Techno optimist or pessimist?

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Alan Silvester
EMEA Upstream Sustainability Services

Some are optimistic about the role of technology and its ability to sustain the human population in the way that we have become accustomed, where as others believe it is the cause of more and increasingly worrying negative impacts. Techno-optimists believe that technological developments will allow us to continue living as we are and combat the challenges faced by climate change, a growing population and the ability to feed, water, clothe and house current and future generations. Are they right?

Looking back at what human society has invented over the last few centuries it is a remarkable list of achievements, and it is natural to assume we will continue to invent techno-fixes. Technology hasn’t necessarily solved all our problems and if looked at closely it has often made matters worse. Introducing new technologies to solve certain problems can cause unintended consequences (due to lack of knowledge) as well as rebound effects (i.e. accentuating the problems it is trying to solve).

Cars for example allowed humans more freedom and reduced travelling times. Initially successful, but as more people started driving the natural environment was destroyed, people died in accidents, air pollution increased, congestion worsened and urban sprawl ensued. To combat these negative impacts more technology is applied to create more roads and infrastructure which encouraged people to buy more cars and increase the negative effects of automobile transport.

Probably the main area of technological innovation is the improved access to energy. Population growth has followed improvements in energy production, with world population rising dramatically since the industrial revolution and the resultant ability to increase the carrying capacity of land. Improved access to energy has helped feed, clothe and shelter humans, but the unintended consequences resulting from the associated population boom have caused serious negative environmental effects.

Techno-optimists argue that ‘counter technologies’ will combat these unintended consequences; however rebound effects are rarely considered. Efficiency measures are a good case in point. Improving the efficiency of the car was meant to reduce travelling time and fuel use. However according to the International Energy Agency[1] the 20% increase in car fuel efficiency between 1974 and 1998 resulted in a 40% increase in total fuel use.

ICT is championed as having the potential to increase energy and resource use efficiency, however the total energy consumed by this industry has increased dramatically and is predicted to continue due to the increasing production of IT equipment worldwide. For example, a 2008 McKinsey report[2] predicts that as the developing world goes digital, ICT carbon emissions will increase fivefold from 2002 to 2020.

In summary although technology can increase energy and resource efficiency, caution should be applied. I’m not suggesting reforming the Luddites but measures should be taken to minimise how nature is exploited. Similarly attempting to better understand the present and future impacts on the earth before introducing new technologies would be wise. Assuming that technology will allow sustainable economic growth and help sustain natural resources, without a fundamental change in mind-set of how humans interact with nature, it is likely to lead to dire future consequences.

[1]IEA and OECD (2004). 30 years of Energy Use in EIA countries. IEA, Paris.

[2]Boccaletti, G., Löffler, M. and Oppenheim, J. (2008) How IT can cut carbon emissions, The McKinsey Quarterly, Oct, p2.





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