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Solving the Sustainability Crisis: Our Job and Technology's Job

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Last week, we celebrated the tenth anniversary of Columbia's doctoral program in Sustainable Development, and at one session an undergraduate asked a central question that I thought cut to the heart of the matter. He asked if the crisis of global sustainability would be solved by technology alone, or would it require changes in human behavior and patterns of consumption? This past weekend, while attending a conference on the climate crisis hosted by the University of California at Santa Cruz, I heard the same question. It's a key issue and I thought I'd do my best to address it here.

The simple answer is that of course it will require changes in both technology and behavior, and it is important to understand how technology affects behavior and how behavior affects technology. Human history has seen the rise and fall of civilizations, and we are not immune to those forces of history. While I could be wrong, and we could be approaching the moment of our demise, I really don't think so.

The exponential development of technology has dramatically altered the way most--but far from all--of us live. At the turn of the 20th century, 40 percent of Americans worked in agriculture. Today, that number is around 1 percent. The daily struggle for security, food, clothing and shelter, once the dominant characteristic of human existence, remains the central concern of those in poverty, but for the un-poor it is no longer an issue. That could change, and our way of life could collapse, but for now, energy and technology has transformed our lives. We control the temperature in our buildings, machines have replaced muscles, and images and knowledge can be created and disseminated globally at unimaginable speeds.

As technology developed, our lives changed. Medical technology has allowed us to live longer and healthier lives, and families can now be planned. Agricultural technology, waste, water and transportation technology make it possible for us to live in cities and build a brain-based economy and a culture focused on learning, entertainment, and social interaction.

The America my grandparents found when they arrived at the start of the 20th century was a place of great opportunity, but the occupations that they found in industrial-era America have largely disappeared. Technology changed the way we live and work. The automobile opened up the suburbs and air conditioning stimulated the move to the south and southwest. Ironically, the internet's rapid-fire technology and the spread of smart phones are fueling attraction to the city's dynamic social and cultural environment and is causing many young people to de-suburbanize and re-urbanize instead. Brain-based businesses are finding that young people prefer San Francisco and Oakland to Silicon Valley. Google is finding a home on the west side of Manhattan. Technology moved us out of the cities and may be moving us back in again.

Of course, what the Columbia undergraduate was asking is, do we have to do without consumption to address the sustainability crisis? My response is that anything seen as "doing without" will be resisted by most people. Forcing people to give up something they like is a losing strategy. Providing positive alternatives, or convincing someone of the danger of the behaviors they are pursuing is far more effective. Eating healthy food does not mean that the food has to be less tasty and less fulfilling. Using mass transit, biking or walking can be a lot more pleasant than sitting in freeway traffic. When home-generated renewable energy is cheaper and more reliable than the grid, why would anyone have any reason to burn fossil fuels?

The last several centuries of human history have been characterized by the development of new technologies and learning to diffuse those technologies and integrate them into home, social and economic life. It has also been characterized by efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of those technologies, and to develop new ones to help address those negative effects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are government agencies mainly devoted to that task. Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fund America's great research universities and national laboratories to develop the basic and applied technologies needed to understand and address the negative impacts of our way of life.

The planet's seven billion people are having an unprecedented effect on the planet's land, water and air. We need to learn a great deal more to guide our actions so that the way we live does not destroy the planet we live on. Some of those actions require the development and deployment of new technologies. The use of new technologies and modifications in the way we use existing technologies will require changes in our behavior.

The changes need not be painful or negative, and let's keep in mind that today, behavior change is constant. The influence of technology on our behavior is growing. Walking down Broadway, I need to look twice to see that the guy who seems to be talking to himself while gesturing with his hands is actually speaking into one of those ubiquitous smartphone microphones and is probably ordering take-out. Think about how much of your day involves looking at screens, reading and responding. We do more and more of that every day. Those are new behaviors.

The crisis of environmental destruction caused by our own economic development and the massive changes now underway in the developing world requires study and understanding. It also calls for damage mitigation strategies and technologies. America has the potential to lead the effort to maintain the planet while growing the world's economy. It is tragic that during this period of great peril but great opportunity, we have a dysfunctional federal government incapable of action. The ideology that concludes, "the government that governs least governs best," is ill-suited for the complexity of the crisis of global sustainability. The ideology that concludes, "if we all just consumed less we could solve the problem," fails to understand that two billion of the seven billion people on this planet are in a desperate struggle to consume more.

Consumption, per se, is not the problem. How we produce, use and deal with the waste from our consumption is the heart of the problem. Ending the culture of conspicuous consumption is certainly part of the solution, but that culture must be replaced with activities that meet human needs. Instead of going to the mall to shop, you might go to see a movie or hang out in a cafe with friends or family. Instead of throwing your garbage into the trash, you separate it to facilitate recycling. The iPhone you are ready to discard could be bought back by Apple who would then use the phone to make another product.

Of course, unless we make the transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, no amount of understanding of the planet will do much good. While the climate crisis is not the only danger we face, it is one that we understand and that understanding leads to the need for immediate action. At the Santa Cruz climate conference I heard repeated calls for a carbon tax or for a way to reflect the true costs of fossil fuels, including the damage they do, in their price. The energy system does not sit in an economic vacuum. An increase in the price of fossil fuels, if one could be imposed, would have a negative impact on poor people in America and in the developing world.

I think the scientists and economists that dominate the academic discussions of climate are looking for a simple, effective and rational method for stimulating massive change. Unfortunately, politics and policy is never simple, rational, neat and effective. It's messy, incremental and difficult. You might be attracted to nuclear power, but try to overcome the politics of siting and waste disposal. You might be an elected official attracted to setting a price on carbon, but try selling your constituents on the idea of rising energy prices. Those steps might be taken, but they are difficult and unlikely. It would be much easier to sell an effort to research and develop a decentralized, inexpensive form of renewable energy. Let renewable energy knock fossil fuels out of the market.

The energy issue illustrates the connection between technology and behavior. Our lifestyles are built on inexpensive, plentiful and reliable energy. We are addicted to energy and our economic system would crash without it. Technology must come up with an alternative to fossil fuels. When it comes, we must make certain that everyone's behavior changes and we transition to that new technology as quickly as possible.