The Homo sapiens, in their current evolved form, have been around on Earth for about 200,000 years. Many advances have taken place since then, with each advance seeming to have had a greater impact on our environment than the previous one. More recently, the use of technology that brought human society an unprecedented level of comfort and material well-being is threatening to destroy our planet, the only one that is in the Goldilocks zone of the solar system.
The negative impacts on the environment caused by our unbridled use of technologies are numerous. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss in detail all the adverse side-effects. Instead, I will focus on perhaps the most significant one—climate change, followed closely by air pollution, water pollution and resource depletion, albeit not necessarily in the same order.
Our laptop or smart phone or iPad may not release any climate-altering greenhouse gases, but their production and subsequent use involves energy generated by fossil fuels that are responsible for global warming. The same is true for other high-tech devices and electronic implements that have become an integral part of our daily life. For example, using a cell phone for just an hour a day via massive server networks, which consume a huge amount of electricity, translates into more than a ton of carbon dioxide a year.
In the latest report of the World Meteorological Organization, projections of rising global temperatures due to unrestrained emissions of greenhouse gases, aided and abetted by technology, underscore that Earth's climate is moving to greater and greater extremes at an accelerated pace. Indeed, the fury unleashed by climate change is not just making us live in a radically transformed world, but also negatively impacting our health, economic infrastructure, supply chains, and will eventually induce widespread famine and mass migration. Anticipating a grim future for Earth, we are now exploring the possibility of colonising Mars by terraforming it into a habitable planet.
Is it possible to go far back in time to a period when the air was pure? If we think of pure air as we think of pure water, probably not. Long before man, dust storms, fires and volcanoes polluted the air with vast quantities of particles and impurities of various sorts. They threw very fine dust into the atmosphere that finally dispersed and settled on the ground. Our appearance, of course, compounded the picture. When we discovered that fossil fuels could generate more heat than wood, we said goodbye to a halcyon period when the air was relatively pure.
Today, some of the major pollutants in the atmosphere are by-products of technology, such as emissions from vehicles, industries and power plants using fossil fuels, brick fields, foundries, refineries and waste incineration facilities. The pollutants from these sources not only add significantly to local air pollution levels, they also interact with environmental components to form secondary pollutants, thereby making a bad situation worse. The primary pollutants together with the secondary ones are precursors to the formation of smog, the worst form of air pollution against which our body has very little defence.
There is no other environmental issue more important than safe and clean drinking water. A continuous supply of clean water is our inalienable right. As noted by the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water."
How does technology contribute to groundwater pollution? The lifetime of new technologies is very short. They become obsolete after only a few years of use, which leads consumers to dispose of their old ones to buy the newest versions. It is estimated that globally, we throw away roughly 50 million tonnes of electronic waste every year. More often than not, we throw them away as household trash that ends up in landfills. The toxic material they contain or are made of may eventually leach into the ground and make their way to the water table which is a major source of our drinking water.
Being a mineral intensive industry, technology contributes towards depletion of resources. Increased industrial activity to meet the demands of a digital society requires raw material, some toxic and carcinogenic, whose reserves are finite and are on the decline. Lest we forget, it takes minerals and fossil fuels hundreds of millions of years to form, but only a few hundred years to use up all the reserves.
Mining itself comes with a high carbon cost. Even if factories reuse or recycle material, they still need space because high-tech industries are growing at a rapid rate. Making space for new facilities often involves deforestation, which in turn results in loss of habitat for the animals. Besides, in the long run, over-exploitation of resources ceases to be beneficial and becomes an environmental threat.
All told, at the end of a typical day, in view of our over-dependence on technology, the Earth's atmosphere becomes a little warmer, the water a little more polluted, the soil a little more chemically altered, and natural resources a little more depleted. Crime-ridden and overcrowded cities become even more crowded, while the air in and around them, already choked with pollution, becomes a little more toxic. In sum, the web of life becomes a bit more torn. And tomorrow, it will start all over again.
Although these statistics are extremely depressing, my intention is not to discourage the readers but rather to make the point that we are on an unsustainable course. This is not to say that we and the rich biological world we live in are doomed. True, we cannot turn the clock back, but we still have a chance. We need to get our heads out of the sand, we have to get active, we have to be bold, we have to make profound changes to reverse the environmental mess of our own making, and soon.
A final thought on the World Environment Day 2021. It is possible to coexist with nature regardless of all the technological advances by finding sustainable solutions that meet the needs of the present without compromising the future. But they have to be affordable and equitable for all people and all nations. However, if we continue to ignore the modest demands that the environment makes upon our use of it, then all the technology we can devise will not suffice to put right the endless environmental traumas that we have created. On the contrary, it will only impoverish our future generations, who will have enough dilemmas to deal with. Let us give them at least a glimpse of how our planet once looked like.
Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.