Technology: Problem or Solution?

August 6, 2012

Dr. Jesse Ausubel is Director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, a Vice President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and an adjunct scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He received the Blue Frontier/Peter Benchley prize for ocean science in 2010 and shared the 2011 International Cosmos Prize. He joined me for a conversation about climate change, population growth, and the human capacity for innovating our way out of our most pressing problems.

We’re all complicated. We all have internal conflicts and inconsistencies. Case in point: Jesse Ausubel.


On one hand, he’s what he calls a “habitat-oriented green” – a phrase I still don’t completely understand, but is clearly an indication of environmentalist tendencies. He showed up in the studio this morning wearing a t-shirt from the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission that says “It’s a little known fact that fish grow on trees” (salmon depend on the Pacific Northwest’s forests for shelter and water quality). And he got here as he gets to his office in Woods Hole each summer morning – by taking the ferry from Oak Bluffs to Falmouth Harbor, then biking down the Shining Sea bike path. As a New Yorker, born and bred, he says he’s just “not a car guy” and prefers public transportation or biking because you can see the nature around you while you’re getting where you’re going. Sounds like a greenie to me.
And then there’s the research center he leads at Rockefeller University – the Program for the Human Environment, which “aims to elaborate the vision of a large, prosperous society that emits little or nothing harmful and spares large amounts of land and sea for nature.”
On the other hand, ask him about climate change (a subject he helped make the hot topic it is today), or overpopulation, or deforestation and you’ll get a surprisingly reassuring answer: things are getting better, we’re on the right track. It’s an attitude based on his extensive analyses of past trends in energy production, population growth, consumer behavior, and a host of other factors. To see a lot of graphs in support of his argument, check out this video of a lecture he gave earlier this summer as part of MBL’s Friday Evening Lecture series.
But Jesse’s interpretation of the data is far from universally accepted. Many experts on population growth think seven billion is already too many people and we’re headed for a catastrophic crash; Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich is one prominent example. And Joe Romm of Climate Progress has called Jesse’s attitude toward climate change and renewable energy “ill-informed complacency.”
Jesse is definitely a big ideas guy. He organized the first U.N. conference on climate change in 1979, when global warming was a non-issue, and spearheaded massive efforts to catalog the diversity of life on Earth (which, by the way, earned him the honor of having a deep-sea lobster named after him).
Whether his faith in technology and human progress is visionary or just blind to the facts is a matter to be settled by future historians. I’m not wholly convinced yet, but it sure would be nice if he were right.

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