How technology can reduce our impact on the Earth

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How technology can reduce our impact on the Earth

How technology can reduce our impact on the Earth

18 Luglio 2007

“Le nuove tecnologie non devono essere
perfette ma devono essere in grado di migliorare quelle attuali…
That is why we support
prudent use of agricultural biotechnology — another imperfect technology, but
vastly superior to conventional technologies”.

Sir— William E. Rees, in his Concepts
essay “A blot on the land” (Nature 421, 898; 2003), uses the
ecological-footprint concept to argue that the ‘carrying capacity’ of the Earth
has been exceeded because of technological and economic growth, and to counter
some some economists’ claims that the carrying capacity can increase indefinitely.
The critical point, unrecognized by either side, is not whether the carrying
capacity can increase indefinitely but whether it can increase rapidly enough
to accommodate the environmental and economic expectations of a world that
grows wealthier as its population growth rate slows dramatically.
Paradoxically, both technology and economic development provide the means to
solve the very problems they create. Without technological development in the
first instance, the human population would be smaller, because higher birth
rates would have been offset by higher mortality rates. Dispensing with present
technology now would undoubtedly be catastrophic in human terms — people would
be hungrier, unhealthier and shorter-lived , without the world necessarily
becoming ecologically more stable. Similarly, foregoing economic development,
which helps to generate wealth, would also be calamitous (see I. M. Goklany, Case
Western Law Review
; in the press). Only wealthy countries can afford the
scientific infrastructure to research, develop and put into use clean
technologies that increase the Earth’s carrying capacity. For all of these
reasons, the richest countries, not surprisingly, are also the most
technologically advanced. They have the highest crop yields per hectare, which
is inversely related to the demand for land, a primary element in the
ecological footprint. Inefficient agriculture creates pressures for new
agricultural land at the expense of virgin forest or marginal lands in countries
with growing populations. If agricultural-technology development had been
frozen in 1961, we estimate, using data from the Food and Agriculture
Organisation (see FAOSTAT 2003: apps.fao.org), that cropland would have had to
increase from its present 11% to some 25% of the planetary surface to produce
the same amount of food now. Accepting Rees’s estimate that we currently exceed
the Earth’s carrying capacity by one-fifth, without technological development
we would now exceed it by one-third. Virtually no natural forest would now
remain and the rest of nature would be even more embattled. Yes, we recognize
that current agricultural technology, with its reliance on pesticides and
fertilizers, created many new problems even as it solved old ones, but that is
exactly why we favour technological change. New technologies need not be
perfect, but they should improve on current versions. That is why we support
prudent use of agricultural biotechnology — another imperfect technology, but
vastly superior to conventional technologies. The trick is not to sacrifice the
present for the future, or vice versa. Without technological change and
economic development, there can be no solution to the predicament of meeting
human needs while containing human impact on the planet. Although neither
technological change nor economic development is a panacea, they make a
solution more likely.

How technology can reduce our impact
on the Earth

Prudent use of innovations could avoid
sacrificing the present for the future, or vice versa.

NATURE | VOL 423 | 8 MAY 2003 – p. 115|
%0Awww.nature.com/nature

Indur M. Goklany*, Anthony J. Trewavas†

*US
Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW,

Washington, DC
20240, USA (The views expressed

here are not necessarily those of any branch of the

US Government)

†Institute
of Cell and
Molecular Biology,

King’s Buildings, University of Edinburgh,

Edinburgh EH9
3JH, Scotland