Cosmologist Stephen Hawking recently told the BBC that most threats to humans now come from science and technology. He surmised that the 21st Century will be the most dangerous for humans because of the very progress we have made in science and technology. There’s irony for you.
When I saw this headline, I was reminded of the great debate within the environmental community in the 1960s. On one side, ecologist Paul Ehrlich argued that human population growth was the primary cause of environmental problems. As the title of the book he co-authored proclaimed, The Population Bomb was threatening humanity. The contrary view, that of Ehrlich’s fellow ecologist Barry Commoner, was that technology and its role in modern society was the fundamental problem. Commoner’s book The Closing Circle challenged what came to be known as the neo-Malthusianism of Ehrlich.
Without explicitly referencing Commoner, Stephen Hawking’s perspective continues this basic critique of the modern, high energy, technologically sophisticated industrial economy. The most recent exposition of this argument comes from those who suggest that we have entered a new geological time, The Anthropocene. This idea is that industrialized human culture with its heavy reliance on high energy technological systems has now become the great force of change in nature. In the words of historian J.R.R. McNeill, we live in a time of Something New Under the Sun.
Science and technology, particularly beginning with the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th Century, have dramatically improved human life. Particularly for the wealthy peoples of the world, including us in the United States, it provides a physical quality of life unprecedented in human history. Most Americans eat better, live longer, work less, and enjoy more recreation than the vast majority of humans who ever lived. We have much for which to be grateful.
Yet this experience lulls us into the sense that even more science and technology will contribute to human wellbeing. We see developing new science and technology as the fundamental approach for solving most of society’s problems. The very act of innovation is an unquestioned good, new is assumed to be better than old. The United States response to the Paris climate talks is a good example. We trust that new technology will solve the climate change problem and no other change in our industrial culture is needed.
This attitude toward science and technology is a big change compared to the time of the Ehrlich/Commoner debate. In some important ways, Commoner’s perspective was more widely accepted during that time. In the 1970s, science and technology were subject to more scrutiny than we give it today. The dominant perspective was that technology could add to wellbeing or could detract from it. This ethic was so strong that the U.S. Congress established in the early 1970s an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) charged with providing advice to Congress on the social, economic, and other impacts of new technology. Technology Assessment was a set of tools developed as part of the larger futures research movement.
There are plenty of recent examples of technology adopted to solve problems that in turn create a new set of problems that are potentially greater than the original problem. I have argued in this blog that so-called renewable energy technologies like wind power and biofuels are in the category. Another example is the adoption of genetically engineering food crops that are resistant to herbicides. The adoption of this technology has, among other impacts, led to the dramatic decline in Monarch butterflies. This is the kind of unintended consequence of new technologies that can be anticipated by the careful application of systematic technology assessment.
Unfortunately, the Congress no longer benefits from this kind of evaluation of new technology. As part of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, funding for OTA was cut in 1996. Technology assessment is now largely absent in public and private efforts to stimulate new technologies.
The goal of technology assessment is to move society to making conscious choices about which technologies to adopt and which to forego. It means leaving aside the attitude that new technologies are always good. It means adopting some more skepticism about technological change. Some call this approach the use of a precautionary principle. Instead of embracing new technology until it can be proven to be bad for us, we need to determine that technology is not bad for us before adopting the new. Another way of stating this view of technology is, just because we can, does not mean that we should.
By taking this approach toward science and technology, maybe we can prove Stephen Hawking wrong.