This is the second of my two-part conversation with historian, novelist and essayist Ronald Wright, the award-winning author of nine books, including the influential, A Short History of Progress.
In Part 1 we talked about why Wright sees North Americans as the greatest “villains” when it comes to climate change and why society has fallen into what he calls, “The Progress Trap.”
In Part 2, we discuss why the solution to problems caused by technology isn’t more technology, and the false argument that the environment and the economy are in conflict.
Jim Hoggan: You talk about society’s attempt to fix problems with more technology and why that’s not the answer to the big environmental challenges we face today. Can you explain your argument?
Ronald Wright: A lot of people want to believe that to solve the issue of climate change we just need to keep on inventing, to keep on letting progress rip, and that the solution will be found with perhaps a new source of power, such as fusion energy, or a new way of manufacturing or new ways to produce food, such as genetic modifications. A lot of people want to believe that the solution for the problems caused by technology is more technology.
While some technological advances offer partial solutions, such as greater efficiency, many of the new, untried technologies can be dangerous because we don’t understand the potential consequences. For example, we can’t foresee what might happen if genetically modified organisms get out and wipe out the natural diversity on which we truly depend for all of our food and medicine. Or, what if Nano technology was to get out of hand and we have self-replicating Nano machines?
It’s a sort of science fiction nightmare, but it’s not all that far-fetched if we don’t exercise a precautionary principal. Even though, in theory, we may be able to keep expanding our technologies, even if they are safe – which is a big if – we certainly cannot continue the way we have been. We are on one earth, which is only so big, and can only produce so much of the basic necessities of life. By this of course I don’t mean iPhones, but the necessities of life that we take for granted, namely clean air, land and water.
JW: Do you think it’s misinformation or a resistance to change that prevents society from not repeating its past mistakes?
RW: I think we are seeing both of those things at play in our own society. We are seeing great reluctance to face up to the fact that the party is over. Also, we are seeing cynical manipulation on the part of people who are absurdly wealthy to share any of their wealth. For example, just look at the changes in tax structure over the past 30 years, and the income spread in income between a CEO of a major American corporation and a shop floor worker.
If you look at any economic indicator you will see a vastly expanded gap between rich and poor both within countries and between countries. All of this has happened very recently. We see fabulous amounts of wealth in a few hands and almost a third of the human race living in dire poverty.
I think that is the greatest tragedy that the lesson of the 20th century. When I was a kid growing up in England you never saw beggars on the street. Of course, now you go to London you see beggars on the streets everywhere, and this is happening at a time when we have more wealth per head than ever in the history of the world. There really is no excuse for these huge disparities between obscene wealth and desperate poverty.
If we stopped the higher levels of consumption from getting out of control, there is enough for everybody to squeak through in a sort of modest prosperity, modest decency of life. The problems are political. They are problems of distribution.
JH: Do you have any particular thoughts on the way the environment is discussed today in Canada?
RW: I think the most troubling thing is the way in which our present Canadian government positions it: That we have to balance the environment with the economy. It’s as if the economy is a good thing on one side and the environment is something on the other that, if we deal with it, will drag down the economy. Of course that is absolute nonsense.
One of the absolutely clear lessons of history and archeology is that a healthy economy depends on a healthy environment. There is no economy without a sound environment beneath it, sustaining it.
The problem is that with our rapid technological advance, we have found ways to get more and more out of the environment and make it seem as though human prosperity is detached from natural systems. Of course, the reverse is true. What we’ve been doing by these very sophisticated means of extracting things is actually taking out stuff that can never be replaced.
Here’s one very simple example: a lot of the irrigation in North America, particularly in the United States, depends on the use of fossil water with these great underground aquifers. These aquifers are not water that is being replenished to any large extent. It’s called fossil water because it’s been there underground for a very long time. The levels of these aquifers are falling at an alarming rate. I think most predictions now suggest that there’s really only another 30 years of water left in much of the American west. Once it’s gone it’s gone. That’s the end of it.
That is an example of how technology appears to create prosperity because you pump up this water and suddenly you can produce more food or golf courses or whatever you happen to be using it for. But, in actual fact, all you are doing is plundering nature. I think that’s where we have to make the distinction: There is nothing wrong with exploiting nature through technology. That’s something human beings have always done.
My point is that it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t start eating into the capital of nature. We can live on the interest of nature, like we do from a bank.
JH: Do you have any thoughts on how we move from the thinking of the plunderer to a new thinking of where you draw the line?
RW: I think that it is very difficult and it’s part of our animal human nature to sort of gobble up everything in front of us, rather than leave it for a rainy day. The tar sands are a very valuable and useful resource, but it makes no sense to gobble them up quickly with all the consequences of pollution and the problems of supply and demand and the huge economic and political distortions they’ve introduced in this country. It should be done slowly and wisely.
What’s more, the corporations who are making all these vast amounts of money from the tar sands should be taxed should have to pay royalties. Right now, the royalty rates are laughably low. We are descending into the condition of a petro state – our political system is bought and paid for by big oil and the companies essentially have a license to plunder and only paying token amounts to the public purse that’s not acceptable.
One thing that can be done is introducing full-cost accounting in any measurement of economic progress. That means you have to include all benefits arising from natural systems.
JH: Are you at all hopeful that we can extract ourselves from these progress traps?
RW: The degree of hope I have goes up and down from day to day. I think our situation is very serious, but I don’t think it’s hopeless. Even if we do think it’s hopeless some of the time, we still have to act on the assumption that it isn’t too late. If we give up, we’ve lost the plot. If we stop trying to deal with our problems, the problems have won. When that happens, we’re done for.
JH: What is your message about the environment?
RW: My message is: Look at the past, at these wrecked societies. The more we understand from archeological research, the clearer it becomes that almost all of these wrecked societies fell because of over expanding and over exploiting their environment. So, we’ve got this information about what human beings tend to do, they create messes that either get out of hand or because of belief systems they will not deal with.
Let’s look at that past and learn from it.
Read Part 1 of this interview, Locked in the Progress Trap: Interview with Ronald Wright.