As the natural world collapses around us in an accelerating Armageddon – with a majority of large mammals and insects facing extinction, forests and ocean habitats becoming degraded faster than ever, and the harrowing warming of the planet with nightmare polar ice melts and extreme weather events, it is all too easy to become disheartened, get depressed and turn to fantasy for solace.
Some of the more hopeful among us dream of technological solutions that can save us from the horror of a world without Nature and usher in the sweeping social and political changes that can bring about a real green revolution. Some fantasize about finding a nearby earth-like planet to colonize (not going to happen as long as E = Mc^2), or about greening a nearby rock such as Mars or the moon for human colonization. Others imagine us living in post apocalyptic underground engineered forests after being forced to shun the radioactive earth surface, or suggest we (or at least the wealthy among us), could remove to lush garden space stations orbiting our polluted and toxic mother planet.
Sadly, most of the solutions found in eco-science fiction are physically or at least economically impossible, and are in any case so far from our actual technologies as to be unlikely solutions given the urgency of our current needs. However, because I truly believe hope dies last and it ain’t over until it’s over, today’s post looks at some real technological advances that are now being developed and could have real positive impacts on Earth’s ecology.
- Self flying drones – Forget the self driving car -that’s yesterday’s news. Startups touting flying cars and taxi drones are already appearing on the scene. It is only a matter of time before these two technologies combine and bring us driver-less flying Uber. This to me invokes images of a a parking lot free future! Imagine all that real estate, along with a majority of roads dedicated instead to connected parkland, habitat restoration, organic food production, and public green space. Hopefully the trade of of increased air traffic, sound pollution and impacts on birds will be offset by the regeneration of green spaces below. One can always dream.
- Solar highways – even with flying cars, some heavy merchandise will have to be transported on land. Roads and large hauling vehicles are not going away in a hurry. New highways could produce electricity from the sun as well as from the kinetic energy of all the rolling cars and trucks. Projects like this are under development, and it can only mean less green house gas emissions from electricity generation.
- Genetically engineered bacteria – The field of synthetic biology is as exciting as it is scary, and there is understandable resistance to the concept, as well as profound ethical questions. The potential for engineering organisms capable of say, digesting toxic and radioactive waste into inert or even fertile sludge, or quickly biodegrading the plastic in a landfill or ocean is very promising and deserves a closer look. Since this vast field is evolving at a faster rate than the microchip, we will very likely see many developments here. Lets just hope the bioengineers heed warnings and employ all cautionary principles so we actually end up with a cleaner, greener world.
- Genetically engineered “weeds” – Again, in the vast and expanding field of synthetic biology, there are people hard at work to create quickly propagating species capable of fixing nitrogen in degraded soil – an essential step in regenerating biomass. This new technology could greatly speed up the process of combating desertification and bringing devastated landscapes back from the brink. Again, lets just hope they get it right in terms of planning for these new organisms to die out of ecosystems rather than becoming a horror story of GMO invasive frankenplants!
- Green roofs – While this is a field that has been around for generations, the value and benefits of rooftop greenery and energy efficient buildings is finally being valued on a larger scale. While it does not really represent a radical scientific breakthrough, the improvements in quality of life and environment from transforming grey cities into a new type of forest will be huge. There are already indications of migratory bird populations making a comeback due to large scale green roof initiatives in urban centers.
- Lab meat – Again a topic of some controversy that will require thorough ethical scrutiny as well as research into human health impacts, but the prospect of eliminating or at the very least reducing the ecological pressures of cattle farming is hopeful indeed. While many argue that a better solution is a shift towards small, diversified farms for the production for sustainable and healthy meat, it seems doubtful that this shift could provide the growing meat market suitably or quickly enough to have a serious impact. Maybe eat lab meat most of the year and kill your own animals for special occasions?
While it is not likely that a single technological breakthrough will solve our ecological crisis – only a concerted and coordinated human effort can bring about a real paradigm shift – we are at a crossroads in our history where all technologies and opportunities must be explored. These up and coming breakthroughs have the power to positively transform our environment, and could be part of an exciting and greener future.