A lot of the recent concern about the risks of genetic engineering and nanotechnology, as well as overuse or misuse of natural resources, focuses on the possibility we could unbalance our global ecology with potentially problematic or even disastrous results. Obviously we need to be very careful of any new technology, but can we afford to hold back technological progress on any front, given the global problems we face from overpopulation, pollution, climate change, etc.?
Evidence that humans have already unbalanced our ecology has been recorded, analyzed, and addressed for a very long time. We can see one aspect of human effects on the environment in the deer population in North America. An estimate of deer population in 1900 AD reported around 500,000 deer for North America (link). A recent estimate (link) came up with a number of around 20 million deer. During that same time, human population rose from 76 million in 1900 to around 300 million today (link), virtually all predators of deer and humans were already limited to remote areas, suburban sprawl restricted hunting in many areas, and hunting became a less popular activity among humans. As the elimination of predators would have allowed deer population to grow almost unrestricted, the elimination of the wilderness by humans mitigated the effect by almost wiping out their habitat, a situation which was corrected to a great degree. Since deer prefer a lot of the same crops humans raise for food, we actually not only increased the available food supply, but changed it to types that have higher energy and nutrient densities. As a result deer population has (again) exploded, as evidenced by the huge increase in car-deer collisions in many parts of the country in the past two decades. Studies have also indicated that, due to hunting and other causes, Canada geese populations have fluctuated widely over the past century, apparently in direct correspondence to human actions (link).
Another example of an ecology unbalanced by humans is in species homogenization. For example, there has been considerable publicity of the risk that, when a majority of the corn grown in North America is from the same genetic base, a disease that attacks the corn could harm almost every corn field and create huge decreases in crop yield. Scientific efforts focused on this situation have yielded improved understanding of the situation, however, and the crops in question have been shown to be more resistant than previously thought (link). Also, there are seed banks, some of the quite large (link), and, as public consciousness has risen over this important issue, more individuals and organizations restoring “heirloom” vegetables and plants to production (link) to preserve biodiversity. In at least some cases, where people perceive a risk from technological development and commercial specialization, there has been a positive response.
It is clear that humans have already significantly unbalanced the natural ecology, which undermines the argument that technological advancement should be limited because of this risk. Even the Chinese worked to understand and cope with what they recognized as an unbalanced ecology around 2200 b.c. (link). The articles linked above indicate that not only has humanity changed the natural ecology for millennia, but it has also worked to re-establish ecological balance with some success. So, while there is ecological risk in developing and experimenting with new technologies, humanity, with the development and application of scientific knowledge, has shown itself capable of controlling the situation and avoiding major problems, and of understanding and countering serious problems.
In summary, certainly there is often a risk of a new technology causing serious problems, but I don’t think we can use that as an excuse not to keep advancing. We need improved knowledge and technologies if we are to surmount the challenges of overpopulation and climate change, among others, and achieve a sustainable existence for humanity in the future, and we will continue to manage the risks as we progress.