THE BLOG
01/06/2014 10:29 am ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014

Reducing the Toxicity of Modern Technology

Since I am a political scientist and not an engineer, it may seem odd for me to believe that the solution for many of the environmental problems brought on by modern technology will be found in the development of even more modern technology. Why? Because political change tends to be slow and difficult. Technologies change faster than human behaviors change. Human behaviors tend to change faster than social behaviors. Political arrangements tend to change slower than social behaviors. In short, political change typically cannot keep up with technological change.

Political and institutional arrangements only change quickly in response to clear and present dangers, or what the great political scientists Charles Braybrooke and David Lindblom once termed "grand opportunities." These are crisis situations where decision makers put in motion large-scale change, even though we have little understanding of the situation we are in or the potential impact of the changes we have implemented. Some argue that the sustainability issue is such a crisis and that climate change and ecological destruction must be addressed immediately and on a massive scale. While the physical facts might support the definition of our current environmental condition as a crisis, the political facts do not.

Most people think that resources are being degraded and the climate is changing, but few believe that the danger is imminent. The impacts are too subtle and gradual to have the impact that a military strike or terrorist attack has on public opinion. It is not like World War II where Germany invaded Poland and France and Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It is not like the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Even though most people understand the sustainability issue, it is not considered serious enough to result in crisis mobilization. These perceptions will eventually result in political change, but those changes may be slow in coming. The views of sustainability might best be compared to views on social issues such as gay rights, marijuana legalization and changes in family structure and lifestyle. These social changes have been in place for a very long time and the political response is only now slowly coming into place. That is why I am not counting on a global climate treaty or a set of national carbon taxes to mitigate climate change.

My environmental policy mentor at SUNY Buffalo, the late Lester Milbrath, used to argue against dependence on technological fixes. His view was that large-scale value changes built on a solid understanding of the interconnected environmental problem would lead over time to social change and then political change. Professor Milbrath argued this in 1975. It is now nearly four decades later. The environmental and sustainability issue has moved to the center of the global political dialogue. Many of the value changes and social changes that Les believed we needed are well underway, but the rate of social and political change is not keeping pace with the rate of technological change. The toxicity of modern technology continues to increase. Fortunately, due to modern health care techniques, improved public health policy and pollution control technology, human life span continues to grow. These trends are heartening, although some of the technologies we have put into place endanger the planet's natural systems and could have a long term negative impact on our quality of life and economic well-being.

Many of the technologies that permeate our daily lives are built with materials that can poison living systems and beings if their disposal is not carefully managed. The computer I am writing on relies on such substances. Solar cells, batteries, and my insulated winter jacket all utilize materials that could become toxic. Contemporary firefighting provides an example of the toxicity of modern life. One of the great dangers faced by today's fire fighters is that when they enter the interior of a home that is burning, the fumes emitted by burning plastic moldings, counter tops, floor coverings and electronics are highly toxic. Unless protected by breathing apparatus, these fumes can pose as great a health risk as fire to these courageous first responders.

While these toxics pose danger, they can be contained and their disposal and recycling can be safely managed. Nuclear power, one of the often-cited solutions to the climate problem, results in even higher levels of toxicity and threats that are so long lasting they will likely outlive contemporary social and political systems. Nuclear toxics -- or radioactive waste -- is particularly difficult to manage. I suspect some forms of biotechnology will pose similar management challenges. So, when we seek a technological fix to a problem caused by the unanticipated impacts of technology, it makes sense to look for solutions that do not have the potential to cause damage beyond our capacity to repair.

The search for solutions to the problems caused by technology is not undertaken in a value-neutral environment. The costs and benefits of new technologies are part of the search calculus. There is also the ideology of people who refuse to acknowledge scientific fact such as climate science deniers, or those who believe that fracking, mountaintop removal and deep sea drilling for fossil fuels pose little risk to ecosystems or human well being. Fortunately, the ideology of science itself relies on peer-reviewed, carefully scrutinized methods, data, models and analysis. Environmental impacts are increasingly one of the factors that many basic and applied scientists are considering when they undertake their research. This is part of the long-term value change that Professor Milbrath considered central to lasting and fundamental change (sometimes described as a "paradigm shift").

When I studied with Professor Milbrath and his colleagues, EPA was less than a decade old. The fundamental structure of U.S. environmental law was still being put in place. Today, government, real estate developers, business managers and average citizens routinely factor environmental impacts into day-to-day decision making. Moreover, we have built a set of institutions designed to monitor and enforce compliance with environmental rules. As new technologies are developed and introduced we now routinely consider the toxicity of those technologies. We sometimes proceed anyway, because we believe that the benefits of the technology outweigh its costs.

All of us depend on and enjoy the technologies we know harm the environment. Climate scientists and sustainability experts drive cars, heat and light their homes, and fly in jet planes to meetings to discuss climate change. On the other hand, those of us deeply engaged in the work of sustainability science, policy and management are not ignorant of the damage we all do to our home planet. We think about the damage that we are doing. It may influence our choice of cars, homes or recreation. I know it influences the problems we choose to focus our research on. This may not seem like much, but it is evidence of a significant change in values and a high degree of social learning over the past four decades.

Despite the toxicity of the technology we rely on, I believe that the sheer number of smart people focused on the problems of sustainability will enable us to address the problems that pose the deepest threats to humankind. As always, it comes down to my belief in the power of human ingenuity -- perhaps coupled with our instinct for survival. I think that the technological base for a sustainable economy will be developed in the 21st century. I hope the social, organizational and political change needed to implement those technologies will follow. But that is all I can offer: thoughts and hopes.