SCIENCE MATTERS: Time to ask questions about technology

NANAIMO: We need to look at the way we create and introduce technology.

I’ve always been more interested in organisms that can move on their own than in stationary plants. But when I canoe or hike along the edge of lakes or oceans and see trees that seem to be growing out of rock faces, I am blown away. How do they do it?

Once it lands, it’s stuck. It can’t move to find better soil, moisture or sunlight. It’s able to create every part of itself to grow and reproduce with the help of air, water and sun. After it sprouts and sends out roots and leaves, other species want to eat it. It can’t run, hide or fight back. It’s a wonder trees are able to survive at all, yet they can flourish and live for hundreds of years. They’re evolutionary wonders that have developed a bag of chemical tricks to ward off predators, infections, storms and fires, and ways to communicate and even share scarce resources. In Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, I saw a tree that is reputed to “walk.”

Since life originated some 3.9-billion years ago, organisms have been confronted with strikingly similar challenges: where to find nourishment, how to keep from being eaten, what to do when infected by a parasite or disease, what to do with bodily wastes, and how to reproduce and ensure offspring survive. Over billions of years and in billions of species, the solutions to these problems have been myriad, often subtle – even surprising – but always highly informative.

Almost all species that have existed are estimated to have gone extinct within an average of a few million years. Humans are an infant species, a mere 150,000 years old. But, armed with a massive brain, we’ve not only survived, we’ve used our wits to adapt to and flourish in habitats as varied as deserts, Arctic tundra, tropical rainforests, wetlands and high mountain ranges. We’ve accelerated the rate of cultural evolution beyond the speed of biological or genetic change.

Technological creativity has been critical to our success. From the time we first picked up a stick or rock to get at something or defend ourselves, we’ve devised tools like bows and arrows, knives and axes, and needles and pottery. Those often took decades, centuries or millennia to hone and improve. Now, new technology comes along weekly.

When I did my first TV series in 1962, the medium was denigrated as the “boob tube.” We said it jokingly, but it reflected an anxiety about the negative aspects of this new instrument. Over and over, we have become enamoured with the immediate benefits of technological innovation without recognizing consequences.

When DDT and other pesticides were introduced, we knew nothing of biomagnification, that molecules could be concentrated hundreds of thousands of times up the food web. And no one had a clue that the sun’s ultraviolet radiation would cleave chlorine free radicals from CFC molecules and ravage the ozone layer. Think of all the psychological and social effects, to say nothing of ecological impacts, we now see from the ubiquity of computers, cellphones and video games.

We need to look at the way we create and introduce technology. Perhaps it’s time to ask, “Why do we need this?” “Does it improve our lives in a significant way?” And then we may ask, “What are the wider repercussions of this invention throughout nature and over time?” If we asked, with greater humility, “How does nature solve problems?” we might find solutions that would avert or minimize negative consequences.

I’ve always been struck by the fact that when an animal poops, insects and fungi immediately jump on and start feasting.

Nature doesn’t waste. If all the “waste” we create could become another organism’s food or the material for another useful process, we might even eliminate the word waste altogether.

Just Posted

Robin Dutton, left, and Peter Sinclair are taking their mountain bikes and travelling down trails in the Mount Benson area June 19 as part of a 24-hour fundraiser benefiting Loaves and Fishes Community Food Bank. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Full-day mountain bike ride event raises money for Nanaimo food bank

Event part of Loaves and Fishes Community Food Bank’s Food 4 Summer campaign

According to a staff report, Regional District of Nanaimo has seen some $13.6 million in grant applications approved between Jan. 1 and May 15. (News Bulletin file)
Close to $14 million in money granted to RDN in first half of year

Successful grants include more than $4 million for transit service in Regional District of Nanaimo

A section of the rail corridor on Vancouver Island. (Black Press file photo)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Put rail trail right overtop of the tracks

Removing tracks would be a horrendous expense, says letter writer

District of Lantzville Mayor Mark Swain, left, and Snaw-Naw-As Chief Gordon Edwards sign a memorandum of understanding outside Snaw-Naw-As Market on Friday, June 18. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Lantzville and Snaw-Naw-As sign memorandum of understanding

District and First Nation create joint working group

Things are looking up for Vancouver Island as zero COVID-19 cases have been reported for the first time since October. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Island records zero new COVID-19 cases for the first time since October

For the first time since October, the province is reporting zero new… Continue reading

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 13th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert in support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York on Nov. 4, 2019. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
Canadians who got AstraZeneca shot can now see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

B.C. mayor David Screech who received his second AstraZeneca dose last week can now attend the show

New research suggests wolves can be steered away from the endangered caribou herds they prey on by making the man-made trails they use to hunt harder to move along. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Culling cutlines, not B.C. wolves, key to preserving caribou herds: researcher

The government has turned to killing hundreds of wolves in an effort to keep caribou around

Janice Coady, left, Aimee Chalifoux and Linda Milford at a vigil for Amy Watts on Wednesday, June 16, outside Nanaimo city hall. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
‘We need to do better,’ says mother of woman killed in Nanaimo

Vigil held for former outreach worker Amy Watts, whose body was found downtown June 3

Gary Abbott (left) and Louis De Jaeger were two of the organizers for the 2014 Spirit of the People Powwow in Chilliwack. Monday, June 21, 2021 is Indigenous Peoples Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of June 20 to 26

Indigenous Peoples Day, Take Your Dog to Work Day, Onion Rings Day all coming up this week

Most Read