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Feature - Issue #5

On the Horizon

Words by Chris King
Illustration by Pei-Hsin Cho

The climate crisis is propelling us into uncharted territory, and our relationship with technology and nature will dictate how we navigate our way through.

We are at a point where human activities are defining not just what lies ahead for the next generation or two, but life on Earth in geological time. Our relationships with technology and nature have played a fundamental role in bringing us to this point, and only by changing these relationships, and how we perceive and treat each other, will we have any chance of avoiding the worst-case scenarios of the climate crisis.

Global temperatures have now surpassed anything a human has experienced in the 300,000 years or so since Homo sapiens appeared from Africa. The perfect climate conditions to allow life to flourish - known as the Goldilocks zone - are now in the past. We now find ourselves in uncharted territory. With so many variables - the melting of the Greenland icesheet, for instance, could trigger as yet unknown domino effects and hidden feedbacks - we can only make educated guesses as to what lies ahead. What we do know, however, is that we cannot continue acting as we have been.

Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, writes in The Future We Choose, which she co-authored: “For a long time western societies have tended to prize self-interest over wellbeing of the whole. We need to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with others, and certainly with natural systems that enable human life on Earth… our current crisis requires a total shift in our thinking to survive and thrive, we must understand ourselves to be inextricably connected to all of nature.”

While this understanding may have been supressed in the west, it is alive in many Indigenous communities around the world. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, an activist, scholar and author from the Nishnaabeg nation in North America, suggests: “In my experience, the knowledge of Indigenous peoples requires a critical rethinking of how western societies relate to land, water and all of the living systems with whom we share time and space. Indigenous knowledge demands a critical rethinking of economic and political systems. Indigenous knowledge requires radical systemic change and a rebuilding of everything.”

‘In my experience, the knowledge of Indigenous peoples requires a critical rethinking of how western societies relate to land, water and all of the living systems with whom we share time and space.’

— Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, an activist, scholar and author from the Nishnaabeg nation in North America.

The imperialistic and capitalistic mindset that has for so long underpinned much of the interactions of western nations with other cultures and with nature, is a root cause of climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, and ocean acidification, as well as the injustice of sustained inequalities - both nationally and internationally - resulting in those who contribute the least to such crises tending to suffer the most.

As Simpson points out, this is not a recent phenomenon: “Indigenous peoples have witnessed and lived through environmental apocalypse since the early days of colonial occupation. We’ve seen our plant and animal relatives extirpated from our homelands, and we’ve continually witnessed ecosystem collapse. Climate change is a symptom of racialised capitalism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. Indigenous knowledge compels us to remake the world in a way that promotes the life of all living things.”

The systemic change that Figueres and Simpson call for is vital to ensure we progress along a path towards a best-case scenario for humanity and all life on Earth. But, for that change to happen, people in the west must acknowledge the need for it and be invested in it. This requires an acknowledgement of the severity of the situation we are faced with and the impact it will have on us all, a realisation and understanding of the need to act now, the need to respect nature and each other - regardless of any differences - and an appreciation of the interconnectedness that exists between us and nature, and between each other.

One aspect of the western mindset hindering any such acknowledgement and understanding, is a belief that we can engineer our way out of the mess we are largely responsible for creating. This is accompanied by the illusion that we can do so while maintaining the standard of living we have become so accustomed to and take for granted. This myopic arrogance and loss aversion not only perpetuates a lack of meaningful engagement, it ignores the fact that scalable Indigenous technologies already exist that reduce emissions while providing the food, water and sanitation needed to sustain communities, mitigate the impact of flooding and wildfires, and adapt to a changing, more hostile environment. It also blinds us to the true nature of technology.

While technologies originating from industrialised countries may have the potential to help address the impacts of the climate crisis, the nature of technology is such that the intention that guides its development and use will dictate whether or not that potential is realised. Kentaro Toyama, the founding assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India, argues in a 2011 paper, titled Technology as Amplifier in International Development: “Technology cannot substitute for missing institutional capacity and human intent; technology tends to amplify existing inequalities; technology projects in global development are most successful when they amplify already successful development efforts or positively inclined intent, rather than seek to fix, provide, or substitute for broken or missing institutional elements.” This amplification, according to Toyama, “contradicts theories that imply that technology’s impact is additive or transformative in and of itself, for example that access to technology levels the playing field of power, or that the Internet, per se, democratises access to information”.

So technology guided by imperialistic and capitalistic intentions will not have the positive impact we need it to have, and will amplify inequalities: we therefore can’t rely on technology originating in this way to address the climate crisis and other issues of our time. This is why we need that systemic change and cultural shift in the west. Without it, any western technology could exacerbate existing inequalities, undermine democracies, and increase the destruction of nature and the disruption of the climate. There is a general failure to learn from past mistakes, reflect on the consequences, and consider the needs of all citizens - not only those of profit-making companies and vested interests.

Take artificial intelligence (AI) and biotechnology - two emerging technologies that are in the nascent stages of development and understanding. When asked at the 2020 World Economic Forum about the tech “arms race” between the US and China around these two technologies, and what was at stake for humanity and the world, historian and author Yuval Harari replied: “On one level - the more shallow level - it would be a repeat of the 19th century industrial revolution, when the leaders in industry basically had the power to dominate the entire world - economically and politically.”

‘Technology cannot substitute for missing institutional capacity and human intent; technology tends to amplify existing inequalities.’

— Kentaro Toyama, the founding assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India.

Harari warned that he saw the tech “arms race” as an “imperial arms race”. Whether in the west or elsewhere, a culture blinded by its own ingenuity, fuelled by a capitalistic ideology, rarely stops to consider whether it should use the knowledge and technology it has, or indeed how best to do so for the good of all. Nor does it stop to consider the consequences and learn from its mistakes. When it comes to solving the issues of our time, knowledge and technology alone will not be enough, despite their potential. In the words of Takeda Shingen, a 16th century Japanese military leader: “Knowledge is not power, it is only potential. Applying that knowledge is power. Understanding why and when to apply that knowledge is wisdom.”

Toyama’s 2011 paper stresses how “few people imagine that a failing company can be fixed with a technology, no matter how well-designed. The same intuition applies to failing healthcare systems, educational systems, governance systems, and so on. What matters first are human issues of leadership, management, staffing, and client intent and capacity.”

We have the knowledge, technology, wisdom and capacity we need to address climate change and existing inequalities, and minimise the suffering they cause. We have all we need to address all of the issues of our time. What is lacking is the leadership and the right intention - both the political will to do what needs to be done, and the pressure from the people to create the change we need. We must all acknowledge and embrace our interconnectedness with nature and with each other, and let that underpin the intentions behind our actions. Until we do so we face an increasingly uncertain and hostile future for all life on Earth.

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