On May 26, the Smithsonian Institution convened a group of thought leaders to address the most pressing challenges facing the planet. One theme was the role—and limitations—of technological innovation in mitigating the effects of the Anthropocene. Highlights from that conversation are below. 

Catrina Rorke

“This idea, that humans can't solve a problem that we're presented with? I think we have no data for that. Humans are marvelous at treating problems, especially aggressive problems like this, quite well. That's why agricultural productivity is up. … that's why we're going to solve the climate challenge.”

“I'm a huge believer in technology… we're already solving these problems today, sure energy might be a small example, but you can see this footprint of innovation allowing us to leapfrog a lot of the obstacles that we faced in the developed world to just skip over a lot of the problems we've generated for ourselves. And so I'm optimistic, because I think we're gonna keep inventing really cool things.”

Tuck Hines

"It may be that technology will get to the point where it's acknowledging and solving a way to live within those limits, but it isn't scientifically, I will say, possible for an infinite growth of the human population on the planet." 

“The question of whether technology, or innovation, can solve the problems that we're facing with is a somewhat different question. But at the grossest level, there's only so many square meters on the planet, and if everybody's standing on all those square meters, then you’ve got a problem that technology isn't going to solve.”

Mary Tucker

“Technology is necessary, but not sufficient, which is what I think we're all saying. … I think technology as a solution alone is a misplaced notion, but especially without a precautionary principle. What are the implications for these technologies that we're releasing?”

Steve Monfort

"I think people are too reliant on quick fixes through technology and it makes them complacent [in] not dealing with the immediate threats to biodiversity that we can solve right now. ... It's a great tool. But in and of itself, it's not going to solve anything."

“If there was more consensus or action around policy, we probably would be on our way to making the change that's needed. But technology in itself is also a risk if people become disconnected with nature. And I think that's a huge issue with our generation ... this idea that you can substitute that for going out in the field and discovering biodiversity and understanding how those systems function? Those can't be done by robots, or, human beings, working with their hands, in the field, need to be doing that. And people are not going to protect. It sounds cliché, but what they don't love (they) don't understand.”

Denise Fairchild:

"Technology is a tool, but I don't think it's going to get us out of our climate challenge."

"I believe that it is an ethical challenge that we're facing. I do believe we're two and a half times past carrying capacity in the earth. That we cannot continue to produce and consume at the level that we are now. ... We're finding some tools to help solve, to mediate, to mitigate some of the problems, but I don't think it's going to solve (problem of) climate change." 


Jedediah Purdy image
Jedediah Purdy

professor of law Duke University and the author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene

Catrina Rorke image
Catrina Rorke

senior fellow for energy policy, R Street Institute

Mary Evelyn Tucker image
Mary Evelyn Tucker

co-founder and co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University