Warning: don’t put your eggs in the technology basket

Technology offers no short-cut to solving our climate dilemma. Only our collective effort can do that. [9 April 2013 | Peter Boyer]

James Bond’s sexy technology encouraged the myth that we can invent our way out of any problem.

Fictional stories and characters can be a big influence on who we are.

At school I fancied I was a man of action, an image shaped at first by the likes of cowboys and soldiers, then refined by one Ian Fleming, who wrote bestsellers about spies, sexy women and gadgetry.

Over the next 50 years a lucrative movie franchise introduced successive generations to a world of international espionage and corporate crime inhabited by James Bond, Fleming’s larger-than-life hero, along with his villainous enemies and his dolly women.

And his gadgets. Fleming understood that while sex has universal appeal, the technology of weaponry and machines is also a turn-on, especially for boys and men. In the James Bond stories, clever technology helps to transform your average ladykiller into a superhero.

My youthful interest in international cloak-and-dagger moved on from Bond, to the likes of Alec Leamas, the anti-hero of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and his retiring boss George Smiley, creations of David Cornwell alias John le Carré.

Le Carré’s world had no place for Bond’s action-driven mindset. Like Bond, Smiley and Leamas wanted to serve their country, but unlike him they thought hard about what this entailed. They came to realise that there were no answers, just questions, and then more questions.

In their world, unlike Bond’s, there turned out to be no “us and them”. A person’s worth was not defined by country of origin. National borders were illusory, friends were indistinguishable from enemies, and there was no certainty, only ambiguity and doubt. Welcome to the real world.

Yet it’s Bond who has prevailed. Drawing on techno-savvy comic-book heroes like Flash Gordon and Batman and on the thrilling and often horrifying technologies of war, the Bond franchise is a homage to the wonders of modern technology.

Most people no longer fully understand how technology works, but we’re more convinced than ever that we’ll never succeed in life without it. Marching in lock-step with its Siamese twin, economic growth, it has achieved god-like status, up there on a pedestal with James Bond.

By definition, technology is our own work, made by us, for us. That would suggest that we can always control what it does, a belief strongly encouraged by advocates. The advertisers tell us that using their product is a win for all, including the environment.

Nothing is further from the truth. Whatever its practical benefit, every technology we manufacture and use has unintended negative consequences. We can’t avoid them. All we can do is try to ensure that the damage isn’t lasting.

The American biologist Barry Commoner, who died six months ago aged 95, thought deeply about the impact on the planet of human technology. In his 1971 book The Closing Circle, he wrote of the dangers of an economy out of step with ecological reality.

Commoner formulated four unbending laws which, if flouted, would in time damage not just the natural world but our own social and cultural structures. If we want these to last, he said, we must acknowledge and respect the laws of ecology.

Commoner’s first law is that everything in nature is connected to everything else. In our finite world, what affects one living organism affects all the others.

Second, everything must go somewhere. In the real world, as opposed to our artificial one, there’s no such thing as waste, and you can’t throw things away because “away” doesn’t exist. Everything is together on just one solitary planet.

Third, nature knows best. We think we’re improving on nature when we deploy technology, but we can’t. Because technology sets out to change natural systems, it can’t avoid having an adverse effect on those systems.

Commoner’s final ecological law is the maxim famously stated by Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Exploiting natural resources to produce technology inevitably subtracts from their value to nature. Technology never comes without a price.

The message out of this is not that we should abandon technology — that would be against human nature — but that whenever we make or deploy a new technology we need to do it with caution, carefully enough to avoid irreparable damage to natural systems.

Field testing for bad side-effects isn’t generally something that private business does voluntarily. For instance, if a corporation saw profit in shooting particles into space to reflect the sun’s rays and cool the planet, it would not focus heavily on the possibility of reduced light for growing plants.

We don’t want to repeat the mistake we made when we began burning coal and oil, ignoring environmental consequences. We believe renewable energy is cleaner, but it’s still a technology and it still has an impact, especially in its manufacture and delivery. We shouldn’t discount that.

Our predicament can never be sorted by the techno-wizardry of a James Bond. Climate systems don’t play by such simple rules, and nor do people. We need the George Smiley approach, focusing on how people think, what motivates them, how they can be persuaded to see and do things differently.

“Do no harm” is the first rule of medical practice. This is the precautionary principle at work: if a drug, a procedure or some other technology could permanently damage a person’s health then it should not be used.

It’s a good rule. When doctors ignore it patients become ill and may die. We should expect no less in the wider world when we fail to constrain how we deploy and use technology.

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