Technological Trajectories and the Human Environment

JH Ausubel and HD Langford (eds)

Citation: National Academy Press, Washington DC 1997 Also appeared as special issue, "The Liberation of the Environment,"Daedalus 125(3):1-17, 1996.


Science and technology have liberated humans from the harshness of the environment–though often at considerable cost to the environment. Is it now possible that trends in science and technology might actually help to liberate the environment from us? “The Liberation of the Environment” is the central theme of book Technological Trajectories and the Human Environment. Drawing on a number of recent studies of technological innovation, human consumption, and their impact on the global environment, the thirteen authors in this issue direct their attention toward a single, fundamental question: Is human development increasing or decreasing the stress we place on the environment? The answers they provide are provocative, unexpected, and compelling.

Keywords: energy, agriculture, water, materials, population, technology innovation, diffusion, land use, carbon, dematerialization, natural resources

Areas of Research: Technology & Human Environment

The book is based on a conference held at The Rockefeller University and sponsored by the Program for the Human EnvironmentElectric Power Research Institute, and National Academy of Engineering. It has been published by the National Academy Press. Their bookstore web site contains ordering information. The papers in the book also appeared in a special issue of the journal Daedalus.

The conference, titled “Technological Trajectories and the Human Environment”, brought together leading scientists in disciplines as diverse as philosophy and agricultural science to discuss “The Liberation of the Environment.”

Contents – (click on the hyperlinks for the full-text articles)

Introduction–Robert M. White, Senior Fellow of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and President Emeritus of the National Academy of Engineering.

The Liberation of the Environment–Jesse H. Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University.

Time for a Change: On the Patterns of Diffusion of Innovation–Arnulf Grubler, Research Scholar in the Environmentally Compatible Energy Strategies Project at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.

Population, Technology, and the Human Environment: A Thread Through Time –Robert W. Kates, an independent scholar in Trenton, Maine, and Director Emeritus of the Feinstein World Hunger Program at Brown University.

How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature?–Paul E. Waggoner, Distinguished Scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, Connecticut.

Freeing Energy from Carbon–Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Project Leader of the Environmentally Compatible Energy Strategies Project at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.

Life-Styles and the Environment: The Case of Energy–Lee Schipper, on leave at the International Energy Agency from International Energy Studies, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Elektron: Electrical Systems in Retrospect and Prospect–Jesse H. Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University; and Cesare Marchetti, Institute Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.

Materialization and Dematerialization: Measures and Trends–Iddo K. Wernick, Research Associate with the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University; Robert Herman, L. P. Gilvin Centennial Professor Emeritus in Civil Engineering and Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin; Shekhar Govind, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington; and Jesse H. Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University.

Toward the End of Waste: Reflections on a New Ecology of Industry— Robert A. Frosch, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and a Senior Fellow of the National Academy of Engineering.

Humans in Nature: Toward a Physiocentric Philosophy–Klaus Michael Meyer-Abich, Professor of the Philosophy of Nature at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut of the Wissenschaftszentrum Nordrhein -Westfalen and at the University of Essen.

Sustaining the Human Environment: The Next Two Hundred Years–Chauncey Starr, President Emeritus of the Electric Power Research Institute.

Select Extracts

“All of us who ponder the questions of the human environment are the intellectual descendants of Thomas Robert Malthus. Whether `neo-Malthusian,’ `anti-Malthusian,’ or simply agnostic, we explore the equation of population with resources and technology, which distills the problem of the human environment…. Characteristically, none of the earlier Malthusian concerns really disappear but are renewed in some larger, more international context. And for each of the different notions of critical resources, technology will make possible new reserves and new substitutions and in turn cause new problems. Thus, a continuous process of Malthusian refutation and renewal has marked the two centuries since the publication of the Essay. In my own professional life, I have participated in two and a half cycles of research and argument. Currently, I am trying to understand the roles of neo-Malthusian scientific `Jeremiahs’ and society’s response to them by examining the post-World War II history of jeremiads, beginning with…concerns with population growth, moving on to subsequent fears about food, materials, energy, and toxic pollutants….”
–Robert W. Kates

“`How much land can ten billion people spare for Nature?’ is a farmer’s question; asking it is justified, and answering it is not futile….
“Remembering the lag of decades between discoveries and their impact on world averages, one asks whether any innovations are on the shelf that can raise yields soon. Heralded for decades, some techniques from biotechnology now sit prominently poised for application, and both scientists and practical people expect them to raise yields as well as protect crops and lessen environmental harm.
“In the minds and meeting rooms of environmentalists, designating Nature reserves may stop hungry people from clearing plots; but this is not the case outdoors. And reserves for extractive but sustainable forestry support few people. On the other hand, eliminating the need to abandon land that is already cleared by maintaining or restoring productivity offers some hope.
“Rising yields have shrunk European and American cropland for decades, and governments pay farmers to keep fields idle. Globally, cropland has been roughly level since the middle of the twentieth century. If average fields in the world sixty or seventy hears hence, when we are likely to number ten billion, yield as much food as today’s potato fields in Ireland, wheat fields in France, or corn fields in Iowa, large portions of the land currently in crops can revert to Nature. This will not happen by itself, nor will it happen if today’s scarcity of grain transfixes us. Countering humanity’s multiplying population and wealth to spare habitat for Nature requires never-ending research, encouraging incentives, and smart farmers.”
–Paul E. Waggoner

“Energy industries and energy systems are not exceptional…. large secular decreases in energy requirements per unit of economic output have been achieved throughout the world, as we have learned better how to make, operate, and use energy systems. Furthermore, emissions of carbon dioxide from energy systems, coming from the combustion of the carbon molecules that wood, coal, oil, and gas all contain, have also decreased per unit of energy consumed. This decarbonization of the energy system proves to be emblematic of its entire evolution.
“At the same time, because of population and general economic growth, absolute world consumption of energy (and many other resources) has increased, especially in the more industrialized countries. This absolute growth often dominates environmental news and views. Rising carbon dioxide emissions are the main concerns associated with global climactic change. This and other environmental concerns associated with carbon makes energy free from carbon a highly desirable goal for the energy system. The fact that energy and most of the other factor inputs have decreased per unit of output over long periods of time provides a fresh basis on which to project the range of possible future resource use and emissions.”
–Nebojsa Nakicenovic

“…[the technology] chosen for diffusion is not necessarily the best. The selection of a particular technological alternative may not conform to the ex ante or ex post judgments about optimality. Sometimes selection of a particular alternative stems from an accumulation of small, even random events, eventually `locking in’ a particular configuration…. We suspect that the standard gauge of railroads or the disk operating systems in use now in personal computers are not the `best’ but simply prevailed at a certain time in history and therefore can be dislodged only with great difficulty.
“…The good news for the human environment from our analysis is that the majority of artifacts and practices can be replaced within a few decades. However, some key processes have demonstrably long durations…. The process of change is not gradual and linear but is instead characterized by long swings and discontinuities.
“…In essence we have two strategies in light of diffusion. One focuses on incremental changes, for example, environmental add-on or `end-of-pipe’ technologies. Such policies can bring quick changes but tend to reinforce the dominant trajectory, blocking more systemic and radical changes. A second strategy opts for more radical departures from existing technologies and practices. However, these strategies…although more effective in the long run, require much more time to implement because of the multiplicity of forward and backward linkages between technologies, infrastructures, and forms of organization for their production and use.”
–Arnulf Grubler

“For intense connections linking large cities with peak fluxes around ten thousand passengers per hour, a solution is emerging that matches system requirements: the magnetically levitated (maglev) train operating in a partially evacuated tube or tunnel…. When operated at constant acceleration…maglevs could link any pair of cities up to 2,000 kilometers apart in fewer than twenty minutes…. City pairs spaced less than 500 kilometers or ten minutes apart by maglevs, such as Bonn-Berlin, Milan-Rome, Tokyo-Osaka, and New York-Washington, would especially benefit.”
–Jesse H. Ausubel and Cesare Marchetti

“Traditionally, waste is whatever material is left, to be disposed of later. The emerging field of industrial ecology shifts our perspective away from the choosing of product designs and manufacturing processes independent of the problems of waste. In the newly developing view, the product and process designers try to incorporate the prevention of potential waste problems into the design process. Industrial ecology notes that in natural ecological systems organisms tend to evolve so that they can use any available source of useful materials or energy, dead or alive, as their food, and thus materials and energy tend to be recycled in a natural food web….
“…the idea of industrial ecology is that former waste materials, rather than being automatically sent for disposal, should be regarded as raw materials–useful sources of materials and energy for other industrial processes and products. Waste should be regarded more as a by-product than as waste. Indeed, as part of the design process for manufacturing and products, wastes might be designed to be useful by-products.
“These considerations suggest that, in general, producing concentrated wastes that could be useful as someone else’s raw material is likely to be more interesting…than producing diluted wastes. This finding reverses the wisdom with which sanitary engineers began the twentieth century, `The solution to pollution is dilution.'”
–Robert A. Frosch

“…the affinity between the two orders [the rules of nature and the rules of policy] becomes a challenge to contemporary politics…. nowadays it is a common experience that politics becomes very unpolitical when exclusively concerned with human affairs, if not only with those of the politicians; at the same time science and technology again and again prove to be the most relevant political activities in industrial society. For instance, no modern foreign minister has influenced international relations to the extent that Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Lise Meitner did with their discovery of nuclear fission, and no minister of economics or labor has ever been as effective in those fields as the applied physicists of Silicon Valley.”
–Klaus Michael Meyer-Abich

“Our survey suggests the following:
“With regard to primary materials, summary ratios of the weight of materials used to economic product appear to be decreasing due to materials substitution, efficiencies, and other economic factors. The tendency is to use more scientifically selected and often artificially structured materials….
“With regard to industry, encouraging examples of more efficient materials use exist in many sectors, functions, and products. Firms search for opportunities to economize on materials, just as they seek to economize on energy, labor, land, and other factors of production. However, the taste for complexity, which often meshes with higher performance, may intensify other environmental problems, even as the bulk issues lessen.
“As consumers, we profess one thing (that less is more) and often do another (buy, accrete, and expand). We see no significant signs of net dematerialization at the level of the consumer or saturation of individual material wants.
“With regard to wastes, recent, though spotty, data suggest that the onset of waste reduction and the rapidity with which some gains have been realized as well as the use of international comparisons indicate that very substantial further reductions can take place….
“A logical next step in research is to develop a self-consistent scenario for a significantly dematerialized economy and to explore the changes in technology and behavior needed to achieve it.”
–Iddo K. Wernick, Robert Herman, Shekhar Govind, and Jesse H. Ausubel

“The visible consequences of this mismatch in the dynamics of forced change and social restructuring have been highlighted by the various environmental movements. Environmentalists emphasized both today’s costs of growth and the dismal implications for the future. How habitable will Earth be? Can ecosystems endure the projected pressures? What will be the resultant quality of life for the world’s human population?
“The popular, gloomy response to these questions discounts the continuing positive contributions of science and technology, which have created a large share of today’s global resources and life-style options….
“….[The] apparently logical sequence depicting environmental threats routinely provides the preamble to the massive literature on public policy relating to the environment and its sustainability. The absence of credible, quantitative characterizations of Earth’s resources likely to be available for coming centuries, which may be compared with the range of future global demand, makes the arguments more compelling…. Fundamentally, these arguments provide the moral stiffening for much of the political activism aimed at persuading government to mandate actions to protect nature’s future. The demand for centralized decision-making to limit the role of markets in which individual self-interest might dominate often accompanies this view. Implicit is a distrust of lay judgment in the marketplace of economic, technical, and social options.
“…I do not anticipate that issues such as climate change, ozone depletion, and loss of biodiversity will cause life-threatening crises. We should study, anticipate, and respond to them, as we do with global diseases. I expect that a succeeding global generation, with its basic survival needs met and with superior knowledge and resources to implement technical options, will respond to such environmental issues by mitigation and adaptation–if its own priorities at that time motivate it to do so. I have little faith in the wisdom of governments to choose long-term strategies, particularly in light of the unforeseen stream of scientific and technical changes that usually make preventive interventions for such problems unsound and damaging.”
–Chauncey Starr