Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Technology: a Tool, Not the Answer
distributed 5/23/14 - ©2014

"Technology keeps improving and it is making our lives easier day after day. Therefore, if there are problems with the environment, technology will be the answer, right?"

That question came from a student in an undergraduate class that I met with last week. It is a refreshingly candid expression of a set of opinions that are fairly widespread. Variations of the student's assumptions crop up often, if a bit less blatantly, even in religious circles.

There are many things wrong with what the student asked, on so many different levels. For today -- and with my core audience of church leaders in mind -- I'll confine myself to two interconnected points that are important as we try to live well in today's world.

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The first is quick to name. "Making our lives easier day after day" is very different from "making the world more ecologically healthy." In Tuesday's class, I named two examples related to oceans where technology's "benefits" cause grave dangers.

  • The development and proliferation of artificial fertilizers since the 1950s has transformed agriculture, but it also has polluted oceans with excess nitrogen. "Dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico and several other locations are a direct result of this new technology. Scientists rate nitrogen overload as a danger to the planet equal to, or even greater than, global warming.

  • The powerful new technologies used for deep-sea fishing have enabled the depletion of ocean fisheries. Sonar to find schools of fish, enormous drift nets, miles-long lines of fishhooks, and factory ships that can process and freeze the catch at sea have allowed fleets to plunder the oceans. In the last decade, in the north Atlantic region, commercial fish populations of cod, hake, haddock and flounder have fallen by as much as 95%.

The student had boundless optimism in the virtues of technology. A more honest assessment tells us that human creativity and inventiveness is a mixed bag, with a combination of good and bad outcomes.

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Even among those who are realistic and cautious about the marvels of technology, I still see a version of the student's conclusion. "Technology will be the answer, right?"

In the face of global climate change, the urgent need to slash emissions of greenhouse gasses leads most advocates toward innovative equipment as the most likely way to act. If we're burning too much carbon, then those energy sources have to be replaced with cleaner options. Wind power, solar energy, tides and geothermal sources are touted as what we need. Clean energy is combined with efficiency -- LED lights, hybrid cars, and super-efficient furnaces.

My friends and colleagues who push for these alternatives are confessional about the imperfections of the technology. Wind turbines can kill birds. Solar panels use rare minerals, and large solar arrays disrupt fragile desert habitat. There are drawbacks and costs for every option. But, with the mess that we're in, we can make a strong case that the positives far outweigh the negatives.

As we seek rather desperately for ways to minimize humanity's impact on the planet, new technologies look like our best bet. That is especially true when governments seem incapable of any constructive action at all, and when business is guided only by profit.

Even in churches, when the conversation takes on the threats of climate disruption and ecological destabilization, the prevailing word of hope and guidance is technological. Go solar, change lights, insulate, cut waste, support renewables.

Those are all necessary steps. We do need new ways of generating power, and greater efficiency in our use of resources. But there are times when I hear the optimistic student's belief taking hold. It is a matter of shading, but there is a very important distinction between "technology will be the answer" and "technology will be part of the answer." That distinction is especially critical in churches.

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Let me twist the language just a bit into religious terminology. In this time of great crisis, or in any time, will technology save us? Not just save us in the most immediate and practical sense, the way a life preserver saves a person floundering in deep water. Will technology restore us to right relationship with God, with our community, and with ourselves?

When we look at the teachings and the example of Jesus, when we look to the biblical prophets and the saints of the church, when we think of the wise spiritual teachers of other faith traditions, do we ever find them saying, "If you just use some different hardware, you'll be fine."

No, the religious word of truth doesn't tell us to change the tools we use. In a time of crisis, faith traditions tell us to change where we are going, to change the values that guide us, and to change our identities. "Follow me" is the invitation from Jesus. "Come back to me" and to the covenant is the recurring call from God in the prophets.

We are in crisis because of technology. Oceans are suffering because of our tools. Earth's climate is being thrown out of balance by the rampant burning of fossil fuels, made possible by modern technologies to extract, process and consume fossil energy. But depleted oceans and climate change are only symptoms of a deeper problem -- an arrogance about human wisdom and power, an alienation from creation, and distorted notions of what makes for the good life.

Technology will not save us, even in the most superficial ways. Unless we turn our society toward different goals, we will continue to be in crisis. Our most pressing need is not for ways to tap into renewable energy. What we really need is a longing for a just and sustainable world.

Now, a longing for God's shalom will lead us toward the best possible technologies. Technology will be a part of the answer, but only a part. Technology is one tool we can employ as we seek to turn ourselves, individually and collectively, toward new ways of living in community.

I worry and I grieve when I hear churches speaking too shallowly about the crises of our time. We are missing our calling, and we are not telling the truth, when we say that technology is the answer. The answer is a profound shift in identity and values, and technology is only a tool that we can use in making that shift.

In our churches, in all communities of faith, I hope and pray that we will remember the real answer -- the faithful answer -- to Earth's great problems.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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