Can Technology Save the World?

In 1992, 1,700 independent scientists signed a warning to the world. The “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” warned that human activities are inflicting “harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources… No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.”

Those “one or a few” decades are up. That letter was written and making headlines 25 years ago, making it only appropriate that 16,000 scientists signed a new letter in Nov. 2017 appropriately titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice”.

The letter reiterates that we’re on the precipice of the metaphorical abyss, and that the planet will suffer “substantial and irreversible harm” if there isn’t a major change in our species’ behavior.

“This is not about some natural phenomenon that is removed from humans,” says environmental scientist William Ripple, a distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University, in an article by CNN’s Jen Christensen. “If we don’t have a healthy biosphere, as it is called, if we continue to have major environmental problems and climate change problems, then this goes directly to the welfare of humans. People need to understand that we are trying to save ourselves from catastrophic huge misery.”

Current Tech and Climate Accord Defiance

Global warming, ocean dead zones, freshwater and fishing in peril, deforestation, animal extinction, and an unsustainable spike in the human population all find their place on the new letter. To top it off, this letter comes in the face of the Trump Administration’s plans to quit the Paris Climate Accord.

Fortunately, some companies have decided to defy conventional business tactics and a national disregard for climate change. Tire companies have been cutting back on the amount of petroleum and rubber used in car tires, for example, using sunflower oil and flora-derived latex instead as replacements, respectively. Consumers are interested in sustainable solutions as well. The solar industry is growing as a result of these interests, adding at least 35,000 new jobs to the market since 2011 and currently employing at least 209,000.

environmental-protection-326923_1280This defiance has been amplified by social media and the Internet. As more people hear about companies taking care to preserve the environment, they too will adopt stewardship as a standard. Beyond that, social media makes it much easier to place a public spotlight on companies that disregard ethics. Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business points out that “days after Greenpeace launched a YouTube campaign exposing Nestle’s harmful palm oil sourcing, Nestle suspended this practice. [After] two months, the video had 1.5 million views and Nestle committed to discontinue buying from suppliers that damage rainforest ecosystems.”

While these are great starting places, the question is: are these measures enough? Are the current technologies being used for sustainable development and alternative energy such as solar energy enough? Will our connected presence and stance against these practices be adequate to stop them? Or is there some tech still on the horizon that promises a cleaner and brighter future?

Can AI and Eco-Technology Save the Day?

The above measures are great starts. However, it appears that the only real chance we stand is via deployment of eco-tech and AI (artificial intelligence) — and yet, as co-founder of ESG Trends, Conor Riffle, writing for GreenBiz, puts it, “for all of the debate about the dawn of artificial intelligence, there is little talk about what AI means for sustainability.”

He argues that AI is already having an impact on corporate sustainability activities, using AI to achieve heightened efficiency as well as emissions reductions. This is a vague explanation, but Erin Biba writing for extrapolates further in her article, “Three Ways Artificial Intelligence is Helping to Save the World”.

The first example that she gives is Cornell University’s Institute for Computational Sustainability and the work they’ve done with species conservation. They’ve used the enthusiasm of birders to gather data about their avian subjects, and then “predict where there will be changes in habitat for certain species and the paths along which birds will move during migration… They can then share their predictions with policy-makers and conservationists, who can use it to make decisions about how to best protect bird habitat.”

She also highlights a NASA satellite mission called PACE (“Pre-Aerosol Clouds and Ocean Ecosystem”) which will help measure and predict phytoplankton conditions, launching in 2022, as well as the National Science Foundation’s EarthCube. EarthCube combines “data sets provided by scientists across a whole slew of disciplines — measurements of the atmosphere and hydrosphere or the geochemistry of the oceans, for example — to mimic conditions on, above and below the surface,” writes Biba. “Because of the vast amounts of data the cube will encompass, it will be able to model different conditions and predict how the planet’s systems will respond. And with that information, scientists will be able to suggest ways to avoid catastrophic events or simply plan for those that can’t be avoided (such as flooding or rough weather) before they happen.”

Here’s the rub — there is no magical machine with a button to push that is going to save our planet. While it’s going to require technology to fix, we also need to understand that there’s another component that’s just as important: human willingness to change.

Reversing Environmental Damage Dependant on Humans First, Tech Second

It’s pertinent to remember that for all of the salvation tech may offer, it’s been human use of technology and machinery that’s driven us to this critical point in our planet’s history in the first place.

That said, it will likely require we use technology to get ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug. We just have to commit to getting out of the hole. With climate deniers and big money interests fighting that forward progression, our globe and our environment will likely remain on the precipice of the abyss. It’s up to us as humans to wield technology correctly as we move on and to embrace new habits. AI and eco-tech may be our only way to reverse environmental damage — but that won’t happen until we first reverse our attitudes.


Author Bio: Andy Heikkila is a health, tech, and futurism enthusiast from the outskirts of the lush, Pacific Northwest. When he’s not writing, you can find him working on his latest audio mix, going on a run, or rolling d20s with friends. Follow him on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer.