Can Technology Save the World's Coral Reefs?

Will technology clean up after us? Maybe, a little bit.

Can new technology and understanding of the world's coral reefs save the existing reefs? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

Can new technology and understanding of the world's coral reefs save the existing reefs?

No. We know enough to start fixing the problems and have sufficient technological knowledge now.

The coral reefs (and the worlds environments in general) are in the condition they are in because of decisions about how we manage the environment we live in. The solution to these environmental conditions is the realm of sociology and politics, not technology or ecology. It really is that simple. We need to agree as a planet that how we are consuming natural resources and how we are managing waste products of our consumptive activities is not sustainable.

I spent over 20 years studying why coral reefs were in good or poor condition around the western Pacific. I’ve ready tons of scientific articles on studies that asked the same questions about reefs and related ecosystems around the world. While further science will refine our understanding of ecological processes, what is now happening to our reefs does not need further study to take action to fix the problems.

The data are overwhelming. Climate change - caused by humans: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Anyone that claims otherwise it part of the lunatic fringe. Overfishing - caused by us - who else would you like to blame? Non-point-source pollution (aka NPS, aka polluted runoff) - the stuff that is producing huge oceanic Dead zones and locally degrading coastal environments- caused by us.

Will technology clean up after us? Maybe, a little bit. Most ‘tech-fixes’ for environmental problems suffer from over-enthusiastic media coverage and often significant flaws in the intent to reality ratio (e.g. I asked 15 ocean plastic pollution experts about the Ocean Cleanup project, and they have concerns, Is Capturing Carbon from the Air Practical?) Compensatory mitigation on coral reefs - technical fixes for destroying reef in one area by fixing others, has failed to live up to it’s expectations ( and don’t get me started on artificial reefs in general….

Should we keep plastic out of the water or fix it afterwards? That’s 8 experts for prevention and 7 for prevention/cleanup. Image from David Shiffman’s survey of 15 ocean plastic experts.

And let us not forget the cost issue. Tech fixes, unless tied to root causes are transferring cost to others. A tech fix is someone (taxpayers) paying to fix someone else’s mess. In some cases, it might be Americans fixing American’s pollution problems or Indonesians fixing Indonesians’ pollution problems. But many issues are trans border, if not global. Why should Belize pay to fix problems causes by China, the US, EU, etc.? For that matter why should you or I pay to clean up a mess caused by a neighbor that can’t manage to put trash in the right place?

I don’t mean to be overly harsh on technology. It has the possibility of being part of the solution. CO2 scrubbers tied to coal fired plants could mitigate CO2 releases in a substantial way. But those scrubbers will cost money to build, run and maintain. Who will pay the cost? The users of that power? Fair enough if you have the option of buying non polluting power and not paying for a solution that is fixing a problem that doesn’t need to exist in the first place.

Existing technologies can be implemented to mitigate climate change, a primary, existential threat to modern coral reefs - reducing the use of fossil fuels and other sources of green house gasses, reversing trends in deforestation, reducing energy consumption all can happen with existing technologies. Reducing fishing pressures and addressing NPS pollution can either be addressed with existing technologies or changes in how humans behave - either voluntarily or through legal mandate. We have the technology, we just need collectively as responsible humans, have the wisdom and will power to save coral reefs in particular and oceans as a whole.

This question originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora:

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