Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Technology to save the day

I often hear the argument that technology is going to solve the problems of global warming, food shortages, peak oil, etc. While I am amazed at the rate at which mankind can come up with impressive solutions to problems, we have thus far not proven that we have actually 'solved' anything.

Let's use the problem of feeding the billions of people on the earth as an example. We have lots of people to feed, so we have come up with ways of increasing yield and minimizing the amount of labor needed at harvest. We have developed pesticides that prevent our crops from being destroyed by insects, we have developed herbicides so that our crops don't have to compete with weeds, we have developed fertilizers to make our foods grow faster and we have genetically modified foods to better deal with the pesticides and herbicides that we have developed as well as increasing yield. Now we have foods covered with petroleum products so that we can have more. Most of these products have not been tested on human health and those that have, well the outcome was generally not positive. Genetically modified foods have been tested on humans (at least partially) with little adverse outcomes (and honestly, I think the protein structures in the foods are not different enough to cause major problems). The problem with genetically modified foods is that they make for a field full of plants with identical DNA. What happens when a disease adapts to this new engineered plant and suddenly can kill the plant? Not only can it kill 'the plant', but now it can kill the entire field because all the plants are identical. We are removing the diversity from the system that protects the system.

And now we are looking for alternative sources of fuel (partly because we use a lot of 'fuel' to cover our plants so that they aren't eaten, weeds don't grow and the crop grows better). One of the leading ideas is plant based ethanol. Suddenly our means of making more of a crop is directly competing with our food supply. Oops, something went wrong with the planning in that process and now we find ourselves in a worse position than we were originally. Organic food production, if done correctly, can be cost effective and compare with the industrialized version of food production. But that is not where the money is.

Actually, I didn't write today to complain about the system. I found a great talk on TED.com (if you don't know about it, you should, go there). This is Janine Benyus (who I also read about the other day in Reader's Digest) and she has real solutions to problems. Do you know where she looked for solutions? Nature. Nature holds the answers to our problems. Not human made, more complex stuff, but the simplicity of nature. If we actually take the time to look around and learn from nature, we may find the answers to life's questions. The main point that she made is that we have to follow the example of nature by taking care of the place that will take care of their offspring. They have to do what they do by taking care of the place where they live. Thus far technological 'advances' have been working against nature, this lady provides workable solutions where we can work with nature. Watch and enjoy. It's long, but really good.

1 comment:

Emily A. W. said...

I love TED talks. They are awesome. They give me such feelings of peace and hope because its good to know that the geniuses out there are addressing things we wish people would.

I agree that technology will not save the day, but it will help somewhat. Seattle is trying hard to be an environmentally free city. Their is a new website that shows the most walkable parts of the city where you could live. I think other cities will take notice and start adopting the same practices as people get too poor to drive their cars.

I also don't think that the alternative fuels are going to work. Personally, I think we are going to have to find a solution that requires people to drive less and drive slower...