But Can’t Technology Solve the Problems?

Continuing the Simplicity Institute’s enquiry into questions of technology, Ted Trainer has just published a new report, entitled ‘But Can’t Technology Solve the Problems?’ I’ve posted the first few paragraphs below and the full report is available here.

But Can’t Technology Solve the Problems? 

by Ted Trainer

The ‘limits to growth’ analysis argues that the pursuit of affluent lifestyles and economic growth are the basic causes of the many alarming global problems we are running into. We have environmental destruction, resource depletion, an impoverished Third World, problems of armed conflict and deteriorating cohesion and quality of life in even the richest countries – essentially because the levels of producing and consuming going on are far too high. There is no possibility of these levels being maintained, let alone spread to all the world’s people.

The counter argument most commonly raised against the limits case is that the development of better technology will solve the problems. Almost everyone seems to hold this belief.

It is not surprising that this claim is regarded as plausible, because technology does constantly achieve miraculous breakthroughs, and publicity is frequently given to schemes that are claimed could be developed to solve this or that problem. However there is a weighty case that technical advance will not be able to solve our global problems.

The Simpler Way view is that technical advances cannot solve the big global problems and therefore we must change to lifestyles and social systems which do not generate those problems. The Simpler Way argument is that this could easily be done, and it would actually enable a much higher quality of life than most of us have now in consumer society, but it would involve abandoning the quest for affluent lifestyles and limitless economic growth.

The full report is available for free download at the Simplicity Institute here

My review of Ted Trainer’s vision of The Simpler Way is also available here.

2 Responses to “But Can’t Technology Solve the Problems?”

  1. It’s basically the “decoupling” argument: That you can decouple the impacts of growth from the growth itself – use less and make more. Technological advances make us more efficient, but instead of using the less and making the same amount of stuff (food, shoes, helicopters, whatever), we use the same or more resources and make vastly more amounts of stuff.

    However, the argument that technology can decouple growth and environmental impact is totally false. Not only has history shown that it doesn’t work in the long run, but it violates basic laws of thermodynamics. That is: you can only get so efficient, you can’t run a car on one gallon of gas forever or feed 9 billion people on 1 acre of land – which is what economists basically support by saying you can grow forever and technology will save us.

    Here’s a piece I wrote on the subject a while back, a revised edition is in the works:

    Latest post from Joshua Nelson…Displaying Co-Authors In Thesis Theme

  2. Mark Burch says:

    An interesting reflection on the limits of technology to solve world problems. There are, however, a number of other factors which also limit the value of technology:

    1. For many technologies, we are nearing the theoretical maximum efficiencies for the tasks they perform. You have already mentioned some industrial processes that are reaching limits, but clearly this will soon apply to information processing devices using electricity, many building and mechanical technologies, transport technologies, etc. Unless the Large Hadron Collider introduces us to an entirely new physics and new energy sources, the end of the road is in sight in many areas.

    2. The Second Law of Thermodynamics cannot be overturned. It places non-negotiable limits on the efficiencies of any energy using process. Entropy taken a bit more metaphorically suggests that as we extract resources like high quality metal ores from concentrated deposits, fashion them into a myriad of consumer products which are then sent around the world through global trade networks and thence into landfills and dumps, we are, in effect, spreading our metals and other precious resources all over the planet, but in quantities so small they will never be economically available to future generations.

    3. Rarely mentioned in the breathless news reports of new scientific or technical break-throughs is the lag time between the laboratory discovery of something useful to human beings and the time required to scale the discovery up to the production level and then diffuse that innovation broadly in society. Microwave ovens, for example, were invented during WWII and first brought to market in 1947. But it took 20 years before countertop models were available, and another 15-20 years before they became ubiquitous.

    4. Most new technology is now developed and introduced by corporations intent on making profits. But there is often a contradiction between the best possible applications of technology and what will be most profitable for shareholders. It might be argued, for example, that technology is actually working to undermine sustainability when it is used in service of such practices as designed obsolescence, or when corporate financial power is used to prevent competitors from introducing improved technology which is not controlled by larger competitors.

    5. Another factor that can limit the efficacy of technology in solving world problems is intellectual property regulations. Corporations that discover new technologies lock up access to this information through the use of patents and copyrights. As contrasted with public science, this privatization of science and technical discovery and innovation can actually inhibit technical progress by reducing access to “proprietary” knowledge. Even the invention of devices or processes that a corporation doesn’t plan to commercialize immediately, or has no capacity to commercialize, become inaccessible to other researchers or commercial actors because of IP constraints.

    6. Technologies that may have multiple uses often cannot be optimized for all their uses at the same time. For example, hydro electric dams that promise to generate electricity, provide flood control, irrigation water, recreational benefits, and employment opportunities cannot provide all these benefits at once. If providing irrigation water is a goal, then electricity generation will be reduced. Maximizing generation capacity may limit irrigation withdrawals and flood control, etc.

    7. Finally, consumer culture suffers from the deeply ingrained habit of seeking technical answers even to problems which are not technical in essence. We look to technology to alleviate poverty, achieve world peace, and bring us health and happiness, when its main appropriate function is essentially to ease the burden of dangerous and onerous work. Using technology to meet essentially psychological needs places limitless demands on energy and material resources that the planet cannot sustain.

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