Friday, November 12, 2010

Ethics in research design and the longevity of interest

Dale Jamieson's article on Ethics and Intentional Climate Change speaks to the ethical considerations that need to be seriously looked into before we deploy large-scale interventions to combat global warming. It seems as if more and more people are resting their hopes on some geo-engineering breakthrough that will combat, virtually instantaneously, decades and centuries of environmental neglect. It seems unlikely that these approaches will be foolproof; it is likely that there will be significant unforseen impacts of such interventions. Indeed, there seems to be a sort of arrogance if we solely rely on geo-engineering to get us out of such a huge mess. Regardless, there is a huge community of people that are looking at geo-engineering options. Research is being done constantly.

Does everything that can be research need to be researched? There are consequences to research that many researchers would not like to admit. Jamieson points out that:

"In many cases, research leads unreflectively to deployment. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is that we seem cultural imperative that says if something can be done it should be done. For whatever reason technologies in this society often seem to develop a life of their own that leads inexorably to their development and deployment. Opposing the deployment of technology is seen as 'Luddite' - an attempt to turn back progress that is doomed to failure. The second impetus to move unreflectively from research to development is well-documented with respect to medical technology. A research program often creates a community of researchers that functions as an interest group promoting the development of the technology that they are investigating. Since the researchers are the experts and frequently hold out high hopes for a rosy future if their technology is developed, it can be very difficult for decision makers to resist their recommendations. In many cases the social and ethical issues created by the deployment of the technology are explored only after we are already committed to it, but by then it is too late."

It is difficult to know what drives research - are we looking into things the world really needs, or are we trying to find out things we think the world needs? From a corporate standpoint, research leads to the development of newer technologies, potentially (only potentially) less environmentally harmful than current ones, and often with perverse incentives of an increase in use of resources (as things become more efficient, people use more of them, negating any efficiency gains). At the same time, to remain "competitive" requires competitors to constantly "innovate," and get newer and newer products out before others can. Further, there is a sort of hegemony that advertising and consumption has on our society; there is very little longevity of interest in one particular thing, because the next thing is out before you can make full use of what you have already. This incentivises resource extraction and trash.

In all of this, corners can be cut everywhere, resulting in poor worker conditions and environmental harm. There are reasons why industrial production is done far away from where many of us choose to live. What is guaranteed currently, however, is that ethical considerations of product deployment - asking who is affected, positively and negatively, what is affected (nature, birds, water, air, archaeological sites, etc.), and how they are affected - are left to be determined later.

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