Looking back on the unease of Ned Ludd from the 21st century it is possible to contend that he was right to be worried about technology, although not for the same reasons. Many of the most pressing concerns of today have come about because of our fixation on technology. Two examples help to illustrate this point.
The invention of the internal combustion engine has, arguably, been the one piece of technology that has contributed more than any other factor towards climate change. Fourteen percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the fuelling of the engines of transport. There is little indication that this is reducing or likely to reduce.
Over the past fifty years the number of car registrations world wide has increased seven-fold. Not only has the number of vehicles increased, but the distance travelled per vehicle has also increased – almost doubling in the last forty years. Certainly, the fuel efficiency of vehicles has increased, however, the fact that we are now travelling further, means that each car is using more fuel per year now than it did forty years ago.
Massive technological innovation in the agricultural sector, although increasing yields, has had some disastrous consequences. The technology has allowed for the deforestation of large swathes of South American, African and Asian rainforests – the “lungs of the earth.”
The much vaunted Green Revolution was a technological fix that was going to solve the problems of starvation and hunger in many of the poor nations of the earth. The failure of this technological approach is now well documented. The introduction of crops that required large investments of expensive fertiliser, seeds and irrigation had the effect of displacing many subsistence and poor farmers from their lands and only means of livelihood.
Perhaps Ned Ludd was right.
That’s all in the past though isn’t it? The technology of the future will surely solve our problems. Well, maybe not!
Difficulties with technological solutions
There are inherent difficulties with putting faith in technological solutions.
First is what is known as the Rebound Effect (or Jevons Effect), which notes that when an efficiency gain is produced one of the effects is to increase consumption of that item or another item. The increased fuel efficiency referred to above is a good example of this. Although vehicle efficiencies have increased, all that happened was that vehicles were driven further and so the actual fuel usage increased.
Examples such as this can be found everywhere, consider another. The efficiency of transporting fresh food from one side of the planet to the other has increased, so that consumers in rich nations are now able to eat whatever food they want year round. The effect upon climate, soil erosion and manipulation of crops has been disastrous – all because of technological efficiency gains.
Technologically we currently have the ability to transport people much more efficiently and sustainably than we do. The technology of public transport is well developed, but do we use it as wisely or as effectively as we could? The short answer is – no! Why not? It just isn’t socially acceptable to do so. We would far prefer to use our own private vehicle. Social acceptance is one of the big hurdles to overcome with any technological advancement when it comes to sustainability.
When businesses adopt technology advances then the gains from that are often reinvested into increased production and consumption rather than to reducing either. Thus, the current economic model encourages further growth and development because of technology, not less.
Furthermore, the business model of increased economic growth is predicated on further consumption. Hence it is in the interests of business to privilege technology ahead of other sustainability options. No wonder we hear so much about technological solutions to climate change, biodiversity loss, water shortages and other problems.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty with the idea of putting our faith in technological solutions is exactly that – putting our faith in techno-fixes. Relying on, or having faith in, technology allows us to not have to think about some of the more fundamental questions related to how we humans impact the earth and its other inhabitants.
We are currently consuming approximately one and half times the Earth’s sustainable replenishment rate. Those of us in the rich nations are the worst culprits. We are consuming anywhere between four and nine Earth-sized planets worth of resources per year. This is the real issue we must face – our over-consumption. That has little to do with technology. If anything, it requires us to reduce our reliance on technology, not create more of it.
Relying on technology to solve our issues is rather like those who put their faith in cryogenics: freeze me now, and thaw me out when technology has found a cure for aging.
Let’s face it. We have some serious thinking and acting to do, and it has to do with our individual, and collective, lifestyles and expectations. Our fixation on techno-fixes is misplaced. It is our global consumerism that we must tackle if we are to solve the issues that face us.
Maybe Ned Ludd was right.