Technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry. Technology was not always about the transformation of nature, but was more of working with it as evidenced in the development of agriculture. Today, technology often aims to make nature more efficient or to subvert it. The subversion of nature has manifested in a series of innovations that have fundamentally shaped the character of societies. Such milestones include the invention of fire and of projectiles probably initially for the hunt and later predominantly for killing other humans and not just other animals.
Efforts at enhancing the efficiency of nature, such as experienced in the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, has led to the loss of species through the focus on enhanced production per unit of land area. The new green revolution seeks to further narrow down what is left and intentionally drive the extinction of others. The Green Revolution was based largely on monocultures, which affected not just crops or animals, but also human minds.
Technology has also been developed to entrench certain industrial and socio-economic pathways that has generated catastrophic outcomes including climate change. Such anthropogenic interventions spiked in the dawning industrial revolution with the atmospheric carbon budget quickly gobbled up through the burning of fossil fuels, land conversion, chemical/energy-intensive agriculture, manufacturing and others. Interestingly, rather than retrace their steps since realizing the wrongheadedness of such actions, humans strive to offset such socio-ecological misbehaviours through technological or engineering means that we intend to closely examine in the course of this School of Ecology on Emerging Technologies.
Traditional wisdom teaches that digging further down any pit of error is hardly the best way to get out of it. Turning this basic wisdom on its head has led to concentration of efforts in locking in business as usual in the interest of profit and at the expense of the wellbeing of both people and the planet. In the sphere of climate discourse, the pursuit of geoengineering is carefully cloaked in the language suggesting that technological solutions hold the key to decarbonizing economies. The challenge is that, outside computer modeling, the determination of the efficacy of most types of geoengineering can only be tested on mega or indeed planetary scales, with the potential of astonishing success or cataclysmic failures. Technology is not just about experimentation for the pursuit of beneficial solutions, they are great tools for concentration of power, for dominance and for control.
The other streak of technological advancement that we will consider is in relation to food and agriculture. Traditional biotechnology has been practiced by humans from time immemorial. However, the application of modern agricultural biotechnology, specifically the commercialization of genetically engineered organisms is barely three decades old. While three decades may not be sufficient to study the impacts of these artificial organisms, scientists have moved on to produce population-scale genetic engineering driving for intentional species extinction.
Easily weaponised technologies are being promoted by vested interests in the military and philanthropic-capitalist circles. These risky and largely unregulated technologies are set to be unleashed in the world’s favourite laboratory, Africa, where we are all considered expendable guinea pigs. Bioterrorism is a real threat, especially in regions best seen as storehouses of raw materials for global technological production.
To make this incursion unassailable, Africa is projected as the continent of hunger, malnutrition, stunted children, blind adults, disease and population explosion. The logic builds on the supposition that mechanistic solutions are the last hope for humanity since our social fabric is so broken that only automaton with curtailed human agency can fix it.
We stated in a recent reflection that the contemporary global technology fetish makes it difficult for citizens to question anything techie. With the rapid arrival of jaw-dropping advances, the tendency is to bow and praise these creations. However, wisdom requires that we question these arrivals and accept them, if we may with full knowledge of the risks and uncertainties involved. And, in fact, we cannot accept all of them.
Climate science, for instance, warn that continued dumping of greenhouse gases (into the atmosphere) will inexorably result in increased temperatures and freak weather events. Yet, there are technologies being developed for scrapping more crude oil from previously abandoned or decommissioned oil wells. There are new technologies for extreme extractivist endeavours such as fracturing rocks to push out fossil gas or oil. There are more machineries being built for deep sea mining irrespective of the impacts that such activities will have on marine ecosystems.
We must ponder on why it is so difficult to invest in nature-based solutions rather than fighting against nature. To be sure, these nature-based solutions can indeed be technological, but they simply must be techniques that are pro people and planet and not disruptive of our rights to thrive within the cycles of nature, as part of the intricate webs of life.
We must school ourselves to recover and retain our memories. The idea that technologies can only come from outside Africa is untrue and problematic, as the development of African and general human societies have shown. Schooling ourselves to decolonize the narratives that drive us into the vice-grip of exploitation and on the pathways of catastrophe is pertinent. It is also our duty to hold to account public agencies that insist that untested and risky technologies are safe. Such official fetish addictions and superstitions must be debunked in the interest of the present and the future generations. And in the interest of the planet and other beings.
By Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)