This is reprinted from “A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series“, hosted by Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog
The promise that a given new technology will deliver environmentally benign electricity too cheap to meter, end hunger and poverty, or cure disease is very seductive. That is why the claims are made with many emerging technologies – nuclear power, biotechnology and nanotechnology, to name a few.
However history shows that such optimistic predictions are never achieved in reality. In addition to benefits, new technologies come with social, economic and environmental costs, and sometimes significant political implications.
Still, when it comes to public communication or policy making about nanotechnology, we’re often presented with the limited notion of weighing up predicted ‘benefits’ versus ‘risks’ (e.g. see here).
This framing ignores the broader costs and transformative potential of new technologies. It suggests that if we can only make nanotechnology ‘safe’, its development will necessarily deliver wealth, health, social opportunities and even environmental gains.
Ensuring technology safety is clearly very important. But simply assuming that ‘safe’ technology will deliver nothing but benefits, and that these benefits will be available to everyone, is – to put it mildly – quite optimistic.
To evaluate whether or not new technologies will help or hinder efforts to address the great ecological and social challenges of our time, we need to dig a little deeper.
The first generation of nano-products on the market attests to the primacy of the profit motive in guiding nanotechnology development, rather than a quest for environmental or social utility. A quick look at the Wilson Center’s Consumer Products Inventory reveals wrinkle-disguising cosmetics, meal-replacement diet milkshakes, stain-repellent ties and high performance golf clubs.
The huge proportion of the United States government’s nanotechnology research and development budget devoted to military applications – nearly a quarter in the 2010 budget – is also as concerning as it is revealing.
But let’s just agree to take a brief flight of fancy and imagine that governments, with public funding, did want to prioritise development of environmentally and socially useful technologies.
A brief survey of the challenges confronting our 21st century world highlights why such a decision may be warranted.
We are reaching, if not exceeding, our planet’s ecological limits. Climate change is not the only problem – water shortages, loss of arable land, pollution, deforestation, desertification and mass species extinction all point to a looming ecological crisis.
We also face an often unacknowledged justice crisis. Last year’s unprecedented global food shortages, where food riots occurred in many countries, was a stark reminder than hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest citizens struggle to meet their most basic daily needs.
How do we have a mature conversation about the role of technologies in 21st century innovation when we’re literally at make-or-break time ecologically, and the majority world is demanding an end to gross inequity?
First of all, we’d have to go beyond a superficial tally of ‘benefits’ versus ‘risks’ of new technologies, to ask some more thoughtful and critical questions. These include questions about whether technology – and what sort of technology – could help extract us from the mess we’re in, and whether technology – and what sort of technology – will dig us further in. They would also evaluate the extent to which a technology’s actual (rather than ideal) applications will help or hinder, and the extent to which helpful applications will be accessible to those who need them. Importantly, we’d also ask how decision making about technology could be opened up to those affected – wider publics.
We would have to recognise that some of the problems we face have social or economic causes to which technological fixes are not suited. In some instances greater technical capacity – or greater accessibility of a capacity that exists elsewhere – could certainly make a useful contribution. But in other instances the adoption of new technologies could have a damaging effect.
The last forty years was a period of significant technological innovation in which microelectronics, information technologies, medical treatments, telecommunications and biotechnologies were developed, and mass air travel expanded dramatically. Technologies transformed economies, political structures and daily life for both better and worse.
In this time of rapid technological development, there were winners, losers and a new scale of environmental cost. The per capita ecological footprint of many high income countries grew. The gap between the global rich and the global poor widened.
This is not to imply that technological innovation has been the only factor driving increasing resource use and widening inequities – clearly it hasn’t; a range of social, economic and political factors are relevant. But equally clearly, rapid technological innovation has not been the answer to our global problems.
Our experience demonstrates that technological innovation will not in itself enable us to live within our means – no amount of technology delivered efficiency will enable endless economic growth on a finite planet. Nor will technology reduce the inequities that divide rich and poor – this requires social, economic and political change.
Our experience also teaches us that environmentally or socially promising technologies will not necessarily be adopted, especially if they challenge the status quo. The government of Australia, one of the sunniest countries on earth, has pledged billions of dollars to cushion the coal industry from the effects of a proposed carbon trading system, while offering scant support to the fledgling solar energy sector.
There is a tendency to focus on the potential of new technologies to address our most pressing problems, rather than to seek better deployment of existing technologies, better design of existing systems, or changes in production and consumption. This reflects a preference to avoid systemic change. It also reflects an unfounded optimism that the ‘solution’ lies just over the horizon.
But sometimes ensuring better deployment of existing technologies is the most effective way to deal with a problem. Just as wider accessibility of existing drugs and medical treatments could prevent a huge number of deaths world-wide, improving urban storm water harvesting and re-use, housing insulation and mass transit public transport could go a long way to reducing our ecological footprint – potentially at a lower cost and at lower risk than mooted high tech options.
If evaluating the implementation or performance failures of previous technologies reveals economic or social obstacles or constraints, it’s probably these factors that warrant our attention. There is no reason to believe they will magically disappear once new technologies arrive.
Technological choices have a key part to play in achieving urgently needed environmental and social change. Making the best choices that we can has never been so important. This requires us to look beyond safety to ask bigger questions about new technologies. We must ask what is required to achieve our most critical social and environmental objectives, and be willing to accept that new technology is not always the answer. We must also ask what is required to ensure that those most affected by the outcomes of technology decision making have a voice in that decision making process.
Georgia Miller coordinates Friends of the Earth Australia’s Nanotechnology Project. Friends of the Earth is an environment and social justice NGO which has national member groups in 77 countries. Georgia is particularly interested in supporting greater public involvement in science policy development and decision making, and in making technology more responsive to social and environmental needs.
More information about FoEA’s work on nanotechnology can be found at: https://emergingtech.foe.org.au