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Working with our environment: an introduction
Working with our environment: an introduction

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6.4.1 The dual nature of technology

Exercise 5

List the main advantages to you of using a refrigerator in your home, then list some of the potential environmental hazards that using a fridge might entail.


Your list of advantages will, of course, be personal and vary from individual to individual. Some of mine are:

  • access to fresh milk for my coffee habit, frozen food and vegetables, and iced drinks;

  • the need to make fewer visits to the shops for food (like many people today I don't seem to have too much 'spare' time).

Environmental hazards (some of these have been discussed before):

  • The using up of materials and resources during construction and distribution.

  • Energy consumption during use means greenhouse gas emissions.

  • My fridge is over 10 years old so I expect, though I don't know, that it contains CFCs. When the time comes to replace it I will certainly make sure it is disposed of properly.

  • Behaviour: Having a fridge (and freezer) certainly affects my shopping habits. It allows me to use more convenience foods and is a major reason (price is another) why I tend to go to a supermarket once or twice a week rather than visit local shops more frequently. I suspect I am not alone in this and I probably represent part of a general trend. The mass ownership of fridges in the UK has probably contributed to a general shift in lifestyle and consumption patterns. I am not sure whether this is for good or ill – probably a mixture of the two.

Clearly, it is possible to draw up a similar balance sheet of advantages and disadvantages (potential benefits and harms) for any given use of technology. This characteristic is sometimes called the dual nature of technology, a concept that applies not just to individual consumer durables such as a refrigerator or car, but to all levels from individual artefacts to industries and to the level of the global economy.

Many discussions today about the impact of technology on the environment can be quite polarised, especially where new technologies are involved. People are often strongly for or against the introduction of a particular technology, as recent controversies over the use of genetically modified crops or the possible radiation hazard of mobile phones have illustrated. The issues surrounding each case may be quite different but we appear to be confronted with a paradox when we make use of technology. While the introduction, for example, of a new consumer appliance or a new application of existing technology may bring obvious benefits to individuals or society, in turn it nearly always seems to expose us to new risks and dangers. When we use technology we appear to be dealing with a phenomenon that has a split personality, one with a potential for good, the other for harm.