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Sierra Magazine
Last Words

What New Invention Has Done the Most Good?

The fiber-optic cable has brought little but good to the world so far. Ultra-thin strands of glass, created out of highly refined sand, now connect distant lands and people. More strands wrapping the globe will cost the environment very little, yet they will liberate the human spirit and allow ideas from diverse minds to intermingle. In a sense, we are clothing the planet in neurons that allow new forms of human enterprise, creativity, and community, just as the evolution of organic neurons allowed new forms and shapes in living cells.

Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large, Wired magazine

Powerful new technologies such as computers, biotechnology, solar power, and space sciences can either help us create a just culture in balance with nature or be used to reinforce the current inequitable hierarchy and its shortsighted environmental destruction. The most important inventions now must encompass our collective purpose and our aspirations for the long haul-like permaculture, the creation of productive and sustainable landscapes through means that leave a minimal human impact. With its fusion of justice, sustainability, and meaning, permaculture joins the co-op movement, the American Constitution, and Buddhism in a long tradition of positive inventions.

Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Antarctica

Asking to name a product that benefits the environment is the wrong question. Anything that comes close to this was almost certainly invented to repair damage already done. The concept "environmentally friendly technology" is an oxymoron. But there are new products and services that have significantly less environmental impact than those they replace. The new Xerox Document Centre 265 Digital Copier, for example, has only 250 replaceable parts (conventional copiers have more than 1,250) and 95 percent of them are recyclable and reusable. It comes very close to realizing the design team's ambitious goal of "zero landfill . . . for the sake of our children," while creating a "cultural ecology" that leaves in place the values to do even better next time. Sustained innovative performance is the key to sustainability. The world does not need environmental gimmicks.

John R. Ehrenfeld, director, MIT Technology, Business, and Environment Program

Gaia Theory, a "life-like" model of how the planet works, was invented by Dr. James Lovelock, who discovered that Earth's atmosphere-unlike that of Mars or Venus-is not made up of gases in chemical equilibrium. Lovelock realized that Earth's highly reactive mix of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and oxygen could only be maintained through the continuing activity of living organisms, showing that life fundamentally influences its own environment. Gaia Theory offers a model for how the planet behaves and helps us identify Earth's "vital signs." Only by understanding how the planet functions can we "diagnose" a priority for environmental change.

Paul Allen, development director, Centre for Alternative Technology

Public television was invented as a breathing hole through the thick ice of commercialism and government spin. San Francisco-based KQED's Newsroom, for example, once provided live prime-time commentary and investigations by thoughtful reporters. Environmental issues such as land use-because of their chronic and complex nature-require such provocative prime-time coverage to create an informed electorate. That is why public television had to be killed. In the nearly 20 years since I worked at KQED, corporate boards have gradually stupefied public television, taking on advertisements from sponsors who influence what will not be shown. These same forces that robbed the airwaves of ideas have also corrupted our environment and our political system. If the public cares for democracy, it should take back, and reinvent, public television.

Gray Brechin, geographer and author of Farewell, Promised Land: Waking From the California Dream


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