There’s No App For That

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Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss

by Richard Heinberg

Technology has grown with us, side by side, since the dawn of human society. Each time that we’ve turned to technology to solve a problem or make us more comfortable, we’ve been granted a solution. But it turns out that all of the gifts technology has bestowed on us have come with costs. And now we are facing some of our biggest challenges: climate change, overpopulation, and biodiversity loss. Naturally, we’ve turned to our longtime friend and ally—technology—to get us out of this mess. But are we asking too much this time?

How do we actually initiate a collective moral conversation about moving beyond illusory techno-fix solutions, and begin the processes of negotiation and behavior change? For the conversation to happen, we need three things: some assurance that such a conversation is possible and can achieve the needed results; the social and cultural space for that conversation to occur; and the will to have it. In addition, some inspiring examples might be helpful.

First, conversations about limits are perfectly natural, and we are indeed capable—genetically as well as culturally—of having them and acting on them. Over countless generations, human societies learned to tame biologically rooted reward seeking with culturally learned behaviors geared toward self-restraint and empathy for others. Prudence, thrift, and the willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the community are evolved functions of the neo-cortex—the part of the brain unique to mammals—and are both rooted in evolutionary imperatives and also learned by example. Traditional human societies expended a great deal of effort to provide moral guidance, often through myths and stories, to foster pro-social behavior and to avert ecological overshoot.

photo by Lalo

photo by Lalo

Since the advent of consumerism, we have cast aside some of those stories in order to stoke economic growth. Consumerism has promoted greed and individualism, and blinds us to the environmental consequences of overconsumption. After decades of consumerism, it is difficult to rapidly change people’s tendency to want more. However, it is possible to redefine what “more” means. We can choose to measure success in terms of relationships, community solidarity, meaning, and shared experiences rather than the mere acquisition of things.

In promoting pro-social behaviors that benefit the integrity of the natural world, it is important to work with human nature—the selfish as well as the cooperative parts. While we are deeply social creatures who need social relationships to thrive—relationships that require giving and reciprocity—we are also driven by status and reward. We can harness both of these aspects of ourselves—the competitive and the cooperative—by creating new cultural stories (and reviving old ones) in which high status and reward are attached to habits and behaviors that promote healing, sharing, giving, creating, growing, conserving, and thriving within constraints. We can also rewire our brains to some degree through the formation of new habits, but that requires setting intentions and sticking to behaviors that may at first seem unfamiliar and even uncomfortable.

Part of the challenge we face is that our society’s customary sources of moral guidance—political and religious institutions and their leaders—have come to believe in the need for unsustainable growth. Not only does government encourage us to consume more commercial products, but some religions also insist that we have big families and forgo contraception. Those messages undermine our survival prospects and we must challenge them with common sense and moral persuasion.

The public space in which difficult conversations about values and limits can occur is getting both crowded and scarce. In the twentieth century, journalism could change minds, institutions, and behaviors. For example, The Jungle, a 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair, alerted the public to unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry, resulting in public outcry that led to reforms. Similarly, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (published in 1962) changed public attitudes about pesticides and led to the banning of DDT. In the early days of television, broadcasts by Edward R. Murrow helped bring down the unscrupulous, red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Today it’s more difficult to imagine a single journalistic voice having such impact. In the decades immediately after World War II, information traveled via books, newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Most Americans got their nightly news from one of three sources. Now we have hundreds of cable channels instead of just a few TV networks; but more importantly we have the Internet—a powerful information technology that in some ways subsumes all the others. In its wake, the media have morphed into a giant echo chamber—or series of them. British humorist Stephen Fry calls this development, “The ghettoization of opinion and identity…apportioning us narrow sources of information that accord with our pre-existing views, giving a whole new power to cognitive bias, entrenching us in our political and social beliefs, ever widening the canyon between us and those who disagree with us.”

Without universally trusted news and commentary, we are in effect becoming re-tribalized, much as communications technology guru Marshall McLuhan foretold back in the 1960s. One sub-group’s hard scientific data is another’s “fake news.”

Nevertheless, space for such conversations still exists at the local level. Think of a spectrum of action ranging from the individual level at the bottom, ranging up to national and global levels at the top. Though action is needed at the national and global levels, the local community provides a “sweet spot” for discussion and engagement. Within the community, we interact with one another directly and can challenge one another’s beliefs. Personal action within the community is more likely to be driven by genuine moral commitment than by stereotyped national political messages (though the latter certainly do intrude into local politics). And it’s at the community level where those who are affected by policy have the greatest ability to shape policy.

Effective action can entail running for local office, or engaging with local officials on issues having to do with land use, development, housing, building regulations, and transport planning. Beyond the formal machinery of local politics, one can create opportunities for public education by organizing lectures, study groups, and film showings. Local chapters of organizations like Transition Initiatives and Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) can also provide venues for conversation and action. As minds are changed within the community, an opening is created for more national- and global-level consideration of topics that may previously have seemed off-limits.

Conversations require both listening and speaking skills. In a polarized political environment, one skill particularly needed is the ability to convey meaning and concern while avoiding charged rhetoric and loaded words; another is the ability to impart knowledge without making the listener feel stupid or wrong.

The will to confront our pressing problems exists. People across the political spectrum are worried about the future and want to see environmental and social problems solved. But we must find ways to mobilize that will, ways that actually result in behavior change. The old values survive. But we must take individual and collective action rooted in those values.

Since the 1970s, environmental organizations have played an important role in motivating values-based individual and collective action. These organizations’ founders understood that overpopulation and environmental damage are essentially moral problems, and so they crafted messages designed to raise awareness and shift collective behavior. Some of those messages were inevitably perceived as hectoring, shaming, or frightening. But, at least up to a point, they worked.

Somehow, we must amplify that effort and make it much more effective. That will require environmentalists to return to their first principles. Eco-modernists have said, in effect, that with regard to efforts to change collective behavior, “We tried that in the ‘70s and it didn’t work.” However, to the extent a moral message was tried, it did work. Efforts to change policy and behavior resulted in cleaner air and water, a slew of effective regulations, and the adoption of new habits by tens of millions of people in industrial societies. Population organizations, by promoting family planning and the raising of women’s status in tradition-bound societies, managed to help reduce the global population growth rate. True, earlier generations of environmentalists didn’t accomplish enough, but it is wrong to think they achieved nothing at all.

A reinvigorated and refined moral message is needed to confront a new reality. Whereas environmentalists at first merely issued warnings of eventual consequences, we now see consequences at our doorstep; meanwhile warnings are graver, more specific, and grounded in abundant data. While environmentalists formerly labored to wake citizens from a stupefied consumerist trance, the option of remaining in that somnambulant condition is now available to fewer and fewer people as economic growth falters and inequality worsens.

The message needed today is one that helps masses of people come to terms with a rapidly changing world in which inequality and climate change are increasingly linked. That message must be directed especially toward young people, who are entering a world already full of humans and their industrial wastes, one that is also rapidly emptying of species and resources. It is already clear that millennials’ priorities are different from those of their parents and grandparents: millennials are uninterested in car ownership; they want experiences instead of things. What they need is a way of understanding the moral challenge of our time, and opportunities to act on that understanding.

Developing a healthy relationship with technology will require national technology assessment protocols. We must put public effort into foreseeing and measuring each technology’s impacts on environment, human health, psychology, and society. And we must do this before that technology’s widespread adoption. Some new technologies or their applications may deserve to be banned outright. Technology assessment is already happening on a small scale: several governments (Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, the European Parliament) have institutes or departments for technology assessment to inform government regulatory decisions. (The United States Congress created the Office for Technology Assessment in 1972; over the years it published hundreds of useful and insightful reports. A budget-cutting Congress abolished it in 1995.)

At the same time, we must encourage one another to adopt personal habits of reflection with regard to the choice and use of technologies. We should each find ways to limit our screen time; we should think carefully about our choices regarding land transport and about whether and how much to fly; and we should give morality a place in our food choices—whether to eat meat and how much of it, and whether to eat organic or conventionally grown foods.

As members of communities, we should also maintain the keen awareness that these kinds of personal moral choices are more readily available to middle-class households than to low-income families, who may not have the option to eat organic, local foods or to buy an electric car. We should therefore work within our communities to expand the possibilities for ethical choice to all people.

It may be helpful to survey some encouraging examples in which morally motivated action is working to address our three big problems.


The best success stories about action to combat climate change rarely emerge from national capitals; they come instead from places like California—especially communities like Sonoma, Marin, and Monterey Counties, where citizens banded together to create their own nonprofit electric utility companies dedicated to expanding renewable energy; from Amsterdam and Copenhagen, cities committed to minimize the role of the automobile; and from villages in Africa where cheap solar cells and LEDs are reducing the burning of biomass for light. Many cities have adopted 100 percent clean energy goals that are far more ambitious than commitments by their national governments.


Thailand launched a government-sponsored family planning program in 1970. It included public messages about the benefits of family planning; provision of a broad array of contraceptives without prescription; and distribution by nurses, midwives, and even shopkeepers within communities. By the late 1980s, the nation’s average lifetime number of births per woman had dropped from about seven to below the “replacement-level” of 2.1. A cost-benefit analysis estimated that Thailand’s program prevented 16.1 million unintended births between 1972 and 2010, saving the government $11.8 billion in social service costs, or $16 for every dollar invested in the program.

Iran began a national family planning program in 1967, and as a result, the nation’s lifetime number of births per woman fell by nearly two children—from 7.7 in 1966 to around 6.0 in 1976. However, soon after the 1979 revolution, the family planning program was dismantled. As a direct result, the fertility rate rose to 7.0 in 1980, and the rate of population growth jumped to 3.6 percent annually. Voices of concern inside and outside of government forced a change in population policies in the late 1980s. The Iranian government, with the support of Muslim religious leaders, reinstituted its national family planning program. The average lifetime number of births per woman declined from 6.8 in 1984, to 5.5 in 1988, to 2.8 in 1996, and finally to 1.9 in 2012.

Many other countries with successful family planning programs and low fertility rates include Bangladesh, Colombia, Indonesia, Tunisia, Turkey, and Vietnam. China, with its one-child policy (recently revoked), is a special case in that its family planning program is not voluntary. The experience of other countries shows that coercion is not necessary.

Some of the most effective work to reduce unsustainable population growth is being led by Population Media Center, which enlists creative artists in countries with high population growth rates (which are usually also among the world’s poorest nations) to produce radio and television dramas featuring strong female characters who successfully confront issues related to family planning. This strategy has been shown to be the most cost-effective and humane means of reducing high birth rates in these nations.

Species conservation 

At the center of successful biodiversity programs is the steady expansion of national parks and nature reserves (including marine protected areas), as well as efforts to slow deforestation, limit bad projects (big dams, mining, etc.), and restrict fishing. Conservation organizations, including the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, and government agencies (using legislation such as the U.S. Endangered Species Act), work to rescue animals and plants on the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, national parks and wilderness areas help preserve habitat.

Efforts to help forests migrate in response to climate change, to remove invasive species from island ecosystems, and to re-populate ecosystems with native species are ongoing in many nations. There are many individual success stores (Amur tigers, the gray whale, the southern white rhinoceros, the mountain gorilla, and other endangered animals have been saved from extinction—for now), however, only the protection of habitat on a massive scale will prevent future losses of plant and animal species on a terrifying scale.


International development agencies typically aim to address inequality by way of bank loans for infrastructure spending, hoping to nudge poor nations toward the ultimate goal of becoming urbanized societies with a large middle class and a consumer economy. But in a few South American nations—notably Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia—a new social movement is taking a different developmental path altogether. “Buen Vivir,” Spanish for “good living” or “living well,” draws from indigenous ideas and attitudes to promote a way of living based on a mutually respectful, interdependent coexistence between humans and nature. It refuses to measure well-being in terms of dollar incomes and advocates de-growth of the high-energy economies of the industrialized world.

If we do all of the things suggested here, can we turn the tide and avert ecological catastrophe and social turmoil? There’s no guarantee. But if we continue on our present path, no magic machine will be able to prevent current trends from converging into an unprecedented ecological and human crisis. Nor can national governments by themselves save the day: they are too invested in the current growth-based model of development, and in many cases too politically polarized to be capable of managing such a profound change of direction. Our only real hope is to join together as individuals, as households, and as communities to weave a new fabric of cooperative action rooted in deep and ancient values. That means deliberately choosing to live in a world that is sustainable and equitable, by following such a world’s inevitable and inherent rules.

Becoming better people in a better world: there’s no app for that. The good news is, we don’t need one. It’s a potential that already lies within us, ready to be re-awakened.

Richard Heinberg is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, and widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost educators on the need to transition away from fossil fuels.

From There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss, Copyright
©2017 by Post Carbon Institute,


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