Two Ways of Looking at How to Solve the Environmental Crisis

This blog was inspired by a book1

There are two main and largely opposing views on how to address the current environmental crisis, which prevail amongst scientists, governors, businessmen and stakeholders alike. On one hand, prophets believe that the only way to escape societal breakdown and ecological disaster is to reduce our per capita consumption, adopt more sustainable lifestyles, and decrease our individual ecological footprint. On the other hand, wizards have faith in science and engineering, and believe that technology will continue to rise to the challenges we face.

To address the increasing food demand, wizards call into play genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which can be – and are being – used to maximise the yield of farms, improve crops’ resistance to pests, and ultimately produce more food/calories per acre. For example, while most plants are limited in their ability to convert energy from the sun (i.e., photosynthesis) due to photorespiration, 3% of the plants on Earth have developed evolutionary adaptations (i.e., C4 photosynthesis) that make them way more efficient photosynthesisers. Successfully transferring these mechanisms into other crop species such as rice, through genetic engineering, could increase food productivity by 50%. This is what many research groups have been working on throughout the last few decades, hoping to crack the code in the foreseeable future to sustain the growing food demand. Contrary to popular belief, there is no scientific evidence that GMOs are bad for our health2.

On the other hand, prophets argue that regardless of the extent to which science will be able to progress and advance, unless we decrease our per capita consumption, natural habitats are doomed, as they will inevitably be lost to make room for increasing farms. As habitats disappear, biodiversity and wildlife are also lost. Prophets also appreciate the intrinsic value of nature, and suggest that if each one of us could be more sustainable in our lifestyles, we would be able to protect natural landscapes and populations from anthropogenic destruction and extinction whilst still being able to feed an increasing human population.

Front cover of the book that inspired this blog.

To concerns relating to water scarcity, wizards respond by proposing increased investments in desalination plants, which involve extracting salt from seawater to make it drinkable and more usable by people. They also propose building large dams, especially near cities where water demand is generally highest, to create water reserves using local rivers.

Prophets, however, disagree with these approaches, especially because of their environmental and ecological consequences. For instance, desalination plants could take a heavy toll on ocean biodiversity3. Similarly, the construction of dams can significantly affect fish diversity, and also cause deforestation, as it would require roads to be built to provide access to the dam sites4. People are also often displaced from their land to make space for dams5. What prophets suggest instead, is to promote a more sustainable use of water, with less wastage at the household level, and to increase the efficiency of the current systems.

Energy wise, wizards advocate for centralised fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources. They argue that modern energy infrastructures have been assembled over the course of the decades and cannot be dismantled overnight. Moreover, the world has been heading towards fossil fuels recently, not away from them, they argue, and this would make it inherently hard to achieve a prompt shift away from them which may instead take decades.

Wizards also emphasise that we can use geoengineering to overcome issues associated with fossil fuel use (e.g., climate change). For instance, this would involve adopting systems such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) which would capture waste carbon dioxide from sources (e.g., factories) and transport it to permanent storage sites, usually underground. As of 2017, at least 21 commercial-scale carbon capture projects are operating around the world with 22 more in development. Thus far, CCS systems look like they will be able to achieve 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 20506. Another practice supported by the wizards, which may sound even more sci-fi, includes pumping sulphuric acid in the atmosphere, a practice known as “stratospheric aerosol injection”. This practice would create a global dimming effect by generating a reflecting shield that would reflect sunlight and cool Earth7.

Prophets, on the other hand, advocate for small scale, distributed, renewable and low-impact energy sources. They also promote a more sustainable energy use, to decrease demand. Moreover, they criticise geoengineering not only for its potential environmental and ecological side effects, but also on moral grounds, since this practice would be the final touch to ultimately desacralise nature. Furthermore, the prophets suggest that the idea of fighting pollution with pollution (i.e., stratospheric aerosol injection) would be a distraction from the urgent social reforms needed for the future.

Where do you stand?

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  1. Mann, C.C., 2018. The wizard and the prophet: Two remarkable scientists and their dueling visions to shape Tomorrow’s world. Knopf.
  2. Nicolia, A., Manzo, A., Veronesi, F. and Rosellini, D., 2014. An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Critical reviews in biotechnology34(1), pp.77-88.

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