by CIO Staff

Bjorn Lomborg on the Environmental Consequences of Technological Progress

Sep 22, 20035 mins
IT Leadership

It is certainly true that technology is transforming our natural environment. But this fact should only be lamented if one is willing to renounce the very base of civilization itself.

Technological advances are the concrete manifestations of our continuous struggle to escape our natural environment, which started more than 20,000 years ago with the containment of fire and the first stone tools. For our ancestors, the natural environment was synonymous with a relentless fight for survival and reproduction. But technological advances spurred by our species’ intellectual capacity made it possible to shift some of our limited resources to other activities. Put simply, technology has allowed us to live better and longer lives. The past 50 years have brought about an unprecedented increase in the welfare of humankind, propelled by technology.

There is no point in denying that technology has changed our natural environment and will continue to do so. Yet few people, I believe, would be willing to sacrifice the huge benefits that this ancient cumulative process has created.

The more interesting question is how technology can be applied not to bring us back to some utopian natural state but to help us balance humankind and the nature that we wish to preserve.

With ecologists focusing on the terrible consequences of technological development (arguably being responsible for million of deaths) on one side and with technology opportunists on the other, the debate can easily become polarized. It has proved to be easy to find ample evidence of either the very harmful consequences of technological advances or their huge beneficial effects. That is why it is extremely important to focus on the environmental fundamentals.

So what do fundamental measures of environmental quality tell us about the consequences of technological progress? The biggest lesson is that technological progress and human ingenuity seem to explain the apparent paradox of continued progress in human welfare in a world of finite resources. The demand for and the availability of the earth’s resources adjust over time, according to developments in technology. That is why the world has yet to run out of a vital resource. In fact, the availability of many vital resources actually increases with technological progress and economic efficiency.

For example, with improving technology we are capable of locating and exploiting ever-lower-quality iron ore at ever-cheaper costs, thereby leaving us with more and more years of future consumption at higher and higher levels. Likewise, the world’s known oil reserves have increased significantly in modern times, despite a considerable rise in energy consumption, as we have become better at extracting and exploiting oil. The incredible advance in agricultural productivity means that there is much less need to convert pristine areas into cropland. It has been estimated that if all farmers around the world reach the average yield of today’s U.S. corn growers, only half of current cropland will be needed to feed 10 billion people at today’s level of calories in America.

The demand for natural resources also changes as substitution becomes possible. In telecommunications, the demand for copper has dropped as copper wires are replaced with abundantly available silicon fibers. In other cases, technological progress spurs a demand for alternative resources. The demand for wind energy has only recently advanced beyond sailboat skippers to become a viable commercial source for energy. There are many small, everyday examples of material substitution: lead in batteries is being replaced with lithium; plastic dental fillings are often preferred over silver ones; car frames are increasingly based on carbon or glass fiber materials; and with the advent of digital photography, demand for silver is ever declining.

The main reason why the infamous “Limits to Growth” reports (written by Donella Meadows, et al., in 1972 and 1992) got their dire predictions of an imminent world collapse so wrong was because they overlooked the fundamental dynamics of technological progress. Modern societies create a great deal of value without much environmental degradation, as economic welfare has come to rely more on how a material is processed and utilized than on the material itself.

This is not to say that technological progress does not cause problems for the environment. Technology might in some cases transform the surrounding environment in ways that were neither anticipated nor wanted. Until recently, our main worries concerned ever-increasing levels of air pollution. However, the evidence shows that as income rises beyond a certain point, concentrations of major air pollutants dramatically decrease despite an increase in energy consumption. Even more important, technological advances seem to drive down major pollutants over time in all countries, whatever the levels of national income.

Still, the technology-based western world is energy-intensive, and one of today’s challenges is global warming caused by the emission of carbon dioxide. The question is whether the best way to address the problem is through political restrictions or technology R&D. The path chosen with the Kyoto protocol (which the Bush administration refused to endorse) is mainly one of political restrictions: an expensive solution that will produce a negligible impact on the climate 100 years from now. In my view, it would be more fruitful to divert resources to increased research and development in more efficient forms of carbon dioxide energy.

The trend toward less carbon dioxide per unit of energy started long before there were any talks of global warming, with the move from coal to oil to natural gas. In the past 20 years, that has gathered momentum. Overall energy efficiency has increased, and significant advances have been made in renewable energy.

As for many environmental challenges, technological progress can be said to constitute both the root cause and the solution. But from a broad perspective, technology really is the only game in town.