What it means to be sustainable technology?
“…All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? “
From ‘Choruses from the rock’ by T.S. Eliott
Part I: Definition
Technologies are for the benefit of mankind. It does not mean that living beings and nature are not considered as they also benefit indirectly. Directly, medical sciences and technologies may be considered for the benefits of all living beings.
According to Britannica, technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical aspects of human life. According to the UCLA Sustainability Committee, sustainability is defined as: “the integration of environmental health, social equity and economic vitality in order to create thriving, healthy, diverse and resilient communities for this generation and generations to come.
Integrating these two concepts, sustainable technology is the application of scientific knowledge, while maintaining the environmental, social and economic equity for this generation and generations to come for a healthy society.
By interpretation, there are absolutely no sustainable technologies. This is because all scientific applications consume natural resources and affect the equilibrium of socio-ecological-economical system. Therefore, all technologies are sustainable, in their life-cycle, only till a threshold condition where the unintended harmful consequences of the same technologies do not exceed benefits from the technologies. This condition implies that natural resources are replenished at the same rate they are depleted; effect on the equilibrium of socio-ecological-economical system be balanced to create thriving, healthy communities now and future.
How do we measure sustainable technology?
Technologies create positive and negative externalities upon the society. Sustainable technology is one that minimizes negative externalities and maximizes positive externalities caused by it. In popular jargon, sustainable technology is construed to be clean technology. However, going by the definition, it includes not just clean technologies, but encompasses all technologies that strive to create a healthy society, for instance, technologies that affect the structure of the microbial world, that affect the health of the human communities and technologies that allow the exploration of man beyond the terrestrial world,etc. In this light, it also implies not just physical health but also mental health, for instance, AI technologies that impact mind-body relationship and man-machine relationship, and therefore, they must also studied to ascertain whether they are sustainable.
What are the possible negative externalities?
1. Depletion of natural resources without adequate replenishment at the same rate
2. Undesirable interference with natural phenomenon
3. Undesirable effects upon living beings, microbial and non-microbial living beings
4. Undesirable effects upon man — both physical as well as mental health.
What are the possible positive externalities?
1. Enhances the user experience at material and mental levels
2. Adaptable to multiple applications
3. Primarily developed for vulnerable societies
The above list is not a complete one. At the same time, it may well be noted that these technologies are considered for civilian applications only.
Part II: Consideration for sustainable technology
What does it mean for innovators, scientists and technologists whose mission is the pursuit of development of sustainable technologies?
I am giving below few considerations:
1) First, question the premises, scientific principles for undertaking a new research project that is aimed at solving a problem. Does the new research build upon scientific principle that has already been applied to build unsustainable technologies till now? For instance, it could be an innovative research project that works upon existing automotive technologies (unsustainable) to make it cleaner or reduce the emissions (less unsustainable). Proceed only if the underlying scientific principles don’t have track record of harmful effects in any other field of application.
2) Second, select raw materials that are locally available, easily replaceable even if it compromises efficiency.
3) Third, let us consider energy sources. A research project may be completely formulated with only renewable sources of energy. For instance, why design innovative agricultural machinery that still uses fossil fuels?
4) Fourthly, let us consider business models. Remember that markets still work on principles of competition in terms of pricing, efficiency, etc. Markets don’t allow a premium for sustainable products. Hence, new channels that encourage sustainability may be explored. The channels may be for finance, distribution and marketing and servicing.
5) Finally, as we question scientific principles for research into new areas, it is also time to question cultural practices and behavioral aspects that may result in unsustainable technologies. For instance, as we work fewer hours with our hands and feet, what are the implications for our bodily energy requirements? Do we still need to depend upon grains and cereals that consume too much energy? If we consider this, then our research objectives will be towards other forms of energy that consume less energy for production.
I would like to conclude this with the observation by Reuleaux, in his The Kinematics of Machinery, that machines and technologies are extension of man. He concludes that, “when man is most intensely associated with the machine, when he knows it best, it is not man that becomes machinelike, but it is the machine that becomes manlike, singing and throbbing living power.”