Human-Nature

Our relationship with the natural world.

Nature and Technology -- Can We Imagine the Future?

It's hard to imagine the future.

Very quickly we're destroying nature. And we're creating and moving into more and more of a technological world.


Is it the world we want?

Part of the difficulty in answering this question is that it's the world that we encounter every day. And it's the only world that many younger people have ever known. In earlier posts, I've written of this problem as the problem of environmental generational amnesia [click here and here].

To provide a sense of how fast things can change, imagine we were back in the early 1900's when a few Model T Fords were bumping along on dirt streets, which were otherwise used extensively by horses and people. A Mr. Techne joins us. We crack open a few bottles of soda pop, and talk about the future. Mr. Techne tells us that he thinks he knows what's going to happen within the next 100 years. We ask him to tell us. And he does. He first tells us that our dirt streets will be replaced with brick streets; and right there we find that a little hard to believe because it takes a lot of bricks to make a hundred yards of road. But he tells us we're not talking yards, we're talking miles, we're talking entire cities overlaid with a grid of brick roads. Then he explains that a new process will be invented that will produce a product called asphalt. It will be harder than bricks and completely smooth. He then tells us that in less than 100 years the entire United States will be crisscrossed with paved asphalt roads, going just about everywhere, and that the major cities would be jumbled with roads, and roads over roads, bridge-roads (called overpasses), and overpasses over overpasses, and that at first there would be a wonderful sense of freedom driving on land and over land at speed, but too soon there would be too many cars for even all of these roads, and that there would become something called traffic jams, where sometimes you couldn't drive faster than a man could walk, in cars that pollute the air so bad that some people wheeze. We might take a swig of our pop, and then tell Mr. Techne that that was a good story, but it isn't going to happen that way. We might say, for one thing paving roads costs an enormous amount of money. How in the world are people going to pay for that? And where are all these people coming from? Your numbers are wacko. And even if somehow all those millions of people magically appear, how can they all afford to buy a car? And, in any case, no one is stupid enough to sit for hours a day in this thing that you call a traffic jam. And finally millions of people would have to be more than stupid to make themselves sick on their air. We might say something like that, but we would have of course been wrong.

It is in the same way we might have been wrong imagining a future at the inception of other technologies, such as the printing press, television, telephone, computer, and Internet. It is in the same way we might have been wrong in not imagining it possible 11,000 years ago that hunter-gatherer life would so suddenly give way to domestic agriculture, or that it would take a mere 1,000 years for people to spread from the then uninhabited land of what is now the U.S.-Canadian border to the tip of Patagonia, or that more Native Americans would die from European germs than on the battlefields, or that China's direct economic losses due to desertification would sit currently at around $40 billion each year.

It is hard to imagine the future. But if we want to solve the problem of environmental generational amnesia, it would be good to do so.

 

 

Peter H. Kahn, Jr. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and the author of Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life.

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