Envirobytes 6: Tech and Sustainability

This week on Envirobytes: how can we use technology to support climate action? My affinity for science fiction media demonstrates my bias toward the vision of a brighter future that technology presents. While I see technology’s potential to reduce the environmental impact of our daily lives, I also understand the tremendous costs associated with implementing those technologies. For example, electric cars are a great look at what the future of commuting could be, however batteries are manufactured using lithium and cobalt mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by children as young as seven. In this week’s overview of sustainable tech, let’s start at the ground level where all our technology originates.

Invisible costs

While the world works to break the grip of fossil fuel’s chokehold, capitalism continues to exploit resource rich nations in the global south. Central to the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is the ability to store the energy that is produced. In the case of fossil fuels, the energy is physically bound in the coal or oil. But renewable energy must be stored in batteries to then be utilized by people tapped into the energy grid. Though the energy may be clean, the work to create it certainly is not. In the case of the DRC, cobalt processing plants discharge waste into local water tables, contaminating sources of drinking water that villages of child workers rely on. In the “Lithium Triangle of South America,” so much water has been used in the extraction of lithium that deserts have begun to spread across Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. In Tibet, a lithium mine polluted the Lichu river and resulted in widespread protests in 2016. 

Exploitation, pollution, and mindless use of vital resources make up the invisible costs of a greener, brighter future that is sold to the global north by tech billionaires. Continuing historic cycles of oppression and exploitation based in the world’s colonial past and present, the global south suffers for the benefit of the north and is ridiculed for their own lack of “development.” Beyond making the invisible costs of tech development visible:

How can we develop technology sustainably?

We must develop it in partnership with resource rich communities and in harmony with the Earth. A 2018 article from the World Economic Forum outlines the key facts necessary to understanding how we can better understand the role technology will play in the climate crisis. First, we must understand that sustainability tech is trying to replicate and enhance the “natural technology” of the Earth’s natural processes. Where time could set the Earth back to a sense of balance and harmony, humanity seeks to speed up that process through artificial augmentation via technology. Second, the technology we develop should be focused on protecting the natural resources we currently have. Upholding local networks of biodiversity yield dividends for the communities around them and the world. Finally, sustainable tech development should prioritize the use of resources that are already existing rather than extracting more to create new solutions. The upcycling movement and regenerative farming practices are examples of making use of what already exists to do more for our planet.

Green tech for a brighter future

Sahika Kumar, a University of California, Berkeley’s Master of Development Practice student compiled a handful of up-and-coming green technologies. I have selected three to highlight. First up are biomimetic technologies that draw from the natural world and replicate biological structures and processes. The field of biomimetics has proven its utility across numerous applications. For example, roboticists have made “snake” robots with a body structure enabling them to climb trees like rainforest dwelling snakes. Another example is in vehicular aerodynamics where the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan is modeled after the beak of a kingfisher, minimizing drag, and making the train more efficient, quiet, cheaper, and faster. One last example of biomimetic design is the development of “self-healing” materials that can repair themselves which reduce the demand for component materials that now have a more robust lifespan. Biomimetics leverage the structures of nature to enhance modern human life and can offer alternative methods of design that reduce the impact on the environment. 

Second is green architecture that minimizes energy use through designs that utilize natural light and are built to insulate and cool passively. Another aspect to green architecture is how upcycling is incorporated into the design process. Sourcing materials from landfills and urban waste creates a cyclical product cycle. Compared to the dominant linear product life that extracts natural resources to create a product that ultimately breaks down and results in waste, a cyclical product cycle’s waste product is also its building blocks.

In a similar manner, waste sourced biofuel presents a vision of a cyclical way of life where little is wasted. There now exists the technology to turn organic waste into ethanol which uses less water and produces less carbon emissions than traditional ethanol production. While renewables present the longest-term solution to the energy crisis, biofuel could be a less environmentally taxing alternative to historical sources of fossil fuels that may aid in the transition of developing nations to a renewable way of life. It is unreasonable to hold nations with a history of being exploited to the same standards of the colonial powers benefiting from their oppression. Recognizing the inequity inherent to climate action on a global scale is necessary to the development of green technologies that equitably address the needs of our developing communities.

Up next

Next week, I will share why industrial and corporate veganism are more damaging than diets incorporating sustainably sourced animal products and why hyper-militant vegans are damaging the sustainability movement. Thanks for reading and stay hungry for more Envirobytes.

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