I'd like to tell you about the solutions the report recommends and some details of the arguments it advances, but it's only available as a book. You may have heard of those -- they're big, physical objects that take at least twenty times their weight in water to produce, let alone transport. They're not recycled often enough, people read them once or twice before buying a new one and who knows what's in those inks?
Here's the heart of the problem. While there's no doubt that our deep love of technology blinds us to the environmental implications, it is impossible to say how that balances against the positive side of adopting these new ideas. Doubtless I saved some energy by not being able to download the report, but much less than I'm going to save by not buying the book.
I talked to one of the report's authors, H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and he appreciated the irony. As he pointed out, there is no environmentalist in the world who can honestly say they know how the good balances the bad: the downsides are easy to identify and quantify, while the benefits are abstruse and fragmented. A computer can model the pattern of water table pollution that its processor fabrication plant produced, and help make things better than before.
It's worth remembering that mankind has always blissfully ravaged the environment until it can be ravaged no more. Small islands like Malta and Easter Island were once densely wooded: in prehistoric times, they were stripped bare by their inhabitants who -- in Easter Island's case, at least -- promptly died out. Bigger islands like Great Britain have been upended by every tribe and people: those beautiful expanses of great natural beauty in the Cambridgeshire Fens are the product of medieval peat extraction, for example. The Industrial Revolution increased the pace, range and complexity of change -- but the dark, satanic mills continued unchecked.
Only in the latter half of the 20th century do we find environmentalism taking hold. For many people, the epiphany came with one picture -- the Earth from space, taken by the crew of Apollo 8 as it rose above the bleak hills of the Moon. For the first time, we could step outside the seemingly inexhaustible horizons that had surrounded us since birth and see the planet as a fragile blue ball against infinite space. A very small island indeed, and with nowhere to ship out to when the soil's washed away.