Q: Do technology and innovation provide
solutions for environmental issues related to economic growth,
or are they a cause of some of the environmental problems we face?
How can the two be better balanced?
A: In many ways, the world is a better
place to live in than it ever was before. We have eliminated a
multitude of diseases and other scourges, and now live longer,
healthier and possibly more interesting lives. Industries manufacture
a host of products that bring to the lives of ordinary people
convenience and comforts that even kings, or the wealthiest magnates,
could not have imagined just a couple of hundred years ago. Transportation
and communication have opened opportunities for productive work
and human fulfillment that could not have been dreamt of even
one hundred years ago. We now have more, know more, and exercise
more control over our lives than at any other time in history.
But the spectacular improvements in our
lives over the past two hundred years have not come without cost.
Few societies today have escaped the widespread scourges of growing
pollution, waste accumulation, social alienation, drugs, and general
insecurity. Dozens of species become extinct each day and our
actions may well lead, within a human lifetime, to a deadly change
in the global climate. There is growing evidence that the production
systems and consumption patterns of our economies cannot be sustained
for much longer. Rampant unemployment with accelerating inflation;
growing supplies accompanied by depleting resources; food surpluses
and widespread hunger - these are the flip sides of many economies
today, no less in the industrialized countries of the North than
in the low income nations in the South.
The lives of some people, in almost every
country, are better; the lives of many others are worse, relatively
and sometimes absolutely. Either way, human security - and a wide
range of other measures of human welfare - does not, overall,
appear to be improving very much on the global scale.
Those who have benefited the most from these changes credit much
of their material well-being to the huge strides made by technology
and to how well they have mastered it and put it to work. Others
see the negative impacts of the same technology as the main issue,
ascribing to it much of the deterioration that has taken place
in the human condition.
Each opinion has its validity. Technology
as a concept, the product of scientific and organizational innovation,
is by itself neither good nor bad. Indeed, that it has both positive
outcomes and negative impacts is widely understood. What is less
well understood is how technology can be designed so as to maximize
the benefits and minimize the costs. Fundamentally, this means
society must learn to actively choose from the wide range of technology
options now available, and aim to balance the different features
valued by society. When the costs outweigh the benefits, we may
have to forego the development of technology altogether - not
necessarily by social sanction, but by appropriately designed
fiscal and other incentives that convey the longer-term values
of society to businesses and consumers.
A very large part of the negative spin-offs
of technology arise from the preference built up over the past
century for grand engineering projects: activities that are large-scale,
centralized, capital-intensive and that also happen to be energy-guzzling
and highly waste generating. Examples of such projects are the
massive dams, power plants, transport systems, mining concessions,
chemical-intensive and energy consuming farms that increasingly
form the backbone of the global economy. By focusing on raising
the productivity of labor at the expense of land, water and energy
productivity, these types of projects generally end up with many
associated costs such as unemployment, pollution and accelerated
resource depletion. Highly subsidized transportation systems and
other price distortions make it profitable for companies and convenient
for their customers to do things that are not good for the current
or future health of society - or of the ecosystem on which it
The economic theories on which our present
systems of production, distribution and consumption rest, just
do not work. Unfortunately, the assumptions underlying neo-classical
economics - and the machineries of the modern marketplace that
they naturally lead to - are not sufficiently solid to support
the common platforms of human values on which societies must stand
to benefit collectively and equitably. Growth, they have claimed,
must come first, even if the cost is distributive injustice and
human misery. Efficiency over equity. The rich before the poor.
Machines above people. Wealth even at the expense of nature.
But the global economy, which is based
on these assumptions, is in a mess. No fine-tuning of the neo-classical
doctrines, no more of the same medicines - that, after all, are
causing the problems in the first place - can get us out of it.
When the social, environmental and natural resource costs of the
past century's experiments with "modernization" are
all counted, it will become obvious that the current form of "development"
is not sustainable. The widespread social and economic ills of
today are just the early symptoms of a terminal disease that human
society seems inexorably headed for. Such a fate can be avoided,
not by a change of dosage, or even a change of the medication,
but by a fundamental change to an altogether different system
of social (and economic) medicine, one that is based on prevention
rather than cure.
35 years ago, the book "Limits to
Growth", a report commissioned by the Club of Rome, raised
an unexpected alarm and called attention to the possible collapse
of the global economy from over utilization and exhaustion of
certain natural resources. It called for some fundamental changes
in direction, particularly with respect to consumption patterns
in the industrialized countries. Over those 35 years, economists
have constantly reassured us that the price mechanism and the
marketplace will take care not only of resource scarcities but
also, through labor scarcities, of the issues of redistribution
and social justice. Well, the price signals are beginning to arrive.
The price of oil has hit $ 50 a barrel and it is not likely to
stop there. Will that lead to a more environmentally sound, socially
equitable and technically efficient choice of technologies? Probably
not quickly enough, unless there are some other basic changes.
The technologies we now need must empower
people and their communities to solve all their problems, not
just create wealth for the few. To do this, there must also be
technologies of a very different nature from the ones we have
got used to: small, decentralized, using local, renewable resources
and creating large numbers of jobs. These technologies will have
to be designed to produce the level of goods and services we now
have access to but with far less material and fossil energy inputs.
They need to be informed as much by the laws of biology as by
those of Newtonian physics.
Such technologies are not only imaginable,
but possible - many of them today - as has been shown by Development
Alternatives in India, by the Factor 4 group in Germany and the
US, the Factor 10 Club in Europe and by the Zero Emissions Research
and Initiatives (ZERI) in Japan, Sweden, Columbia and Namibia.
The surest way to test and deploy such technologies is through
social enterprises-businesses that make their profits from activities
that explicitly serve the public good.