Technology and Environmentalism

Technology and Environmentalism

If one were choreographing the dance between technology and environment, it would be a strange one indeed. Contrary to today’s ahistorical postmodernism, the dance has existed since early humans began driving megafauna extinct in Australia; smelting metal in China, Greece, or Rome; or deforesting Europe and North Africa. Nor are end-of-pipe, command-and-control regulations a modern invention: as early as 1306, London adopted ordinances limiting the burning of coal for air-quality reasons. Another example is the English Alkali Act of 1863, passed to control emissions of gaseous hydrochloric acid from the LeBlanc method for producing sodium carbonate. This act imposed a form of "best available control technology," or BACT, in the form of acid absorption towers designed by William Gossage.

Such examples, and their modern analogs, illustrate the continuing dialogue between environmentalism and technology. Environmentalism is a powerful movement for addressing simple and easily observed problems: clean air and water, waste-site cleanup, preservation of valued landscapes, protection of endangered species, and even bans on materials whose problematic impacts can be easily demonstrated (e.g., lead in gasoline). The successes achieved in these cases are real and important.

Surveys continually show strong political support for environmentalism, but this primarily extends to easily seen problems -- one of the reasons much activism focuses on manufacturing, where environmental issues are both easily detected and relatively easily fixed. When issues involve complex systems with time cycles measured in decades or centuries rather than months, and where scientific uncertainty is relatively high, public support falls off rapidly. This explains in part why Americans strongly support environmentalism generally but are deeply split over the Kyoto process. This is an obvious complexity when attempting to craft long-term policies to address these fundamental environmental perturbations.

A more basic problem arises from the evolution of environmentalism, which has generally positioned environmental issues as overhead -- something to be taken care of only after primary missions are accomplished. In firms, this is represented by end-of-pipe technologies such as scrubbers or water-treatment plants, which are relatively independent of product or process design. The mental model behind this approach encourages simplistic, often ideological, approaches to complex problems and is problematic when applied to complex, real-world systems.

Consider, for example, the costs of a wrong decision in an end-of-pipe scenario: In general, it will result in a little wasted capital or an inadequate level of protection that, once recognized, can be fixed by a quick and simple switchout of the control technology. The penalties for being wrong are relatively small and easily fixed. End-of-pipe technology, in other words, is a simple system. But this changes when core technologies, linked with other systems and embedded in a complex cultural and economic matrix, are mandated. The complexity of these systems is orders of magnitude greater than with control technologies and the costs of wrong decisions, to the economy and to the environment, can be far greater.

Thus, for example, if rather than a scrubber one mandates a change in chemistry of gasoline, one impacts not just a factory, but a complex technological system, and the costs of being wrong, as in the case of the required addition of MTBE to gasoline, can be billions of dollars and billions of gallons of unnecessarily contaminated groundwater.

This leads to what should be a simple rule for all: prior to encouraging a fundamental technological change, it should be standard practice to at least try to identify the resulting real-world impacts. This should be the case whether it is a firm, a government, or an NGO urging the change: it should apply to genetically modified organisms, to policies encouraging biomass plantations (and thus possible increased distortion of the nitrogen cycle), and to NGO demands to ban key industrial materials (What will replace them? And how can one know what is better unless one has answered this question?)

In doing so, the complexity of the real world, not the simplistic language of ideology, should be our guide.

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Brad Allenby is Environment, Health and Safety Vice President, AT&T, and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of any institution with which he is associated.