Technology will save the day! (Part 1)

There is a commonly-held belief, mainly by people like me who don’t know much about science, that technology has all the answers; we just need to find them. It’s a tempting thought, and nicely removes any responsibility from those of us who aren’t scientists. There was a time when I also thought technology will always come to the rescue, at least to some extent. Is there a basis for this wildly optimistic belief?

You may already have heard about the Biosphere 2 project, where scientists created a microcosm of the earth to help us understand how to live more sustainably. In 1987, at a cost of $200 million, they started building a huge sealed system of domes with artificial ecosystems, which was designed to be self-sustaining. There was a rainforest, an ocean complete with a coral reef, wetlands and even a savannah grassland. In 1991 eight scientists were sealed inside, and they were supposed to be in there for two years. However, amongst a number of other problems, most of the vertebrate species and all of the pollinating insects died, and the experiment was cut short. The second round of the experiment was cut short due to disputes amongst the management.

It’s tempting to think that the project would have been a success if the second round had not been cut short, but I think there’s a bigger lesson to learn. The take-home message here should be that nature is so complex that predicting and controlling what will happen in the environment is essentially impossible. A lot of research and experimentation preceded the Biosphere 2 project, but it wasn’t enough.

Surely we have learned by now that when we intervene in nature, unintended and often harmful consequences usually follow. There is so much we still don’t know about what goes on in a handful of soil, a patch of forest, the bottom of the ocean, and most other parts of the planet, that we can’t possibly be arrogant enough to think we can re-create or improve on nature?

“The belief that we can manage the earth and improve on nature is probably the ultimate expression of human conceit…” – René Dubos, 1901-1982

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