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19.5: Dealing with Technological Advances

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    Over the past several decades, we have experienced a boom in new technologies to make our lives easier, our work more efficient, and our lifestyles more sustainable. Conservation biologists have adopted many of these new technologies to great success (Pimm et al., 2015). Consider, for example, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor environmental changes, freely-available satellite imagery to monitor ecosystems and wildlife, and molecular methods to monitor for wildlife crimes. Hand-held devices that capture and send field data in real time are also increasing in popularity, as they enable conservation and law enforcement agencies to learn of and respond to threats much quicker than before (Wilson et al., 2019). To better streamline these efforts, there are groups such as Wildlabs which specialize in connecting the conservation community with engineers and entrepreneurs who develop such new technologies.

    While conservation biologists certainly benefit from new technologies, these advances sometimes pose new challenges. Hunters now use powerful guns and motorized vehicles where historically they used bows and arrows and walked on foot. Sea fishing industries have transformed from using small wind-powered and hand-powered boats to large motorized fleets with freezers that can stay at sea for months at a time. Some technologies are so powerful that they allow for the alteration of entire ecosystems in a relatively short span of time. Some of these transformations are intentional, such as the creation of dams and the conversion of new agricultural land; others, such as pollution, are negative by-products from human activities. The impacts of these developments on ecosystems and wildlife are enormous and ominous; they have also stimulated the growth, expansion, and evolution of conservation biology.

    Renewable energy sources are needed to create a sustainable society. They must also be evaluated for their environmental impact, with systems developed to mitigate those impacts.

    Technologies developed to achieve sustainable development may sometimes also present new conservation challenges. For example, to combat climate change, scientists and engineers are rushing to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by developing carbon-neutral and energy efficient alternatives. As these renewable energy sources have become more assimilated into our everyday lives, their unintended consequences on the environment have also become better understood. We now know that large wind farms (Figure 19.5.1) pose a significant collision hazard to birds (Rushworth and Krüger, 2014) and bats (Frick et al., 2017), while large solar-panel arrays that concentrate sunlight can also expose wildlife to burning temperatures (Walston et al., 2016). The impacts of hydroelectric dams are cause for even more concern: in addition to harming local fisheries and freshwater biodiversity, these and other artificial reservoirs also generate large amounts of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change (Deemer et al., 2016). Bioenergy also seems to create more problems than solutions, since it has become an important driver of habitat loss (Kleiner, 2007). Similarly, hydrological fracturing for natural gas extraction—not in itself a carbon-neutral energy alternative but claimed to do less damage than coal and petroleum—has turned out to be so damaging to the environment and human health that several governments have now banned the practice.

    Figure 19.5.1 Wind power is become a popular technology representing a greener future. Yet, like other forms of carbon-neutral energy, wind power also has serious negative impacts on biodiversity that need to be mitigated to be sustainable. Photograph by Lollie-Pop,, CC BY 2.0.

    Despite the challenges posed by emerging technologies, none have yet posed an insurmountable threat. For example, we have already solved the ozone crisis by banning harmful chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). We have also come a long way toward a sustainable fossil-fuel free world by setting guidelines for reducing the impact of wind power generation on wildlife (Reid et al., 2015; Martin et al., 2017), reducing the negative impacts of bioenergy production (Correa et al., 2017), safeguarding nuclear power stations and reusing nuclear waste (Heard and Brook, 2017), and developing more affordable solar power (Randall, 2016). It is important, however, to note that none of these emerging threats were solved by people who defended the status quo or resisted change, but by individuals who were alert and rapidly responded to new challenges before they reached a crisis point.

    This page titled 19.5: Dealing with Technological Advances is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.