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“Technology is not going to solve our environmental problems”

November 2nd, 2009 · No Comments

This is a guest post from DCoronata who argues that it was written in haste … yet that haste produced something worth considering.

Technology is not going to solve our environmental problems.

Yes we’ve made dramatic improvements in feeding the world, with current crop yields much higher than in previous generations.  But the environmental degradation and the overuse of fossil fuels has created a false panacea whereby we’ve thought that we can solve all of our problems with more technology, rather than using sustainable practices and more intelligent utilization of existing resources.

And for my main argument, I’ll talk about worldwide fishery depletion.

The biggest technological innovations in aquaculture and fishing has in the last half century led to a near total breakdown of all saltwater fisheries worldwide.  Rather than enhance stocks and provide for greater resource management, it has led to the exact opposite.

Technology hasn’t made life easier for the fish, it has made life easier for the fisherman.  Mile long seine nets, city-sized drag lines, sonar fish-finders and commercial harvesting boats the size of the Titanic have reduced our stocks to the point where many are approaching total collapse.  This creates a cascade effect, where people who have invested huge sums of money in infrastructure to harvest the more expensive table fish now find themselves with rusting boats, crews that spend more time unemployed than active, and banks anxiously awaiting mortgage payments.  So they go “downstream”, choosing to catch fish that were previously considered bait, to sell as cat and dog food.

Anything to make a living.

Go out and seine the Chesapeake, or the Delaware and you’ll see that game fish are now much smaller than in the past.  What we’ve done is we’ve harvested the menhaden (aka, “bunker”) to serve as petfood.  Now they’ve got less and less to eat.

This continues even further- we are now harvesting horseshoe crabs for bait, in order to catch conch, and eels.  Crabs that were once for all practical purposes commercially worthless (except for medical purposes, we use extracts of their blood for testing human blood) are now worth about $2.  A guy with a pickup truck can roam the beaches of Delaware and pick up an easy $2,000 for a day’s work.  The numbers of crab eggs available for migrating birds to eat has dropped precipitously, to the point where migrating red knot populations are roughly a fifth of what they were 30 years ago.  And the birds are coming out of the region lighter than before, making further migration to the arctic difficult, and breeding virtually impossible.  (You knew I’d have to get birds in here somehow…)

The main point is, technology allows us to harvest and extract more and more efficiently than ever before, and that permits us to wipe out entire populations with little problem, in a generation or less.  We need advanced technology to improve food production and food gathering, but when that technology depends upon species that have limited and finite numbers we have the potential to cause ripple effects throughout the food chain.  I haven’t even discussed aquaculture, where they pen a few million tilapia or salmon and feed them ground up fish so they can be harvested more easily.  It takes about 6 pounds of harvested fish to grow one pound of tilapia!  They’ve improved the harvest, but not the efficiency of the ecosystem!  (And they frequently introduce diseases back into the wild populations which cause even more problems…)

Sustainability requires rethinking how much of a specific natural resource we can harvest before we exhaust that population, either for our future needs or for wildlife.  Human population can not continue to grow indefinitely unless we decide to live lives that have less and less impact on the environment.  Put simply, we can’t use technology to reduce our footprint, unless we change the economic structures that reward endless growth.  We need to add ways to replenish existing environmental infrastructures, or else sustainability is impossible.  And all of our technology will be useless to help us improve the quality of life, as opposed to the quantity of humans.

We need to use technology to improve the environment first, or else there is no sustainability.  And as history has shown, repairing the commons is never a major priority because there are always bigger mouths to feed.

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Tags: Energy · environmental