Humans’ power to determine the future of planet Earth is increasing exponentially. The result could be disastrous unless we change the way we think.
Climate scientist Will Steffen of the Australian National University makes a powerful case about the uniqueness of our time: A few hundred years ago, more or less in sync with the Industrial Revolution, various indicators such as global population, water use, number of rivers dammed, global economic output, number of species extinctions and atmospheric carbon dioxide started following a steepening path upward.
The sudden explosion in human activity was a sharp break from the preceding tens of thousands of years, when things changed much more gradually. The shift is so pronounced that scientists now talk about a new geological era -- the “Anthropocene,” in which all Earth processes come to be powerfully shaped by human activity. Of all the usable energy reaching the Earth from the sun, we humans already gather and exploit as much as 5 percent. Nearly half of the planet’s land surface has been altered by human action and practice.
This is all the result of the singular skill that sets us apart from all other species -- our unparalleled capacity for innovation, especially through technology. New techniques for everything from farming to computation interact and combine to drive the creation of more innovations in an ever-accelerating spiral. Paradoxically, technological innovation has also created our biggest problems, including climate change, environmental destruction and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
What comes next? Exponential growth on a finite planet simply cannot continue. If innovation is both the key to our success and the primary threat to our existence, what can we do? Can we innovate differently? More intelligently?
Some valuable thinking on the subject comes from Sander van der Leeuw, dean of the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, who takes an optimistic view. We may indeed be able to use technology to find a path to a sustainable future, he suggests, if we use our technology in a fundamentally different way.
The gist of his argument: Humans suffer from a mismatch between our thinking about what we do and the truth of what we do. Our brains make sense of a multifaceted world by ignoring much of its complexity -- a trait Van der Leeuw calls “low dimensional” thinking. In engineering a dam, assessing how agricultural runoff influences an estuary or figuring out how automobile emissions might alter the atmosphere, our conceptual models (or those of our scientists and engineers) at best consider only a few of the true pathways of cause and effect. As Van der Leeuw puts it, “every human action upon the environment modifies the latter in many more ways that its human actors perceive, simply because the dimensionality of the environment is much higher than can be captured by the human mind.”
This is a profound insight. It helps explain why our innovations, even as they help us in ways that we see clearly and understand, also end up affecting our environment in ways that we mostly fail to recognize. Effects build up in the environment -- and this includes the social environment, as well as biological or physical -- over the long term. We’re unaware, until eventually we have the famous “unintended consequences” so familiar from technological history. We may, for example, not yet know what lies behind the obesity epidemic in Western nations, but it is surely a consequence of one or more technologies -- in food manufacturing and distribution, in human transportation, in entertainment and advertising.
If Van der Leeuw’s analysis is right, then we should be worried about the future. We’re currently locked into a strategy of almost reckless innovation. If we seek further economic growth only through faster innovation, the unintended impact on our environment promises to grow even faster.
Van der Leeuw’s solution: Learn to innovate differently, by using technology to reduce the mismatch between our brains and reality. Computing and communications technology can improve our ability to handle large quantities of information. They make it possible, in principle, to help our brains build more accurate models of reality. Indeed, this is already happening in some areas, in large-scale models of climate, which include thousands or millions of atmospheric variables, or in new models of economies that try to include every last business or household.
In the end, Van der Leeuw’s perspective is both sobering and inspiring. We have an unprecedented opportunity as the first humans to be able to address our cognitive limitations consciously and directly, by using technology to increase our brain capacity and understand our interactions with the world in far more detail. All we require is the wisdom to make this our goal.
(Mark Buchanan, a theoretical physicist and the author of “The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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