New technologies and punctuated equilibriumsMarch 2012
Thank heavens we live in an era where we understand the basic essentials of evolution. It makes things so much simpler than having to believe in the agency of choirs of angels. But the problem with our understanding of evolution is that it, too, evolves. One big leap forward was the notion of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, that rather than evolution proceeding in a smooth, continuous and broadly predictable fashion, as Darwin suggested, it goes through periods of convulsive, unpredictable change.
And the same is true, as economists Nikolai Kondratiev and Joseph Schumpeter first proposed, of our economies. We now understand that waves, cycles, supercycles and periods of creative destruction shape economic activity. For extended periods of time, our economies crank along using a suite of technologies that evolved some time before – steam power, steelmaking, canals and railroads, or electrical power generation, the internal combustion engine and automobiles – and settle into an economic and environmental equilibrium. But now an even greater cluster of new technologies is emerging, with implications of an almost logarithmically greater scale – nanoscience, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, human cloning, medical bionics, synthetic biology and geoengineering.
Much of my working life has focused on the possible environmental, social or economic consequences of new technologies. In the 1980s, for example, I produced a range of reports for the World Resources Institute on emerging technologies in areas such as genetic engineering, waste management and satellite remote sensing. I find myself increasingly interested in areas like synthetic biology, having met Craig Venter, one of its pioneers, at a World Economic Forum event in Davos a few years back. As these new areas of science, technology and business evolve, we can be sure of endless controversies, a few major catastrophic events, learning through failures, and the conversion of at least some of the most energetic sceptics and critics into energetic proponents.
In the end, we should avoid being too obsessed with technologies and their applications. Yes, we need something like the now-defunct US Office for Technology Assessment. But, way before that, we need to evolve global networks to monitor, audit and engage the scientists, technologists, investors, corporate players and regulators involved in all of this. We must be acutely aware of how all this will impact our mindsets, behaviours, cultures and, ultimately, the prevailing paradigm that underpins everything we do. There are economic, psychological and cultural convulsions in prospect here.
I have begun to explore this area in a new book, The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier. Truly, this is an immensely exciting time to be alive and involved in all of this. Accommodating a global population of nine billion-plus by mid-century will require us to do things that are almost unimaginable today. Whether we like it or not, many of our equilibriums are destined to be punctuated.
John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans and co-founder of SustainAbility
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