Technology and nature are often seen as opposites, and many claim that nature must yield to technology. This is a false dichotomy, however. For one thing, a lot of what we think of as nature is really technology. Many of the animal and plant species we connect with nature are the result of hundreds or even thousands of years of breeding programs or cross pollination between different species – the good, old-fashioned type of genetic engineering – or have been imported and bred for hunting. The familiar pheasant is only native to Asia, and rabbits were first introduced to Australian nature a couple of centuries ago. If we get stuck in the false dichotomy between nature and technology, we risk missing out on a lot of opportunities that could benefit both the environment and our wellbeing in the broad sense.
Take for instance organic farming of crops. Few organic farmers would touch genetically engineered crops with a ten-foot pole, but in fact, genetic technology and organic farming have the potential to become each other’s best allies. In organic farming, you are not allowed to use pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertiliser, and this leads to lower productivity than in industrial farming. What if organic farmers began planting crops genetically modified to not need as much fertiliser? Or be more resistant to insect attacks? Considering that the crops that organic farmers grow today aren’t particularly natural either, this shouldn’t be an issue. Organic farmers could then provide guidelines for what types of genetic engineering they would allow in organic farming and hence promote the use of these over types that aren’t as good for the environment. This would be a stronger and more nuanced position than a blanket rejection of genetic technology.
Scientists from the University of Maryland have recently developed a new product that shows how nature and technology can work together in the best way. It is, surreal as it may sound, transparent wood (cnn.it/1TJmfak). The scientists first remove the yellow substance lignin from the wood in a process similar to how you make paper pulp from wood – with the difference that the process is performed on whole pieces of wood, preserving the structures of nanocellulose that give the wood its strength. Then, the empty channels in the wood are filled with epoxy (which is harmless in its solid form). The result is a material that is almost as transparent as glass, yet stronger and lighter than steel. The material is a better heat insulator than glass, and this is an advantage both in summer, when you want to keep the heat out, and in winter, when you want to keep it in. What’s more, the transparent wood has a characteristic known as high optical haze, which means that you can increase the effect of solar panels by up to 30 percent by covering them in transparent wood. In other words, a combination of technology and nature that provides traits that couldn’t easily be achieved through technology or nature alone – to the extent that you can distinguish between the two.
Image via Flickr