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What's Next: Anna Lappé
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When my grandfather entered M.I.T. in 1931, he was required to bring only one thing: a slide rule. Visiting him recently in New Jersey, we fixed his Internet, watched a DVD, and programmed his new cell phone. At age 93, it’s clear he has been witness to a revolution in technology unlike humanity has ever seen.

Yet, despite (or is it because of?) our technological innovation, 15,000 children still die every day of preventable disease and illness and -- I probably don’t need to tell you this -- environmental destruction of the planet still threatens all of our lives.

What the world needs now, as we tread further into the 21st century, is a real conversation about technology: its limits, its potential, and where we want it to take us.
If looking back on human evolution teaches us anything about human nature, it is that we are constant innovators. As our tools have become more complex, so have our innovations. But we’ve evolved tools far faster than we have evolved an ethics of progress – a morality of technology. And, we’ve developed technology faster than we have developed the safeguards to protect our common assets – air, water, soil, and more – from their unintended consequences.

We need to push ourselves and our leaders to ask not just what can we create, but with each new innovation to ponder: Is there a better alternative? What are the possible consequences? Who may benefit and who may suffer? Asking these questions, doesn’t mean becoming leery Luddites, and it certainly doesn’t mean we halt technological progress, it means being equipped actually to choose the best path of innovation. After all, every choice we make is a matter of focus: every choice takes us on one path, away from another.

Think about the technology we’ve privileged in food and farming. We’ve placed a premium on a certain kind of agricultural innovation, that done in sterile labs with white-coated technicians. The result can be seen in the past century’s farm chemical revolution and our blanketing the planet with known carcinogens, endocrine-disrupters, and neurotoxins. We can also see it in this revolution’s modern-day redux, genetically modified foods.

The consequence of developing an agricultural system based on chemical pesticides has unleashed pollution, sickness, even death, unaccounted for when first introduced. And we’re only beginning to comprehend the potential consequences of the introduction of genetically modified foods into our ecosystems. We’ve made these choices despite having the tools to grow food productively without taking on these unnecessary risks, to human, animal, and environmental health.

Despite receiving just a tiny fraction of the resources that have been funneled into chemical agriculture, we’ve also witnessed a revolution in understanding of the power of agroecological approaches to farming. We’re only at the cusp of understanding nature, based no simply on what we can extract from it, but as Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry reminds us, “what we can learn from it.?

So let us not ask simply what can we innovate, but what we should create--to ensure the greatest health for all of us--and then develop the technology, broadly defined, to help us get there.

Anna Lappé is a nationally bestselling author, public speaker, and founding
principal with Frances Moore Lappé of the Small Planet Institute. She is
the co-author of Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet (Penguin
2002) and Grub: Ideas for an Urban, Organic Kitchen (Penguin 2006). From 2004-2006 she was a Food and Society Policy Fellow, a national program of the WK
Kellogg Foundation.

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