Will technology save us?

The ofttimes contrarian environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel was interviewed a few weeks ago for New Scientist. Here I’ve reworked the title of that piece into question form, as Ausubel’s responses to Alison George leave a few doubts in my mind.

Ausubel is described by others as a “techno-optimist”, in that he has “faith” in the power of technology to save the human species from its environmental follies. Ausubel stresses that he is neither optimist nor pessimist, but instead sees humanity as ingenious and enterprising. There is no doubting that, and the examples presented are convincing.

There is a tendency among many to see the worst in situations, and there is much historical precedent for this. That our species survives says something about the doomsayers’ fallacy, but does it imply that our ingenuity will always save us? Should we have faith in ourselves?

To back up his belief in human capabilities, Ausubel cites bacteria that collectively sense their environmental limits, and employ quorum sensing to coordinate gene expression according to local population density. Extrapolating from this, one could, says Ausubel, interpret treatises such as Garrett Hardin’s seminal “The tragedy of the commons” as social equivalents of quorum sensing factors, to which we respond through resource sparing exercises, including improving crop yields and raising energy generation efficiencies.

Ausubel is right to point out that no convincing answer exists to the question of how many people our planet can support, and he believes that 20 billion is sustainable. Overpopulation is axiomatic to many environmentalists, but does this mean that all their arguments about population density and quality of life are wrong?

In any case, I see little value in plucking figures out of the air in order to make a rhetorical point. Going by current population trends, it’s unlikely that the world’s population will reach such a level. By the end of the 21st century, I suspect that arguments about overpopulation will be seen as no more than a historical curiosity.

Ausubel makes some good points, but I take objection to statements such as…

“Technology has liberated humans from the environment.”

Technology has improved the human condition, and occasionally we better nature. Future humans may upload their consciousness to self-replicating machines that roam the cosmos, but for now at least we remain biological creatures intimately entwined with the natural environment.