Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Role of Technological Progress in Promoting Sustainable Development

If the great powers continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation.

(Science 162, 13 December 1968, pp 1232-1248)


The term “Sustainable Development” (SD) was used for the first time by the Brundtland Comission, and it refers to kind of development, which will meet the needs of current generations in terms of human environment and natural resources, that will not compromise the needs of future generations. SD is conceptually divided into three basic parts: environmental, economic, and social/political sustanability. This paper is mainly focused on economic growth and its impact on global environment. Currently the humanity faces potential problems of running out of natural resources and shortage in food supply that will occur shortly. These global problems force us to think of solutions, and probably the worst fact about it is that the humanity doesn't even consider to cut the amount of resources used so aggressively, but focuses on technological progress, that might perhaps bring us to certain solutions in terms of alternative resources of energy and food.

So here we will start with discussion of the renewable and non-renewable resources on the earth, and the way they are used nowadays. Second, we will talk about the global food supply in scope of population exponential growth worldwide. Then, the current state of art will be taken into account, as well as the path of technological progress and the possible future outcomes.

Renewable and non-renewable resources on earth

Natural resources are the basic ground to maintain life on our planet (whether it is a life of a human, an animal, or any other creature). So the natural resources are classified as renewable and non-renewable. Natural resource stocks can be represented as agricultural land, forest land and its multiple products and services, natural land areas, fresh and salt water fisheries, mineral fuels and non-fuels, non-mineral energy sources of solar, tidal and wind, water resources, etc. As can be assumed from this sample list, some of these items are renewable, but does it actually mean the humanity has the luxury to waste those resources as much as it likes to? In fact the answer is no, and the reason is that the renewable resources have certain individual rates for reproduction, and when the rate of consumption is above the rate of reproduction, then the resource is naturally wasted without a hope of having more for future generations. Here comes the concept of sustainable yield, which can be estimated per microlevel or small-scale models of resource extraction in renewable and nonrenewable resources. The right amount of resource usage according to sustainable yields concept can be achieved when the depletion rate of a resource is less than the replacement rate.

However, in order to keep track of all the numbers of resources used and replaced in the world, global environmental policies should be applied. There has been an empirical research done in order to find the connections between air and water quality and human health and productivity, which made it possible to set appropriate environmental standards. With the accelerating increases in the consumption of all kinds of resources throughout the last centuries, industries in countries have been transforming into bigger and bigger forms, which resulted in desertification, soil erosion and the salinization of productive lands. Additionally, it was proven only recently that an industrial action in one country could have a curcial effect on the environment of another country, which might not nesseccarily be located in neighborhood. For instance, the building of the Aswam High Dam in Egypt has reduced the nutrients reaching the Mediterranean via the Nile delta and adversely affected fish stocks; the mysterious decline of the albatross population on Possession Island was directly linked to the fishing techniques of Japanese vessels operating hundreds of miles to the north; and the stimulation of the winter demand for cut flowers in Northern cities might have contributed to the numbers of landless poor in Kenya. Problems that appear radically different may in fact be directly linked.

The linkages and the knock-on effects may be harder to trace on larger scales. A newly-equipped industrial fishing fleet may have a wide range of impacts, including the impoverishment of “subsistence” fishermen and the malnutrition of their families in areas far from its home. The fleet itself may partly be a response to a rising demand for protein in countries with rapidly growing economies, where there has been an influx of capital that has been withdrawn from high-wage production on the other side of the world.

What does this all mean? - That having regulatory policies of resource consumption in different countries is not enough, the world needs something more. Till the 20th century the countries in the world were mostly developing independently, all the models of development were only on a national level. So, only after the start of globalization process it has become more realistic to have common rules and regulations for the consumption of natural resources of our planet.

It has been estimated that today the humanity is consuming about 40 percent of total terrestrial photosynthetic production. This is not about reducing only the resources we have, but also has a serious polluting effect. Energy generation, industrial processes, transport, high-input agriculture and domestic consumption continue to make bigger and bigger demands of the capacities of the earth and the atmosphere to absorb CO2, sulphur. NOX and methane emissions, CFCs, and a range of toxic chemicals including radioactive wastes threaten widespread endemic pollution. These impacts extend globally accompanied by increasing rates of deforestation, decline in fish stocks, loss of agricultural land, loss of soils, depletion of fresh water, loss of habitats, loss of species and loss of biodiversity. It was already estimated that around 100 species die every day. The World Bank estimated that the output generated by different industries in the world might increase by a factor of three by 2030, and if nothing changes till then in terms of the pattern of industrialization and consumption, tens of millions of people could get sick or die each year from industrial pollution.

So, what is the current pattern? Here is a good example: the United States, with per capita income lower than that in Japan, emits more than nineteen tons of carbon per person, approximately twice the level emitted in Japan. This is largely because the United States keeps the cost of energy low. Meaning, that the developed countries in the world encourage people to waste more natural resources, at the same time requiring developing countries to pollute less and be more environmentaly friendly.

However, to be more precise in this topic, better to talk about facts. A scientist has calculated, that the currently known reserves of natural resources are 100 times more than the humanity uses annualy, and if we continue the usage with the same rate, these resources will be exhausted in 36 years, and even if the reserves doubled thanks to some big discovery, the rate of use would increase and the reserves would survive 48 years only. The depletion of natural nonrenewable resources such as oil and gas had not only an effect of pollution and decrease of the earth's natural wealth, but also had a geopolitical effects on countries that owned the resources. Most of these countries are situated in the south, and suffer wars and extreme poverty, mostly because of exploit from the northern countries which are the main consumers of goods.

As can be concluded the issue of depletion of natural resources is related with two concerns: (1) public health and securit; (2) and sustainability.

Food supply and population growth

The problem with food supply in the world has arisen with the exponential growth of population. According to Thomas Robert Malthus the world had to inevitably face mass famine because of the unlimited population growth that would naturally be bigger than the growth of the capacity to produce food. Fortunately that did not come true. However, there is a real and serious problem with the amount of food produced in the world. With the growth of population per capita share of food will be steadily decreasing, resulting in malnutrition, increase of poverty in the world, as well as more aggressive political regimes. The forecasts for the future are not the one we would like to have for our generations: it is clear that we will greatly increase human misery if we do not immediately assume that the world resources available for humanity as sources for energy and food are finite. A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore population growth must eventually equal zero till it stabilizes.

In terms of biological fact any organism needs to have a source of energy (food) to live. This energy is utilized for two purposes: mere maintenance and work. For a simple maintenance of life a human-kind requires about 1600 kilocalories in a day. A greater number would be needed to work and do other activities such as sports, arts, study, etc. So, in order to have enough food for everyone we wil need to take the minimum number of kilocalories and divide the food in the world by this principle. However, in this case if a person doesn't do anything during his life, staying alive will not make any sense. So anyway, how to distribute the sources of energy so that everyone get enough... The appearance of atomic energy has led some scientists to assume it would be a solution. What we saw after the invention of atomic energy? We had the World War Two.

It is still accepted that currently the world produces enough food to feed the present population (despite an estimated on billion suffering from chronic malnutrition). With the pattern of food consumption there should be at least a doubling of production if the population of 2040 is to be adequately fed. Yet per capita food production has declined. At the same time, there is an assumption that by the year 2040 the gaps between North and South, rich and poor will be much bigger. The rich will continue wasting food even in a more aggressive manner, while there will be more poor dying of malnutrition.

These dramatic forecasts led Paul and Ann Ehrlich, co-authors of The Population Explosion, to assert that “Arresting global population growth should be second only in importance to avoiding nuclear war on humanity's agenda”. On the other hand, we have already an example of China's family planning program which is a terrible violation of human rights. Women get forced to make abortions, or get sterilized if they have already one child. Additionally, many couples decide to abort fetus if it is going to be female, since many couples want to have boy-babies. As a result, the number of young male adults in China is much more than the number of young female adults, which makes marriage crisis in that republic.

The pollution problem is another consequences of population. As population becomes denser, the natural chemical and biological recycling processes become overloaded, calling for a redefinition of property rights.

Poverty level also grows with the population density. For example, a poor farmer has a land of a certain size and has two sons. He would not be able to educate his sons, as he doesn't have enough money and he also needs his sons to help him grow food for the family. When his sons grow up, he will divide the land into two parts, and grant those parts his sons. So, as a result there would be two poor men with their own families, with even smaller pieces of land to feed the family (which also means even poorer), and so on, and so on.

This process is exponentially increasing the number of poor population in the world.

Technological progress

Technological progress in terms of global development can be viewed from different perspectives: first, it can be a tool helping to find new resources for life maintenance; second, it can have distructive effects on the planet. In both of the cases the scientists know that the pattern we have chosen has no long-term projection with the current state of art in its basics, however, they rely on possible future technological inventions that might change something. This is unfortunately their ideal plan that has no guarantee at all to come true. Besides the hopes that the technological progress provides, it also had negative effects such as Bhopal, Chenobyl, the Exxon Valdez disaster, the setting alright of the Kuwait oil wells during the Gulf War, the Siberian oil pipeline disaster, etc. Additionally, a group of scientists rely on such kind of technological improvements that will make us capable of moving to another planet when our planet is unrecoverably exhausted. However, this option is too unrealistic in terms of the time limits.

One of the most dangerous things in scope of investing in global R&D and waiting something back from it is that popular scientific journals are publicly calming humanity down by telling that almost every problem in the world has a technical solution (which is defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality). But does the technological progress create problems that later need technological solutions to fix? Apparently, yes. So, why then invest in R&D?

In the limits of technological progress the issues of sustainable development are concerned with:

  1. global pollution of atmosphere and oceans;

  2. concern about intergenerational flows of natural and manmade capital in a “full world” where natural capital is the limiting factor of production;

  3. industrialization and integration of finance, and marketing and advertising in the global marketplace.

In order to stay somehow more environmentally friendly, the technological progress should at least be regulated counting and satisfying criteria of the above mentioned points.

There are also some positive paths that scientists try to follow in technological improvements (though not always the best options). For example, they are trying to find new ways of getting energy that would be by depleting the nonrenewable resources. Scientists are also trying to create synthetic food that would be similar to natural food.

As for food, it is unrealistic to have anything similar to natural. We have the example of McDonalds in the U.S. that produces genetically modified food. We know that the population using McDonalds food is not only overweight but also has problems with health. So, genetically modified food is not a solution. As for the energy there are several methods suggested (such as solar-, wind- and hydro- energy), some of which are already being used in developed countries.

Solar energy is primarily the use of solar radiation for practical ends. There are several methods of how to capture, convert and distribute solar energy, such as photovoltaic panels, pumps, fans (to convert sunlight into useful outputs), selection of materials that have favorable thermal properties, design of spaces that naturally circulate air, and reference of the position of a building to the sun. However, the heat that the sun gives to humanity has also some negative effects (namely UHI) especially in emtropolitan areas. UHI is abbreviated as Urban Heat Islands, and the average temperature is much higher in those areas than that of the surroundings. These higher temperatures are a result of increased absorption of the Solar light by urban materials such as asphalt and concrete that have higher heat capacities.

Currently there are many spheres and industries that use sunlight to optimize the alternative use of other resources:

  • urban planning;

  • agriculture;

  • water heating;

  • heating, cooling and ventilation;

  • cooking;

  • electricity;

  • solar vehicles.

Humanity also gets energy out of wind. There are a few types of wind-powered electrical generators. The device used to convert kinetic energy from wind into mechanical is called wind turbine. Often this energy is later converted to electricity. Wind turbines are very useful in terms of the basic resources they need to create electricity, however, they also require large space of land to be installed. Thus, except of giving energy, they also pick out portion of land that could be used for food production.

Another way to get energy almost without wasting the natural resources of the earth is per hydro-energy. Here the electricity, or better to say hydroelectricity, is generated by hydropower, wich is the production of electrical power through the use of the gravitational force of falling or flowing water. Currently 20 percent of energy in the world is produced by hydropower.


As discussed in the paper, the humanity is desperately searching for paths to skip the crisis that

will inevitably arise in the near future. At the same time people in the world do not want to make compromises, and they continue wasting more and more natural resources. Perhaps this is because a human being believes that he is the master of the planet, and is sure that human mind can solve any problem, and thus can provide more energy and more food with the help of technological progress. Unfortunately, this is not true at all. The arrogance of humanity is infinite, and it leads us to a collapse, since the natural resources , on the other hand are finite.

If the governments and scientists were more attentive to the development pattern during the latest centuries, they might have noticed that although the material prosperity has been constantly rising and people have been becoming wealthier, the quality of life on the earth has been actually steadily declining. We should also consider, that although the scientists try to find alternative ways of survival (i.e. the alternative sources of energy), a portion of people in the world, that is in addition the richest part, will be fighting against implementing of those technologies in industries, because this portion of people is getting its' wealth by depleting natural resources (namely oil, gas, coal, etc.) which in turn leads to wars and aggressive actions.

the various global crises... are not separate crises: an environmental crisis, a development crisis, an energy crisis. They are all one.”

Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987, p4)


Earth System: History and Natural Variability

S. B. Suslick, I. F. Machado, 2002

Sustainable Exploitation of Renewable Resources

R. Hilborn, C. J. Walters and D. Ludwig, 1995

Sustainable Development: An Introductory Guide

D. Reid, 1995

The International History Review

Carley, M. Jabara, 1994


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