The Roots of Progress

The environment as infrastructure

A good metaphor for the ideal relationship between humanity and the environment is that the environment is like critical infrastructure.

Infrastructure is valuable, because it provides crucial services. You want to maintain it carefully, because it’s bad if it breaks down.

But infrastructure is there to serve us, not for its own sake. It has no intrinsic value. We don’t have to “minimize impact” on it. It belongs to us, and it’s ours to optimize for our purposes.

Infrastructure is something that can & should be upgraded, improved upon—as we often improve on nature. If a river or harbor isn’t deep enough, we dredge it. If there’s no waterway where we want one, we dig a canal. If there is a mountain in our way, we blast a tunnel; if a canyon, we span it with a bridge. If a river is threatening to overflow its banks, we build a levee. If our fields don’t get enough water, we irrigate them; if they don’t have enough nutrients, we fertilize them. If the water we use for drinking and bathing is unclean, we filter and sanitize it. If mosquitoes are spreading disease, we eliminate them.

In the future, with better technology, we might do even more ambitious upgrades and more sophisticated maintenance. We could monitor and control the chemical composition of the oceans and the atmosphere. We could maintain the level of the oceans, the temperature of the planet, the patterns of rainfall.

The metaphor of environment as infrastructure implies that we should neither trash the planet nor leave it untouched. Instead, we should maintain and upgrade it.

(Credit where due: I got this idea for this metaphor from Stewart Brand; the elaboration/interpretation is my own, and he might not agree with it.)

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

Social media link image credit: Wikimedia / Shawn Hartley

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