Technological solutions are always preferable to societal change

If your solution to a problem requires someone else to change their behavior, then your problem isn’t really solved.

There are many large scale problems facing humanity which appear to require the combined effort of many individuals, and even co-operation between governments. I would like to argue that, where possible, a technological solution is preferable over a social one because making people change their behavior is almost impossible.

Let us start with an example of a successful technological solution. When it was realized that CFCs in our aerosols and refrigerators were interacting with and depleting the protective ozone layer in our atmosphere, research began into finding a less destructive alternative to CFCs. Suggesting that everyone might stop using refrigeration or aerosols was unlikely to work — these were popular devices that everyone used and it was unlikely that enough people would give them up to make any difference. Fortunately HCFCs were found to function sufficiently well to replace CFCs in most applications, and legislation was put in place globally to require the replacement of all CFCs with HCFCs. The problem was solved by a technological fix where a social change would have been practically impossible.

Human caused climate change is due to an increase of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, created by human activity; mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and methane from livestock farming. Interestingly, many of the proposed solutions to climate change involve societal change — we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if for example, we all became vegetarian, stopped driving cars and used less electricity generated from fossil fuels. However, we are unable to do this, because humans do not change their behavior until they are directly suffering. The threat of future suffering for ourselves, or our descendants is not compelling enough for us to stop driving cars. Assuming we find no technological solution and are entirely reliant upon society changing to solve climate change, it is likely we will keep creating greenhouse gasses at an increasing rate until mass famines and floods cause people to suffer sufficiently to change their behavior.

Interestingly a technological solution to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions does already exist, and has been available since the 1950s, in the form of nuclear power. Nuclear power could replace all our coal, gas and oil burning power plants, reducing our electricity-generation carbon dioxide emissions to zero, however there is great resistance to nuclear power due to its perceived risks. These risks have been greatly inflated, often by environmental groups such as Greenpeace who protest outside nuclear power plants. And yet the damage caused by nuclear power is infinitesimal compared to the damage caused by fossil fuels. Certainly there have been nuclear power accidents, with deaths and local environmental damage — but fossil fuels are on the brink of triggering a global catastrophe that will render the majority of species on our planet extinct and make huge areas uninhabitable and more importantly, hostile to food-production. Any reasonable risk assessment would conclude that switching to nuclear power immediately is the correct choice, however humans to not make reasonable risk assessments — they operate on emotions and the emotional impact of the fear-mongering surrounding nuclear power is too big to overcome at this stage. While solar and wind power now offer a viable alternative to fossil-fuels, their arrival is too late. The damage is already done and they cannot reverse the changes we are bringing about.

It is ironic that the environmentalists most concerned with the protection of the earth have brought about its destruction by spreading fear of technology.

We can see the exact same behavior with regard to palm oil and the impending extinction of the Orangutan. Palm oil is used in many foods, but also in shampoos and detergents. Oil palms are grown in tropical countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, on land that used to be native forest and home to many species, including Orangutans. We all know this, but we all continue to buy snack foods, shampoos and detergents. We will not change our behavior because the extinction of the Orangutans doesn’t cause us any direct suffering. So is there a technological solution to this problem? Could we replace palm oil with another substance so that we can continue to use the products we crave without destroying forests? Ecover, a detergent manufacturer, developed an alternative to palm oil to use in their laundry liquid. The oil was derived from algae that had been genetically modified to create an oil comparable to palm oil. However, due to the fear of genetic modification spread by environmental groups like Greenpeace, many people refuse to use genetically modified products. An open letter was written to Ecover, signed by many environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth urging them to reconsider their use of a palm oil substitute derived from genetically modified algae. Once again, an irrational fear of technology — brought about by those most concerned with saving the planet, is leading to its destruction.

We need to address this fear of technology if we are to solve the biggest problems facing us, and accept the fact that we are not going to solve these problems by changing people’s behavior.