Article - S040

Can education and technology save us from an ecological apocalypse?

Published on News24: 06 April 2018


There is the common belief that education and technology will save our world from an ecological apocalypse. Although many people subscribe to this notion, others regard it as mere ‘wishful thinking’.


There’s little doubt that mankind’s extraordinary domination of the Earth is largely the result of our advancement of education and technology. As education spread across societies around the world, so too did the rate of technological development.


Following in its wake were the human phenomena of exponential population growth, natural habitat and species displacement, resource consumption and CO2 production. These phenomena have been closely linked since the beginning of the industrial revolution, but over the last 50 years a new trend has appeared.


Societies lagging the global average in terms of education and technology are exhibiting higher-than-average population growth rates and habitat displacement; and below-average resource consumption and CO2 production.


For example, most developed nations have annual population growth rates below 1%, while developing nations lie anywhere between 1% and 8,5%. And while developed nations have seen a relative stabilisation in habitat displacement and resource consumption, developing nations are seeing a dramatic escalation.


With respect to CO2 production, developed nations have either already reached their emissions peaks, or have committed to do so before 2020. In developing nations, however, the target is the year 2030 – an ambitious milestone considering the soaring population growth rates in many of these nations.


Education


Educated societies tend to be prosperous societies, and prosperity is unfortunately linked to the environmental curses of high resource consumption and large per-capita carbon footprint.


If every nation around the world were to become as prosperous as the United States (US), our civilisation’s overall resource consumption and carbon footprint would skyrocket to catastrophic levels. An infographic produced by Tim De Chant in 2012 showed that if the whole world had the same standard of living as the US, mankind would need the equivalent of four Earths.


(Refer to Graphic #1 at end of article)

                   

This implies that the slow roll-out of education across developing nations has inadvertently delayed the onset of US-scale resource consumption and CO2 production.


Back in 2009, the Guardian published an article which compared the per capita carbon footprints of children living in different countries around the world. It referred to a study which showed that a child living in the US adds 9,441 tons of CO2 to each parent's carbon footprint during its childhood; whereas a child in China adds 1,384 tons and a child in Bangladesh, just 56 tons.


To simplify the comparison: a child living in the US has a carbon footprint almost seven times higher than a child in China, and 168 times higher than a child in Bangladesh.


Thus, education should be viewed as a double-edged sword. While it improves people’s quality of life and lowers population growth rates, it also fuels raised lifestyle expectations which amplify a multitude of pressures on the environment – especially in terms of resource consumption and, currently, carbon footprint.


Technology


The primary characteristic that sets humans apart from other species, is our intelligence. Historically, species’ population sizes were regulated by a myriad of natural hurdles, but human beings were able to use their intelligence to leapfrog these hurdles that had long kept the human population in check.


The technological advances in food production, medicine and health care facilitated the exponential rise in human population over the last 250 years.


But, as wonderful as technology is, it’s given us license to perpetuate our proliferation to the point where we are now - having displaced numerous wild species to the brink of extinction and altered our planet’s environment and atmosphere to such an extent that our civilisation’s future existence is at risk.


Professor Paul R. Ehrlich’s book titled ‘The Population Bomb’, published in 1968, forecast that the world would run out of food in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of overpopulation. He then predicted that a large portion of the human population would die of starvation.


But, his forecast food shortages never materialised.


In fact, global food production soared over the decades that followed and the world’s population doubled during that time. The roll-out of commercial-scale agricultural technology over vast tracts of land had defeated yet another natural hurdle.


What we need to ask ourselves is this: how much longer can we rely on technology to sustain our ever-growing population? Surely a time will come when our population exceeds even the capabilities of our most advanced technologies. And if this is the case, why are we not already putting measures in place to avoid this eventuality?


Can education and technology save us?


Our optimistic belief that education and technology alone will save our planet from environmental devastation is distancing us from the looming need to address mankind’s greatest nemesis: unchecked population growth.


The stark truth is, that education and technology will only save us if they are rolled out in tandem with an effective, yet humane global population planning policy.


Yes, education and technology will reduce our per capita impact on the planet, especially if it’s focused on environmental sustainability, but this impact will be constantly eroded if we allow our population to grow in accordance with the United Nations’ high or even medium fertility population growth projection curves.


Our global society needs to accept the hard fact that only a comprehensive strategy, which includes education on the limits of our planet, technology that mitigates our ecological impact, as well as a definitive population planning strategy, can save us … and the sooner we implement it, the better.


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Graphic #1

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Tim De Chant's infographic shows how much land would be required if seven billion people lived like the populations of the countries shown above