Right role of technology dissected at Santa Clara encyclical conference

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Mandy Erickson


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While Silicon Valley has long developed technology and business models aimed at saving the planet, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment has given the sector’s work a critical promotion, said speakers at a conference on the document held this week at Santa Clara University.

“It’s the alliance between science and religion and policy that’s going to save us,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at the University of California, San Diego.

With so many people skeptical that human activity has wrought climate change, “we need the help of religions,” added Ramanathan, who sits on the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. “I view Pope Francis as the moral authority of the world.”

The conference, “Our Future on a Shared Planet: Silicon Valley in Conversation with the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis,” featured one of the pope’s primary encyclical promoters, as well as academics and civic leaders who largely praised “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” and presented a hopeful version of the planet’s future.

Santa Clara, a Jesuit institution that sits squarely in Silicon Valley and produces many engineers and business leaders for the tech industry, hosted the conference on Tuesday and Wednesday.

More: "Encyclical-themed week brings prominent cardinals to US" (Oct. 30, 2015)

On the conference’s first day, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, provided an overview of the encyclical, honing in on its discussion of technology -- a fitting focus, the cardinal said, for a region he described as “the center of the major technological revolution of our times.”

“Among its main points, Laudato Si’ critiques a naïve confidence that technological advances and undirected commercial markets will inevitably and automatically solve our environmental problems,” he said in prepared remarks.

While the digital revolution has brought many successes, such as increases in communication capacity, information access and improved quality of life, it has also ushered in new challenges, said Turkson. He referenced the environmental and health harms associated with overconsumption of electronics, and the conflicts arising between local communities and those companies mining resources for such devices.

The pope doesn’t wish for a return to the Stone Age or “bemoan technological advance,” Turkson said, but rather, is deeply concerned with the enormous but largely hidden power technology provides those who control it, and along with it its economic output.

“Here in Silicon Valley, more specifically, I think [the Holy Father] might say that, in the midst of so much creative technological thinking, there is far too little critical thinking about technology,” he said.

The cardinal continued: “Your challenge is to think in this thoroughly balanced way. The world is expecting you, in this unique place of the planet, to ask bold and avant-garde questions about the future: How will the ‘digital ecology’ keep the web open in order to democratize knowledge for everyone? How will the digital divide and the data gap be closed, to give all people access to information for a better quality of life? How will the Internet get beyond rampant consumerism and become a space of discussion, production and solidarity? Moreover, how will Silicon Valley spearhead the right cultural, technological and economic environment for a carbon-free civilization?”

More: "Do science and religion conflict? It’s all in how you ‘see’ it" (Nov. 4, 2015)

Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, Santa Clara’s next-door neighbor, said he took some issue with the encyclical’s skepticism toward technology. “Tech isn’t the panacea, but it is a very, very important part of the solution,” he said during day two of the conference. “We are going to need all the tools here in Silicon Valley and throughout the world to enable that to happen.”  

In July, Liccardo joined other mayors from around the world at the Vatican to discuss the encyclical through the context of dually addressing climate change and poverty. The joint declaration, signed by the 64 participating mayors and government officials, in part concluded that "Today humanity has the technological instruments, the financial resources and the know-how to reverse climate change while also ending extreme poverty, through the application of sustainable development solutions, including the adoption of low-carbon energy systems supported by information and communications technologies."

Other speakers at the conference Wednesday emphasized that technologies such as inexpensive solar power can save the planet from further warming. And going green will not destroy the economy: While California’s population and gross domestic product have grown in the last 20 years, its greenhouse gases have dropped 13 percent, Ramanathan said.

“It’s not pie in the sky. The technology is here,” he said.

But the speakers noted that the tech sector needs to work within the market system to ensure these technologies gain traction.

“Our best hopes lie in creating policies that will steer consumerism toward a more sustainable path,” said Bill Sundstrom, a professor of economics at Santa Clara.

While in Laudato Si’ the pope criticizes the buying and selling of carbon credits, Liccardo and Sundstrom defended the practice: “We need to embrace these mechanisms,” Liccardo said. “We need to work with the market economy.”

Sundstrom also praised the practice of putting a dollar value on the ecosystem, a relatively new economic tool known as natural capital valuation. It can put an ecological price on a new beach resort, for example, by assessing its financial effect on fisheries and farmland as well as the price of mitigating the pollution it will create.

“Valuation is a crucial policy,” he said. “We can at least ensure that polluters pay for the damages they cause.”

More: "Catholic higher-ed leaders pledge to wrap Francis' environmental concerns into their mission" (Sept. 18, 2015)

The speakers went on to describe several businesses and economic systems that are creating capital while protecting the environment and providing an income for the world’s poorest. John Denniston, a former venture capitalist, has started a for-profit business -- Shared-X -- that invests in small-scale farms in developing countries. Shared-X helps farmers grow crops using the latest sustainable agriculture technology, allowing them to produce a much greater yield.

The farmers’ increased income allows them to feed their families better and send their kids to school, “and we think that’s good for business,” Denniston said.

“The way we design our business, social and environmental objectives reinforces our economic objectives,” he said.

Gretchen Daily, an environmental sciences professor at Stanford University, said that governments around the world have implemented projects that are protecting the environment, providing residents with income and fostering social movements.

After catastrophic floods in 1998 that were attributed to deforestation, China decided a more economic approach would be to reforest the land that was stripped for farming. “Now, 200 million people in China are making a living off sustainability,” she said, adding that China leads the world in reforestation.

An example closer to home resides in the Catskill Mountains, the watershed for New York City’s residents. Pollution from ranches and other development in the Catskills had diminished the water quality, causing the city to consider building a water treatment plant that would cost billions of dollars.

Instead, the city decided to pay Catskills residents to protect the water source – for example, by keeping grazing cattle away from streams. The program has solved the water quality problem at a fraction of the cost. And it’s improved the ecosystem.

“It’s not rocket science,” Daily said of the residents’ stewardship of the land. “But getting to win-win is rocket science.”

Daily added that the technology sector is poised, indeed obligated, to create solutions to environmental problems: “In Silicon Valley, we can lead the world. It’s our responsibility and it would be our joy to do that.”

[Mandy Erickson is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.]

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