Saturday, June 30, 2007

Technology, Pro or Con? Final Round of Debate

Keywords: technology; optimism; soil erosion; disease; inequality; poverty; progress

Phyllis wrote: I haven't been part of your blog discussion, nor do I have time for ongoing participation.

Metta replies: I can’t continue the conversation either. I’m leaving for Pugwash, Nova Scotia for a couple of weeks, so this will be the last of the dialogue from me.

Phyllis wrote: But I want to say that, intuitively, I don't buy your . I am reminded of Voltaire's Dr Pangloss by your discussion! So I want to pose some objections.

Metta replies: Okay, but I am not optimistic about everything. Nuclear weapons or climate change may indeed wipe us out, to mention only two grave dangers. I just don’t think that depletion of resources or food will do so. And my main point is simply that we need technological savvy and economic development in order to solve the problems facing us. I started off criticizing the “ecological footprint” and “” notions, which led to the debate about Malthus, technology, and . To keep the conversation coherent, those are the only aspects of the discussion that I want to address. In particular, this is not a debate about whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. It’s about how to handle the problems that we do have – especially whether technological innovations stimulated by price signals (the market) are often essential, which I believe to be the case. (I’m not suggesting, of course, that no political regulations are required.)

Three books have changed my thinking about these matters lately, and I recommend them highly: , The Improving State of the World; , , and , Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use; and Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Revolutionary Wealth.

Phyllis wrote: How does your theory fit with David Montgomery's contentions in Dirt: the erosion of civilizations? Soil degradation and accelerated erosion are realities: one per cent of arable land is being lost every year.

Metta replies: I don’t know that particular book, but certainly soil erosion is a problem. We need to adopt better farming technologies. The innovation that agronomists are promoting most nowadays to prevent is “no-till” farming, which does not remove the vegetation covering the soil. However, there’s a far more dramatic technology that I’m betting on – one that’s thousands of years old. The farmers in the Amazon discovered how to create rich, black loam () in large quantities by burying charcoal. This also greatly increases the capacity of the soil. For more on this, see plus this: and a blog entry I wrote at

Phyllis wrote: How does it fit with 's cautions in The fourth horseman? There are warnings about pandemics. And maybe US biowarfare research will reintroduce the horror that the Japanese pioneered.

Metta replies: I had never heard of Nikiforuk so I looked his book up on I don’t see why you’re citing this as an argument against my position, since I hope you don’t think that I am foolish enough to endorse everything that is technologically sophisticated, including germ warfare! The whole point is to be wise in creating and using technology. However, the reviewer on Amazon portrays Nikiforuk as opposing everything that is technologically sophisticated, which is even more foolish. Here is what the reviewer (one Severin Olson) wrote — and of course I don’t know whether or not he depicts the book accurately:

“...there are many books out on epidemic disease... [T]his one covers: Aids, influenza, leprosy, malaria, plague, smallpox, sphyillis, tuberculosis and the Irish potato fungus.
“Nikiforuk's book is both informative and funny. It is short and easy to read in a sitting...
“I took issue with his thesis, however, that disease is mainly an environmental problem, created by changes in human population and living habits. The argument is fine to a point, but Nikiforuk goes too far when he attacks the germ theory. For epidemic diseases are caused by germs! We advance humanity every time we conquer one of these micro organisms. Changes in lifestyle and hygiene can only take us so far. In fact, population is rising largely because we have defeated disease. He seems to yearn for an earlier age when epidemics kept civilization in its place. At one point he even blames the million killed in the Sri Lankan civil war on the eradication of malaria! Population pressure apparently. He says we should live with germs but one must wonder just how much smallpox and aids we wish to live with. As I see it, mankind must continue to fight these 'germs' in every way possible.”

Phyllis wrote: The gap between rich and poor has been growing, despite democracy. Hence social and economic inequities abound.

Metta replies: I agree. On the other hand, it can be misleading to take as the ultimate goal. What really matters is to overcome poverty. I believe in raising the “floor” under the lowest classes. If they are faring well, I don’t care how rich other people may be. And oddly, even though the rich-poor gap is widening in economic terms (measured by dollars of income, etc) the lot of the world’s poor is generally improving. The UN recommends using the (HDI) rather than income levels to appraise the well-being of the poor. And the UN Development Report 2004 shows that all but three of the 102 countries for which data are available showed improvement in HDI. Those three were in Sub-Sahara Africa.

Phyllis wrote: As military technology advances the bombers' dream (see Barry Steven's brilliant film of that title), more and more lethal hardware consumes resources and contaminates air, land and water.

Metta replies: Sorry, but I don’t understand why you’d expect me to disagree with these statements.

Phyllis wrote: How does your theory accommodate the relentless consumption of the oceans' bounty and the devastation of first the cod, and decimation of much of the rest of ocean life?

Metta replies: Probably the same way you would interpret these things: There need to be political regulations of the common. That includes international treaties and, within territorial waters, protection of fisheries. Unfortunately, as I understand it, many countries are actually subsidizing the trawlers and other fishing fleets that are doing the worst damage.

Phyllis wrote: does not seem the boon you make it out to be. It produced the nuclear weapon, with its omnicidal and ecocidal dark promise, the sword of Damocles hanging over all of us. Earth is still one finite limited system. So physical resources cannot be unlimited and must be exhaustible. The web of life manifestly is not thriving, with unprecedented species loss.

Metta replies: Technology is intrinsically neither a boon nor a disaster. It’s a question of what technological inventions we adopt. I just don’t understand the sweeping opposition to technology, as if it were some kind of alien force that determines what we do. When I knit a sweater, I’m using technology. If a machine knits the sweater, that’s just a more efficient kind of technology. The countries that industrialized first did encounter many deleterious effects to human health and longevity, but those challenges prompted them to create further technological inventions and solve the problems. This goes on today, too. Technological changes solve problems and create new problems, which further technological innovations again solve, and so on infinitum. That’s the way progress works. Yes, we confront problems that may be devastating to the earth’s ecosystems, landscapes, and biological diversity. But, as Goklany writes,

“Without technological change and economic growth, it would have been impossible to sustain the world’s current population at the rudimentary levels of 200 years ago, let alone advance human well-being to its current level...
“And had technological change been halted in 1900, U.S. emissions from carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion and industrial sources would have been three times today’s level. US. emissions of sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds would have been 15-20 times higher, and more than half a million more deaths would have occurred annually in the United States alone because of various water-related diseases.
“In fact, the air and water quality in the United States and the world’s rich nations are better today than they have been in decades. The increase in their agricultural productivity has allowed them to reestablish forests and set habitat aside for biodiversity preservation. All this in a period when unprecedented population growth accompanied unmatched economic growth and technological change!”

Yesterday I learned about a new system that multiplies the sun’s rays by a factor of four. The new rooftop panels will product four times as much electricity. Is that a bad thing, Phyllis? After all, it’s technology! Let’s use our intelligence to produce the things we need, not try to turn back to a preindustrial age for the sake of protecting nature. Chosen wisely, technology can give us a cleaner, more productive world than exists now.

Phyllis wrote: The world's granaries are much closer to empty than in recent decades, aren't they?

Metta replies: I think I answered that before by quoting (see photo), whose understanding of development is always illuminating. Almost all populations are consuming more food and are healthier and living longer. Moreover, it is entirely possible to produce indefinitely more food. Yet of course there are millions of hungry people who need more food. The explanation is not the population growth is outrunning the production of food , but that there are problems of economic development – jobs, especially. All shortfalls of food today result from a lack of “” — i.e. lack of money in the pockets of the poor. That’s why innovations such as the Grameen Bank have done so much to alleviate hunger by creating purchasing power.

Thanks for your comments. This could go on indefinitely, but now I must move on to other pressing matters.



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