It may seem odd to suggest that we could have a technology dilemma. Given the great benefits we have found with advances in medicine, automobiles, communications, power, and so on how could technological side effects be of any concern to us? We are intelligent beings and if there are any side effects wouldn't we just do something about it? Technology has allowed us to learn about the universe, and may one day take us to new planets. One would think that we could not live without technology yet the truth may be that we may not live because of technology. Technology has given us some wonderful benefits but at the same time we are faced with global warming, excessive consumption of the Earth's resources, incredible population growth, and new potentially destructive technologies - all side effects of the technologies we have developed. If technological side effects like these are capable of having such a significant effect on us globally then countries no longer have the luxury of fighting with one another for reasons that cannot be worked out in different ways. We must focus on our similarities rather than our differences and work together because we have come to an age where the side effects of our technologies threaten all of us. Furthermore, new side effects from our technologies may loom in the not too distant future that may have an even greater impact on Life and Earth.
If I sound a bit dramatic let's look at an example many of us have heard of - global warming. I understand that the cause of global warming is still an ongoing debate but let's for a moment take it as fact that it is being caused by the combination of the rapid growth of humankind and the growing amount of CO2 we are putting in the atmosphere. Let us assume that it is our technology such as fossil fuel burning from automobiles, factories, jet engines, and so on that is causing global warming. The incredible benefits of technology are seductive to humankind yet here we are with a major worldwide by-product called global warming. The worst of it is that even though we see this side effect of our technologies, we continue. If we were really that smart wouldn't we have prevented this from happening or done something about it a long time ago? Granted, all countries seem to be joining forces and attempting to resolve it in different ways such as Kyoto , carbon capture, electric cars and so on but our efforts seem slow and meager. For example, years ago we had electric cars ready to come to the market but other interests surrounding the oil companies and politics impeded their development.
What if it IS TOO late to solve global warming though? What if global warming takes on a life of its own and it continues geometrically, out of our control, causing major global climate changes and other life and planet impacting problems we cannot foresee. After all, we have never seen this phenomenon before so how do we know what will happen? In fact, even if we are not sure if human beings are the source of the problem is it not a bit foolish of us to continue as we are, given the huge consequences that it may have on Life and Earth?
I have used the example of global warming above because it is something almost all of us have heard of and can relate to but it is just a sample of what can happen as we continue our endeavor toward new technologies. The point is that even when we know there may be grave risks we take our chances anyway. Who knows what new technologies are about to come our way? As the creators of these technologies are we evolved enough to handle them? You may be thinking that I am suggesting we ban technology altogether and go back to the dark ages. This is not so, but certainly I feel we need to look at ourselves and re-evaluate how we move forward with our new technologies. We need to be very careful and, even if we are, accidents can and will happen.
If global warming does not seem a convincing reason to show concern about how technology is affecting all of us consider the huge population growth we have experienced in the last few 100 years. World population began its rapid growth upon the development of agricultural technology that led to the "agricultural revolution" about 4000 to 8000 years ago. This is when humankind began producing food through agriculture and domesticating animals. The main growth began though during the 1800's in the Industrial Revolution when new technology was developed such as industrial machinery, communications, and transport systems like shipping lines and trains. This led to unprecedented levels of consumption of arable land, metals, fresh water, and other resources. We are now experiencing deforestation, overuse of our fresh waters supplies, contamination of our air supply, and huge amounts of residual waste all over the planet. We have over fished our waters and destroyed species and ecosystems. Our technology has served our immediate needs well but the repercussions are starting to take effect on a global scale.
On the chart to the right you can see the world population over the last 250 years and also the projection for the next 50 years. It has gone from just under 1 billion in 1750 to about 6.5 billion in 2000 and to an estimated 9 billion by 2050. Even more noticeable are the blue and pink areas that represent Asia and Africa respectively. Clearly the less developed countries will continue to represent the bulk of the world population. You can also see how Europe is actually expected to have a slight decline between 2000 and 2050. This observation is important because as countries become more developed they tend to have a reduction in the population growth rate. Since developing countries will tend to reduce their population growth rate as they become more educated, it implies that assisting developing countries with education and development may be an important factor in reducing world population growth voluntarily. You can read more on this demographic-economic paradox which outlines the relationship between declining population growth rate as countries become more developed.
I just want to make another note on world population growth. From the chart it is clear that world population has jumped at an alarming rate but to put it in perspective consider the following based on the fact that the world population is currently about 6.8 billion (2009):
If you are 50 years old the population of the world has more than doubled in your lifetime. (1960 - 3 billion)
Since Columbus discovered North America in 1492 the world population has gone from .45 billion to 6.8 billion. That means that 93% of the world's population has come into existence since then. (Year 1500 450 million)
If your grandparents are 100 years old the population of the world has increased about 4 times since the time they were born. (Year 1900 1.6 billion)
It is amazing that the significant world population growth is something that has happened, not only in the last few centuries, but in our lifetimes! Technology has given us a population explosion along with devastating side effects. As our population grows, technology also will become more advanced in order to satisfy the growing need for resources and the best lifestyle possible for all. Hopefully we can begin using our technology to find a greater balance in world population rather than use it to further fuel what may be a growing problem.
Consider the following as per Wikipedia:
"Almost all growth will take place in the less developed regions, where today’s 5.3 billion population of underdeveloped countries is expected to increase to 7.8 billion in 2050. By contrast, the population of the more developed regions will remain mostly unchanged, at 1.2 billion. The world's population is expected to rise by 40% to 9.1 billion. An exception is the United States population, which is expected to increase 44% from 305 million in 2008 to 439 million in 2050." (Wikipedia overpopulation).
Population estimates as of the year 2050
Africa - 1.9 billion
Asia - 5.2 billion
Europe - 664 million
Latin America & Caribbean - 769 million
Northern America - 445 million
As is shown above, Africa and Asia will be 7.1 billion of the 9.1 billion on the planet. This means these countries, which are in most cases considered developing countries, will represent nearly 7.1 divided by 9.1 or nearly 78% of the world population. It should not be overlooked that population growth is a side effect of our technology and it is having a significant effect on Life and Earth.
Imagine two boys playing in a sandbox. Every once in a while they have their differences and they throw sand at each other. Now give the boys some plastic pails and shovels. They are overjoyed to use these new toys to create amazing sculptures in the sand. They love this new technology! One boy slips and falls on the other boy's sculpture (or he kicks it over on purpose). Immediately the other boy, rather than throw sand at the boy that ruined his sculpture, hits him with his pail and bruises him. Even though the pail and shovel were valuable technologies designed for a specific purpose he has found a new purpose for them - an unforeseen side effect of these technologies (his pail and shovel), rather than just to make sculptures.
Let's now go another step. Let's give the 2 boys hand grenades instead of pails and shovels, a much more advanced and powerful technology. I think that we can agree that either by accident or intentionally the boys over time will cause a grenade to go off and in so, it will be an end to the sandbox game for both of them. In such case the significant damage to the sandbox could be compared to significant damage being done to the planet.
This reminds me of an article I read once by a famous scientist who suggested that it would be wise for us to colonize other planets within the next few centuries given the risks that humanity could be threatened by catastrophes like nuclear war and climate change.
The parallel I draw from the above is that the two boys in the sandbox are not too different than two countries in our world that might face conflict with one another. Imagine the world is the sandbox and the 2 boys are 2 countries representing the major powers of the world. 1000 years ago conflicts between countries might have involved throwing sticks or stones at each other, then along came swords and bows and arrows. At this point they still could not do enough damage to affect life or the planet in any significant way. Next we developed gunpowder, guns, and bombs. We went further using our intelligence to make technology like nuclear bombs, germ warfare, and so on. Ultimately the 2 countries, like the 2 boys, continue to advance their technologies with side effects that are increasingly more devastating.
I remember reading that Einstein expressed great concern regarding the nuclear bomb. His main role in the invention of the atomic bomb was signing a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging that the bomb be built. Einstein biographer Ronald Clark indicated that Einstein wrote to physicist Niels Bohr in December 1944, "when the war is over, then there will be in all countries a pursuit of secret war preparations with technological means which will lead inevitably to preventative wars and to destruction even more terrible than the present destruction of life." (Clark, page 698). Einstein clearly moved forward with the nuclear bomb with the cautious awareness that he had helped put a great power in the hands of the world. Ultimately, The atom bomb did get used in the bombing of Hiroshima. Einstein had said "I made one great mistake in my life... when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made but there was some justification - the danger that the Germans would make them." (Clark, pg. 752).
Ultimately I believe the only way that we can prevent similar situations to that of using the atom bomb, especially as we learn of new even more powerful technologies, is that the world must operate under global guidelines where cooperation between countries ensures the prevention of any significant conflicts. Conflicts similar to those which led to us using the nuclear bomb against each other, or even accidents that might occur due to the existence of our technologies, simply must be avoided at all costs.
Can you imagine if the nuclear bomb was by chance 1000 times stronger and 1000 times easier to make. Given such power and the limited size of the Earth this might have been like the 2 countries having hand grenades like the 2 boys, capable of destroying each other and their sandbox - the entire Earth. One might say we are lucky that the nuclear bomb has limited capability but what of future technologies? If we acknowledge the trend that our technologies are becoming more complex and clearly having a greater impact on our world would it not make sense to conclude that their effect on us may be much more significant in the future?
In our search for new ways of powering space flight will we find a new power beyond the nuclear bomb? In our quest to understand DNA and medicine will we find a way to create a living computerized virus capable of adapting and mutating to ultimately destroy all life? Even if improbable, is the large price of such potential threats not worth human beings seriously reviewing and changing our nature now, rather than waiting until we are faced with these potential situations?
In the above I have mentioned some of the more obvious side effects of technology that you may be familiar with but as an example of one that we might not have predicted, consider a new problem only recently encountered in our oceans. It appears that jellyfish are experiencing a massive population boom representing threats to swimmers, fishing, and other marine life. Jellyfish biomass has risen incredibly in different locations in oceans of the world, possibly a consequence of climate change, pollution, and over fishing (technological side effects) which reduces the number of jellyfish predators. In essence, we may be creating huge imbalances in the world ecosystem.
are areas in the oceans deprived of oxygen due to pollutants and these are becoming areas where jellyfish dominate and expand their populations. This is becoming a more and more significant problem.
For example, there is a jellyfish invasion in the Mediterranean, which seems to be largely due to three reasons causing dead zones. They are:
1) pollution which creates organic nutrients for the jellyfish
2) changing temperature in our oceans due to climate change
3) the reduction of jellyfish fish predators due to intensive over fishing.
There also has been a tremendous increase in jellyfish population in Japan causing great problems for their fishing industry. The Japanese jellyfish problem is discussed more in Article 1 below. These interesting articles describe the issues related to the jellyfish population explosion in our oceans.
Article 1 Photo in the News: Giant Jellyfish Invade Japan
Article 2 Jellyfish Start Taking over the Oceans.
Article 3 Jellyfish Take Over Ocean: A Dangerous Warning Sign
Article 4 New Jellyfish Problem Means Jellyfish Are Not the Only Problem
The reason why I have discussed the jellyfish problem, even if it does not seem to be a world changing problem, is because it shows the kind of unpredictable events that can happen from the side effects of our technologies. In this case, the specific side effects seem to be our pollution and climate change which are causing the jellyfish populations to explode. It may be some time before we can know for sure the exact cause of the jellyfish population increase and to what extent it will affect our oceans but regardless the countries of the world must be more prepared to handle such side effects. We must be able to work in a unified fashion in order to prevent such problems and equally important, act together to resolve them with global policies that can be implemented immediately. It just seems that there are too many instances where we first indulge in our technologies then attempt to correct the side effects later, under the inaccurate assumption that we can always resolve them.
Another side effect of technology has also become apparent. The disparity of technological power between humankind has become predominant. As we populate the world we find that there are now the technological HAVES and HAVE NOTS.
The Technological HAVES - OUR DEVELOPED COUNTRIES have access to food storage systems (even a simple refrigerator). They have fresh water, medicine, and the power to move around the world in a matter of hours. They have created complex financial systems to store their wealth and trade with one another. They have even created debt systems to allow individuals to live beyond their means for indefinite periods. All round their lives are just easier. They have powers that 1000 years ago human beings thought might be only found with their gods. The technological HAVES are able to efficiently use their technology to exploit resources to their benefit.
The Technological HAVE NOTS - OUR UNDEVELOPED COUNTRIES still drink contaminated water and are subject to famine and disease. They still use only the most basic agricultural and animal domestication methods. They are left at the mercy of the Technological HAVES, not so different from the rest of the wild animals that roam the earth. They see what the HAVES can do and their growing populations strive for access to the technology of the HAVES. It follows that these developing countries, which represent the greatest population of the Earth, will be placing an even greater strain on the world's resources given their large growing populations and increased desire for the better life styles provided through technology.
I have now covered a few of the possible side effects of technology that most of us are familiar with. In the end most of the above mentioned problems only exist because the planet we reside on is only 24,000 miles around and it is our only place to live. For example, consider the following:
What if the surface area of Earth was 100 times bigger than it is - maybe the size of Jupiter? Side effects of our technologies would be less of a concern because even nuclear bombs would only affect a small area of the surface of the planet. Unfortunately though the Earth is only 24,000 miles around and, because of it's limited size, we are finding that technological side effects such as carbon emissions may actually be changing the global climate. Similarly, we know that enough nuclear detonations could affect the surface and atmosphere of the entire planet.
What if the Earth was much smaller than it is, possibly the size of a small city. Obviously a nuclear bomb detonation would end the planet. My point here is that the Earth is a limited size so as technologies become more complex their impact will affect Earth geometrically. The size of this planet is limited and will not change. How small is the Earth really? Well, when you look into the distance on a clear day and look at a mountain, for example Mount Baker from Vancouver, Canada, the mountain is only 80 miles away. Imagine that if you went that distance only 300 times you would have encircled the entire planet. That would include the continents and the water. The Earth, our fragile home, is not as large as we often might believe it to be. The next time you look in the distance at a mountain maybe you would like to try this experiment too? Just find the distance to the mountain then divide it into 40,000 kilometers or 24,000 miles. Once you are done, remember we have no where else to live.
What if human beings had to this day colonized thousands of planets? Side effects of our technologies on Earth might cause significant problems for Earth but it might not matter in the grand scheme of the continuation of the human species and possibly other life since we would have "diversified" onto other planets. Unfortunately we are far from this stage. In addition, unfolding evidence seems to indicate that finding other planets similar to Earth that we might colonize one day is very unlikely to put it mildly. This is partly due to limitations in the speed of space travel which we may be overcome one day. Certainly this is not something I would want to gamble on.
What if the population of the Earth was only 10% of what it is currently. Many people often suggest that the world is becoming overpopulated and if this were corrected it would resolve all our problems. Certainly it would stop carbon emissions in it's tracks and resource consumption would be reduced to a fraction of what it is now. Even with that said though, it is not necessarily a solution. There are still the issues such as nuclear weapons or similar weapons that may come in the future with greater capabilities. Even with fewer people on the planet, nuclear weapons could still have devastating effects. Similarly our ability to create viruses, reconstruct life based on shuffling genetic structure, creating artificial intelligence, and so on can still have significant side effects that can only be resolved with the cooperation of the countries of the world. This means cooperating to minimize competition between them and also cooperating to manage how we move forward with technologies.
My point with the above "What If" scenarios is that we must accept that we are on an island in the vast sea of space. This island, the Earth, is the only piece of land we can exist on right now. We cannot simply hop in a boat and sail to other islands. We cannot make the island bigger. We cannot just reduce population and see our problems resolved. As we continue to change the structure of this island with technology to meet our needs, we must be very careful. We live on one planet. This is our only home, rich and abundant with everything that makes our lives worth living. From this perspective it seems clear that countries should spend less time competing with each other and more time cooperating to preserve what we are all a part of and what we all depend on.
In a nutshell the problem with technology is not in the benefits it gives us. It is in the side effects that ultimately may have a significant impact on Life and Earth. The preceding are only a few examples of side effects from technology. What about the even greater new technologies that we have yet to develop over the centuries to come? Are we prepared to reap the benefits of these new technologies knowing the potential side effects they may have on Life and Earth? Can we find it in ourselves to work together on a global scale to deal with the unpredictable outcomes that will occur from the side effects of our current and future technologies?
Having discussed some of the possible side effects of current technologies and ones we may yet have to face, the next section will cover some of the things we might do to reduce their impact on the planet and the future of life.
Image of Island courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at FreeDigitalPhotos.net