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Technology can't make us less wasteful

Updated Wednesday 4th May 2005

Derek's response to the final lecture of the 2005 series of Reith lectures

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It is very heartening to find Lord Broers paying such attention to the debate over sustainability and the environment.

The suggestions he makes with respect to greater finesse with co-ordination, and a reappraisal of nuclear energy seem sensible to me, and I hope his optimism is justified.

However, it would be naïve to assume (and I am sure Lord Broers does not assume) that technology will always be able to get us out of whatever holes it (and other things) have put us in.

For example, Lord Broers says that, in the cases he considers, ‘profligate waste is a result of the inability of our public decision making process to implement in time what our business and technical experts have been telling us for years about…growth’.

There are two courses of action we can take with respect to such predictions (provided we accept them).

New-ish technology already dumped [Image: annnna. under CC-BY-ND licence] Creative commons image Icon annnna. via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Sustainable? New-ish technology already dumped [Image: annnna. under CC-BY-ND licence]

First, we can, as Lord Broers suggests, make changes so as to accommodate them.

Second, we can change the way we do things such that the growth does not occur. Technology can enable us to get more for less, and can enable us to monitor our profligacy more closely.

However, it cannot make the fundamental changes that would make us less profligate.

There is an interesting question about the extent of our obligations to future generations.

On the assumption that we do have these obligations, technology will lessen our problems - but, as Lord Broers intimates, it will not solve them.

This is an easy pious thought to have: if one really thinks through what sustainable development involves, it is not obvious that when it comes to the choice between our comfort and future generations, it will be the latter that win out.

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