Prof. Donnison talked about the importance of developing new technologies and initiating a change in human behavior as the utilization of natural resources and the toll on the natural environment caused by human civilization is bound to reach unsustainable levels and lead to dire consequences for future generations. Such consequences may include grand calamities such as an increase in permanently degraded and unusable natural environments (as can be witnessed in some parts of China), famines, increasing conflicts for resources, mass migration as well as failing states. This report addresses those two proposed aspects of a possible solution - technology and behavior - discusses how they are interrelated and finishes with a normative conclusion.
New technologies have of course the potential to improve the environmental impact of products, services and human civilization in general. This is obvious in many applications such as renewable energy, electric cars, advanced recycling methods, more resource efficient manufacturing practices and so forth. Technology has been a key driver in the evolution of human civilization and will continue to do so. However, this technical evolution is in its core driven by economic forces. Only technologies that ultimately generate profits, accomplish things cheaper (not necessarily pricing in external economic effects on the environment or other stakeholders) and have the potential to be sold on a great scale will be the technologies chosen to be researched and developed. Technologic progress is created through investment and investment is supposed to generate net returns (again, possibly excluding external effects) and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, humanity should not hope that technology will be the key driving factor in making our civilization’s trajectory more sustainable, more equal, just or more enjoyable. Just because it is possible to, for example, generate cheaper energy, build products more efficiently, or build products whose consumption or usage has a lower impact on the environment on a per product basis it doesn’t mean that the aggregated effect of those new technologies on the environment will be positive. Since supply and demand will determine the price in the market, increasing supply will ceteris paribus lower a product’s price. For instance, if humanity can produce agricultural products cheaper, it will tend to produce and also consume more and use those products more wastefully. A good example in this space is the production of meat. As mentioned in the lecture, it takes circa 20kg of grain and about 100,000 liters of to be polluted fresh water to produce one kilogram of meat and you could drive a car roughly 1000 kilometers to have the same effect on the world climate through greenhouse gas emissions. World hunger, permanent deforestation to make room for feedstocks in tropical rainforests, a plethora of diseases and their cost, immense air and groundwater pollution are directly and indisputably caused by meat and animal product generation and consumption - not to speak of the ethical aspect of this industry. Global transportation and meat production have comparable effects on the world climate. This example shows that the industrial technological revolution in agriculture has only made this possible - Te ability to create food more efficiently has not enabled humanity to remove hunger or conserve space it has just lead to a more wasteful consumption and the same can be assumed to be true for energy.
An example in the energy space are electric cars. Even if most of today’s cars were replaced by electric vehicles, the resulting fall in demand for oil and thereby to be expected drop its price would likely just encourage its use in other applications such as heating or make flying (where a fuel with high energy density is needed) more affordable. This means that accessible crude oil reserves in the ground which can be sold at a profit will also be produced and will be burned or turned into plastics unless regulations inhibit such practices.
The direct and indirect costs which are related to how the economy works are inexplicably large and obvious, yet individual consumption patterns do not change and, on aggregate, business actors’ decisions are naturally driven to generate profits, neglecting external effects and ethical considerations. Because economic actors naturally compete with each other, the most reckless habits, loose regulations, regulation circumvention and corruption generate a bottom line in practices and therefore set a cost standard in a globalized economy. Considering the environment or other stakeholders will naturally generate cost. In a capitalist economy (which makes sense as it is an efficient allocation mechanism), as long as there is no way of globally incorporating the external effects and full costs of products and services into the price of their consumption and production and as long as individual decisions are driven by arbitrary, selfish personal preferences, technological advances will not be a key factor in making mankind’s relationship with nature more harmonious. Rather, the way technology is used constitutes the deciding factor.