In the past century, society’s understanding and use of technology have undergone a profound transformation. Rapid advancements in mechanical, chemical and electronic technologies have fueled unprecedented economic and population growth worldwide. And in recent years, new information, network and media technologies have changed almost every aspect of how we live, work, play, learn and communicate.
For those fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of them, these advancements have provided countless benefits. But many have also yielded unanticipated and dangerous consequences. The rapid deterioration of the natural world—including atmospheric pollution, natural-resource depletion, mass species extinction and extreme climate change—is threatening the finely balanced systems on which humanity’s continued existence depends.
If we hope to effectively address these daunting challenges, we can no longer afford to take shortsighted approaches to technological and economic development. In this interconnected world, the mistaken assumption that resources and growth are unlimited becomes increasingly suicidal. Yet it still dominates much technological development and economic policy, feeding the addictive habits of consumption and distraction in communities worldwide.
Fortunately, a profound shift toward a more positive future is already under way. Acknowledging the limits of the Earth’s natural systems, it empowers us to bring human societies more in tune with the balance of nature. By viewing our actions and technologies in the context of locally and globally interconnected systems, we can transform our societies to intelligently utilize the available resources while conserving and regenerating them for future use. Indeed, incorporating such systems-oriented natural designs will be the key to successful technological development in the 21st century.
As part of this shift, entrepreneurs, scientists, designers, architects and engineers are increasingly discovering what healers, gardeners, farmers and many indigenous cultures have long understood: Nature is the universe’s fundamental technology. And as our scientific ability to observe the inner workings of natural systems has improved, we’ve come to realize that the complexity, effectiveness and sustainability of our human-made technologies pale in comparison. The most efficient, intelligent and regenerative technology in existence, nature is so powerful that we have mistakenly assumed it will always be available to meet our needs. But as we’ve gained a deeper understanding of the large-scale interactions between human-made and natural systems, it’s become apparent that we’ve been ignoring the impact of our technologies on nature at our own peril.
At the same time, the desire to learn from nature is transforming the ways new technologies are conceived and developed. The emerging field of biomimicry, for example, seeks to emulate nature’s efficient designs to produce optimal, human-made technologies. Web sites such as biomimicry.net, bioneers.org, worldchanging.com, inhabitat.com, ecogeek.org and many others highlight the streamlined, energy-efficient, nontoxic, recycled and biodegradable inventions that are shaping our lives and economies in this new century. And though the current tilt toward green everything might seem to be just a passing fad or feel-good marketing campaign, these new approaches offer the best prospects for our own species’ long-term survival.
Western North Carolina is well-positioned—both culturally and geographically—to cultivate such approaches. The region’s astounding biodiversity makes it an ideal environment for developing environmental, climatic, agricultural and energy-efficiency technologies and practices. Accordingly, numerous local groups—both commercial and nonprofit—are promoting sustainable approaches to regional energy, transportation, communication, food, housing and health infrastructures. Among these trailblazers are the S.E.E. Expo, Blue Ridge Biofuels, Appalachian Energy, the Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project, the WNC Green Building Council, AmericanGreen.tv, SustainableWNC.org, the UNCA Craft Campus, Warren Wilson College, the Bent Creek Institute and many others.
Simultaneously, local scientists, artists, educators and storytellers are collaborating through the Asheville HUB Project, using media arts and visualization technologies to help communities better understand scientific data and our collective impact on the natural world. Leveraging the huge archives of climatic and environmental data available locally, these visionaries are creating tools that enable decision-makers to intuitively visualize and better plan for the effects of climate change, future land use, and natural-disaster scenarios. UNCA has even announced a graduate-level class to help students develop creative solutions for mitigating and adapting to global climate change.
Although our society’s shift toward developing more effective ways to live in accord with the rules of nature is well under way, its ultimate success is by no means guaranteed. In order to mitigate the most serious threats posed by the ongoing destabilization of natural systems, we must each take personal and public responsibility for learning about and engaging these issues. Buying local, conserving energy and even developing leading-edge businesses is not enough. We must also require our local, state and national leaders to forcefully oppose the construction of any new coal-fired power plants that would negate all of our best efforts (for the alarming statistics, see architecture2030.org).
Happily, the re-evaluation of technology’s role and purpose in the 21st century is providing exciting opportunities for both Western North Carolina residents and the region’s economy. To take full advantage of those opportunities, however, we need community, political and economic-development leaders who are not afraid to support entrepreneurial innovation, public policies and local infrastructures framed by the systems-oriented realities of 21st-century life.
By working with our neighbors to create the future we want to live in, many of us are already developing best practices, products and services that are finding a worldwide audience. And since we’re all integral parts of nature’s system, I can’t think of a better place than here to start acting like it.
[West Asheville-based media artist/entrepreneur David McConville founded the Media Arts Project (www.themap.org) and co-organized the first regional Design Science Lab (www.designsciencelab.org) with the Buckminster Fuller Institute.]