Sustainability Research, Reviews and Signposting
Is technology a safety net, or does it just get in the way of what’s really important?
Safety net for what? What is the problem we are trying to solve with technology? Hunger and food shortages? Profit or equitable wealth distribution? Climate change? Fossil fuel depletion and alternative energies? Natural resource depletion and sustainable production and consumption? Bad government? Faulty economies and failed economic systems based on growth in favour of prosperity?
Well, surely it will depend on which of these questions we are trying to answer, and the conditions in which the question is being asked. If an all-encompassing, broad scope answer is required, one would naturally consider all the known and foreseeable issues at the time and design a best-possible outcome taking into consideration and weighing all the issues and possible impacts.
As far as resources are concerned, is there any sense in total resource abstinence? Is there such thing as sustainable resource use in current and new technologies? Are there any other solutions to our problems than technological ones? Perhaps there isn’t enough time to sufficiently cover these issues, but one can attempt an initial response.
In ‘The Culture of the New Capitalism’, Richard Sennett writes, “The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new”. Whilst on the surface this sounds like a war cry in the battle between the makers and the takers, the problem runs much deeper.
Taken from the website of the seemingly harmless social enterprise, Technology Will Save Us, despite its mandate in social sustainability, this quote shows the magnitude of the problem: attempts to solve problems in one area of sustainability may well have unknown and unintended consequences in others, sometimes serious. Looking at all the photos of happy people making electronic whirlimagigers, one must turn a blind eye to all the stuff that’s being consumed and wasted in the process of masterpiece-making.
The trouble is, as Paul Hawken comments, that any action to reduce resource or energy use, any activity that helps bring people together, any move that tends toward financial efficiency, can be labeled as ‘sustainable’ regardless of impact on the environment or either of the two remaining pillars of sustainability.
The crux of the matter here remains in our balancing levels of consumption and waste (assuming reduction, reuse, recycling and renewal everywhere possible) against the skills that are being transmitted and acquired, and the social processes in action, through the process of learning illustrated in those photos. (A tricky question remains whether those happy chappies are just middle-class tech-nerds out in search of their weekly dose self-gratification, or if they are genuine skill-seekers, retraining in order to improve their lot and make their world a better place in whatever way they can.)
An appropriate, sustainable approach to the production and use of technology will include a thorough understanding of the human place in our interrelated, planet-wide ecosystem. Anthropomorphic cause-and-effect must factor into any philosophy of technology use, in which we understand the extent of the problem we are trying to solve and its environmental components.
So, in addressing resource use, we might… permanently couple it with RRRR… balance it against benefits and true cost in the widest scope of both (i.e. an extensive, remodelled form of Cost-Benefit Analysis)… then possibly arrive at a “whole-systems life-cycle cost” reflective of an appropriate respect and accounting for all relevant systems, including anthropomorphic and ecological.
An alternative view might also question our relationship with stuff, regardless of whether we make it or consume it (take it, license it, buy it, or otherwise). Makers are not the only people that express this affliction of pride in stuff, of cherishing stuff. Stuff can make people happy, but for how long? Stuff breaks, gets stolen, forgotten about, goes out of style, becomes outdated or obsolete, loses value, so on and so forth. Technology, whilst as a genre of ‘tool’, is incredibly useful and undeniably helpful to us as a species, it remains a subcategory of stuff (and yet still retains it’s environmental baggage).
Should we be investing so much of ourselves in stuff? What about our relationships with each other, what about the experiences we have in life? Stuff will undoubtedly play a role in these, but not the primary, principal role, not the central focus, the raison d’être for our existence. Much research has shown happiness and longevity linked directly to positive, supporting, lasting human relationships. Not stuff, consumption, excessive wealth.
And this is just skimming the very first microscopic layer off the top…
Image courtesy of and with Thanks to toban black and a malfunctioning website.