Leverage Point 7: Technology, Innovation, and Investment
Part of the Levers and Leverage Points blog series.
Image by Brookhaven National Laboratory, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
It seems easy to turn to technology as the sole answer to our problems. New applications of technologies such as geoengineering have taken the news by storm, claiming to reverse climate change without the need for the average person to change their habits. Sounds like a great deal, right?
Accompanying this explosion of technological advancements are the many negative social and environmental impacts of an over-reliance on technology. Every time we innovate to address one environmental problem (e.g., electric vehicles to combat climate change), we create new problems (e.g., pollution and habitat loss from mining and processing lithium for batteries). What is needed is not reactive technologies aimed at only a specific event or crisis, but reform of the existing structure of innovation and investment. It means investing in more proactive efforts that leave an overall positive impact on the world.
The current system of investment generally addresses one environmental ‘bad’ at a time—now especially climate change (see Leverage Point 6, Externalities and telecoupling). Take energy, for example. Many have called for a massive expanse of renewable energy technologies including solar and wind power, in order to meet our growing demand. But these technologies incur substantial environmental impacts also, in the form of the resources necessary for production, the fossil fuels needed in distribution and construction, and impacts on site to birds, bats, and other animals. No source of energy is without environmental impacts, but some are more benign than others, and all can be made more benign yet—with appropriate systems for innovation.
A hyper-focus on technology and innovation to ‘solve’ environmental issues is sometimes based on the belief that humans can ‘decouple’ their activities from their impacts (see Leverage Point 6). This might work for individual impacts (e.g., climate, as illustrated above re: electric vehicles), but decoupling technology from environmental impacts in general requires an adaptive approach that proactively identifies and mitigates a large number of impacts simultaneously, including habitat loss, resource shortages, and various forms of pollution.
Acknowledging the potential, but also the limits, of technology and innovation to combat environmental issues is necessary when enacting or reforming policies and practices. This entails reforming investment and innovation policy to encourage fixing existing appliances and electronics instead of always replacing them (coming soon - see The Right to Repair). Funding efforts to build a truly circular economy promotes responsible production and should reduce aggregate consumption and waste (see Leverage Point 2, Total Consumption). Sometimes new technologies are essential. But we should be wary of declaring past technologies obsolete in favour of new technologies, as this falsely suggests that new technologies won’t also have problems, while also contributing to the “throwaway culture” and overconsumption.
Governments, corporations, and individuals can also invest more consciously to direct the flow of capital and resources towards truly sustainable approaches. Funds can be directed towards investments that support nature or the benefits it provides, called ecosystem services (e.g., plants filtering out toxins from the air we breathe). These “nature-based solutions” are likely to have fewer negative impacts on the environment (though they notably won’t be entirely free of any negative impact). For example, these funds could take the form of restructuring subsidies and incentives or regulatory solutions for cities to create urban green spaces that promote stewardship and maintain biodiversity (see Lever 1, Why Reforming Incentives is Key for Sustainability).
As we think about technological change, we also need to address inequities and the accessibility of resources and technology disadvantaged communities (see Leverage Point 4, Equality, Equity, and the Environment). Policy shifts combined with redirected investments may help to provide increased access to affordable net-positive technology, beneficial to both society and the environment. This can enhance the worldwide distribution of such technologies and help to bolster innovation in more regions.
While ‘technology’ refers mostly to physical technologies such as cars, this can also refer to online or computer technologies due to the electricity consumed when in operation or storage. While virtual ‘clouds’ appear to be exclusively online, they actually require physical data centres and databanks where information is stored, which consume significant amounts of energy and can contribute to carbon emissions.
With technology, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of complacency. Technologies, innovations, and investments, though arguably vital and necessary for achieving sustainability, should serve only as a supplement to transformative change, and not a substitute or means by which high levels of production and consumption can continue to occur.
Moreover, we are not suggesting that states should not spend their own wealth addressing social and ecological issues within their borders. However, the unequal distribution of wealth between states reflects historical and current injustices, including resource expropriation through colonial exploitation (see Leverage Point 4). Therefore the responsibility to provide financial aid to transition worldwide systems often falls on the shoulders of wealthier nations.