Technology and Efficiency

No one can oppose the advancement of knowledge, but by now it should be clear that not every new technology that comes down the pike is a net benefit to the human race… We need technologies of development, technologies that more efficiently digest a given resource throughput, not the technologies of growth, of larger jaws and a bigger digestive tract. And, once again, instead of vaguely calling for "changed consumption patterns" we need to specify "reduced consumption levels" of resources and environmental services.
-- Herman Daly, Beyond Growth

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

When it comes to evaluating its role in building a sustainable future, "technology" is both a hotly debated issue and a double-edged sword. Innovative technologies can greatly increase energy and material efficiency, but they are not a be-all-and-end-all solution. Even if we tripled our efficiency, the world could not physically support 6 billion people living the lifestyle of the average North American. On the other hand, every increase in efficiency increases the number of people who can live materially secure lives.

So we should pursue both routes. We should avoid falling into the planned obsolescence trap because we "need" the latest technology just because it is "the latest technology" or because our commercial culture bombards us with messages telling us we need it. Do we really need to be waiting on the edge of our seats for Windows 2000, ready to trash our Pentium II when it can’t speedily support the new applications? Is HDTV so much better that it’s worth landfilling hundreds of millions of perfectly good "regular televisions" in the next six years? Do we need a brand new Pentium II or can a used 486 get the job done?

But we also must identify clean and efficient technologies and implement them as we make the new American dream a reality. Some are simple, personal actions such as installing Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs). Others are more complex, systemic changes, such as developing and attaining clean and efficient sources of energy. Fortunately we have several partners in these efforts. Groups such as the Rocky Mountain Institute are leading the way with groundbreaking innovations. The Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council are among groups pushing auto manufacturers to use their technical know-how to expedite production of "green cars." People at the Department of Energy and other research institutions are advancing renewable energy technology while green design gurus such as Bill McDonough and Environmental Building News are pioneering efforts to minimize the ecological effect of our built environment. Finally, watchdog groups such as the International Center for Technology Assessment prompt us to reflect upon the role of technology in our lives and determine whether a given technology is appropriate.

Technological advances are exciting not only in and of themselves but also because they can be shared with countries of the South as more positive development model than the wasteful one we followed and now promote.(1) Such international dissemination of technology also reminds us of its limits. As even Mobil acknowledged in an apparently-anti-Kyoto ad, "[O]ne basic fact stood out. The effect of economic growth that will occur in developing countries overwhelms whatever developed countries can achieve with advanced technology."(2)

In considering the limits of technology, we also need to remember that technology exists to serve us and our quality of life, not vice versa. Technology should be a tool to help us live more sustainable and fulfilling lives. As the Chippewa Medicine Man Sun Bear said "I do not think that the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their fellow man."


  1. For more information, see the International puzzle piece.
  2. Mobil ad, The Washington Post, 8/1/99.

Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
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