Technological assessment is needed

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In late October, a two-day teach-in was held in New York that brought together leading critics of corporately controlled technologies and advocates of appropriate technologies. Some presenters focused on the damaging effects of continuous, unexamined implementation of new technologies on the public, society and the environment. Others urged a focus on local self-reliance and community based solutions.

The theme for the event was “Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth.” The chief organizer was Jerry Mander, who heads the International Forum on Globalization. In 1996, he joined with Edward Goldsmith to assemble essays for the book The Case Against the Global Economy. Reading the book today would reveal whether the predictions in it have proven prophetic. A full audio of the presentations at this event is available on the International Forum on Globalization.

A recurring theme is that technological fixes to existing problems create new problems in need of solutions. Of particular interest was Clive Hamilton’s “Playing God with Climate,” which addresses climate change and potential geo-engineering solutions. He points out that former climate change denying organizations are now advocating geo-engineering solutions to a problem they had once described as nonexistent.

Mander describes current environmental deterioration as the most momentous moment in history, since he sees technology as destroying the world and calls on us to reconsider our attitudes toward it and our acquiescence to it. While acknowledging the benefits of technology and the difficulty of living without it, he urges citizens to hold a skeptical attitude toward it.

Although the event was criticized as biased, Mander indicates that advocates of technology release a massive amount of information regarding its values and fail to inform us of its potential adverse impacts. He stresses the need to go beyond assessing individual technologies to assessing the totality of technological impacts before it is too late to save the planet.

As a former advertising executive, he believes that too little attention is given to the role of advertising at events focused on environmental, renewable energy and sustainability issues. He labels the combination of computers and television as the world’s greatest advertising delivery systems, both of which celebrate the world view of consumption. We live in a technological consumer society focused on production, nonstop economic growth, planned obsolescence and continuous technological evolution leading to “Utopia.”

As we listened to the presentation, we thought about the existence of the former U.S. Office of Technological Assessment, which had been established to think critically about the implications of creating, adopting and using technologies. The assessments were intended to provide decision-makers with extensive analyses upon which to base rational decisions related to adopting technological innovations.

During its existence from 1972 to 1995, it conducted more than 700 studies, including those on acid rain, health care and global climate change. Critics of defunding the agency saw it as an example of politics overriding science and cutting off Congress from unbiased information about science and technology.

While the U.S. office was closed, several European countries have continued the process. A new direction has evolved within the United States: there have been calls to create a citizen network for technological assessment.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Dec. 17-23, 2014, issue

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