Technology

I must admit I’m disappointed, although by no means defeated. In my last post I asked you to help me answer the following question:

During the course of human history, what three technological inventions have had the most environmental impact in terms of resource consumption and disposal?

I was hoping to receive a whole bunch of suggestions so we could compare answers and learn more about our current problems and, ultimately, their solution. Instead, I will go it alone for now, always hopeful of a discussion to follow.

You will remember I was talking about the IPAT equation (I = P x A x T), a conceptual tool that allows us to focus on those factors most responsible for our present human-environment imbalance.  Our environmental Impact (I) equals the product of Population (P), Affluence (A: per person consumption of P), and Technology (T: labour-saving devices that augment P’s lifestyle).

I asked you the question about technological inventions because, of these three factors – population, affluence, and technology – I think technology is currently giving us the most problems (although potentially, it could also bring about problem resolution).

Let’s focus on the Alberta oil sands project again as an example. As the CBS 60 MINUTES video describes, this remote operation is immense. The sands containing the oil are buried in northern Alberta under forests “the size of Florida.” They are dug up by gigantic shovel loaders and transported by truck to plants that use hot water techniques to extract the oil. The partially refined oil is then distributed to commercial centers via pipelines, oil tankers, and trucks. The oil sands project, which has only recently become commercially viable due to rising oil prices and new cost-effective extraction and production technologies, is projected to be in operation for the next 25 years.

University of Victoria Professor, climate change scientist, and Nobel Prize winner Andrew Weaver has called the Alberta oil sands project “the poster child of environmental degradation” (Victoria Boulevard Magazine XX:5, July/Aug, 2010). Why? Says Weaver, “Pick your favourite environmental issue: Loss of natural habitat. Loss of biodiversity. Pollution of water. Greenhouse gases. Toxic waste. Extinction of species. Human health. It’s got everything” – including its massive scale, which is only made possible by all the new, integrated technologies that have come into play during the past few decades.

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.

This is why I asked you to think of three technological inventions that have had the greatest environmental impact on resource consumption and disposal. In the hope that problems identified can lead to problems resolved, let me renew my request and even offer hints. The CBS oil sands video refers directly to two of these inventions that, in my opinion, have had the greatest environmental impacts, and indirectly it mentions the third.

Let’s see what you come up with. Please post your answers in the Comments section below. Thanks.

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