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Technological advancement precludes the creation of a sustainable world

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APRIL 23, 2018

Our culture, especially in the Silicon Valley, embraces innovation: we focus on finding the next big breakthrough, looking for the coolest new technology to add to our inventory and thinking about what kinds of gadgets the future entails for us. We look at our iPhone 7s and want the iPhone X with its improved camera and facial recognition; we use an outdated laptop from 2012 and save up to buy a new laptop with stunning graphics and extra RAM; and we try on VR headsets and imagine a future game where players can explore and actually physically interact with a wacky, new world.

There’s no doubt that technology is constantly improving: Our devices run faster, our AI’s are smarter than ever and our buildings are increasingly automated. And as we become more obsessed with technological progress, the industry responds — jobs open in these fields, and there is increased demand for technically skilled workers, which in turn leads to a larger pool of students majoring in STEM.

For many students at UC Berkeley, especially for those who grew up in the Bay Area, this is a familiar phenomenon. In sheltered neighborhoods like mine, parents are often engineers or doctors, math club begins as early as elementary school and programming is an extremely common skill. Children are pushed to pursue careers in STEM — most commonly computer science — and are sometimes convinced that majoring in anything else will leave them poor in the future. As a result, it’s not uncommon for them to grow up more interested in the benefits and salaries of their potential careers than their actual work. For many of us, technology is not a privilege or a choice, but a way of life.

But with our ever-increasing dependence on technology, there are consequences.

Technology requires electricity to run — and even more electricity and energy to mass-produce — and at least as much energy to ship all around the world. Combine these factors with the fact that fossil fuels, which emit high amounts of greenhouse gases, are the leading source of energy consumption, and we can conclude that technology negatively impacts the environment — but to many of us, this isn’t new information.

Technology requires electricity to run — and even more electricity and energy to mass-produce — and at least as much energy to ship all around the world.

Despite some resistance against the concept of climate change, most people acknowledge its existence. It’s big and real and dangerous, and we know it, but we store it in the very backs of our minds and turn a blind eye. It seems so abstract and faraway from us, so we focus on what we view as personal and tangible: our careers, our grades, our social lives, our material wants. And instead of cutting down on our emissions, we only increase them. Instead of trying to limit our usage of technology, we keep pushing to modernize, to develop, to innovate. We want more, more, more, when, really, we should be having less, less, less.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), our best-case scenario moving forward is a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature in the second half of this century. Go beyond 3.6 degrees and we risk triggering a series of positive mechanisms that will spiral our situation further out of control.

Take the ocean. When temperatures warm, more water is evaporated, which releases water vapor. Water vapor is actually a greenhouse gas, so this only intensifies the greenhouse effect and increases warming, resulting in a positive feedback loop.

There are a lot of these mechanisms in nature, each with their own “threshold” for temperature. Below this, disturbances generate only small reactions, but beyond that, the consequences are enormous.

The issue is that maintaining only a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit increase means reducing our emissions to one-third of the levels they were at the beginning of the century.

However, this prospect threatens our current model of constant growth and progress: Instead of innovating gadgets to make our lives more convenient, we should, in essence, be taking steps backwards and cutting technology out of our lives. In other words, instead of evolving, we must devolve to survive.

But the United States has been a global leader in technological advancement; other nations view us as a model for progress and technological advancement. Reducing emissions would not only require that wealthy countries drastically change the way they use energy, but also that third-world countries stay third-world countries — another few billion people changing their lifestyles to match the wasteful way we live will only make the situation worse.

And as underdeveloped countries experience the most dramatic effects of climate change — much like the storm surges that have already devastated Bangladesh — socioeconomic disparity will only intensify.

Beyond political implications, it is inevitable that sometime in the future, fossil fuel consumption must be cut. 80 percent of the global economy is dependent on fossil fuels, yet it is estimated that 95 percent of the world’s oil has already been discovered. What will happen when fossil fuels run out? In our current state, our dependence on technology is only increasing, but we don’t have any good alternatives that could supply said technology with the power it needs.

Many falsely equate increasing technological development with taking strides toward reducing our environmental impact; however, it isn’t that simple — the manufacturing of these new technologies produces harmful emissions too. For example, while solar panels provide a much cleaner source of energy, they come with their own limited lifespans and become waste afterwards: in fact, it’s possible that by 2050, China will have to deal with 20 million metric tons of solar panel waste.

But despite all of the evidence that technology is not working in our planet’s favor, we don’t often consider these implications: we remember climate change when news or Facebook videos conveniently pop up, and manage to forget minutes later. But climate change is real and happening: it’s our present and our future.

Many falsely equate increasing technological development with taking strides toward reducing our environmental impact; however, it isn’t that simple — the manufacturing of these new technologies produces harmful emissions too.

Before, when I thought of 2050, I dreamt of a futuristic city, full of floating cars and urban jungle; I thought of games evolved to the point that they’re fully Virtual Reality, robots that perform most menial labor and a more responsive crime prevention system.

Now, I’m not so sure.

After reading books for my class on the future consequences of climate change, it became clear to me that this image of the future won’t be a reality: I now foresee even more stratified socioeconomic disparity, volatile storms and the submergence of my hometown along with many coastal cities globally. There will be climate refugees, forced to flee from flooded ancestral lands, fewer resources to support a greater number of people and a loss of biodiversity as we know it, as species either go extinct or adapt. Perhaps the futuristic city will exist, but it will only be available to a small group of people.

We have the choice now: to begin to face reality and the results of the choices we’ve made, or to continue to live in fantasyland, where our modern style of living and nature can coexist. The former decision will be harsh at first, but easier later on, and the latter carefree now and catastrophic later.

I myself am unsure what to do moving forward: I have my own career to pursue, my own goals to achieve, my own life to live. Computer science is hands-down the coolest and most interesting field I’ve ever studied, and the exhilaration I feel after fixing a time-consuming bug is something I don’t want to stop experiencing. But even if I were to make the dramatic decision to alter my current lifestyle — my career goals and passions — to decrease my reliance on technology, it would make little difference. Too many people, like myself, are unwilling to take this step backwards and lose the conveniences that these machines and technologies provide.

But now I have to finish some coding for my mobile app and figure out how to get my Python interface running — so maybe I’ll think about this all later.

Contact Candace Chiang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @candace_chiang.

APRIL 23, 2018