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Our Techno-Environmental Future

February 1, 2012

Technology Drives a New Relationship between Humans and the Environment

By Matt Artz

While backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains last summer, I got to thinking about our relationship with technology. When John Muir explored these mountains nearly 150 years ago, he would set out on long treks carrying “only a tin cup, a handful of tea, a loaf of bread, and a copy of Emerson.” [1] Yet there I was—ironically, deep in what is now known as the John Muir Wilderness—weighted down with a 40 pound backpack full of the latest examples of technological innovation: digital still and video cameras, GPS unit, LED headlamp, high-efficiency gas stove, water purification system, waterproof clothing, modern computer-generated maps, freeze-dried food, etc. What would Muir think?

But the changes wrought by modern man were apparent well beyond the contents of my backpack. Even in the wilderness, the imprints of technology appeared everywhere around me. Airplane contrails crisscrossed the skies during the day, and numerous satellites blazed their trails across the same sky at night. Bridges and other trail improvements had been carefully engineered to make backcountry travel both safe and speedy. And although not nearly as obvious, even the very fabric of the landscape itself had been unmistakably altered by man’s application of technology. Everywhere, this seemingly pristine outdoor wonderland was covered by the heavy fingerprints of man, disguised by a thin veneer of wildness.

The new natural: advances in technology have left unmistakable marks on natural systems.

The new natural: advances in technology have left unmistakable marks on natural systems.

Like it or not, our reliance on and use of technology has moved us towards a new relationship with the environment.  In countless ways both seen and unseen, the ecosystems Muir so adored have become strange hybrids—part natural, part man-made, struggling for balance all while under the watchful eye of human management.

As we move forward in this more mutually beneficial relationship, the dynamic evolves—from one of using technology to merely exploit our surroundings, towards the thoughtful application of technology to actively sustain and design our surroundings.  This relationship with the environment features a much tighter integration between humans and technology, where all decisions are carefully designed to maximize the benefit— and minimize the harm—to both humans and natural systems.

An Informed Environment

When man began to understand the devastating effects of mass exploitation on natural earth systems, he reacted with conservation.  This era began with the preservation of significant, unique examples of ecosystems, perhaps best exemplified by national parks such as Yosemite.  This trend continued with preservation of dramatic and remnant pieces of ecosystems—the setting aside of the last remaining bits of wildness.

For all the successes of conservation, this technique is not without its problems.  Muir himself would probably be mortified if he were to visit Yosemite Valley on a modern summer weekend and see firsthand how humans and their technology are everywhere in his beloved High Sierra.

Despite all of this, technology isn’t universally bad for the environment.  As the human world becomes universally instrumented, we are amassing vast amounts of data.  We need the ability to manage this ever-increasing volume of data, so that we can discover, we can learn, and we use this valuable information to act in more responsible ways.  The key to solving this vast information problem is information technology—and specific to addressing ecosystem issues and managing the man-made (or at least man-altered) landscape is geospatial technology or geographic information systems (GIS).

It’s true that technology has made our world more complex.  But technology also serves the purpose of managing this complexity.  GIS technology now empowers a science-based approach to ecosystem management that was unfathomable in Muir’s time.  We use it to predict the likely locations of endangered animals, to model how plant communities might shift due to climate change, and even to design places where man and nature can coexist more peacefully.  Map making and geographic analysis are not new, but GIS technology helps perform these tasks better and faster than was possible using the old manual methods—an increase in efficiency and accuracy sorely needed to address our increasingly complex world.

The New Natural

In the twenty-first century, information technology is becoming our most valuable tool for managing complexity and designing a better world.  “Technology offers a continually, if unevenly, expanding domain of increasing human control and power in the world, and in the process technology continually transforms the natural and social worlds,” say Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz. “Technology embodies the modern ideal of applying rationality to the betterment of humankind.” [2]

We tend to think of “environment” and “technology” as two opposing, almost mutually exclusive ends of the spectrum.  But as technology becomes more pervasive in our world and more tightly integrated with our very existence, in fact the opposite is true.  If we do it correctly, this integration will allow humans to enter a more mutually beneficial relationship with the environment.  We are moving forward as a species, towards a time when technology will play an essential role in sustaining the habitat of all species—including humans—and actually help us to design that habitat.

As Marina Gorbis has said, technology amplifies our capabilities, “enabling us to do things we never dreamed of doing before.” [3] In order to meet the monumental challenges of the future, David Kirkpatrick states that “…we will only be successful if we unreservedly embrace technology and innovation as essential tools.”  Yet as Louis Gerstner notes, we need to approach this relationship carefully: “Computers are magnificent tools for the realization of our dreams, but no machine can replace the human spark of spirit, compassion, love, and understanding.”

From a simple spear to a smart phone, tools extend our abilities, but we need to be careful to not lose touch with what makes us human.  As technology becomes more tightly integrated into virtually everything we do, we need to understand that it’s not a blessing, nor is it a curse—it’s simply a tool of our own creation, a tool to help us move down the path towards our destiny.  Or, as Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz note, “…technology is neither the answer nor the question, it’s just the condition.” [3]

[1] Tallmadge, John (1997). Meeting the Tree of Life: A Teacher’s Path.

[2] Allenby, Braden, and Sarewitz, Daniel (2011). The Techno-Human Condition.

[3] Gorbis, Marina (2011). Human Plus Machine.

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