Is it right to fight climate collapse with technology?

How dare you?

By Anders Hellberg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, could forget that face, those accusations? If Greta Thunberg and the hundreds of thousands of children on climate strike have taught us anything, it’s that you’re never too small to make a difference and yes, that we (the grown ups) should be feeling guilty about our inaction in the face of catastrophic climate collapse. 

Sure, it’s easy to feel powerless about the powerful fossil fuel lobby and the (ironically) glacial pace of meaningful political action by the world’s largest polluters. It would be perfectly reasonable for us to outline a few positive examples of those in tech who are already building apps and platforms to combat climate change. You’ve probably heard about tools to help you find recycling facilities, save water, share rides and calculate your carbon footprint.

We could do that, then you could go away with a vague feeling that you’ve done something, or at least read something, to promote positive change.

Photo by Markus Spiske from PexelsWould that be enough, though? Or would it be, as Thunberg says, ‘business as usual and some technical solutions.’?

Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

For change to really happen, we need to alter the way we think, so let’s spend some time looking at tools to help us do just that.

The climate movement is itself a rich breeding ground for these tools, and provides many examples of coordinated positive advocacy and action. So here’s a lowdown of three ways we can take inspiration from those young and old who are taking a stand:

1) Deep adaptation

Jem Bendell is a professor in sustainability leadership and attracted widespread attention (and criticism) with his paper on Deep Adaptation. Many thought his outlook too gloomy, even hopeless. It talks of the inevitability of ‘collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction’

But those who seek to criticise or suppress this point of view are missing a trick. What Bendell asks us to do is to think radically differently about how we live. He frames this process of inquiry using three Rs:

Resilience asks us “how do we keep what we really want to keep?” Relinquishment asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?” Restoration asks us “what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?”

This is an invaluable set of questions, and ones that would serve not only environmentalists, but entrepreneurs, leaders and, yes, app designers too. We can’t do ‘business as usual,’ so let’s find a framework to help us work towards a new normal. 

Using the Deep Adaptation line of enquiry leads us to bring back traditional ways of barter, commerce and exchange, albeit with a modern twist. We are already witnessing new currencies, decentralised lending, informal economies and sharing networks, and the potential for growth in all these is vast.

2) Design Fiction 

Humans are notoriously bad at really grasping an important topic or threat without stories. Why do you think charities need to put individual stories front and centre of their fundraising campaigns? 

Because we can’t relate to facts and figures. Design fiction uses the power of storytelling to project us into the future in a way we can comprehend. It’s a combination of fiction and science: using technology which already exists or is on the horizon to create relatable scenarios which are scientifically feasible.

Whereas science fiction may break the rules of physics or biology, design fiction asks us to contemplate near-future scenes and prompts us to think more urgently about the ethical, societal and technological implications they create. If you’re thinking about building a platform to serve a user base, then design fiction is like use cases on steroids.

This trailer by Liam Young is an example of a piece of dystopian fiction shot using real cameras and actors: only the cameras are the laser scanners of motion-sensing driverless cars. 



3) Putting the machines to work where it matters

In its most recent climate report, the IPCC highlighted areas where we don’t know enough about the effect of warming on vulnerable populations:

The IPCC SR1.5 report recognises the existence of knowledge gaps on the health and well-being risks in the context of socio-economic and climate change at 1.5°C, especially in key areas such as occupational health, air quality and infectious disease.

One of the emerging benefits of machine learning and AI is the ability of non-human brains to analyse huge data sets in a fraction of the time it takes us. We’ve already seen how this works to improve healthcare: look out for more collaborations in the climate field. 

One example is that between US nonprofit WattTime and UK thinktank Carbon Tracker, using satellite imagery to monitor the CO2 emissions of global fossil-fuelled power plants. Their aim? To provide the solid data to convince the financial sector that these carbon plants aren’t profitable.

We owe it to our children to do more

That statement of course takes an anthropocentric view of the world: surely we also owe it to the plants, rivers, caterpillars and finely balanced ecosystems on earth not to destroy them? With design fiction and augmented reality we could put ourselves into the place of endangered species and ask: what now? 

By using the tools of Deep Adaptation we can discover what’s important to keep, what we need to let go of, and what we once had that we can bring back. And by wielding these big AI-powered brains wisely, we can speed up the whole process and gain clarity and perspective.

So, what’s stopping you acting? If you’ve got an idea for a platform or app, get in touch and let’s chat about the next step.