability. The better concept is innovation, that is, something new, be it an idea, method, or device.

This distinction is so critical because we must do things differently if we are to reverse our present course and steer our global society towards long-term environmental sustainability. We must change current practices. We must try new ideas, methods, and devices. We must innovate.

This innovation will take many forms and does not necessarily require complex technological solutions. Take plastics, for instance. 

There may be a technological solution for creating a closed-loop system for single-use plastic service ware that involves tracking, sorting, and reprocessing plastic so that no material is lost to the environment. Or, we could simply stop using single-use items like cups and cutlery. Both approaches are innovative and aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they may be deployed simultaneously in different use cases.

We must shift food production away from industrial farms to a new model. We could grow food in sophisticated indoor food production facilities with the latest technology in hydroponics, LED lighting, and artificial intelligence. Or we may opt to grow food by hand in our backyards, on our front stoops, or in community gardens. Both approaches are better than the status quo and both must be deployed at scale to create a sustainable global food production system.

Dates like Earth Overshoot Day 2019 serve as critical reminders that we don’t have a lot of time to address our environmental challenges. Our natural resources are finite and we must preserve them for as long as we can. To truly achieve environmental sustainability, we must start to understand the impact of our decisions and begin measuring the effectiveness of those decisions over time. That includes using technology appropriately to contribute to solutions, measuring the impact of those solutions and continually finding new, innovative ways of doing things. Because without reframing how we think about technology and measure its effects,we will never achieve environmental sustainability.

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