A Company that adopts a strategy of technological reform does not necessarily have to confront its unsustainable principles and priorities. It is not hard to imagine, for example, a company that replaces its gas-powered buses with electric ones, while continuing to use them to transport exploited workers to sweatshop factories.

IS 'CLEANER AND GREENER' TECHNOLOGY A Sufficient Solution To Our Sustainability Problem?

Adam King


(Excerpt taken from "Inspiring innovation and Sustainable Reform: The Role of Reflexivity as a Strategy for Survival")
by Adam R. King

Within the debates on sustainability, a polarization of priorities has occurred between the groups interested in sustaining the health of the eco-sphere, and those interested in sustaining the health of the economy. However, there is another small but important group that is rarely rewarded with recognition. It is made up of those people and groups who are working to provide and promote 'cleaner, greener' technologies that make more 'business sense' than the technologies in popular use. In other words, this small but important group is made up of people like yourselves. So whether you admit it or not, those of you involved in Alternative Energy are helping to resolve the great debate between the economists and the environmentalists. But now I ask you to consider this pressing but difficult question: Is 'cleaner and greener' technology really a sufficient solution to our sustainability problem?

While I certainly do not have the answer to this question, I certainly do have an opinion. Below I have attached but one small section of a fifty-page thesis I wrote for the University of British Columbia, and I offer it to you now in hopes that it will be of some interest (and if I may be so bold - that it may be of some use).

"The time has come to break out of past patterns. Attempts to maintain social and ecological stability through old approaches to development will increase instability. Security must be sought through change" (Our Common Future, WCED 1987: 309).

Today, one of the main ways that we frame our society's sustainability crisis is within technological terms. Even within the 'environmental literature' our sustainability problems are often presented as technical ones (Thorns 2002). A number of social scientists working out of Europe during the 1990's have labeled this trend ecological modernization, which as a theory, identifies science and technology as the central institutions for ecological reform (Congrave 2003). Dealing with our environmental problems through the use of more sophisticated technologies is considered by many to be an inevitable stage in the development of our society; a stage in which "the dirty and ugly industrial caterpillar will transform into an ecological butterfly" (Huber 1985 quoted in Murphy 2001: 2).

As the above quote illustrates, the theory of ecological modernization maintains an unflinching faith in the power of science and technology to save our society from its troubles. While business and many sectors of government have translated this technological-optimism into a distinct policy program for sustainable development (Congreve 2000), I believe it is problematic for several reasons - not the least of which is the serious limitation it places upon human agency (i.e. the ability to act). Empirical research has found that "those who trust in science and technology to solve environmental problems are less likely to see the need for action themselves" (Blake 2001: 717).

So by maintaining a high-level of 'techno-optimism', we may be inclined to avoid our own personal responsibilities to aid our society's move toward sustainability. My contention with framing the problem solely in technological terms, therefore, is that it implies that the solution must also be equally technological. Yet if we adopt this perspective and come to believe that a sustainable society can only be achieved through technology, then what can those who are not involved with new technologies really do to help? By extending this line of reasoning from the individual to the societal level, would not a high-level of 'techno-optimism' within policies also work to undermine the individual responsibility that all institutions have?

Another problematic aspect of this faith in technological solutions is revealed when we finally admit that science and technology have probably produced as many problems as they have solutions. The technology of industrial production, for example, has contributed enormously to the deterioration of the planet's life-support system, dramatically accelerating the extraction of the planet's non-renewable resources and the pace of land, air and water pollution. Or take the development of nuclear technology, for example, which was once hailed as the clean alternative energy of the future (Murphy 2001) but which has since become the cause of globally uninsurable health and security hazards. While I could belabor the point with more examples, I think it is already clear that the technological 'advancements' of yesterday can quickly become the source of today's troubles.

While the theory of ecological modernization is correct to highlight the role that technology can play in moving toward sustainability, it does not penetrate below the surface of the problem. Or in other words, it does not question either the logic or legitimacy of industrial development itself. Neither the economic perception of the natural world as commodifiable or the 'quantity over quality' maxim of mass production is ever questioned (Murphy 2001). With that said, it should come as no surprise that the groups who are concerned with sustaining economic growth, are the ones that have been actively promoting policies based on the theory of ecological modernization. Thorns supports this claim by explaining that "the way that 'sustainability' has been assimilated into policy has resulted, at best, in partial responses, which have favored technical solutions" (Thorns 2002: 208). Since such policies aim to change the means (i.e. technology) of industrial development without actually challenging its ends (i.e. exponential growth and profit), policies based on the theory of ecological modernization are nothing more than the 'business answer to sustainable development' (Congreve 2000).

I want to clarify that the point of the previous discussion has not been to discount the important role that technological innovation can and must play, for sustainable technology certainly is a necessary condition of a more sustainable society. Rather my point has been to explain why it is not a sufficient condition for a more sustainable society. Technological solutions cannot solve the problem alone because the main sources of society's unsustainability lies deeper than the technology we use. Since the theory of ecological modernization does not question the ends that industrial development pursues, I believe that any policy-programs based on it will only provide 'surface solutions' at best.

On the other hand, the theory of reflexive modernization describes a process where the taken-for-granted routines of Modern Western Society are put into question and exposed to critical review, and I believe that such a theory can help inspire the deep-seeded change that is needed. Instead of addressing the technology of our unsustainability, the reflexive process forces us to search beneath the surface for its sources. By tracing back unsustainable practices to their unsustainable principles, we find that the sources of our problems are more 'institutional' than 'technical'. Our global ecological crisis is - in Beck's own words - "a profound institutional crisis of industrial society itself'(1994: 8).

Since the institutions and administrative systems of our society organize and direct human activity, it is here that sustainable reform must begin. The problem, however, is that the majority of our political, economic and social institutions are already organized around philosophies and practices that are in opposition to sustainability (Fact-index 02/23/04). If development (i.e. human activity and enterprise) continues to be instigated and accomplished by institutions that operate on unsustainable principles, how can we really expect to move toward a more sustainable society? In other words, how can Modern Western Society move toward greater sustainability if its dominant institutions are built upon unsustainable foundations?

What appears to be needed on a societal scale, therefore, is a process of institutional reform. The World Commission on Environment and Development supports this, explaining that "in order to remedy our existing environmental problems, it is absolutely imperative to influence the sources of those problems in human activity" (1987: 52). Therefore, since reflexivity has proven to be an effective method of updating and innovating principles and practices within organizations, would it not also be a tool well suited for the task at hand? Would not a greater degree of reflexivity aid and enable institutions to detect and correct their habitually unsustainable principles and practices? If so, then would not a policy-program based on the theory of reflexive modernization have far more problem-solving potential than one based on the theory of ecological modernization?

A simple situational comparison will help clarify the point I am making. Imagine, on the one hand, a company that adopts a strategy of institutional reform by prioritizing and incorporating the principles of sustainability into their policies and practices. In this case, we can assume that it would only be a matter of time before the company began to innovate or even replace its unsustainable technology. Like you and I, companies are also driven by a desire for consistency (i.e. a desire to act in ways that are consistent with intentions, or to develop practices that are consistent with principles). Companies are compelled to develop more sustainable technology as a consequence of incorporating and prioritizing the principles of sustainability. The opposite, however, cannot be so easily assumed.

A company that adopts a strategy of technological reform does not necessarily have to confront its unsustainable principles and priorities. It is not hard to imagine, for example, a company that replaces its gas-powered buses with electric ones, while continuing to use them to transport exploited workers to sweatshop factories. It is not hard to imagine a company that switches to 'cleaner and greener' logging technology, while continuing to displace indigenous people from their traditional lands. The important point is that the incorporation of sustainable technology does not presume the pursuit of sustainable priorities in the same way that the incorporation of sustainable priorities presumes the pursuit of sustainable technology. For this reason, it is imperative that people and policies begin to acknowledge the pressing need for foundational, institutional reform.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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