Averting Climate Change: Technology Won’t Save Us!

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Numbers Don't Lie" by Vaclav Smil. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Can technology avert climate change? What are some potential technological solutions to climate change?

According to Vaclav Smil, the author of Numbers Don’t Lie, we rely too much on technology to save us from climate change. Environmental destruction—which is what drives climate change—is happening at a faster rate than technology advances.

Here’s why technology won’t save us, as many people falsely believe.

Vaclav Smil: Technology Won’t Save Us

Many people wrongly believe climate change technology can save us from environmental disasters. This is because they often have unrealistic expectations about the speed at which technology will advance. 

These unrealistic expectations are often because people are influenced by the numbers underpinning Moore’s law, which states that the speed and capabilities of computer chips double every two years. This law has largely held true since its inception in 1965, and it has allowed for a great deal of innovation in computers and electronics. 

People often assume the same rate of progress applies to other fields—for instance, in environment-related industries—but technological progress happens much more slowly outside of computer-based technologies. For example, corn yields have risen by an average of only about 2% per year since 1950, and fuel efficiency has increased by about 2.5% a year. 

Instead of relying on future technologies to save us, we should be searching for realistic and practical solutions, and if a problem can’t be completely and immediately solved, incremental progress is still better than no progress at all, contends Smil. 

Combating Climate Change: Technology Is Not the Solution

A 2017 MIT study found that even in the fields of computers and electronics, where Moore’s law applies, technological advancements still aren’t enough to create a sustainable world. Some scientists believe that as we become more technologically advanced, we’ll use fewer materials and be a more sustainable society. But researchers found that no matter how much more efficiently a product is made, consumers will only demand more of that product and thus produce more material waste. 

For example, the amount of material to make a transistor has greatly decreased over the last few decades. This has made computers and smartphones much more powerful and compact, but the increase in demand for these superior products has outpaced further technological improvements to their sustainability. 

When researchers looked at materials, goods, and services outside of the electronic and computer industries, they found a similar trend: As products become smaller, better, and cheaper, demand increases, and there is no overall reduction in the amount of material used to make them. The only cases in which significant dematerialization occurs are when a product is replaced by something else (wool with nylon and polyester, for example), or the government intervenes (for instance, by passing laws against asbestos and thallium). 

The latter case exemplifies how practical solutions are more effective than reliance on not-yet-discovered technologies: Asbestos was discovered to be hazardous, so the US government passed a law limiting the production and use of asbestos.
Averting Climate Change: Technology Won’t Save Us!

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  • How you can understand the world by understanding numbers and statistics
  • Why the infant mortality rate is a better indicator of standard of living than GDP per capita
  • Why nuclear energy is not the answer to sustainability

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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