Environment Sciences: Evolution Of Technology
Directions: Unless otherwise stated, answer in complete sentences, and be sure to use correct English, spelling, and grammar. Sources must be cited in APA format. Your response should be four (4) double‐spaced pages.
Format: NO HEADERS OR FOOTERS, NO PAGE NUMBERS
1” all sides
The entire document should be double-spaced on standard-sized paper (8.5″ x 11″)
Type Style and Size
Times New Roman, 12 point
Read the following text (AT BOTTOM OF PAGE); study and review the section titled “Measuring Technological Progress.” Next, use your own words to write a short compare-and-contrast essay that defines and explains three distinct perspectives on the evolution of technology. As you write, imagine you are talking to a friend who has no knowledge of this topic. In short, write the way you speak, using a conversational tone. Also, try to alternate short sentences and longer sentences to make your writing more readable.
Your essay should include five paragraphs, as follows:
-Paragraph 1 is your lead paragraph. It will contain an overview of what you have to say in comparing and contrasting the perspectives of Gerhard Lenski, Leslie White, and Alvin Toffler with respect to the evolution of technology.
-Paragraphs 2, 3, and 4, are your body paragraphs.
-In paragraph 2 to describe the perspective of Gerhard Lenski.
-In paragraph 3, you’ll write about the perspective of Leslie White.
-In paragraph 4, you’ll describe and discuss the perspective of Alvin Toffler.
-Paragraph 5 is your summary and conclusion. Here, you’ll compare the three perspectives to show how they are, or may be, similar. You’ll contrast the three perspectives to describe how they’re different. You’ll end this process–and your essay–by expressing your view as to which of these theorists (one or more) offer the most useful insights into the evolution of technology, in your opinion.
It’s permissible to use direct quotes from your reading, but don’t use too many. One to three such quotes should be your limit. Be sure to put a direct quote in quotation marks. For example: According to Smith, “Carbon dioxide is both our friend and our enemy.” 1 TO 3 references must be cited in APA and referenced on last page.
TEXT TO BASE ESSAY ON:
Measuring Technological Progress
Sociologists, anthropologists, and other researchers have developed different ways to measure and understand technological progress. In this section, we’ll review the thoughts of four important theorists. They offer four perspectives on the relationship between technological development and our social world.
Sociologist Gerhard Lenski (1924–2015) believed that technological progress has been the driving force in the evolution of civilization. According to Lenski, technological progress and civilization are closely related. In fact, the key to human progress is information. The more we know about harnessing and using natural resources, the more we can advance human society.
Lenski recognized four stages of communication, as follows:
- Stage 1 is the passing of genes from one generation to the next. We might call this biological communication.
- Stage 2 is sentience, or the ability to feel, perceive, or experience objectively. As we begin to develop awareness and understanding of the world around us, we adapt better to the environment of Earth. We’re able to share our experience.
- In Stage 3, we become capable of logic. We apply observation and fact-based analysis to the world. For example, if we see dark clouds in the sky, we recognize that rain is probably on the way.
- In Stage 4, we master language, writing, and the ability to create symbols. This stage is the foundation of civilization.
Lenski also proposed four levels of technological development, as follows:
- At the hunter-gatherer level, we physically work to reduce food insecurity.
- At the next level, we obtain part of the food supply from horticulture (growing plants).
- At the next level, we engage in organized agriculture. Food surplus allows complex social orders to rise. We experience social class inequality and a complex division of labor. We pursue technological advances in arts, crafts, architecture, and civil engineering.
- Finally comes the Industrial Revolution. At this level, food-based economies are replaced. We experience a new kind of social class inequality along with revolutionary advances in the means of production.
Anthropologist Leslie Alvin White (1900–1975) focused on harnessing and controlling energy. White believed that controlling energy is the primary purpose and function of any culture.
White identified five stages of human development, as follows:
- Stage 1: Energy comes from human muscle power.
- Stage 2: Humans harness the energy of domesticated animals. We raise and herd livestock for food energy. We use other animals, especially the horse, as transport as well as mounts for warriors and hunters.
- Stage 3: We engage in the agricultural revolution, which provides surplus food energy to extend the value of Stage 2.
- Stage 4: Especially as expressed in the Industrial Revolution, we harness the power of natural resources, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
- Stage 5: We harness and rely on nuclear energy. (White was perhaps too optimistic about our ability to harness nuclear energy, given its dangerous drawbacks.)
White developed a formula that remains useful:
P = E*T
In this formula, “E” is a measure of energy consumed. “T” is a measure of the efficiency of technical factors that utilize this energy. “P” is what we get when calculate these two measures.
For example, when we compare early steam engines to steam-powered turbines, the efficiency of turbines increases the value “P.” In White’s words, “culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased . . . or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased.”
Alvin Toffler (1928–2016) was a journalist, social critic, and futurist. Toffler stands out among the thinkers associated with the postindustrial era. That’s because he was able to reach a large audience.
The following quote gives an idea of Toffler’s view of our current era:
“To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots—religion, nation, community, family, or profession—are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions; it is the decision that makes the resources.”
Toffler is best known for the concept of future shock. He defined this as the personal perception of “too much change in too short a period of time.” Toffler argued that human societies are undergoing enormous social and technological structural change. We live in an unprecedented era in which industrial society is changing to a “super-industrial” society. In Toffler’s view, many find the speed of change overwhelming. Millions of people feel disconnected. We live lives characterized by “shattering stress and disorientation.” In other words, we’re “future shocked.”
According to Toffler, we’re drowning in information overload. (Toffler invented this term.) In Toffler’s view, future shock is responsible for most modern-day social problems.
Toffler identified three stages in the development of society, as follows:
- Stage 1 is the agrarian stage. This stage began with the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). Toffler associated the agricultural revolution with the move from “barbarity” to “civilization.”
- Stage 2 is the industrial stage. This stage began in England with the Industrial Revolution. According to Toffler, important advances during this period included machine tools and the steam engine.
- Stage 3 is the postindustrial stage. This started in the second half of the twentieth century. Stage 3 is marked by the inventions of automated manufacturing, robotics, and the computer. This stage is also associated with the growth of the service sector. During this stage, the need for “brainwork” has increased, while the need for manual labor (such as factory work) has decreased.
William F. Ogburn
Finally, William F. Ogburn (1886–1959) was a prominent sociologist who developed the concept of cultural lag. This is the idea that it takes time for a culture to catch up to innovations in technology. Even though Ogburn died long ago, his ideas are still taken quite seriously by academics.
According to Ogburn, material culture—technology–progresses much faster than nonmaterial culture. Technology changes more quickly than social institutions like family, government, religious institutions, and even the arts.
To quote Ogburn,
“The invention of the automobile . . . freed young people from direct parental observation [and] made it possible for them to work at distances from home . . . Half a century earlier, families were structured … as family farms. Young people were under continuous observation as they worked right on the homestead.”
According to Ogburn, economic systems adapt more quickly to new technologies than other institutions. That’s because such advances offer a return on investment to business. For example, adding robotics to an assembly line can speed up the manufacturing process. Likewise, relying on advances in electronic communications can help companies to share information more easily. In fact, corporate culture and the profit-driven application of technology tend to drive technological innovation (material culture).
It’s interesting to note that religious institutions tend to be particularly impacted by “future shock.” Scientific and technological advances have historically been opposed by organized religion. For example, the Roman Catholic Church continues to oppose birth control. Similarly, evangelical and fundamentalist groups continue to reject long-accepted ideas about evolution and natural selection.
“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
–Carl Sagan, astronomer and theorist
Toffler’s insights began an ongoing debate into information overload. Just how overwhelmed are people by rapid advances in technology? This debate continues, and we’ll revisit it later in this lesson.
Lenski, White, and Ogburn offered useful insight into the relationship between technology and the evolution of society. However, they failed to address the unintended consequences of postindustrial development. This is especially the case respecting social, cultural, and technological progress in an era of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change and global warming.
What unintended consequences do we mean? Let’s look at the basic assumptions of a capitalist economic system. In capitalist societies, continual growth is desired: sell more, build more, develop more markets, and cultivate more consumerism. If we designed a bumper sticker to define consumerism, it might say, “More, more, more!” or “You are what you can buy!” or “Whoever dies with the most toys wins!”
Of course, historically, the world has been minimally concerned with ecological issues. When Lenski, White, and Ogburn were developing their ideas, public awareness of climate change had yet to emerge. Instead, classic assumptions about economic progress still applied; that is, economic progress was measured mainly by its constant growth. Naturally, we now realize this assumption is unrealistic. The world faces too many ecological threats from a focus on unrestrained growth. In fact, from an ecologist’s perspective, unrestrained growth is suicidal. To draw a parallel, in the natural world, unrestricted cellular growth is called cancer.
Capitalism is about return on investment. It’s about the bottom line. It’s focused on reducing costs to increase profits. The simplest ways to reduce costs is to lower wages or replace human workers with technology. Consider the difference between human and robotic workers. Robot can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and might cost a business 30 cents per hour. Obviously that’s much lower than even minimum wage.
Across developed nations, digital technology has shrunken the market for industrial jobs, particularly in manufacturing. Jobs that paid a living wage are vanishing. For example, in the United States, giant corporations—like Walmart, Apple, and Dell—have exported manufacturing jobs to foreign labor markets in China and elsewhere. As a result, the American middle class continues to shrink. Jobs that once paid well have been replaced by less-lucrative jobs in the service sector.
Of course, the situation is complicated. Global productivity has increased enormously due to advances in electronic and digital technologies. However, at the same time, in developed countries like the United States, the ratio of manufacturing jobs to service sector jobs has changed radically. To quote economist Hank Robison, “In 1950, 30 percent of all U.S. jobs were in manufacturing, while 63 percent were in services. In 2011, 9 percent of total employment remained in manufacturing, with 86 percent in services.”
Robison continues: “Does this signify a shift in consumers’ tastes from manufactured goods to services? The short answer is no; if anything, we consume more ‘things.’ The difference is that things are manufactured with far less labor, and they are increasingly made somewhere else.”
Wages have either declined or remained stagnant since the 1970s. Thus, cheaper goods (plus high levels of personal debt) keep the consumerist philosophy alive.
Economically, the world is dealing with two kinds of unintended consequences. Both have been produced by capitalist ideology. First, increases in productivity have led to lower wages and more or less permanent unemployment for unskilled laborers. Second, continual growth requires ever more energy. That means greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. This, in turn, has led to a global energy crisis.
Scientific Consensus on Climate Change
According to NASA, multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that about 97 percent of climate scientists are in agreement that changes to the climate over the past century can be attributed to human activities. While scientists continue to interpret data and debate causal connections, they agree to the basic premise that humans are negatively affecting the global environment. Scientific debate is about weighing actual evidence. Scientists pose hypotheses and test them. They check results and repeat the process to get ever closer to fact-based truth.
Review the quotes below to get an idea of the scientific consensus on climate change and global warming. These three sample statements can be found in the eighteen covered in NASA’s report (“Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate Is Warming,” NASA. Retrieved May 31, 2018, from http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus.)
In preview, here are three sample statements out of eighteen provided in the report.
“The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now and it is a growing threat to Society.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2006.
“The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.” American Physical Society, 2007.
“The Geological Society of America (GSA) concurs with assessments by the National Academies of Science (2005), the National Research Council (2006), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) that global climate has warmed and that human activities (mainly greenhouse gas emissions) account for most of the warming since the middle 1900s.” The Geological Society of America, 2006; revised 2010.
Life, Water, and Energy
In this part of the lesson, we’ll explore two immediate environmental crises: the rising global demand for energy and the scarcity of freshwater.
Let’s begin with some basic science facts.
Life on Earth is carbon-based. Carbon is the basis for basic molecules like carbon dioxide (CO2) on the one hand and immensely complex molecules like proteins and DNA molecules on the other. The typical carbon atom, written 6C12, contains 6 protons, 6 neutrons, and 6 electrons.
- The 6 protons carry a positive charge.
- The 6 electrons have a negative charge.
- The 6 neutrons have a neutral charge.
(Public domain image)
Thus, the atomic number of carbon is 6. Its atomic mass is 12. The unique configuration of carbon’s electrons is the key feature of this atom, which is basic to life.
Atoms follow rules. In all atoms, electrons must be contained in one or more energy shells: K, L, M, N, and O. In the carbon atom, the K shell is closest to the atom’s nucleus. It allows space for 2 electrons. The L shell provides space for exactly 8 electrons. In a carbon atom, the K shell is full, while the L shell contains only 4 electrons, leaving 4 “open” spaces. This means carbon atoms are ready and willing to share electrons with other elements, from simple molecules like CO2 to complex organic molecules arranged along chains of other carbon atoms.
The largest carbon-based molecules are the immensely complex DNA molecules. As you know, DNA creates the genetic code for every living creature on Earth, from bacteria to cats to individual human beings.
Now recall the basic formula for photosynthesis:
6CO2 + 6H2O → sunlight energy → C6H12O6 + 6O2
The sun is Earth’s energy source. Through photosynthesis, energy from the sun is transferred to Earth. Life chemistry is carbon chemistry.
Photosynthesis requires water. Leonardo Da Vinci called water the driver of life. Others refer to water as the “universal medium.” Whatever we call it, life energy simply can’t exist without it.
The next two topics in this lesson address the two most pressing ecological issues facing the world: demand for energy and scarcity of freshwater.
The Energy Crisis
Consider this graphic from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS).
GISS is located in New York. GISS continually analyzes surface temperatures around the globe. As of 2018, temperature readings of land and ocean surfaces continue to show a steady rise in global temperatures from 1950 to 2018. In fact, over this period, the ten warmest years have occurred since 1998.
Over this period, the year 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded, followed by 2017, 2015, and 2014. This research is consistent with projections prepared by the Climatic Research Unit and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
You’ll note in the graph that temperatures are somewhat higher during El Niño periods and slightly lower in La Niña periods. That’s because during La Niña, ocean surface temperatures are cooler than average in the central and eastern Pacific near the equator. The opposite occurs during El Niño years.
This data shows that we must sharply curtail greenhouse gas emissions if we are ever to reach environmental sustainability. However, even if greenhouse emissions fell to zero immediately, global average temperatures would likely continue to rise for several decades—and possibly hundreds of years. The situation is simply that grave.
Energy for Life
Any plan for achieving global sustainability must be focused on energy. Every effort must be made to greatly reduce the use of nonrenewable energy sources like coal, oil, and natural gas. At the same time, we must make every effort to increase the use of renewable sources of energy. That means greatly expanding solar and wind power and refining technologies to harvest geothermal and ocean wave energy.
We must also reduce or eventually suspend the use of nuclear power. Nuclear energy is based on a finite supply of uranium. First, uranium is nonrenewable. But, more importantly, the use of nuclear power produces nuclear waste. Disposal of nuclear waste that can remain lethally radioactive for millennia is highly problematic.
Ecological Footprints around the Globe
The need for conservation related to greenhouse emissions varies greatly across the globe. Consider the following chart developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The data shows that China’s carbon footprint is the largest, producing 27 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. The United States is next, at 17 percent. Next are Russia (5 percent), India (5 percent), and Japan (4 percent). Other developed countries produce much fewer emissions. The 20 percent attributed to the “rest of the world” is composed of small underdeveloped countries, mainly across the span of Africa, central Asia, and the Mideast.
Total Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Country, 2011
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists
Unfortunately, this overview doesn’t even give the whole picture. Consider this jarring quote from Rachel Kaufman in an article in National Geographic: “Humans are using 50 percent more resources than the Earth can replenish in a year. In other words, humans use the equivalent of 1.5 planets per year. By 2030, humans will use the equivalent of two planets per year.”
This same source claims that the tiny country of Qatar has the highest per capita carbon footprints on the planet, along with its neighbors, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For Qatar, that’s more than five times the per capita resources consumed per capita in the United States. Of course, the total populations of these oil-rich countries are small, so they compose only a small part of the larger problem.
The United States includes five percent of the global population and uses 24 percent of the planet’s resources every year. In fact, according to Dave Tilford in Scientific American:
- Children born in the United States will create thirteen times the ecological damage over their lifetimes than children born in Brazil.
- The average American drains as many resources as 35 natives of India. Additionally, the average American consumes 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.
- With less than five percent of the world population, the United States uses one-third of the world’s paper, one-quarter of the oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.
- American fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain. It’s also 2.5 times that of the average Japanese.
- Americans also produce one-half of the world’s solid waste.
Around the globe, each U.S. dollar spent equals roughly the consumption of one-half liter of energy.
The Freshwater Crisis
The freshwater crisis may very well be the line that can’t be crossed if humans are to continue existing on planet Earth.
As already pointed out, water is the medium of life. Where there’s no water, there can be no life. Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci was correct when he called water the driving force behind all life. The current supply of freshwater in Earth’s hydrosphere is about what’s been available to terrestrial (land surface) life forms for millions of years. About 2.5 percent of the planet’s water is fresh, with about 1.5 percent locked up in glaciers and ice caps. Only a precious 1 percent of freshwater on the planet is easily obtainable.
This image from the U.S. Geological Survey shows the harsh realities in the situation. This image shows the volume of water on Earth compared to land mass.
The total of all the freshwater on Earth (the second blue sphere) amounts to about 10.6 million cubic kilometers. As shown in the graphic, this would have a diameter of about 272 kilometers (about 170 miles). Additionally, 99 percent of this water is groundwater, much of which isn’t easily accessible. By contrast—as the world gets warmer and warmer—if all the freshwater available to us from lakes, streams, rivers, and captured rainwater were compressed into a water sphere, it would be that tiny blue sphere in the image, which is about 56 kilometers (34.9 miles) in diameter. That’s our little life bubble. That’s the precious life sphere we must all share.
If Earth’s burgeoning human population is not checked soon, we could very well run out of water needed to meet the needs of over seven billion people. Additionally, because of climate variations, geography, and resource competition for resources, some regions on our planet seem to have plenty of freshwater, while others find freshwater scarce. The latter situation exists in many underdeveloped countries that must deal with factors like armed conflict and persistent drought. Both of these factors contribute to freshwater scarcity.
Even in the United States, prolonged drought has created crisis conditions. Parts of California and the Southwestern states, for example, have been seriously impacted. In California, officials reported the fourth year of sustained drought through January 2016. That’s the driest period recorded since meteorological data has been available. Over this same period, forest fires have become more frequent and intense. And, in other parts of the country, per capita water use has continued to rise.
Here’s a striking illustration. The Colorado River flows over a 1,450-mile course from its source in the Rocky Mountains. You may know that the Grand Canyon was carved out by the Colorado River. But you may not know that the Colorado River provides water to 30 million people. However, according to sources, “… it is so heavily tapped for agriculture, industry, and municipal uses” that it seldom reaches the Gulf of California. In fact, only about one-tenth of the river’s former flow now makes it to Mexico, where a dam captures it to supply water to farms and cities south of the border.
According to the United Nations, international water use has increased at more than twice the rate of population in the last century. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity. That means about two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions, the result of inefficient water use, destructive farming practices, and climate change. Even today, one in seven people don’t have access to clean drinking water.
In the Middle East, great swaths of the countryside have been reduced to desert, primarily due to the overuse of water. Among Middle East states, Iran has sustained the most damage related to freshwater misuse and overuse. In that country, agricultural output has been devastated as water overuse is compounded by insufficient rainfall, year after year.
The overconsumption of water resources in the United Arab Emirates, coupled with negligible and infrequent rainfall, has spurred efforts to desalinize saltwater from the oceans. UAE’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has commented, “For us, water is [now] more important than oil.”
In south Asia, up to 75 percent of farmers rely on pumping groundwater to the surface. That’s a sobering statistic as it reflects the water needs of around 600 million people living in 2,000 square kilometers of dry terrain. This terrain extends from eastern Pakistan, across northern India, and into western Bangladesh. Satellite images confirm that groundwater supplies are rapidly shrinking.
A direct effect of global warming is glacial ice melt everywhere on the planet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), the percentage of people likely to be negatively impacted by changing patterns of precipitation and glacial melting is likely to increase during the twenty-first century. Just look at the increase in ice melt in Greenland over time.
Asia is particularly at risk. This is largely due to melting patterns in Asia’s “water towers,” the Himalayas. The Himalayas are the tallest mountains in the world. Their snow melt feeds a number of major rivers, including the Indus in Pakistan, the Ganges in India, and the Yangtze in China. The Himalayas also feed the Mekong, which is a vital water source for many nations of southeast Asia, including Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Overall, the regions’ glaciers provide water for irrigation, hydroelectric power, and drinking water for roughly 1.5 billion people.
One inevitable outcome of freshwater scarcity is rising conflicts between nations competing for dwindling resources. For example, the Nile is the world’s longest river. It has two main branches: the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Blue Nile emerges from the highlands of Ethiopia. The White Nile emerges from the region of Lake Victoria in Uganda. The two branches meet at the city of Khartoum in Sudan. To better meet its regional water needs, Ethiopia is nearing completion on what will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant. Its reservoir will have a storage capacity amounting to 74 billion cubic meters of water.
Egyptian officials are concerned about this. From their perspective, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project poses a direct threat to Egyptian agriculture. According to Egypt’s irrigation minister, Egypt is currently coping with an annual water deficit of 20 billion cubic meters. Water recycling technology makes up some of this deficit, but this won’t fully address the problem in the long run. Negotiations between the two countries are ongoing.
As another example, consider the tension between Pakistan and India over the mountainous territory of Kashmir. This region has experienced several wars since 1947. Today, Pakistani Muslims occupy about half the northern area. Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs occupy about half the territory in the south. As the southern groups seek independence and the right of self-determination, sporadic violence claims lives along the disputed boundary separating the two regions. One major concern is access to water resources, as these are mainly located in the northern region. Regional glacial melting due to global warming greatly aggravates the Kashmiri dilemma. Given that both nations possess significant nuclear arsenals, this is a dangerous situation.
From a global perspective, former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien comments, “The future political impact of water scarcity may be devastating. Using water the way we have in the past simply will not sustain humanity in the future.”
Toward a Paradigm Shift
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.”
Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862
A paradigm shift represents a fundamental change in our underlying assumptions. And, respecting our current global crisis, Lincoln’s words are apt. We must indeed “think anew and act anew.”
Drawing on what you’ve learned about our environmental challenges, let’s consider some paths to a sustainable future. We must first distinguish between sustainable and non-sustainable uses of technology (material culture). We must then recognize and confront changes we need to make in nonmaterial culture. Without changes to both material and nonmaterial culture, our efforts will be inadequate. We won’t be able to deal with rising sea levels rise, loss of forest to burning, and ever-increasing temperature of warm seasons.
Global Paradigm Shift
Our social order can only survive if it’s both sustainable and adaptive. That means it must be maintainable and flexible.
The template for this idea is built into Earth’s natural systems. Think about the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and photosynthesis. To the extent that humans haven’t overly disrupted these cycles, they’re both sustainable and adaptive. For example, the nitrogen cycle adapts to changes in ecosystems such as different ratios of producers to consumers. (Producers are the life forms that draw on sunlight energy to produce oxygen, carbon dioxide, and glucose through photosynthesis. Producers form the very foundation of the global food chain. Consumers are the life forms that rely, directly or indirectly, on producers for energy.)
Due to the burgeoning population growth of humans, we’ve become ravenous life-energy consumers. Our demand for resources already exceeds the planet’s finite resource limits, as illustrated by the energy and water crises already discussed. Thus, our most important objective at the present time is to figure out how to establish an appropriate balance of human population to Earth’s resources. That’s a daunting challenge. Nevertheless, meeting it is our only option. The alternative is the end of human civilization—and quite possibly our life on this planet.
To avoid global catastrophe, we must address three major issues, namely,
- We should reconsider global capitalism in favor of alternative social and economic systems. These should be based on the well-being of humans and equitable sharing of resources with the natural world.
- We must allow ethical norms and practices to guide developments in science and technology.
- We must discover and acquire a balance between head and heart. The key to this issue is to establish gender and other types of equality across the globe.
These perspectives are idealistic and interconnected. Together they represent a radical paradigm shift.
Consequences of Globalization
The painful consequences of the neoliberal agenda have been covered earlier in the course. It should be clear to you that if our goal is global distributive justice, we must abandon that agenda. We must suffer through the pain and discomfort involved in transitioning to more humane social and economic systems.
Here are a few initial thoughts regarding an eventual economic transition.
Economic transitions require changes to governance and modes of resource distribution. These must become more harmonious with the natural world. Digital and electronic communications might serve as an international information grid of sorts. People could share problems and solutions. Nations and localities could establish a common ground for limited trade and technological transfer.
Humans across the globe must share a common goal. We must address climate change by transitioning to renewable sources of energy. We must find ways to address water scarcity. The heaviest burden in these transitions will fall on developed nations, particularly the United States. At both national and international levels, we must reverse the flow of capital. It must be directed to flow mainly to the public to engineer a renewable power grid as well as provide basic human services like healthcare and education.
Neoliberalism and Militarism
According to some, the United States has become a surveillance state engaged in an endless war against terrorism. Some analysts compare present-day America to the dystopian totalitarian state depicted by George Orwell in his novel 1984. That may or may not be a stretch. Even so, the advent of militarism is evident to anyone who watches television or plays video games. These forms of entertainment familiarize us with SWAT teams and tactics. They glorify lethal violence and armed conflict.
Any environmentally friendly scenario for the future must abandon both neoliberal economics and militarism. We should hope to witness the end of the “warfare state” in our lifetime, in favor of an international welfare state. That would certainly make economic sense as war has been and continues to be a resource drain—not to mention its heavy cost in lost lives and human suffering.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was ahead of his time. He understood war at a deep and personal level as the Supreme Allied Commander in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) during World War II. His comments are worthy of our attention. Here are excerpts from two of his memorable speeches:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. [But] this world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”
–President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The Chance for Peace,”
delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
–President Dwight D. Eisenhower,
televised farewell address to the nation, January 17, 1961
According to Boston University’s Watson Institute, since 2001 the U.S. federal government has spent upward of $4.4 trillion to sustain military operations in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. This amount is attributed to
- Congressional war appropriations
- War-related increases in the Pentagon base budget
- Veterans care and disability
- Increases in the homeland security budget
All of these ongoing military operations are funded through borrowing. The national debt has escalated enormously, resulting in ever-higher interest rates that will extend well into the future. A not-so-hidden cost of U.S. wars is a foundering domestic economy. Resources for fighting climate change, repairing our infrastructure, educating the populace, and providing public services continue to dwindle.
Meanwhile, no firm estimate is given for the costs of military operations in other parts of the world. According to Global Research, the U.S. military has established between 700 and 800 military bases across the globe, involving some 255,065 troops. Eisenhower’s warning about the unwarranted expansion of the military industrial complex seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Moral Challenges of Modern Science and Technology
From Scientific Idealism to Moral Neutrality
The rise of science in the Western world has evolved through stages. Science was originally guided by the idealistic goals of the Enlightenment. For example, Rene Descartes (1596–1650), the French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, believed that the purpose of science was not simply to gather neutral facts nor create mechanical toys. Rather, it was to conserve human health and reduce human suffering. That ideal remains in the biomedical realm.
Over time, the notion of scientific neutrality became more common. Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) is reckoned among the great minds of the seventeenth century and a driver of the scientific revolution. He is known for developing calculus, outlining the principles of modern physics, and studying of optics. Most importantly, Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) laid out the foundations for modern physics. These included the laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation.
Newton derived his principles from observable relationships, such as mass to gravity. He embraced determinism in that he believed identifiable causes lead to determinable effects.
Newton based his physics principles on objects that could be weighed, measured, and generalized in mathematical terms. Thus, he embraced objectivism and reductionism.
Objectivism translates into this assumption: Nothing exists except matter-energy. What isn’t objectively observable, directly or indirectly, doesn’t exist. Since it can’t be weighed, measured or even located, we must assume that consciousness either doesn’t exist or that it only exists as an epiphenomenon (secondary phenomenon) or side effect of brain activity. Either way, mind can be experienced but not defined. It’s a mystery.
Astronomer Sir James Jeans, commenting on quantum physics, spoke to that mystery in an interesting way.
“The stream of human knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality. The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter. We are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of this realm.”
—Sir James Jeans, The Mysterious Universe (1930)
Reductionism means that even complex phenomena can be understood by identifying the basic parts of the related system. This idea applies even to the complex fields of psychology and physiology. One popular analogy for this idea is the clock. We can learn how a clock works by taking it apart. We can see how the parts relate to each other and work together.
The clock analogy was so persuasive that scientists used to speculate that we live in a clockwork universe—at least until Einstein came along with his ideas about quantum physics.
Determinism asks us to assume that every effect has a cause. If we can identify the chain of causes and effects that lead to cause X, we can predict effect Y. This idea is simple but misleading. For example, let’s look at poverty. It’s nearly impossible to accurately identify and weigh all possible variables that lead to poverty. And that includes uncertainty about how to define poverty in the first place.
Science has adopted many of Newton’s ideas. This makes it easy for scientists to see themselves as neutral explorers and observers. Except for in the biomedical domains, science is often divorced from moral concerns or constraints. Operation Paper Clip provides an example. This was the scramble to “recruit” German scientists who had participated in the development of rocketry and guided missiles in World War I. The operation remained top secret for some time simply because Werner von Braun and his colleagues had been Nazis and party to Hitler’s immoral agenda.
Scientists who embrace moral neutrality claim that moral and ethical concerns are the province of philosophers, public policy makers, and thinkers. They believe science does what it does. It’s up to society to decide how to apply scientific findings like technology to the world.
Religion vs. Scientism
Scientism is the belief that science and its method of inquiry is the most reliable path to truth. Philosopher August Comte defined scientism under a concept he called positivism. Positivism is a belief that everything worth knowing must come from sensory data. That is, it must come our senses—vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. According to Comte, no transcendent celestial order exists: there’s no heaven, no gods, and no metaphysical domain. Spiritualism is delusion. French philosophers in the Enlightenment believed that science should replace religion.
Scientism isn’t science. It can’t be, because actual scientific hypotheses are subject to falsification, or testability. For example, let’s say that a psychologist forms a hypothesis that all people will render assistance to those in distress. If we find that not everyone in a sample will actually render assistance to distressed fellow humans, the hypothesis must be rejected. And that’s the problem with scientism. It can’t be subjected to falsification; therefore, there’s no way to determine whether it’s true or false.
Nonetheless, history is full of the antagonism between religion and science posing as religion. That antagonism has largely faded in modern times. Today, most scientists are concerned about the moral and ethical impacts of their work. For example, they think about the impact of technological innovations like social media, which might allow for widespread government surveillance of the population.
Digital Technology as a Two-Edged Sword
Nearly every technological advance has had both positive and negative effects. A famous example is the discovery of penicillin. As the first identified antibiotic, penicillin greatly reduced the fatality rate in World War II. Penicillin led to the development of other antibiotics. That’s the bright side. On the downside, the overuse of antibiotics has created unanticipated problems. All life forms tend to adapt to changes in their environment. This includes bacterial pathogens. Thus, as antibiotic use has become widespread, the pathogens targeted by these medicines have adapted. Some bacteria have mutated into antibiotic pathogens—“super bugs’’—that are immune to antibiotics.
Similarly, in ethical and moral terms, digital-electronic technologies also have an upside and a downside. Here are some examples.
- Industrial efficiency. Industries of all kinds have experienced amazing growth in productivity due to computers and electronic communications. However, wages for workers have either declined or remained stagnant. The profits related to efficiency gains have gravitated mainly to the wealthy. Additionally, as more workstations feature computers, supervisors and managers can more closely monitor worker efficiency. That might be a positive, but worker privacy has all but vanished. In some cases, efficiency efforts have gone so far as to specify worker bathroom breaks at specified times.
- Phone mazes are commonplace in all kinds of organizations. Presumably, the mazes increase organization efficiency. But according to Deseret News (way back in 1994!), callers who deal with automated phone response systems often feel like “rats in a maze.” The business objective of phone mazes is to reduce the need for employees, thus adding to higher rates of unemployment. Additionally, when human beings are on the line, callers are warned about calls being monitored for quality assurance. Again, privacy has vanished.
- Social media gives us access to a digital wonderland. We can keep up with our friends and colleagues, share photos, talk about ideas, and even coordinate “flash mobs” for social protests. On the other hand, social media can become a sort of “weapon of mass distraction.” Fake news stories circulate more easily via social media. Users may feel addicted to their devices. They may experience anxiety, depression, and personal disconnect. They may spend less time interacting with real-life friends and relatives. Plus, social media makes children and others more vulnerable to cyberbullying, which can be crushing. And, lest we forget, it’s easy to lose focus and neglect chores and/or homework through social media distractions.
- Government surveillance has already been mentioned. However, it’s important to realize that a social media presence creates opportunities for personal monitoring. Government agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), the Department of Homeland Security, and others sometimes make deals with communications giants and Internet providers. These “deals” and personal monitoring are said to be for safety purposes, so the government can track and monitor terrorists. Most of us aren’t terrorists but anything we post on the Internet can and will be monitored. Meanwhile, individual hackers also engage in blanket surveillance. As a result, identity theft is a real problem. It’s important to learn to exercise extreme caution when sharing personal information with anyone, on the Internet or in real time.
Environment Sciences: Evolution Of Technology