What do geologists and astronomers have in common? Both calculate with very long periods of time. From these sciences we can therefore learn to shape our world with more foresight. For technological progress that takes future generations into account.
In the wilderness of the northern Norwegian archipelago of Spitsbergen, the concrete-reinforced tunnel of an old mine leads into the rocky ground. As "Svalbard Global Seed Vault", it now houses an underground seed bank. It stores around 1 million seed samples of all imaginable crops at minus 18 degrees Celsius. In this way, the biological blueprints of the arable crops are intended to last an eternity – in case of a global eco-catastrophe. Some species survive in permafrost for up to 10,000 years.
The planners have looked to the future for countless generations. Yet what has been sold as progress in recent history has become increasingly short-lived. Technical innovations enter the market faster and faster.
The acceleration principle
The first records, initially still made of shellac, arrived shortly before the beginning of the 20th century. It took a good eighty years before their displacement by the CD began. But the CD collections also wandered into the basement when the first portable MP3 players appeared in 1998. Hardly 20 years had passed until digital downloads were available. And in 2005, just seven years later, music streaming on the internet began. Today, storing MP3 archives on hard disks already seems old-fashioned.
The history of the automobile and many other inventions could be told in similar, ever shorter stages. Such shock waves to entire industries force a "disruption" on the markets: a sudden change that casts aside all that came before and declares it redundant. But in a world of dwindling resources and existential threats to ecosystems, this cannot be an ideal of progress.
A new awareness
Every technological innovation builds on its predecessors: without Lilienthal's glider no powered flight by the Wright brothers, without motorized aviation no jet fighter from Heinkel, without a jet engine no "SpaceShipTwo" spacecraft of the company Virgin Galactic. Groundbreaking success always has a long line of creative forefathers – and as yet unknown descendants. In light of this long timeline, our responsibility for the future suddenly becomes clear..
This seems to be urgently needed in the Anthropocene, the age in which mankind has become the formative force on planet earth. We are reminded of this by geologists, who divide the history of the earth into epochs (see diagram). American astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan warned of a "technological adolescence". Humanity is almost too powerful to move, but behaves childishly and destructively. In this way we rowdies gradually undermine our own existence.
The most precious resource
It certainly misses the goal of our survival here, when a "space entrepreneur" stages himself as the savior who will lead colonists to Mars. Laurie Winkless has this feeling, too (see interview). The physicist and science writer, who in her book "Science and the City" deals with a liveable future in cities, does not think much of tech guru ego trips: "It makes me so angry. Here we have the opportunity to create a sustainable infrastructure for everyone, and billionaires are just thinking about driverless cars."
Time seems to be the only resource that we cannot possess at will. Fortunately, with a smart approach to technology, we can gain time rather than squander it. We can use it to patiently get to the bottom of things instead of blowing them away in a firework of effect-loving gimmicks. Whether climate change, drinking water shortages, garbage patches in the ocean or energy crises: the seemingly endless problems of humanity can be solved – if we can bring ourselves to rethink.
Learning from rocks
In her book "Timefulness", American geologist Marcia Bjornerud recommends to corporations, politicians and planners to “think like a mountain": We need to regain an awareness of the very long lines of development – as they are embodied not only by rock, but also by primitive peoples, who feel connected to their ancestors and the children of the future. Those who think like a mountain will measure the purpose of a technical innovation by whether it is sustainable. Bjornerud suggests setting up a kind of "ministry for the future" that would lend weight to the interests of the as yet unborn.
The astrophysicist Martin Rees has a similar view: Trained in cosmic dimensions, he also pleads against the haste in existential questions. In view of our present difficulties to plan even just ten years ahead, the scientist marvels at the fact "that people in the Middle Ages built cathedrals that took a hundred years or more to complete". And are still standing today.
Perseverance and new values
In his book "On the Future", he diagnoses that today neither politicians nor corporations seem to be willing to muster so much patience. On the executive floors, thinking in reporting quarters or election periods is often rewarded with bonuses or positions. Such a hectic planning horizon obscures all challenges that go beyond that. The result is short-lived progress - real evolution looks different.
Rees is anything but an opponent of progress: that poverty and misery have declined worldwide despite the exploding global population "would not have been possible without science and technology," he writes. To cope with global threats, we would need not less, but more technology – "guided by socially responsible science and ethics".
But what solutions can such sustainable development thinking deliver in practice? It could open up an additional dimension to our cities threatened by global warming and lack of space.
Cities with depth
The French architect and urban planner Dominique Perrault calls this dimension, to which he dedicated an entire book, "groundscapes": a hitherto neglected spatial potential that lies dormant underground in the metropolises. According to the architect, below ground there is not only space for functional buildings such as underground garages or central heating systems. Rather, living environments with great social and ecological sustainability can emerge there. This is why Perrault goes into the depths of densely built-up cities instead of consuming precious space on the surface.
A shining example of this is the commuter railway station Villejuif Institut Gustave Roussy in Paris. There Perrault placed shopping levels, platforms and promenades up to 50 meters below ground. Thanks to the clever diversion of daylight, it hardly feels any different there than in buildings above ground. For Perrault, the dissolvable boundary between life above and below ground is the basic principle of tomorrow’s city: "People will move within structures consisting of multiple levels. There will always be natural light, natural ventilation and natural movement.”
Find a video from Dominique Perrault here.
Buildings above and below ground in such cities will no longer be experienced differently, but merge into a single "substance", as Perrault calls it. He describes his vision of a city filled with life both above and below ground: The living space on the surface logically extends below ground, thereby expanding the natural habitat of the city dwellers. A concept that will not only free up valuable inner city space, but also change the economic view of infrastructure projects.
Quote: "Investments in structures above and below ground can no longer be separated in this case, which will lead to completely new cost-effectiveness calculations." Dominique Perrault, French architect and urban planner
If we still want to find space in the megacities of the 21st and 22nd centuries, we are better to set our imagination in motion. Forward-looking "thinking like a mountain" can be a guideline for this - this applies to an old Norwegian mine as well as to the tunnels under the streets of Paris.