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Technology cannot save us from ourselves

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By Rob Cobbold

· 3 min read

According to thinktank RethinkX in the coming decade, five key sector disruptions will converge to unleash “the fastest, deepest, most consequential transformation of human civilization in history.” The five sectors are: information, food, energy, transportation and materials. The authors predict that the costs of these five sectors will fall 10x, using 90% less natural resources with between 10x-100x less waste.

We will shift from a model of extraction to a model of creation. In the food sector for example, rather than killing animals and plants and breaking them down into food, precision fermentation technologies will allow us to build our foods from molecules and cells up. Environmental journalist George Monbiot visited one of these labs in Helsinki and ate a pancake grown from bacteria taken from the soil. “It tasted,” he writes, “just like a pancake.”

With small tweaks these bacteria can be made to produce the protein needed for lab-grown meat, milk, and eggs, that are not only tastier but healthier. Think of the vast tracts of land that could be freed up for rewilding, the countless billions of tortured farm animals who will be spared, the rainforests that could remain rainforests because we no longer need to extract palm oil.

In the energy sector the cost of batteries and solar panels will plummet and the rare earth minerals needed to produce them will eventually be built from the molecular structure upwards, rather than mined. Cheap green electricity will be produced, stored, and provided locally.

In the transportation sector, widely available electric driverless Uber-style taxis will cut costs by a factor of ten. At that price few people will need or want to own a car. Can you smell the clean air? Can you see the endless miles of car parking spaces turned into green parks?

The beauty of these disruptions is that they make sustainable choices not only easier, but cheaper too. The whole of the climate and biodiversity crisis can be boiled down to misaligned incentives. Currently we have to swim upstream to live in harmony with our planet - flights are often cheaper than trains, plant-based burgers are sometimes more expensive than real meat and timber is worth more than intact rainforest. 

In other words, there is a huge gap between what money values and what we value. We all value pristine rainforests, clean beaches etc. but markets don’t value these things as much as we do. In essence, carbon markets are really just an attempt to bring these two things together so that markets value intact rainforests as much as they value timber.

But be aware: new technologies such as blockchain or those mentioned above or even social technologies like carbon markets can be used to shift the landscape of incentives and to close the value gap, but not if we simply plug in the same worldviews and mindsets which created the problem in the first place.

We made the same mistake with the internet, and with social media in particular. Yes, the internet and social media have the potential to bring humanity closer together. But because of the profit incentive combined with social algorithms which focus on a single metric - ad revenue - it’s actually been driving people apart. 

The same goes with carbon markets - currently they are being run by and for large corporates with the same extractive mindset which got us into the problem in the first place. And so carbon markets are rife with corruption, profiteering, centralised gatekeepers and middlemen who create barriers to entry which exclude small communities and indigenous carbon stewards etc.

Technology may yet save us, but it cannot save us from ourselves.

This article is also published by Beachtoken. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Rob Cobbold is the CEO of Native, helping companies invest in nature one Square at a time. Rob is an entrepreneur, public speaker and philosopher who has delivered transformative educational experiences to over 30,000 people worldwide.

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