Can Technology Save Us

This weekend was a long weekend here in New Zealand. I sent the text below to the Science Media Center people with a request for them to publish it for me. This is the second time I have done this. Still nervous.

This last week I have read “This is the American Earth”. The photography by Ansel Adams and the text by author and poet Nancy Newhall. The book was published by the Sierra Club in 1960. I was months old. The challenge of consumption and affluence has been on my mind because of the difficulty I have simplifying my own life. Nancy wrote this:

“How little, from the resources non-renewable by Man, cost the things of
greatest value –
wild beauty, peace, health and love,
music and all testaments of spirit!

How simple our basic needs –
a little food, sun, air, water, shelter, warmth and sleep!
How lightly might this Earth bear Man forever!”

This poetry speaks to the challenge facing us.  Those of us in the wealthy world, “How can we live simply; reduce our ecological footprint and increase our sense of ourselves, our connections with our communities and our personal well-being”.

Can Technology Save Us?

A summary and review of:

Will progress in science and technology avert or accelerate global collapse? A critical analysis and policy recommendations. (2008) Michael H. Hueseman and Joyce A. Huesemann. Environ Dev. Sustain 10:787-825. DOI 10.1007/s10668-007-9085-4

As scientists we have a positive view of technology and what technology can achieve. The authors question this view using the IPAT frame (I=PAT; I, societal impact; P, population; A, per capita affluence; T, technology) introduced by Ehrlich and Holdren in the early 1970s.

The commonly held view is that as technology (T) improves material and energy efficiency, T will become small reducing societal impact (I). Hueseman and Hueseman make the case that this is optimistic, concluding that:
“Unfortunately, reductions in the T-factor have generally not been sufficiently rapid to compensate for the simultaneous increases in both P and A. As a result, total impact, in terms of energy, mineral extraction, land-use and CO2 emissions, has in most cases increased with time, indicating that industrial society is nevertheless moving towards collapse. The belief that continued and even accelerated scientific research will automatically result in sustainability and avert collapse is at best mistaken. Innovations in science and technology will be necessary but alone will be insufficient for sustainability.”

Huesman and Huesman follow this (sobering) analysis with a critical analysis of policy options that exist and can move society forward. These are specific policies to:

  • Firstly, reduce population growth via well understood approaches such as provision of education (especially for girls), opportunities for economic and social growth, access to contraception and abortion, and provision of healthcare and superannuation. Essentially, these recommendations move society through the different stages of the demographic transition as quickly as possible to a stable population.
  • Secondly, the authors policy recommendations to reduce the A factor by: introducing policies specific to remove perverse subsidies, introducing regulations to reduce pollution and the waste of non-renewable resources, and introducing ecological tax reform.
  • The final policy recommendation is to move toward a steady-state economy where conspicuous consumption is replaced by an ethic of “enough”. The authors put forward a case that this would improve subjective well being. This can be achieved by ensuring that basic needs are met, while providing opportunities for non-consumptive status competition, and increasing social and leisure opportunities.

Within the context of the above policies, science and technology can contribute as we normally understand it, through material and energy efficiency, and innovation.

This paper has much to recommend it. I encourage readers to view the paper and consider the author’s thoughts.

Link here:
Will progress in science and technology avert or accelerate global collapse? A critical analysis and policy recommendations. (2008) Michael H. Hueseman and Joyce A. Huesemann. Environ Dev. Sustain 10:787-825. DOI 10.1007/s10668-007-9085-4

The author teaches environmental and sustainability science at the tertiary level.


About sustainabilityandbeauty

My passion is telling the stories of possibility, seeking a sustainable and beautiful future. My training is in science, chemistry, environmental science and teaching.
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