Hope on the horizon: Transcending technology


MIT faculty and researchers offer their thoughts on potentially life-altering
technologies that lie just around the corner.

When the MIT News Office asked Rebecca Henderson for her thoughts, she replied that she did not necessarily agree with the premise. Henderson foresees significant social, political and environmental stresses around the world in the coming years--challenges that technology will not be able to fix by itself.

Rebecca Henderson

Eastman Kodak LFM Professor, MIT Sloan School of Management

I think what we have here is a social and political problem, not a technological problem. I don't mean to call into question the technological enterprise or suggest that we at MIT don't have an extremely important role to play. But without the political and social will to value externalities--most obviously carbon but more generally environmental destruction--we're not going to use these technologies until it's too little, too late.

I am struck by how the political discourse across the world continues to talk about growth--how there will be no tradeoffs and how technology will mean we won't have to choose. It's not at all clear that that's correct.

The pressure for growth in India and China will not slow, so the price for primary commodities will continue to escalate. Correspondingly, the rate at which we emit carbon dioxide, use up fresh water supplies and put arable land and the oceans under stress will continue to increase. We have already started to see significant political problems in countries suffering from severe environmental stresses--Sudan is the most obvious example--and it is possible we'll begin to see breakdowns or partial failures in the global supply chains that provide developed regions such as Europe and the United States with very significant fractions of their needs.

We tend to assume that everything is nicely linear and everything either goes up very gently or comes down very gently. Historically that's not accurate. We've had very nonlinear times--the most obvious would be the Great Depression. But once you get accelerating economic and political pressure then it becomes increasingly difficult to do anything about the environmental root causes.

Think about it: Here we are, one of richest societies the world has ever known, and we are not comfortable making at least minimal sacrifices to postpone or take out insurance against climatic stress. Now, suppose we all get a lot poorer and there's massive political unrest: Who is going to put a carbon tax in place? You can quite straightforwardly write a scenario in which we do nothing to curb carbon output and the kind of nonlinear effects that scientists are worried about start to kick in--things such as a collapse in the world's fisheries by 2050, or an increase in the release of methane from permafrost that causes an acceleration in global warming and a corresponding rise in sea levels.

I must stress that I think most of these problems are eminently containable. But left unchecked, we could see cumulative shocks that make an incredibly complex and interlinked system begin to need to become much less complex and much less interlinked.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 21, 2008 (download PDF).


Topics: Faculty

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