Time to choose what
our future will be like
A human relay of digital data or a human being in harmony with nature?
By Jean-Luc Burlone
Previously published on March 7, 2020
Two major paths are facing us. One is optimistic, forecasting continued growth and a golden age enabled by technology. The other anticipates nothing less than the collapse of our civilization. The arguments are strong on both accounts and, as both are immediate and mutually exclusive, we must choose which one will allow us to protect our families and ensure their wellbeing.
Let us start with the benefits of technology and its cost. We will then look at the damage it has done to our planet and finally, the power to choose and the possibility to succeed.
The benefits of technology
Since the invention of the steam engine in 1769, technical progress has constantly improved human development indexes¹, in particular the GDP per capita, levels of education, the health of women and children, life expectancy and the reduction of poverty. Technology has reduced costs, increased opportunities and created abundance. Clearly, humans have a better life than ever before.
In the same space and time, three times more food is produced today than in 1950². We are now extracting additional resources where this was geologically non-practical or financially too expensive. Engines use less energy to do the same work (but beware of the rebound). The proposition that technology pushes the limits of growth has been demonstrated.
Technology brought a lot of relief to the field of communications. In emerging countries, for example, many people take advantage of the smart phone’s applications to send news and money to their families living in a distant village. As a result, they avoid days of walking back and forth.
… technical progress has constantly improved human development indexes, in particular the GDP per capita, levels of education, the health of women and children, life expectancy and the reduction of poverty.
Artificial intelligence (AI) propels the reliability of some health services to an unprecedented level. By incorporating millions of radiographs, an algorithm can provide a reliable diagnosis 99% of the time. Less aggressive than traditional surgery, surgical endoscopy avoids incisions and consequent complications.
The sequencing of an individual’s DNA maps their genome, i.e., all their genes. With this genetic information, a deadly cancer becomes a genetic mutation, which is sequenced as well to be corrected with a custom made medication. Medical efforts are now targeting the root of the disease rather than its physical manifestation.
The current prophets of the inherent happiness of a beautiful and long life are found mainly among the barons of technology. Some speak of prolonging life well beyond 150 years. The man of tomorrow will not only be healed, he will be improved. He will not only be a human cyborg but a downright divine man. For Google: immortality is near. For SpaceX: Mars is close at hand.
For us, it is time to stop adapting the facts to our wishes and to submit our ideas to the facts. Should we act to preserve the integrity of the environment or should we trust technology for the task?
The hidden side of technology
It is a bit scary that after three hundred clicks the network algorithm knows us better than anyone. Thus, AI would produce algorithms that know us so completely that they could influence us, even control us. As this is the case, our freedom and our grip on our society, our economy and our politics are illusory.
‘A healthy environment is increasingly confronted with our virtual activities’ requirements. To function properly, the Internet of Things requires 5G, which uses four to five times more energy than 4G.’
Henceforth, we become an element of a system that operates according to programs written by an entity somewhere. We could be discriminated against not for our race, our age or our religion, but for being what an entity decides that we are. Health care could then be granted to us or refused according to criteria foreign to our situation.
Concerning health, Master Nan (Nan Huai-Chin, March 18, 1918 – September 29, 2012), the thinker of the current Chinese elite, predicted in 2002 that mental problems would be the main evil of the 21st century. Individuals will find it difficult to cope with systems whose processes elude them and their brains will not be able to adapt to the speed of change, neither to the bombardment of information nor to the waves which accompany it³.
The speed and impact of technological advances are such that the relevance of our experience is reduced, though it is not null. The future of our children is cloudy. Most of the jobs that will be available in twenty-five years do not yet exist; our educational programs have had their day, except for the learning of languages (including technical language), mathematics, philosophy and ethnic groups4.
A healthy environment is increasingly confronted with our virtual activities’ requirements. To function properly, the Internet of Things requires 5G, which uses four to five times more energy than 4G5. Digital technology already emits a billion tonnes of GHG per year. With the 5G, it will emit four to five billion tonnes or eight times more than the six hundred million tonnes emitted by all civil aviation in one year6.
To obtain the components necessary for their operation, electronic devices consume colossal quantities of raw materials, which are largely extracted from open mines in emerging countries. These components are found in very small quantities in the extracted resources; they must, therefore, be separated, purified and washed with chemicals before being used7.
Down the line, they cannot be recycled economically because they are used in a very small size.
‘Individuals will find it difficult to cope with systems whose processes elude them and their brains will not be able to adapt to the speed of change, neither to the bombardment of information nor to the waves which accompany it.’
Digital devices contribute to the vicious circle where: the extraction of resources requires more and more energy; energy is less and less accessible and its production requires more and more resources; resources are less and less concentrated and their extraction requires more and more energy, and so on.
Clearly, technology does not seem to be the long-awaited panacea but rather an important cause of environmental degradation.
A damaged planet
When children are introduced to the animal kingdom, they are shown an elephant or a rhino, a giraffe and a lion. Wrongly though as wild animals now represent only 4% of all animals on earth. A fair representation would be to show dogs, cats, cows, sheep, pigs, goats, poultry and horses.
But there is worse than the disappearance of wild animals, whether on land, in the air or waters. A recent study8 indicates that in 10 years the disappearance of arthropod biomass will be of such magnitude that it predicts a major and perhaps inevitable biological collapse.
The biomass is the total quantity of living organisms in a given place at a given time. It is renewed if it is not overused. Biomass provides us with our food and much of our resources. Arthropods count more than 1.5 million species including more than ten billion billion (1019) insects. They have been the first link in the sequence of life on earth for the past four hundred and fifty million years.
Nineteen researchers from several universities examined the biomass of 150 prairies and 140 forests in three regions of Germany. They studied the biomass that is essential to the life of a million arthropods and two thousand seven hundred species from 2008 to 2017. The results of the study are staggering: the biomass of arthropods fell by 67% in the prairies and 41% in forests.
‘A recent study indicates that in 10 years the disappearance of arthropod biomass will be of such magnitude that it predicts a major and perhaps inevitable biological collapse.’
These critters are essential to life! They maintain the balance of ecosystems; they aerate the soil and promote the recycling of nutrients. They feed birds, fish and mammals and they pollinate many plants. With such disturbing figures, the more representative the German sample is of other countries, the higher the risk of collapse as it would affect the very foundations of life on earth9.
We must recognize that the externalities of our economies on the climate and the biomass are out of control. And yet we maintain the vicious circle: the extraction of raw materials requires more and more energy; energy is less and less accessible and its production requires more and more raw materials; the metals are less and less concentrated and their extraction requires more and more energy and so on.
The power to choose
Whatever figures we take, we inevitably come to two related observations: digital technology wears down our resources and emits billions of tons of GHG. And we are slowly integrating our traditional way of life to fit into a network system.
Let’s be frank, our use of technology has become absurd. When walking, running, driving, talking, eating and sometimes even sleeping, we stay connected. Meanwhile, those who experience living without using their social networks appreciate recovering free time, a possession just as precious as health.
In reality, it is not our needs that feed the consumption of the Internet of Things; no one has ever asked to control their house or their car miles away. The merchants sell us the practical side of this possibility and thus create the need. But should we accept it?
Wisdom requires prudence in our choices because the price to pay is the loss of an environment that has maintained life as we know it. The apocalyptic data that reveal the damage done to the biomass and the climate are proven facts. They are not projections.
‘… digital technology wears down our resources and emits billions of tons of GHG. And we are slowly integrating our traditional way of life to fit into a network system.’
Certainly, the Internet and digital technology are one of the greatest inventions ever and we should enjoy the benefits they bring us. But there is a cost to everything and although technology can bring us more services we should consider the price tag before we take it.
To influence, even to tilt the situation, we can pressure governments to legislate in favour of the environment. French law stipulates that, by January 2021, Internet providers “will have to post information on the amount of data consumed, as well as the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions”10.
We can also reject the herd effect and wisely remember that it is not because we can have it that we should have it. It is the multitude that gives despot power to Internet networks. The future of humanity would be very desperate if we fall asleep with the illusion of virtual wellbeing to wake up miserable in our daily lives.
The possibility of success
Long-term sustainable growth can be ensured if each resource is used up to its optimal level, i.e., the level beyond which the resource would become non-renewable. And, if we produce waste under its optimal quantity i.e., the quantity beyond which we would not be able to recycle it11.
Some examples show that we can restore a positive relationship between a local way of life and the biodiversity that surrounds it. On Apo Island in the Philippines, in Rajasthan in India and New York, positive tipping points have been identified by taking into account the whole socio-economic system. Acting on those points triggers a virtuous circle that restores the damaged environment12.
‘Long-term sustainable growth can be ensured if each resource is used up to its optimal level, i.e., the level beyond which the resource would become non-renewable.’
On a larger scale, the overriding objective is to avoid, where it is possible, crossing negative tipping points beyond which the environment could neither recover its health nor its stability.
For now, it is urgent to curb our use of data. We will transfer data for more than 75 billion connected things by 202513 (more than ten objects per inhabitant!), plus the data from new Internet users and more from the 4,536 billion people already connected14.
As for GHGs, the pressure placed on emitters by investment funds, pension funds and insurance companies, has a positive impact. Oil projects have more difficulties than ever to secure funding. Hope is born when money joins hands with virtue. That said, climate change is already here to stay and from now on we can only manage it.
Of course, our way of life will be affected. Constraining production reduces consumption and calls into question our economic dogmas such as GDP growth and financial performance. That said, these dogmas are only contractual and could, therefore, be changed at will. They are not universal laws like the laws of physics.
Whether the collapse is for tomorrow or the day after, the writing on the wall says it is coming soon if we do not act now. A finite planet cannot provide infinite resources. We know what is at stake so let us choose our future, act on it and accept the consequences of whatever decision we make.
- Human Development Report (UNDP)
- Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals, The Guardian, 28 May 2018
- The Seventh Sense, Joshua Cooper Ramo, Hachette Book Group, May 2016
- The Industries of the Future, Alec Ross, Simon & Schuster, 2016
- Conference – La croissance est-elle infinie ou insoutenable ?, Philippe Bihouix, 10 décembre 2019
- Le bonheur était pour demain, rêverie d’un ingénieur solitaire, Philippe Bihouix, 2019
- Quels sont les impacts de l’exploitation des ressources naturelles pour la fabrication d’appareils électroniques?, L’Hebdo Journal
- Arthropod Decline in Grassland and Forest Is Associated with Landscape Level Drivers. Nature 574, October 31, 2019, Seibold, S., Gossner, M.M., Simons, N.K. et al. 2019
- Conference – Risques d’effondrement : que faire ?, Arthur Keller, novembre 2019
- Loi gaspillage et économie circulaire : les mesures clés et les étapes à venir, Les numériques, 12/02/2020
- Development Economics, Debraj Ray, Princeton Press 1998
- Points de bascule environnementaux : les stratégies écologistes vues sous un nouvel angle, État de la Planète magazine n°24, novembre 2005
- Internet of Things (IoT) Connected Devices Installed Base Worldwide from 2015 to 2025 (in Billions), Statista
- Internet World Stats
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of WestmountMag.ca or its publishers.