5 Finding a balance

5.4 Technology and environment

At the start of this unit I asked a simple question: am I damaging the environment by using my fridge? I warned that it wasn't my intention to give a simple answer that we should all stop using refrigerators or all carry on regardless. Instead, we have explored the issue more widely, calling on a range of ideas and background information in the Case Studies. It is time to review some of the concepts we have been using.

5.4.1 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.

5.4.2 A broad view of technology

This dual nature is not because machines or chemicals are inherently good or bad; it arises from the way societies decide to use them (or not). This makes sense if you take a broad view of technology, outlined at the beginning of this Introduction. This is the understanding that technology, and it's uses from artefacts to infrastructure, is the product of human and social action. It is a major driver of the development of societies and their economies, but the forms and directions these take are not inevitable.

5.4.3 Problems and solutions

These concepts apply equally to our interactions with the environment. As we have seen in Case Studies 1 and 2, our use of technology can contribute to environmental problems (the release of ozone-depleting chemicals and greenhouse gases) and at the same time is the basis of environmental solutions through the control of CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs, and improved energy efficiency. The general point is made by the following passage from Our Common Future, the report for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development:

‘The mainspring of economic growth is new technology, and while this technology offers the potential for slowing the dangerously rapid consumption of finite resources, it also entails high risks, including new forms of pollution and the introduction to the planet of new variations of life forms that could change evolutionary pathways. Meanwhile, industries most heavily reliant on environmental resources and most heavily polluting are growing most rapidly in the developing world, where there is both more urgency for growth and less capacity to minimise damaging side effects.’

(Brundtland, 1987, pp. 4,5)

The scale and range of environmental problems we face are daunting, but, as Case Study 1 has shown, problems can be addressed and harm can be reduced, hopefully to safe levels. Technology can and should be used for sustainable development.

5.4.4 Environmental limits

There are many different definitions of what sustainable development means; you were given one in Section 5.3, and how this should guide policy. The underpinning concepts are: equity for human development, and limits on the capacity of the environment. The idea of environmental limits on the ability of the Earth's biophysical systems to cope with and adapt to pressures from human activity, whether from demand for natural resources, the waste products of modern economies, or from habitat modification and destruction, has been the constant theme of this Introduction.


The final concept, discussed in Case Study 3, is the complexity of interactions between society, technology and environment, illustrated by Figure 11. A simple technical fix to a problem, such as the introduction of a harmless gas (Freon), or a new predator (the Cane Toad), can have many unintended outcomes. This is not an argument against innovation or for inaction, but for looking at every issue in a broad, systemic way, to involve all those likely to be affected and to understand the ecological and physical basis of the problem: to take the broad view of technology.

Exercise 6

You have now reached the end of this Introduction. What skills and concepts do you think you have learnt and developed from working through it? Take a few minutes to go over what these might be, then make your own, personal list.


Your answer will depend on what you knew before you started and on how conscientiously you followed the exercises and suggestions in the text. The results may surprise you.

This is my list, but you may well be able to think of others, including some more general points such as organising your study space and time:

  • reading rapidly and in depth from technical extracts and arguments
  • summarising and making notes
  • using and interpreting a variety of charts, diagrams and symbols
  • using and interpreting numerical and chemical information
  • following some basic concepts in chemistry and physics
  • thinking critically about some of the arguments put forward
  • making sense of some highly complex systems and interactions.