Engineers are Morally Obligated to Pursue Radical Technologies

Capitalism in the 21st century is premised upon limitless growth. It assumes that we can continue to expand our consumption indefinitely. Everywhere we look, we see more and more natural resources being utilized for human needs. In fact, the faster we drain the environment, the better off the economy is.

There are only two ways this can end. First, a combination of environmental and economic catastrophe, on a scale which we have never witnessed. Second, there could be a series of major breakthroughs in science and engineering which allow us to create resources for humans without destroying the ecosystem. I prefer to contemplate option two.

In his book "Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization", K. Eric Drexler explains one of the most promising technologies which humans may soon leverage to sustain growth in consumption, but slow our draining of natural resources. By constructing materials at the molecular level, and piecing goods together from atomic building blocks, new items from human consumption can be created, practically from thin air. Rather than chopping down trees for rubber and mining mountains for metals, cars could be built from the ground up using nano-scale materials (such as carbon and hydrogen), put together into increasingly large components through automated machinery. Drexler poses the possibility of creating such a car with open source blueprints, inexpensive and publicly accessible machinery, and raw materials costing less than a few hundred dollars.

While such a radically different world may seem far-fetched, look back upon the Internet Revolution, which happened in a period of about 20 years. This technological breakthrough fundamentally and irreversibly altered the way people interact in both social and economic contexts. The global economy is now dependent upon the internet to function (and I am dependent upon it for a job). Such a radical change was not foreseen by the general public, otherwise we would have all invested in Apple and Google!

But, we need not look into the future to see how technology is being used to reverse the damages humans have caused.

There is a sharp contrast in the news and media I find online. On the one hand, I read reports of environmental destruction with no signs of stopping. On the other, I see videos of tools which are used to clean plastic out of sea water, remove toxins and carbon from the atmosphere, improve the quality of soil, reduce water consumption, and so on.

Imagine, rather than re-working each model of smart phone, car, camera, and PC each year, that companies instead employed engineers to create technologies to rebuild the ecosystem, to remove carbon from the atmosphere, to restore the rainforests, to remove trash from oceans, and so on. Furthermore, imagine they were given the chance to focus on creating products which were created with negligible costs, both ecologically and environmentally.

Given the magnitude of human consumption, no ideological approach stands a chance. Asking consumers to avoid consumption of meat and dairy, to recycle aluminum cans, to conserve water, to carpool, and so on, is a pathetic way for us to feel like we're having an impact, when in reality things are getting worse faster than we want to admit (Lacan calls this "fetishistic disavowal"). While such efforts, from one perspective, are noble, the reality is that they are extremely inadequate in context of the problems ahead.

This is why engineers are morally obligated to give back. We are the only people who truly have the capability to thwart the looming economic and environmental ruin. Absent a radical transformation of the way goods are produced and distributed across the entire globe, human society faces an inevitable collapse under the pressure of limitless consumption on our naturally limited planet.

Rather than distracting ourselves with the endless, surface-level concerns of day-to-day living, artificial spiritual gratification, and shallow methods of entertainment, we must instead step back and embrace the bigger picture. Our minds are the only tool we have which can pave a new path forward for the species of this planet.