Three Technological Inventions with Great Environmental Impact

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“Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, vehicles which look like prehistoric beasts move across an arctic wasteland extracting the oil sands.”

This is how the CBS 60 MINUTES video on the Alberta “Oil Sands” begins. In this opening statement is reference to two of the most historically important technological inventions in terms of their environmental impact.

Twenty-four hours a day: a seemingly simple description, yet also relentless and unceasing. This is what the invention of the light bulb in the 19th century offered modern industry – an opportunity to work around the clock, instead of from dawn to dusk, thereby permitting a 100% increase in our rates of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal in the same period of time.  We called it “PROGRESS!” – but at what price? The doubling of our impact on the natural environment.

“Vehicles which look like prehistoric beasts” refer to the gigantic shovel loaders and trucks working on the oil sands whose motive force is driven by the internal combustion engine, another invention of the 19th century that has had monumental environmental impact. Consider these global statistics that reflect our widespread adoption and use of the automobile in the 20th century:

  • More than 600 million passenger cars now in use, about one car per eleven people (in Canada, one car for every two people);
  • The manufacture and use of automobiles account for approximately one-quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions responsible for producing climate change;
  • The automobile has dominated urban planning and suburban development, especially in North America;
  • Road construction has contributed heavily to habitat destruction and fragmentation.

(SOURCES: “Automobile” and “Effects of the automobile on societies,” Wikipedia)

In short, for both better and worse, the entire pattern of contemporary human society has been shaped by the automobile.

Later in the CBS documentary on the “Oil Sands,” the CEO of the mining operation explains the process of how oil is extracted from the sand: “If you add … [the oil sand] to hot water, you’ll start the separation process and you’ll see oil come to the top of the water and you’ll see sand drop to the bottom.” This process reveals the third most important technological invention in terms of its environmental impact: plumbing or the harnessing of water for human use.

Although plumbing may be traced back to ancient civilizations, it only came into general agricultural and industrial use during the latter part of the 19th century, and several decades later for the rest of us who are now so accustomed to our modern kitchens and bathrooms that we seldom think of the ‘good old days.’

Our recent technological ability to tap fresh water as a readily accessible resource has resulted in its heavy exploitation and misuse, particularly in high-income countries. In combination with increasing population and growing demand (the other two components of the I=PAT formula), water is now already scarce in many parts of the world. Yet, according to the World Water Vision Report, “the crisis is not about having too little water to satisfy our needs. It is a crisis, (the World Water Council says), of managing water so badly that billions of people – and the environment – suffer badly”.

Each of these technological inventions reveals a similar historical cultural pattern: an evolution of human activity from labor intensive to natural resource intensive. Over time, instead of relying mainly on our own physical energy and labor to accomplish tasks, we have increasingly developed tools that allow us to accomplish these tasks – and much more! But in becoming technologically sophisticated, we are at the same time exploiting available natural resources to achieve our goals. Witness the oil sands, which are in operation day and night, which employ trucks carrying 320-tonne loads, and which extract oil from the sands in vast, highly complex processing plants.

As I said in my last post, “the oils sands project reveals a profound paradox: We invent tools, machines, and things to make our lives easier in all our activities – extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal; yet these very technologies take on lives of their own in terms of the natural resource demands they make to keep operating and expanding. Although we can do things and have things now that previous generations could not, there is a price to pay. At some point, unless we change our behavior with respect to population, affluence, and especially technology, our (seemingly insatiable) human demand will quite simply outstrip (finite) natural supply.”

Of all the species in the world, we have the largest brains. Let’s use them for our collective survival.

Alan Hedley is a retired University of Victoria Sociology Professor. He’s currently searching for ways to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable human existence on planet Earth – and blogging about his journey.

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