The greening of high tech.
Since that time, environmental debates have often seemed to pit advocates of environmentally benign, small-scale, relatively low- technologies against advocates of largescale, complex 'high- technologies. The "soft energy path" based on conservation and simple renewable energy technologies was pitted against the "hard path' based largely on nuclear fission. Organic farming challenged the intensive use of energy, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides in conventional industrial agriculture. And so on.
There seemed to be no room for compromise between these polarized positions. For the optimistic proponents of advanced technology, the I e main danger was that retreatist, anti-technology "prophets of doom" would be too influential, causing a collective loss of nerve. Then we would tragically fail to achieve the affluent, worldwide Superindustrial Society that lay only a few generations ahead. For the critics of advanced technology, the danger was that uncritical technological optimism could lead us to neglect worsening global environmental problems, overshoot limits to growth, and miss our only opportunity to create a human-scale society in balance with nature.
As important as those debates were at the time, something went wrong in them that has confused the situation ever since. Environmentalists as well as technological optimists sometimes accepted one or more of three serious misconceptions. Misconception #1: A Truly Advanced Technology Already Exists
Both the champions and the critics of advanced technology have tended to define it in terms of existing technologies. But "advanced technology" is a moving target. The term originally described the first great surge of science-based innovation in the 1880s that produced steel-frame construction, aluminum, the incandescent light bulb, rayon, the telephone, the electric locomotive, and the internal-combustion engine. By the end of World War II, advanced technology meant developments such as atomic energy, the first lumbering electronic computers, television, and rocketry.
We are now at the beginning not the end - of the information revolution, the biotechnology revolution, revolutions in materials and manufacturing, and an energy transition. Revolutionary changes are arising in areas such as "living machines" and -industrial ecology." Later in the twenty-first century, our growing ability to manipulate matter at the molecular level could put our technology on an entirely new foundation, dramatically accelerating technological change. Within 50 years, nearly everything that passes for high tech today is likely to be a museum piece.
So a little modesty seems in order about just how advanced today's technology really is. Science-based technology is not much more than a century old and still in its infancy. We need to think about advanced technology in terms of the possibilities ahead as well as our limited accomplishments to date. Misconception #2: Advanced Technology is Always Big, Complex, and Environmentally Destructive
Critics of modern technology point with good cause to problems of scale and complexity, pollution, and health hazards. Some then go on to treat these problems as inevitable characteristics of advanced technology. But if we approach technology in terms of emerging potentials rather than present limitations, it makes more sense to view these problems as signs that we have not yet achieved a sufficiently advanced technology.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology provides a dramatic example of how advanced technology can be small, simple, safe, and nonpolluting. Small-scale installations on rooftops will be as economical as utility-scale arrays. PV technology represents the ultimate in elegant technical simplicity, with no moving parts and nothing to go wrong. And PV technologies emit no pollutants at all during their operation. (The environmental challenge is to clean up the manufacturing process.)
In the energy debates of the 1970s, "hard path" proponents dismissed PV technology as too expensive to play a significant role, and "soft path" advocates typically dismissed it as too high tech and exotic. But now most business leaders and researchers in the field expect PV electricity to be cost-competitive with all other generating options by the turn of the century or shortly thereafter.
High technologies such as solar cells often work best in combination with simpler, soft-technology components. Even the most technically advanced energy-efficient home, for example, using high-tech devices such as occupancy sensors and smart lighting, must also include simple, cost-effective measures such as plugging leaks, adding insulation, and capturing passive solar heat. This is an important insight that cuts through many of the debates of the past. High tech and low tech are not mutually exclusive paths. They can be perfectly compatible and synergetic when put together in sensible combinations. Misconception #3: There is Only One Kind of Advanced Technology, and it "Just Happens"
During the 1970s and 1980s, the image of the future offered by most technological optimists was essentially a bigger-better-faster-higher version of the present. The idea that advanced technology might evolve along sharply different alternative paths, defined by different value systems, was not an idea most technologists considered very seriously. Too often, in retrospect, environmentalists accepted the idea of a single type of advanced technology, didn't like it, and so defined themselves as techno-critics.
The idea of a single track of advanced technology that -just happensseems plausible mainly because the unpredictable emergence of scientific knowledge "whose time has come- often does set the direction of technological change. But science is not, and never has been, a fully autonomous process with a direction set only by its internal logic. As futurist Joseph Coates points out, research in thermodynamics was made possible by people who had both practical concerns (improved steam engines, gun boring) and funds to invest. The discovery of petroleum and the rapid growth of the oil industry steered chemistry away from research on wood and coal. Research in aerospace, microelectronics, lasers, and many other fields is sustained by direct or indirect military support. So we need to be wary of creating a mythology of autonomy that obscures the extent to which sci ence and science-based technology are steered by social choices. Choosing an Environmentally Advanced Technology
A technology shaped by environmental values and drawing on th full potential of modern science will eventually be very different from a technology guided only by value-empty economics - but it will still be an advanced technology. This is a major change of perspective for some environmentalists, but it is one that is occurring. "We must ditch twentieth-century technologies and rapidly adopt those of the twenty-first century,- says james G. ("Gus") Speth, president of the World Resources Institute. "Our old environmental foe, modern technology, must become a friend. . . . [Only technology can save us. That is a hard thing for a congenital Luddite like myself to say, but ... I do now believe it. I do not diminish the importance of lifestyle changes some go hand-in-hand with technological change - and I applaud the spread of more voluntary simplicity in our wasteful society. But economic growth has its imperatives; it will occur. The key question is: With what technologies? Only the population explosion rivals this question in fundamental importance to the planetary environment.' Characteristics of an Environmentally Advanced Technology
An environmentally advanced technology will emulate the characteristics of nature itself. It will be, above all else, sustainable. It will be capable of satisfying present needs without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations, and it will be capable of being used by all people for all time without exhausting resources or having unacceptable environmental consequences.
A second characteristic of an environmentally advanced technology is that it will be based on a safe and inexhaustible supply of energy. Just as nature met its energy needs by -inventingphotosynthesis, we are developing more efficient ways to capture and use the abundant energy of sunlight. Fusion is another possible "eternal' source of energy, if it can be made sufficiently safe and inexpensive. Fission is making a contribution as a transitional technology, but the problems it poses nuclear weapons proliferation, accident and sabotage risks, and waste disposal - make it a very problematic technology upon which to base a civilization.
A third characteristic is high efficiency in the use of energy and other resources. just as respiration and other innovations in evolution improved the efficiency of early life-forms, so technical improvements in our production processes, buildings, and transportation systems will allow us to produce outputs' (goods and services) with a small fraction of the energy "inputsneeded today.
We already know how to double the practical efficiency of industrial motors and jet aircraft; triple the efficiency of lights, automobiles, and most household appliances; and increase the efficiency of buildings by factors ranging from two to 10. When we incorporate the environmental costs of producing and using energy into energy prices, these efficiency improvements will be economically attractive compared with the cost of any new kind of energy supplies. Efficiency reduces energy and material costs, and it also reduces environmental problems at the source. More efficient production processes will use and pollute less water; use less wood, leaving more trees standing; use less energy, reducing acid rain and greenhouse warming; and so on.
A fourth characteristic is high efficiency in recycling and the use of byproducts. Beyond optimizing the consumption of energy and materials and minimizing wastes, we would always use the effluents of each process as raw materials for other processes. Materials would never be seriously depleted, because, as in natural ecosystems, the "industrial ecosystem" would simply keep changing circulating stocks of material from one form to another. Renewable resources would be carefully managed on a sustained-yield basis so that they would never be depleted. Pollution would be viewed as a design flaw, a failure to take advantage of some potentially useful resource.
A fifth characteristic of an environmentally advanced technology is that it will be increasingly intelligent. Just as the biosphere evolved increasingly intelligent life-forms, our tools are evolving to a higher level of information-processing capability. With tiny integrated circuit chips, intelligence (or simulated intelligence) is being embedded in more and more of those tools.
We are moving toward a future where everything from automobile fuel consumption to industrial process control will be optimized by artificial intelligence. "Smart materials" will change their characteristics in response to internal and external conditions, giving us, for example, windows that become more transparent or opaque and change their insulation value depending on the interior temperature. Over time, the biosphere will be increasingly "wired" with monitoring instrumentation and satellite remote sensing, so we will know much more about the environmental impacts of everything we do.
A last characteristic of an environmentally advanced technology is that it will be increasingly alive. Ecologist john Todd describes the emergence of a new field of ecological engineering and a new category of technology, "living machines." Living machines composed of many types of organisms and advanced structural materials can be designed to perform many of the most vital functions in society, including food and fuel production, waste treatment, and water purification. Living machines emulate the design principles used by nature itself and display characteristics of living systems, such as self-repair and self-design to adapt to changing environmental conditions.
Looking ahead, physicist Freeman Dyson argues that we will increasingly have a choice between two different technological approaches, which he calls "gray" and green." Gray technology is the familiar realm of mechanical moving parts, motors, and electronic circuits, while green technology is the still-exotic realm of ecological engineering combined, over time, with genetic engineering. Green technology will provide a vast range of environmental services, from breaking down toxic wastes to rapidly restoring degraded ecosystems. It will make possible much more intensive ways of growing food, so that more land can be left in a natural state. Dyson believes that green technology will come to the fore rapidly and will become dominant within about 50 years, although gray technology will never be abandoned. The Opportunity Ahead
If this scenario is even roughly valid, then virtually every technology we use will be redesigned and rebuilt during the twenty-first century. Whole new forms of technology will come into existence.
This transformation of technology will be both pushed and pulled by enormous social forces. It will be pushed by accelerating environmental deterioration climatic change from the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion, the rapid destruction of forests, the spread of deserts, the loss of millions of species of plants and animals, soil erosion, water scarcity, toxic contamination, and air and water pollution. In a situation of rapidly worsening environmental impacts on a global scale and a growing understanding that the success of human civilization is ultimately at stake, the social and political pressure for creating environmentally advanced technologies will become enormous.
An environmentally advanced technology will also be pulled into existence by positive images of what the future could be like. Unlike the 1970s, when some seemed to counsel a kind of "safety of the tombs" - a step back to a more static society with less-advanced technologies - the 1990s are bringing a new image of a technology that is more advanced in every sense, including its ability to operate in harmony with nature.
The other great social force that will bring an environmentally advanced technology into existence is the profit motive. Creating an environmentally advanced technology will provide enormous business opportunities in the 1990s and over the next 50 years. Vast new industries related to the redesign of manufacturing processes, the reuse of waste materials, energy efficiency, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, efficient transportation and the substitution of telecommunications for travel, environmentally sensitive architecture and urban design, and a completely new realm of green technology all await development.
The challenge of building these new industries will change the social context of environmentalism. In Western industrialized society, where the private sector controls nearly all of the resources for developing new knowledge into new products, an environmentally advanced technology can be brought into existence only through the full involvement of business. The adversarial environmental politics of the past, appropriate for challenging the destructive impacts of a previous technological order, will tend to shift toward negotiated, consensual efforts to foster investment in a new technological order in harmony with nature. Government will play a key role in supporting research and development and creating policy incentives that make it in the private sector's self-interest to move in this direction.
If we succeed, people in the future will look back at late-twentieth-century technology as primitive and totally unsustainable - based on depleting resources, inefficient and wasteful, and crashing against people and ecological systems like the proverbial bull in a china shop. They will wonder how we could have seriously asserted that ours was an age of "advanced technology."
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||includes related article; the environment and high technology|
|Author:||Olson, Robert L.|
|Date:||May 1, 1991|
|Previous Article:||Rethinking international governance.|
|Next Article:||Project Phoenix: a visionary proposal for averting environmental disaster.|