Book extract, from “Managing Without Growth. Slower by Design, Not Disaster”,
Sect 7.4.2, by Peter Victor, publ by Edward Elgar 2008. Part One
Differences in views about what technology has contributed in the past and what it might accomplish in the future separate the optimists from the pessimists. Engulfed as we are by a flood of new technologies based especially on miniaturization and the life sciences, it is understandable that many people think we can count on technology to see us through any future difficulties.
They may be right. They may also be wrong. What if technological change proves unable to keep pace with the projected increase in scale. Precaution suggests that we should limit the increase in scale so that we do not have to count on technology alone bailing us out.
There are three good reasons for not relying too much on technology. First, new technologies can be mixed blessings. They often solve one problem but create others. Examples abound: nuclear power stations produce electricity and radioactive waste. Jet planes trans- port people and goods around the world at unprecedented speed leaving green- house gases and noise pollution in their wake. Television entertains and informs us. It also promotes a high consumption lifestyle, glamorizes violence and deprives us of exercise. Computers with their increasing advertising content do much the same. It is hard to think of a technology that does not have a down- side, often unanticipated. The faster we develop and implement new technologies, the more likely it is that we will have to deal with adverse effects. We will not be able to foresee them all. We are not that smart. But unwelcome surprises would be less likely if we took more time to think about and anticipate the consequences of new technologies
and phased their introduction to allow more time to learn from experience. The aggressive pursuit of economic growth, or one of its many surrogates – competitiveness, productivity, free trade and so on – stands in the way of a more thoughtful approach to new technologies throughout all stages of invention, design, development and diffusion. As IPAT (1) reveals, the faster the rate of economic growth, other things equal, the faster must be the rate of technological improvement to compensate for the effects on the environment of scale.
We saw in Chapters 4 and 5 several areas where a rise in impacts cannot or should not be tolerated.(2) It follows that we should be looking for ways to reduce requirements for resources and impacts on the environment. Can we strike a better balance between the rate of economic growth (a combination of GDP/person and population) and the rate at which new technologies are introduced? While there are many institutions in the public and private sectors promoting and contributing to growth, there is very limited institutional capacity to screen new technologies while they are under development and before they are adopted. Technology development and diffusion are driven primarily by expectations of profit. Profit is based on prices. We have already seen that prices are inadequate for conveying accurate and reliable information about resource scarcity and environmental impacts (3), so price and profit induced technological change suffers as a result.
The second reason to be cautious about relying too much on technology to resolve problems arising from increasing scale is that some of these problems do not lend themselves to a technological solution. There are some aspects of nature, or differently stated, some services that nature provides, that human ingenuity cannot be expected to replicate or replace if they are lost or damaged. Regulation of the climate is one example. If our actions disturb the climate so that it ‘flips’ into another fairly stable but much less hospitable regime, it would be foolish to assume that we will develop a technology that could flip it back and do so in a timely manner.(4) Less dramatic but still disturbing is the observation that the Atlantic cod fishery that declined so precipitously in the 1990s from over fishing has not come back (5) even though there has been a moratorium on catching cod since July 1992. (6)
The third reason relates to the limited speed at which technological change can occur, and will be covered in the next issue of ERA Review.
This extract was compiled by Elinor Hurst, with the permission of the author. A second version of this book is currently in press.
The acronym IPAT is for the equation (environmental) Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology.
Examples given included: climate change from greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, decline in ocean fisheries, reduction in availability of fresh water.
See Chapter 3 of the book for an explanation of this statement.
Schneider, S.H. (2004), ‘Abrupt Non- Linear Climate Change, Irreversibility and Surprise’, Global Environmental Change, 14 (3), 245-258.
At the time of writing, ie 2008.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (2003), ‘A scientific review of the potential environmental effects of aquaculture in aquatic ecosystems. Volume I, Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 2450.