An environmental approach to technology

The transfer of clean technologies to the developing world is only one part of the solution to the global environment crisis, writes Tang Hao. We must also change our approach to new technology on a philosophical level.

The diffusion of clean technologies has always been seen as a way to solve the environmental problems we face in a globalised age. According to a report by the Club of Madrid and the UN Foundation, a fund of US$10 billion for technology transfer from developed to developing nations would be enough to start the fight against greenhouse-gas emissions.

However, the reality is somewhat different. Conflicts over the transfer of environmental technologies are worsening. Developing countries maintain that rich countries are the world’s major polluters, and have consumed most of the world’s resources since the Industrial Revolution – and therefore have a responsibility to transfer clean technology to help them reduce their emissions. Developed countries, at the same time, hold that poor countries want something for nothing, and they are failing to control their own pollution.

This debate has put the question of clean technology in an awkward position. The EU has always been outspoken on environmental issues, but to some countries this is a way the EU looks out for itself, while it continues to uphold barriers to technology transfer. The EU is a world leader in environmental technology; the sector is a new source of its economic growth. But if Europe remains unwilling to transfer green technology, large numbers of products from developing countries will be refused entry to EU markets, giving rise to conflict.

In the US, the debate may be less fierce, but the situation is worse. Green technology is used as an excuse for not adopting wide-ranging environmental policy. James Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, continues to reject mandatory caps on emissions, asserting that “the solution to climate change is the advancement of technology." His position is that the deteriorating environment is nothing to worry about, when future technology holds the solution. Expectations of future technological advance have thus become an excuse for ruining the environment today. In fact, we have the technology; the problem is we don’t use it.

Technology and ethics

The debate over international technological cooperation continues, even as the climate heats up. But this does not only arise because of conflicting national interests, it also hints at problems with our understanding of technology.

Today’s society may be technologically developed and powerful, but we have never been at greater risk of environmental disaster, nuclear war and infectious disease. We have developed an almost superstitious belief in technology, often seeing its advance as our only hope. But can technological advances solve our environmental crisis? Are they adequate to overcome these threats to our existence?

In fact, the problems we face are in large part caused by technologies that give us mastery over nature. Otherwise we would not have brought devastation to our planet with such efficiency. In reality, most environmental problems are caused by rapidly developing technology. For instance, agricultural mechanisation in north China has accelerated desertification. Marine and fishing technology has pushed the whale to the brink of extinction. Large dams have completely altered environments over areas of tens of thousands of square kilometres.

Technology does not necessarily advance an ethical agenda. The more polluted the environment is, the better the market for technology that cleans it up. The conflict of interests this presents is clear. In the case of biofuels, at least one environmental expert has noted how inhuman it is to burn massive quantities of food as fuel, when hundreds of millions of people are malnourished. Our ethical approach to technology has surely become confused.

Relying on future technology allows polluters to lay the burden of solving the environmental problems at the feet of future generations. The Bush administration’s environmental policy has followed this illusory path. Maybe our saviour technology will appear, but to risk the collapse of our civilisation on that chance is unreasonable.

New approaches

We live in an age that has mastered many types of technology, but has given rise to two principal approaches to technology: reliance and fear. The attitude of reliance cheers on technology with its every new advance. The fearful approach resembles Hollywood movies where robots rule the world.

Both attitudes are understandable responses, and despite their differences, they have one thing in common. They both hold that humanity is – or will be – controlled by technology.

Our estrangement from nature has made us view technology as a self-determining, self-developing system with an internal logic outside our control. This attitude puts us at risk from technological development, which we regard as unavoidable and unpredictable in its consequences.

Solving the environmental crisis needs not only new technology, but also a new philosophy of technology. We need to control the direction in which technology grows, and learn how to avoid the consequences of unbalanced development.

A change in philosophical approach will help to make some necessary changes. Technology transfer is essential to solve environmental problems, but the claim that our current technology is inadequate is an excuse – whether it is deployed in China, the US or the EU. We need a global system of technological cooperation, with proper organisation, planning and regulations – and a way to evaluate the potential threats of new technologies.

We urgently need a global technological ethics committee to consider the environmental and social impact of new technologies before they are implemented. Regulations on the compulsory transfer and licensing of technology are also needed to ensure clean technology is fully brought into play. This may help turn us away from sacrificing long-term interests for short-term benefits.

Tang Hao, born in 1974, is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.

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