Natural Capital

Can technology replace what nature provides?

Posted May 19, 2013

Recently I was asked to discuss the limits of technology in compensating for declining natural resources. This prompted me to think about some of the more abstract benefits provided by natural ecosystems – benefits that are unlikely to be replicated by technology. I refer to these as the scary, the invisible, and the unexpected.

Scary benefits are those things that we neither want nor enjoy: things that are not scaled to human preferences. Major storms; extremes of cold or heat; immense glaciers or mountains or deserts that are inhospitable to human needs; fierce predators: these remind us that humans are not the center of the universe. Technology does its best to minimize them, providing a/c and central heating and making a sanitized version of nature that is more accessible. We still have problems, but they are largely human-caused. Do we want a world in which people feel less humility?

Invisible benefits are those that contribute to our social capital. Nature has ways of bringing us together, strengthening our social bonds, contributing to shared moral standards, and developing personal and social identities. We know that nature is relevant here, but it’s hard to say just how strong or how necessary the link is. Even if societies become less connected as nature is degraded, it will be hard to definitively link the two. We’ll just have a vague sense, maybe, that something has been lost.

Finally, unexpected are those benefits we were not looking for: the ways in which nature, because it is not designed by humans, inspires new ways of thinking or new solutions to problems. We are still learning design elements from nature and solutions to technical problems from plants and insects. People who don’t get the chance to experience intact ecosystems have less chance to make discoveries like those of George de Mestral (inventor of Velcro).

Even if you’re optimistic about technology, there are things that technological innovations can’t provide. More reasons – if you needed them – to protect our natural resources.