Sunday, June 12, 2011

On the scarcity argument for technology

One of the key arguments in favour of technological "progress" is the notion of scarcity. Over time, the concept of "progress" has become synonymous with technological advancement. Aidan Davision, in his book Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability, says, " stability [became] synonymous with dynamic progress, for stability is thought to be founded upon the ability of social activity to overcome external limits." Scarcity is an external limit, one which moved with us everywhere, all throughout time. Humans have continued to have a remarkable tendency to deplete what sustains them, more so than any other creature than I can think of. If we were to look at some of the negative manifestations of our behaviour, we would note overfishing, deforestation, soil erosion, nutrient depletion in soil, water table decline, and so on. What this favours is then a new look at the technologies that allow us to deplete and overextract, and we of course find out that there are "better" ways to deplete and extract, such that we can get the same amount out for less input. Davison writes, "...fear of scarcity becomes fuel for progress. Scarcity is the goad that stimulates the productive fervor necessary to prevent technological society from collapsing on itself."

Biofuel research is a great example in which the notion of scarcity is fueling technological advancement, without a deeper understanding of social and behavioural dimensions to the problems facing us. Biofuels are being investigated as alternatives for traditional fossil fuels in combustion applications, the reasons for doing so differ depending on who you talk to. One of the reasons is that biofuels may have the ability to have "net-zero" carbon dioxide emissions, that is, the carbon dioxide emissions that occur through burning the fuels will then be reabsorbed by those very plants, that will then be converted back into fuel, and so on. Yet what seems to me equally, if not more, fundamental drivers of biofuel research are 1) an inability to move away from technological systems already in place (cars, planes, etc.) and 2) the drive to overcome external limits, in this case, limited fossil fuel stocks. This second point leads to all sorts of national security arguments, which I talked about in a previous War and the Environment post. In fact, much of the work being done in biofuel research is being done by the Air Force and Department of Defense.

But as has been explored by myself and Dr. Jack Edelstein, Jevon's Paradox continues to rear its head in all technological applications. Now while there is nothing wrong with efficiency (shout out to Matthew L.=)), in many cases, we actually end up doing more harm trying to move away from scarcity by making something else more scarce, particularly because many engineering designs are not modular, and therefore not conducive to modification or reuse. With biofuels, while being a step away from fossil fuels, there have been increased tendencies to cut down trees to plant biofuel crops. We therefore deplete and make scarce trees, and consequently the ecology supported by those trees, let alone affect indigineous peoples and their homes.

I believe that something powerful that each and every one of us can do is consider more thoughtfully the impacts of our choices, because in today's world, many of our choices are technologically driven. Scarcity arguments will continue to be used to research and invest in ever more diverse, new technologies based off of extraction. Yet we continue to deplete and degrade with our quest for such technologies. It is important to realise that each one of us lends our patronage to this system if we choose to participate. Now while not participating in these systems may be difficult, as I wrote about yesterday, it is entirely feasible to limit our impacts and to continue to have discussions that will hopefully make those around you understand these points of view.

1 comment:

  1. For the record, in my mind many of the principles you embrace/practice in your everyday life are incredibly efficient. You choose to use high quality materials and care for your materials in such a way to minimize waste. Although on occasio...n you have to do a little extra leg work, ultimately you have described your approach as "easy." The regular American lifestyle is bad for the environment and wasteful in large part because it is so inefficient (e.g. disposable materials are not more efficient than reusable materials). Now we just need to figure out how to make a lifestyle like yours easier and more attractive to everyone! There is an environmental economist at UConn who spends some time thinking about these things ( she believes that to help encourage these sorts of behaviors we should push incentives. Great work Darshan! Keep it up!