Handling Technology With Care | WWF

Handling Technology With Care

Posted on 01 July 1998    
Gland, Switzerland: Ever since man began to make tools, his belief in his ability to invent his way out of trouble has steadily increased. Such confidence is not entirely misplaced. From the wheel and the stone axe to the internal combustion engine and the computer, technology has been crucial to the evolution of human society, increasing the capacity for action and intervention in terrestrial processes and helping to solve many problems of health, shelter, and the general conditions of life. But as our reliance on technology has increased, so the ambivalence of its effects has become more apparent. For machines and technological processes can damage and destroy the life of our world even as in some respects they save and enhance it.

Nowhere has this technological dilemma been better exposed than in the growth of the environmental movement during the past 35 years or so. Environmentalists have drawn attention to the disastrous consequences of industrial pollution, of the slavish reliance on chemicals to boost food production, of the profligate burning of fossil fuels, and of many other effects of the human obsession with tool-making.

Yet even within the environmental movement there is disagreement over the pace, scale, and future possibilities of technological development. Some would argue, for example, that the rapid spread of electronic communications - telephone, television, the Internet, and e-mail, will ultimately reduce dramatically the world's demand for paper, thus allowing the replacement of forests we have lost during our years of dependence on the printed word.

Others, more pessimistic - or merely realistic - point out that many, perhaps most people in the world today have never seen a telephone, much less a television or a computer: they have yet even to reach the stage of the thoughtless consumption of paper and other resources about which the advanced industrialised world is now finally beginning to have a conscience. The possibilities offered by technology, for the basic quality of life, let alone for environmental improvement, depend very much on where you live.

Moreover, the demands of technologically advanced societies have so far tended to increase rather than diminish pressure on dwindling natural resources. That fact not only increases the imbalance between the rich and poor countries but also raises grave doubts about what will be left for the future if progress continues at its current frantic pace. My own view is that there is a place for technological solutions to the problems of over-consumption, pollution and environmental degradation, and unsustainable use of resources. But if such solutions are really to work, we must design them appropriately and make sure the technology is the best we can devise, rather than committing ourselves blindly to the first new discovery that comes to hand.

To illustrate my point, take the case of DDT, once seen as the miracle pesticide that would not only increase food production but also combat killer diseases spread by mosquitoes. Widely used in agriculture, DDT was identified by the mid-1950s as the chief weapon against malaria, one of the main causes of death in developing countries. The World Health Organization made the chemical the centrepiece of an ambitious campaign aimed at nothing less than the total eradication of malaria.

At first, it appeared to be an outstanding success. Spraying with DDT certainly saved millions of lives as malaria was wiped out or dramatically reduced in 37 countries. But agricultural use of the pesticide was already leading to serious concern about its safety, as demonstrated forcefully in 1962 by Rachel Carson's seminal environmentalist book, Silent Spring, which first raised the alarm about the deadly effects of indiscriminate use of highly toxic chemicals.

Among such chemicals is DDT, one of a group of what are called Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POPs, resisting degradation by light, chemical reaction, or living organisms. These highly toxic substances dissolve much more easily in fat than in water, accumulating in the fatty tissue of all living things, with serious consequences for long-term health. And because they evaporate at relatively low temperatures, POPs can be transported atmospherically to cause damage far away from where they are actually used.

Over the years since Rachel Carson's book, a body of evidence about the harmful effects of DDT has been collected. It is highly toxic to fish and invertebrates, can cause sex changes and eggshell thinning in bird species and damage the heart, liver, and nervous system in mammals. DDT has also been associated with reduced lactation in human mothers and is thought to cause cancer.

As a result DDT is banned from agricultural use virtually worldwide. Yet, although it failed actually to eradicate malaria - which currently still kills up to three million people out of 500 million annual clinical cases - and in spite of the availability of more sophisticated alternative techniques, DDT remains in many cases the weapon of choice against the disease. Some 30,000 tonnes are produced each year in countries such as Russia, India, Mexico, and China.

The eradication of malaria is no longer an aim of the World Health Organization: local control of the disease is the order of the day and this can be achieved by more benign chemicals and by biological methods such as the introduction of predators to reduce mosquito numbers. The continued use of DDT is a classic example of an inappropriate technological solution that survives because it is seen as an easy way out of what is, admittedly, a desperate problem.

WWF has set out to create the conditions in which the production of DDT can be phased out by 2007 at the latest. If that is achieved, it will have taken 45 years to replace a clearly harmful technological solution - and one that in any case was bound to become ineffective because of evolving resistance among the insects it was meant to wipe out - with another technological approach that is both more effective and more sustainable.

If we are to put our faith in technology to overcome the range of environmental dangers that beset us, then at least let us avoid the sort of carelessness in the use of tools that led to so much of the degradation of our environment in the first place.

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