Issues Magazine

The Double-Edged Sword of Technology

By Graham M. Turner

When questions of population growth and sustainability are debated, the silver bullet of technological progress is usually proposed or implied. But historical evidence and simulations of the future demonstrate the danger of relying on technology.

The debate about population and sustainability has typically been fraught with rather simplistic and at times conflicting arguments. Many focus on population alone. Others focus on the potential for technology to deliver sustainability. Some touch on our materialistic consumerism.

For instance, some suggest that our population is too big to be sustainable; others that our population is not big enough for a healthy growing economy. Claims are made that we can’t control what population level we will have while calls go out for more immigrants to fill skill gaps. Some question how more people will be housed or fed or supplied with water, and so on.

Numerous technological solutions are proposed to help in achieving sustainability. Often we’re told large efficiency gains remain unexploited. We can switch over to clean fuels, or to renewable energy, or we’ll find more resources.

Many of these suggestions, as valuable and well-intentioned as they appear, fail to address core issues underlying our sustainability dilemma. Some apparently good ideas, like increased efficiency, are unlikely to deliver the environmental goods – in fact, they may even make things worse.

But people are naturally innovative, and technology will have to be part of any attractive solution. Unfortunately our reliance on technological fixes is likely to worsen environmental outcomes unless we change our lifestyle in substantial ways. This is the apparent paradox, the double-edged sword of technology.

Unfortunately our reliance on technological fixes is likely to worsen environmental outcomes unless we change our lifestyle in substantial ways. This is the apparent paradox, the double-edged sword of technology.

This may seem an odd view to come from someone with a technological background in, for example, research to produce higher performance computer chips and to develop ultra-insulating windows. But after a decade of research simulating the physical functioning of Australia’s economy, it has become obvious that we need to think more carefully about technology.

If we are to avoid a number of pending environmental crises, we need to consider several important aspects.

  • What is the nature and magnitude of the environmental challenge and of the change required?
  • How quickly do we need to make the changes?
  • What if the technological change is not enough; will society be resilient to the crises?
  • Do any of the proposed solutions have unexpected consequences or side-effects?
  • To design solutions we need to understand the problem. For some decades now, research has warned of a number of serious issues facing Australia and many other nations. These have been well-documented, though generally not well-acknowledged beyond the research community.

    Critical global and national issues include peak oil (where the production of oil declines in stark contrast to growing demand), scarcity of fresh water, impacts of climate change and security of food supply. Awareness of each of these issues appears to be growing slowly in the general public and the policy arena, not least because initial impacts have made their mark in recent years.

    Each of these issues has the potential, alone, to seriously disrupt our society. It is far more serious than simply an issue of price increases, although this may happen anyway.

    Our research at CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems shows that these challenges are likely to grow substantially over the coming decades in Australia. And they are strongly linked to population. Generally a higher population worsens impacts, but a stabilised population level won’t solve the issues if we just keep operating in the same way.

    Other topical issues are also injected into the “sustainability” debate, such as a lack of skilled workers in mining and other sectors, apparent constraints on housing supply (and subsequent escalations in price), and the burden of an ageing population. Certainly these are all real concerns that are likely to impact society and the economy to some extent.

    But the hard numbers clearly show that these issues are at worst secondary to the array of environmental pressures. Of greater concern is that a focus of policy on a lack of skilled workers, for example, can exacerbate things – immigrant workers may alleviate the shortage temporarily but this leads to a larger population that requires yet more workers to support it. It’s a classic case of the dog chasing its tail.

    To get a simple idea of what Australia faces, it is quite feasible for Australia to become almost entirely dependent on foreign oil within decades – assuming that oil is actually available on the international market (a big “if”). By contrast, Australia has previously produced the majority of its net oil requirements. Modern economies like Australia’s depend critically on oil for transport, not just for commuting, trade movements and international travel but also just-in-time supply of food from distant regions to our expanding cities. Any restrictions in transport fuels will have widespread ramifications.

    Apparent early effects of climate change, combined with larger economies, have plunged several capital cities around Australia into serious water restrictions. Should such climate conditions prevail, some cities look set to enter freshwater deficits in the decades ahead if the demand for water cannot be decreased or its supply increased sufficiently.

    Further climate change from previous greenhouse gas emissions is virtually certain due to time delays involved in atmospheric dynamics. And emissions could easily double or triple by mid-century if nothing substantive is done. Climate science indicates that such trajectories could elevate recent extreme conditions and events to become the norm. And there are scientific concerns that the climate system could flip into a completely different state, including the possibility of a new ice age.

    All of these issues could seriously harm the food security that Australians tend to take for granted. Adding to the pressure is further degradation of an ageing land and possible constraints on the availability of phosphorus- and nitrogen-based fertilisers.

    Since the size of the pressures is already immense and growing, so too is the change required. To illustrate, our research shows that even if we attempt to “decouple” the economy from material and energy use through widespread technological changes we do not get close to the greenhouse gas emission reductions proposed for a safe climate.

    For example, some of the changes we modelled included halving the average energy use intensity of all housing (assuming retrofit and adoption of simple solar passive technology); new dwellings of lighter construction and the trends for increasing floor area reversed; electricity generation transformed by 2050 to a mix of wind, solar and gas as ageing coal-based power plants were decommissioned; and commuting by car reduced from 85% to 60%, with commuting distances reduced by 30% to reflect improved urban design, and modal share of long distance travel switched from air to bus. These combined changes stabilise greenhouse gas emissions for, at best, a couple of decades before they increase again.

    If such changes are not enough to address the problem there is a risk that depending on them leaves us more exposed, not less. Denser urban form, for example, can have environmental benefits but it means people are even more reliant on centralised services such as water and electricity. By contrast, more dispersed households with access to their own or nearby supplies of essentials such as food, water and energy is far more resilient if a crisis unfolds, even though it is technically less efficient in the short term.

    Technological solutions can also be maladaptive; in particular, solutions to one problem can make others worse. There are plenty of current examples. Desalination to provide fresh water requires lots of additional energy, offsetting other efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Biofuels can displace food production, stimulate forest destruction or increase demand for fertilisers. Batteries and solar photovoltaics require rare minerals. The list goes on. On small scales these side-effects are not show-stoppers, but the story is different when implemented across the globe.

    Essentially there is no free lunch; the laws of thermodynamics ensure that there are related costs and wastes. This has always been the case, and hasn’t been a problem in the past because the separate environmental pressures were relatively small. Now, many pressures are approaching or have reached critical thresholds either globally or locally.

    The most insidious of technology’s side-effects enters via the “rebound effect”. We normally think of efficiency as being a good thing – using fewer inputs for each unit of output. But what we find is that efficiency gains don’t result in the overall savings we expect. In fact, it can be worse – environmental pressures may increase as a result of our efficiencies.

    This perverse outcome has occurred at global and national levels for well over a century. For most of the industrial revolution, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of economic activity (the inverse of efficiency) has been decreasing exponentially due to the shift to cleaner fuels, improvements in fuel use efficiency and changes in economic structure. But at the same time global carbon emissions have continuously increased exponentially and faster than population. Many other examples of rebound exist.

    It is tempting, though incorrect, to respond that without the efficiency gains the environmental pressures would have been worse. This false argument ignores the fundamental drivers about how we utilise technological progress. We can understand this at the micro and macro levels.

    Rebound is usually described at the micro level, such as people driving further when efficient engines use less fuel. How many times have you heard that installing an energy-efficient heater will not only save the environment but also save you money? What happens to that money? It’s not stuffed under the mattress, never to be used. We buy something else. Or we save it with the bank, which then loans the money to others for capital projects or other consumption.

    And the power company would be continually losing sales of electricity if we kept using the same number of appliances that were more energy-efficient. From the power company’s perspective, households purchasing more plasma TVs (potentially with their savings from lower heating bills) are a godsend.

    But to see the full effects we need to consider the macro level dynamics. In an economy that does not grow, continual increases over decades in efficiency and productivity lead to mass unemployment (and likely social unrest) simply because fewer workers are needed to produce the constant economic output. At typical rates of productivity growth, half the workforce could be unemployed by mid-century. However, increases in consumption and the associated economic activity provide the demand to re-employ displaced labour.

    This is why developed economies typically aim for the holy grail of 3–4% economic growth. About 2% or so of this is simply to cover typical growth in the size of the population. The remainder of the economic growth is to ameliorate the unemployment effects of 1–2% productivity and efficiency gains.

    The end result is that the anticipated environmental dividends from the efficiencies are not achieved because the increased economic activity offsets or outgrows the gains.

    There is an alternative, although how likely it is to be adopted is another question. Work less.

    Some decades ago we thought we would be living in a “leisure society”. Instead, we are extolled to work harder. Both parents now work. Many people work much longer hours than the official work week. Work stress is a significant health issue.

    If, instead of growth, the productivity premiums were utilised as increased “leisure” time we could avoid the bad outcome of unemployment and create a good social and environmental outcome. The size of the change in work–life balance would be considered radical if we look ahead to the mid-century, but the change could be incremental. It could be achieved if we reduced the working week by about an hour or less each year on average. That equates to gaining an additional afternoon or morning off each working week every five years or so.

    The change would require careful management to ensure the gains are uniform across sectors of the economy. Other aspects such as public and private investment would also need attention, as Tim Jackson outlines in Prosperity Without Growth.

    Nor would the increased leisure time mean more shopping and tourist time. The additional leisure time gained would be of a different character to that based on high consumption lifestyles, since both personal incomes and the physical output of the economy would be lower.

    At the same time technological progress would be required, not least to contribute to environmental improvements. Medical science and progress in IT could deliver benefits in health, education and communication to further enhance livelihoods. Social benefits may also accrue, with the extra time available enabling families to support the young and elderly.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, then, averting an environmental crisis requires a complex mix of attention to population, technological progress and our lifestyles and consumption habits. In combination, a lower population, better work–life balance, lower consumption and further technological progress offer the best hope. But simply expecting innovation and efficiency to save us is likely to make things worse.