Dean Sander van der Leeuw: Innovate differently for sustainable existence

Sander van der Leeuw

In a recent opinion article featured in Bloomberg, theoretical physicist Mark Buchanan interviews School of Sustainability Dean Sander van der Leeuw on humans' power to alter the planet.

Buchanan, a columnist for Nature Physics, shares his thoughts on why humans continue to innovate and improve technology, but with ever-increasing consequences on the environment. The sudden explosion in human activity since the Industrial Revolution caused higher temperatures, increased population, and more species extinctions. Now, scientists are calling our present time the "Anthropocene" era—the time period in which human activity affects all of Earth's processes profoundly.

What sets us apart from other species, Buchanan says, is our ability to innovate through technology.

"New techniques for everything from farming to computation interact and combine to drive the creation of more innovations in an ever-accelerating spiral," Buchanan writes. "Paradoxically, technological innovation has also created our biggest problems, including climate change, environmental destruction and the threat of nuclear annihilation."

But, Buchanan points out, innovation and technology is necessary to civilization. How can humans exist without threatening natural systems and avoid additional environmental consequences? Dean Sander van der Leeuw says humans must innovate differently.

"Humans suffer from a mismatch between our thinking about what we do and the truth of what we do," Buchanan paraphrases van der Leeuw. "Our brains make sense of a multifaceted world by ignoring much of its complexity—a trait Van der Leeuw calls 'low dimensional' thinking."

“Every human action upon the environment modifies the latter in many more ways that its human actors perceive, simply because the dimensionality of the environment is much higher than can be captured by the human mind," says van der Leeuw.

So the solution? Buchanan and van der Leeuw suggest humans must "innovate differently by using technology to reduce the mismatch between our brains and reality."

Read the opinion piece »