Technology and Simple Living

Mark Burch was one of the first writers to guide me into the enriching depths of simplicity as an idea and as an evolving way of life, so I am very honoured to say that he has just published a Simplicity Institute report called ‘Twenty Questions: Technology and Simple Living.’ It’s a deep essay, full of substance and insight, which asks challenging questions about the role of technology in modern life and what different role it might need to play in a culture that embraced notions of voluntary simplicity. It’s a fitting follow up essay to Ted Trainer’s report on renewable energy. I’ve posted an excerpt from Mark’s essay below and the full report can be downloaded from the Simplicity Institute here

Why Technology isn’t Enough

 by Mark Burch 

In 1905 in Kansas City, Missouri, there were only two privately owned automobiles. In July of that year, they succeeded in achieving the first recorded head-on collision. (Mooney, 1999)

Our confidence in technology as an instrument for meeting the sustainability challenge has considerable historical justification. Technology has made possible things that were previously thought to be impossible. Therefore, we perhaps feel justified in thinking that this will always continue and that technology will provide an escape hatch from the dilemma of immovable limits confronting limitless desires.  In addition, since “technology” seems to be creating many of our sustainability problems, isn’t it reasonable to expect that the solutions will simply be better technology? Sometimes missing from this confidence, however, is an appropriate appreciation for the role that fossil fuels have played in the triumph of technology, and how very dependent many of those triumphs still are on continuing, secure, and inexpensive supplies of these fuels—something which nearly everyone now recognizes as an unsustainable dependency.

A great deal depends on where we point consciousness, how we perceive our reality and what motivates our actions. Technology is just tools and know-how. Technology develops along lines which we set out for it, based on values, desires, and aspirations that don’t themselves arise from technological or scientific considerations. While technology is extremely helpful in achieving our goals, it doesn’t set our goals for us, nor does it contain any goals of its own. The world we see around us, the world of ecological decay and interpersonal violence, is largely the world delivered to us by a technology we specifically designed to achieve the goals of a consciousness oriented in a certain way. Change the orientation of consciousness and our goals would change, and a new technology could evolve to serve it. In my view, technology as we currently deploy it is, taken by itself, a vain hope for resolving the sustainability crisis for the following reasons:

First, we have already argued that current technology serves the values of consumer culture. It aims to deliver mass material affluence, the very meaning of which implies waste, so as to generate profits which must continually grow. Consumption is the opposite of conservation, and growth without limits is the opposite of a stead-state economy which might have a hope of persisting over the long term. It is logically impossible that any technology can conserve and consume its resource and energy endowments at the same time. It’s also logically impossible for any technology to deliver “sustainable affluence” when the very meaning of affluence implies generating ever-increasing mountains of indigestible wastes. The very definition of “sustainable development” framed by the Brundtland Commission (meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs), while certainly appealing to our wish fulfillment fantasies of being able to have our cake while eating it too, doesn’t seem achievable with any presently imaginable technology and our current understanding of the laws of nature. We will not be investing in conservation technologies as long as our economy is oriented toward consumption instead, except when conservation can be shown to reduce production costs and hence increase profits. But this sort of conservation applies only to inputs which can be priced and generally entirely ignores externalized costs. Small won’t be beautiful until we really believe it is. And more will be better as long as we continue to conflate quality of life with quantity of consumption.

Technical development in consumer culture is generally driven by capitalist markets. The operative motive then is greed, not planetary sustainability. In practice this means that technologies which might be environmentally restorative but which have little or no profit potential tend not to be developed or implemented, no matter what their merits. Conversely, technologies that have large profit potential tend to be implemented no matter how disastrous their environmental or social impacts. For example, technology has been proposed to construct artificial trees to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (as if living trees just aren’t up to the challenge) so as to mitigate climate change, but it is not at all clear where the “profit center” would be for such a technology, except perhaps from industries hoping to offset their carbon emissions by paying for artificial trees. On the other hand, all lights are green for the further exploitation of Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands which is an environmental disaster from beginning to end, but immensely profitable nevertheless (CBC-TV, 2001).

Third, technology has limits inherent in the laws of nature. No technology can arbitrarily reverse the laws of thermodynamics, for example, or the law of conservation of matter and energy. It is precisely because natural laws operate with ironclad consistency that marvelous things can be done which appear to violate those laws. Powered flight of heavier than air craft which appear to defy gravity, for example, is possible only because of the laws of aerodynamics. Therefore, unless and until scientists discover a way of making water flow uphill, creating matter out of energy, arbitrarily changing the properties of chemical elements or increasing their quantities, we must find a way of fashioning a good life on the planet we have, with the resources available, and within the general conditions needed to sustain a productive community of other living things. Such limits, while we often aren’t entirely sure precisely where they are, are immovable whenever we hit them (Robert, (et al.), 2002: 197-214).

Fourth, no technology ever solves just one problem without creating other problems of its own (Tenner, 1996). This is probably because every technological introduction is being made within an already hugely complex and interdependent system of pre-existing relationships which can result in consequences that are difficult to foresee. An example of this “mixed bag principle” can be found in the construction of large scale hydro-electric dams. Dam building projects are often sold by appealing to the many advantages they can bring to people including electrification, flood control, providing recreational water in dam back-bays, water for irrigation and drought mitigation, and jobs both during construction and following commissioning. But such projects also have their downsides. It’s impossible, for example, to optimize a dam to deliver all of its potential benefits. If we want maximum power generation then water retention will be compromised. If we want maximum irrigation water available, we may have to reduce power generation and take a loss on power revenues. If we want to maximize tourism and recreational potential, then both irrigation withdrawals and flow-through for power generation must be curtailed. While large dams operating at design efficiency can indeed generate cheap electricity, they have very high capital costs which must be serviced whether or not the dam is operating at peak output, and the availability of cheap energy may attract other industries into the area which can have other unwelcome consequences for both human and non-human residents. On top of all these trade-offs are a myriad of potential negative effects such as changes in downstream water ecology due to damming the river in the first place, flooding of back bays with possible displacement of pre-existing natural and human communities (the Three Gorges Dam project in China, for example, has displaced nearly 3 million people from their homes and traditional livelihoods), back bay siltation which eventually renders the dam useless, land subsidence and increased seismic risks due to the weight of water behind the dam, and of course the potential for dam collapse with downstream flooding and loss of life. The larger the scale at which any technology is implemented, the larger the scale of both its potential benefits and its damages.

While technological mega-projects can certainly produce mega-problems, the mixed bag principle operates at small scales as well. For example, 70% of the contestants in Paralympics events are road accident victims. Low-nicotine tobacco has doubled the consumption of cigarettes. Motorists who have airbags and seat belts drive on average 20% faster than other motorists. More highways create more traffic; more lanes on the roads cause more queues. Crosswalks lead to more accidents involving pedestrians. To prevent the destruction of police cameras by speed demons, cameras have been installed to keep an eye on the speed cameras. The sturdier the chassis of a car, the harder it is to free the causalities trapped inside. Air conditioning affects the ozone layer, and contributes to the greenhouse effect. The cooling of offices, in other words, contributes to the heating of the atmosphere. Mad cows are the result of recycled butchers’ waste. The consumption of paper in offices has increased since the introduction of computers. The development of cushioned jogging shoes intended to protect the knees has increased wear and tear on the hips. Filters for purifying tap water have proved an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. Suntan lotion is now suspected to cause skin cancer (von Boxsel, 2004).

I’m not arguing that technology must be abandoned in order to have a good or sustainable life. Far from it. I only mean to highlight that technology is a mixed bag, and sometimes a lethal bag. Since there are now very many humans trying to share the same earth, and we have already made a large and ever-growing footprint, and we tend to gravitate, for economic reasons, toward large scale technologies, and many of our technologies are highly toxic to living things—all of these facts plead for bringing more mindfulness to our relationship with technology. And this must begin with an assessment of whether we need a given technology in the first place—not simply its profit potential.

Fifth, while it is certainly possible to imagine better technology than we now have for addressing many human needs, it’s hard to imagine any technology that would have no environmental impacts at all. Every “technology” is a process by which human beings convert natural resources and energy into other forms we find useful or amusing. No matter how efficient or “green” this process may be, it will always create some waste, some expenditure of energy, some imprint left by extracting the resources needed to construct the product, in short, some change in the world. If we understand having a good life as limitless expansion of consumption, then no matter how green our technology, the human footprint on earth will inexorably expand. Better technology slows the pace at which this degradation occurs, but only replacing the consumer culture narrative of the good life promises to limit such damage definitively.

Next, we can see a curious paradox connected with the use of almost any “green” or conserving technology. This is the “Jevons’ Paradox” named for the 19th century British economist William Stanley Jevons (Alcott, 2005: 9-12). Jevons observed that technological advances that increased the efficiency with which a particular resource was used (in his case, coal) resulted in increased consumption of the resource. It is probably a slight variant of this same paradox which can find even dedicated sustainability advocates making heroic efforts to reduce their consumption of certain resources like energy, only to take the savings they enjoy and spend them on more consumption. The tenacity of this paradox is evidence of how deeply rooted consumerist values can be in that when we want to reward ourselves for conserving choices, the first thing that comes to mind is something consumptive. An example of this is an acquaintance of mine whose concern for the environment is beyond doubt and who was thrilled to hear from me various measures she could take to reduce consumption of resources in her household. She then said, “Well, if I do all those things, I could probably save enough in a year to go visit my family in Britain!”—a trip which would have required air travel which would pretty much offset all the gains she achieved by her other household efficiencies. Thus it appears to be the case that as long as a consumerist worldview remains in place, developing and implementing more sustainable technologies may only shift consumption activities onto other classes of goods and services, perhaps with even higher environmental impacts than before.

Finally, every technology creates vested economic interests that once in place can become perverse to further progress on sustainability. The vested interests represented by oil companies and auto manufacturers are well known examples to everyone. But I encountered another instance of vested interest when I was invited to deliver a keynote presentation to a regional “environmental” industry association. While the 500 or so people in the room described themselves as the “environment industry” they were mostly owners and CEOs of waste handling and toxic clean-up firms. I was supposed to deliver an inspirational message about the importance of waste management and recycling to a sustainable economy as well as point out opportunities for development of their industry. I said, however, that if we were really serious about sustainability, every company in the room needed to start planning to transform itself into something completely different—maybe materials supply and reprocessing businesses, or something of the sort. When all the faces looked blank, I realized what they wanted to hear were ideas about new markets for their present businesses. What I told them was that their businesses currently depend on a steady supply of wastes and toxins that no sustainable society of the future could ever generate. Surely we would recycle materials. But the long caravans of compactor trucks heading for the landfills must become a thing of the past. If they wanted to thrive in the future, they must find a way of making themselves obsolete but stay in business in the process. My message was not well received. Nevertheless, we can find many examples of businesses, some of them quite large, that depend for their profitability on the continuation of problems we need to eliminate (Orr, 1999). In so far as they represent vested economic interests and voter constituencies, they can also be roadblocks to a more sustainable way of life.

This is an excerpt from Mark Burch’s full essay, ‘Twenty Questions: Technology and Simple Living,’ which is available for free download from the Simplicity Institute here


One Response to “Technology and Simple Living”

  1. Colin Goodwin says:

    Courtesy of Amazon I have secured and read everything I can that Mark has written. He has a wonderful approachable style that leads you gently towards credible and usable conclusions.

    This paper is another example of fine writing – spoiled somewhat, in my eye’s, by one defect.

    Mark (and many other writers) use the word “technology” in such a way that a simple reader could imagine that they are advocating a world with no technology.

    As long as there have been humans, they have had tools – and these tools (flint knives, fire) are “technology”.

    My belief is that the single word “technology” is being used as a shorthand for “new technolgies developed by the consumer/capitalist system and which allow everyone to continue with a 2000-era lifestyle indefinitely (=sustainably)”.

    Of course this would be a mouthful to say very often, so the single word technology gets substituted – and thus misused.

    Why spring to the defence of a word?
    a) I’m an engineer- and thus rather fond of technology.
    b) I am keen to understand what level of technology humans can adopt that would be genuinely sustainable (hunter-gather, subsistence farmer, Amish, pre-WW1, ???).

    And the misuse of the word makes it difficult to have the discussion about which technologies can be sustainable, and the type of life we could have.

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