Can technology solve the environmental crisis?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Dec 2 07:43:13 MST 2002

Monthly Review, Dec. 2000

Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis—
Is Technology the Answer?
by John Bellamy Foster

(This article was written for presentation at the Hitotsubashi
Symposium, “The Twentieth Century: Dreams and Realities,” Hitotsubashi
University, Tokyo, December 2-3, 2000.)

The standard solution offered to the environmental problem in advanced
capitalist economies is to shift technology in a more benign direction:
more energy-efficient production, cars that get better mileage,
replacement of fossil fuels with solar power, and recycling of
resources. Other environmental reforms, such as reductions in population
growth and even cuts in consumption, are often advocated as well. The
magic bullet of technology, however, is by far the favorite, seeming to
hold out the possibility of environmental improvement with the least
effect on the smooth working of the capitalist machine. The 1997
International Kyoto Protocol on global warming, designed to limit the
greenhouse-gas emissions of nations, has only reinforced this attitude,
encouraging many environmental advocates in the United States (including
Al Gore in his presidential campaign) to advocate technological
improvement in energy efficiency as the main escape from the
environmental mess.

There are two ways in which technological change can lower environmental
impact. First, it can reduce the materials and energy used per unit of
output and, second, it can substitute less harmful technology. Much of
the improvement in air quality since the nineteenth century, including
its aesthetics, resulted from the reduction in the smoke and sulfur
dioxide emissions for which coal-burning is notorious. Solar energy, in
contrast to other present and prospective sources of energy, is not only
available in inexhaustible supply (though limited at any given time and
place), but is also ecologically benign. Environmentalists in general
therefore prefer a shift to solar energy. Such considerations have
encouraged the view that all stops should be pulled out on promoting
technologies that increase efficiency, particularly of energy, and use
more benign productive processes that get rid of the worst pollutants.

I want to concentrate here on the energy efficiency part of this. The
issue of the materials used and the production technology are much more
intractable problems under the current regime of accumulation. One of
the reasons for this is that current productive processes often involve
toxins of the worst imaginable kind. For example, we know that the
proliferation of synthetic chemicals, many of which are extraordinarily
harmful—carcinogenic and teratogenic—is associated with the growth of
the petrochemical industry and agribusiness, producing products such as
plastics and pesticides. (This was the central message of Barry
Commoner’s Closing Circle.) Yet attempts to overcome this dependence on
toxic production create a degree of resistance from the vested interests
of the capitalist order that only a revolutionary movement could
surmount. In contrast, straightforward improvements in energy efficiency
have always been emphasized by capital itself, and fall theoretically
within the domain of what the system is said to be able to
accomplish—even what it prides itself in.

In the past, it was common for environmentalists to compare the problems
of the “three worlds” using the well-known environmental impact or “PAT”
formula (Population x Affluence x Technology=Environmental Impact). The
third world’s environmental problems, according to this dominant
perspective, could be seen as arising first and foremost from population
growth rather than technology or affluence (given the low level of
industrialization). The environmental problems of the Soviet bloc were
attributed to its inferior technology, which was less efficient in terms
of materials and energy consumed per unit of out-put, and more toxic in
its immediate, localized environmental effects, than in the West. The
West’s chief environmental problem, in contrast, was attributed neither
to its population growth nor its technology (areas in which it had
comparative environmental advantages), but to its affluence and the
growing burden that this imposed on the environment. The ace in the hole
for the wealthy capitalist countries was always seen to be their
technological prowess—which would allow them to promote environmental
improvements while also expanding their affluence (that is, growth of
capital and consumption).

What likelihood then is there that new or newly applied technology will
be able to prevent environmental degradation from expanding along with
the economy?



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