We have not only reshaped our planet's biosphere but have and are still in the process of changing its land, oceans, and climate on an unprecedented scale. We have ushered in a new human-dominated geological epoch, the Anthropocene. And it was our technology that made this possible. It is technology that has provided the means to fuel our overconsumption.
Defining the term technology is tricky—its meaning has varied tremendously over the years. American sociologist Read Bain defined it, in 1937, as "all tools, machines, utensils, weapons, instruments, housing, clothing, communicating and transporting devices and the skills by which we produce and use them". This definition remains widely used among today's social scientists, and I am not going to disagree with them.
The key here is to remember that "technology" takes on meaning in the context of time and place. As a simple example, the wheel, when it was invented, was a massively disruptive technology (although it appears that it took another 300 years for our ancestors to figure out that it could be put on a vehicle!). Today, the same word conjures up images of microchips and iPhones.
In this chapter, I want to explain how it is that technology—in the widest definition of that word—has been humanity's handmaiden on the road to planetary depletion. And yet—and perhaps humanity needed to bootstrap itself to this point—it now offers the means for us to reverse some of our most planet-damaging behaviors.
Ancient Greek technology developed during the 5th century B.C., building on the discoveries and knowledge of past civilizations. Reason and inquiry featured prominently in Ancient Greek philosophy, which championed rational observation of the natural world; thus, curiosity and a thirst for knowledge were the main driving force behind the development of Greek technology. Many Greek inventions remained curiosities rather than instruments of change, partly because of the prevalent Hellenic attitude that scientific inquiry should be pursued for its own sake rather than for the end goal of practical application.
Even so, the Greeks produced inventions that laid the foundation for much of the technology we rely on today—these included the gear, screw, bronze casting techniques, rotary mills, and so on. These foundations later became the structural features of modern technology because the Greeks hadn't designed them with specific problems in mind that needed solving, but instead drew from mathematical concepts and principles that governed natural phenomena.
The technological legacy of the Greeks also shaped the Roman Empire. What Rome had that the Greeks did not, however, was an infrastructure of knowledge on a scale that had not existed before in Europe or the Mediterranean.
Rome integrated a wide array of theoretical insights and technical know-how from multiple origins into its own network of knowledge, which it was able to do due to its conquests and expansion of political power beyond Italy. Additionally, the Roman elite made active efforts to make this growing repository of knowledge accessible to the wider public.
Of note were their contributions to technologies of warfare, which was an essential element of Roman society (turns out trying to kill each other has always been a great catalyst for the creation of technology—I think there is a message there). Surgical practices and techniques were also developed further by the Romans as a result of physical injury and fatality from battle. Other technologies credited to the Roman empire include Roman numerals, an early form of newspaper, modern plumbing, aqueducts, and concrete.
All of this gives rise to the obvious question—why didn't the Romans continue down this path, getting technology to our current 21st-century level by, say, the 4th century? Limitations suggested by scholars include deficiencies in the Empire's social, administrative, and financial infrastructure, and negative attitudes towards trade and industry.
V for Victoria
The Victorian era, named after the reign of British Queen Victoria (1837-1901), is really when things began to go pear-shaped if we are thinking about how to trace the source of our current ailments (and prosperity). This period is characterized by the adoption, expansion, and transformation of technology, and birthed inventions including photography, electric lighting, and railways, many of which are still used today. But the real game-changer came just before this period: the steam engine in the late 18th century, which you've already heard about in the 'This Is How We Did It' chapter.
The coal-powered steam engine enabled steam power to replace water as the key source of power. The application and development of steam technology drastically improved Britain's core industries, including coal mining, iron production, and manufactured goods. The steam engine also powered factory work and turned many cities into industrial centers. All of this equipped Britain to become a heavyweight in the quickly expanding international market. Britain also reaped many benefits from the Revolution, including improvements in communication, standards of living, and economic output.
And as we've discussed before, as this was unfolding, humanity had no real idea—it is also unclear whether anyone would have cared—that emissions were beginning to rise as a consequence. And then:
Fossil fuels are the primary source of energy in the world today, but they've been in use long before humans knew how to drill and refine oil, or before the first coal-powered steam engine. Civilizations all over the world had found uses for oil, coal, and natural gas thousands of years ago. For instance, petroleum that was found seeping from the earth's surface was used for construction and waterproofing. And people have been using coal for more than a thousand years, with early uses including the heating of homes. Similarly, natural gas was used for heating and lighting purposes.
But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that fossil fuels became crucial energy sources for industry and households both in Britain and abroad. The invention of the steam engine, powered by coal, heralded the modern era by enabling manufacturing production, machines, and factories.
The first modern commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. The entrepreneur Edwin L. Drake decided that drilling to reach oil underground was more enterprising than just gathering oil that seeped through the surface and thus used a drill-pipe to reach the oil deposit. This finding revolutionized the oil industry, and with subsequent advances in drilling technology and a deeper understanding of oil's potential uses, people began to drill specifically for oil.
As the level of technical expertise increased, people began tapping for other sources of fossil fuels including natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which first came on the scene in the 1940s, involved a new drilling technique that made oil wells more productive and greatly increased yields. And in the 1990s, this was combined with horizontal drilling to form modern-day fracking. Due to the combined use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, US oil production reached a record high, lowering world oil prices.
Technology today completely influences and pervades both the "supply-side" (people making stuff) and the "demand-side" (people buying and consuming stuff)—which unfortunately adds up to increased use of fossil fuels and more carbon emissions.
The Supply Side
In the 21st century, manufacturers are being pushed to become more and more efficient to meet the growing demands of customers. The solution: technology.
"Supply chains" refer to the system of people, organizations, activities, and resources that are involved in the manufacture, sale, and delivery of products. Digitization is revolutionizing supply chains all over the world. Big data and cloud-based technologies are being used by some manufacturers for over 80 percent of their supply chain management data tracking, which allows them to cut costs by understanding consumer demand better. This applies not just to the manufacturing of products, but also to packaging and delivering—manufacturers have created routing algorithms to help increase efficiency in deliveries, and begun to make use of big data technologies to streamline communication between different areas of the supply chain.
Modern supply chains also rely heavily on other advancements in technology to operate as efficiently as they do. Shipping and transportation, for instance, wouldn't be where they are today without ocean tankers which, surprisingly, are a relatively new concept (and yes, an oil tanker is technology, same as your smartphone). They were only adopted in the late 19th century, before which the technology to enable bulk cargo transport had not yet been invented. And we haven't even spoken about the actual manufacturing that occurs before all this supply chain management happens.
All of these advancements in technology that enable supply chains to work as efficiently and as quickly as they do help the world consume voraciously.
The Demand Side
But how does technology drive demand?
In the modern world, through technology-driven connectivity, new ideas and products can spread at incredible speeds to massive audiences. And now, with the rapidly expanding popularity of social media, this is accelerating even further. Businesses are capitalizing on social media's expansive reach and attempting different approaches of marketing their products and services to online users. With 3.6 billion social media users in 2020, this makes eminent sense if you believe in "the invisible hand" of the free market economy.
Apart from brands taking to social media for advertising purposes, social media has also enabled the mass sharing of one's lifestyle with others, including one's purchases, belongings and personal habits. This includes celebrities and influencers flaunting their wealth online to their millions of followers.
While this may seem like a benign feature of social media, it is anything but—think back to mimetic desire and "keeping up with the Joneses," where individuals' desires are heavily informed by those of others. Constantly seeing what other people have and want inevitably influences what you want.
But doesn't mimetic desire apply only to people in your life, whom you interact with? Sociologist Juliet Schor explains how this is not the case—in the '80s and '90s, there has been a shift toward a "vertical emulation process," in which people increasingly define their material wants and desires by referring to the lifestyles and consumption patterns of the top 20 percent income earners (I will have a lot more to say about the affluent later).
This shift was driven by commercial media, most notably television and advertising portrayals of affluent lifestyles as the cultural norm to which all people should aspire. And as the time we spend interacting with people face-to-face has decreased over the years, we have increasingly become susceptible to the influence of the people we see on our devices—in other words, our desires are perhaps shaped more strongly by social media figures than by our real-life friends.
This also means that people today aspire to wealth and luxury more than before, when the common goal was achieving a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. In Aron O’Cass and Hmily McEwen's words, consumers are no longer acting autonomously, but as representatives of a larger group, due to their consumer desires being largely determined by their social networks.
All Of Which Means: More Oil!
And so we have this (don't be fooled by the flattening of the per capita lines—remember population has exploded!):
Bottom line: tech led us here. It has done much for humanity, but it has also led us to the brink of planetary disaster—which can and will ultimately destroy humanity if left unchecked. We now need to think about how to use technology very differently—we need to think through how it can change behavior.
Tech Can Save Us (and Our Planet)—If We Use It to Change Behavior
Just as modern technology has enabled voracious, unchecked consumption, it can also push humanity in the opposite direction.
Spoiler: technologies that can be used with great effect to reduce carbon footprints exist and are (literally) staring us in the face. What's more, software technologies, in particular, can be scaled almost infinitely at minimal marginal cost, and don't face the problem of embedded emissions that other frequently-proposed solutions to the climate crisis, like electric vehicles, do.
Examples of some of these technologies are Zoom, Coursera, Dialpad, and Skillshare (the last two are Amasia investments)—companies that don't brand themselves as "sustainable", but catalyze enormous emissions savings.
These companies demonstrate the potential of modern technology to change behavior on a global scale, in ways that are easy and convenient for people and greatly reduce our collective carbon footprint. I talk about this more in the next section, but here I'd like you to start thinking in terms of "common-sense solutions," for this is a book about common sense. Consider three scenarios:
- A: you get on a plane and go to a meeting
- B: you do the same as A, but while you are at your destination, you do highly carbon-friendly things (for example, walk to your meeting; eat vegetarian food; hug a nearby tree)
- C: you do your meeting over a video call
In terms of carbon emissions, it is, obviously, scenario C that is the winner—and not by a close margin. Probably more like a 99 percent differential in carbon footprint even relative to scenario B. And to further prefigure what I will say later: the idea of needing a physical meeting was always just a norm, not a law. The COVID-19 pandemic proved to us that norms can be changed, and we must fully embrace the changes that we made during this transitional period.
But before I turn more fully to behavior change, I need to slay a sacred (tech) cow—the myth of cheap renewable energy—with the help of a guy named Jevons.
Technology and behavioral design
- Article | Recognising the True Potential of Technology to Change Behaviour
- Book | Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
- Article | The Human Side of Tech: Driving Behavioral Change