Choosing Technology for a Healthier Environment
by Dr. Ashok Khosla

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 vitally depends.

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.

Dr. Ashok Khosla

Ashok Khosla is one of world's leading experts on the environment and sustainable development. A former director of the United Nations Environment Programme, he was awarded the 2002 Sasakawa Environment Prize - "the Nobel Prize of the environment world" - and has been named in the UNEP's Global 500 Roll of Honour