Values, technology and tomorrow

Allen, W.J.

[Source ..... Proceedings of Seminar: "Changing Direction - A New Social & Political Agenda for the 21st Century", Victoria University, Wellington, 19 February 1993. Pacific Institute of Resource Managment: Wellington ISBN No. 0-908880-02-3]

With growing frequency we find ourselves using the term crisis to describe our times. We have an environmental crisis. We have a population crisis. Economically, the vast majority of nations are struggling with crises of unemployment, debt and low rates of growth. A myriad of social crises such as drugs, crime, violence and even family life and community are increasingly challenging the very processes by which we form and maintain the institutions of society.

One of the most important turning points in human history has been reached and, though we are only beginning to grasp the implications of this, we can say with some certainty that both our future fulfilment as individuals and our future well-being as a species will depend intimately on our coming to terms with our crises in new ways. For the new kinds of problems we must deal with in today's "full world", our old attitudes and approaches not only will not work, they threaten to be our undoing. Achieving a sustainable future asks new things of us - at the very least a new perspective of the world, and frequently whole new ways of thinking about and planning for tomorrow.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we can no longer sit back and regard the future as a natural object, a fact already there or objectively determined by present trends (Hooker, 1991). Whether we appreciate it or not, the society and environment we create through our chosen set of technological judgements in facts - in the concrete designs and social infrastructures of our world. Even the pretense not to act is in effect to choose that future which is an extrapolation of the present process - the status quo. And if that is not an appealing choice our new paths must be consciously chosen, perhaps even invented.


Over the past three centuries, the accelerating power of science and technology has radically transformed the face of our planet, for good and for bad. Artificial fertilizers ensure high-yielding crops. Polio and other diseases have been defeated. We have transcended the bonds of gravity and the limited vision of the past to venture into outer space. Ever-more advanced technology gives impetus to the mistaken assumption that there is essentially no limit to humanity's power over nature. And so it is traditional in western society to look back over human history as a steady, but inevitable, march of social improvement. As The Ecologist (1991) describes it, the line from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist and city-dweller and now to space-age technologist is frequently portrayed as a logical sequence of events which could not have been otherwise.

But technological "progress" has also brought with it unforeseen consequences. Results which no-one intended and changes so rapid we are finding it hard to adjust to them. Like the sorcerer's apprentice - who learned the magic words to make his broom carry water, but forgot the formula to make it stop - we seen to have set in motion forces which we cannot direct. We seem to have little option but to ask "where is technology taking us?", not "where are we taking technology?".

Even while we hail the vast scale and rapid growth of the $20-trillion global economy as great achievements of our time (Brown et al, 1991) we are becoming painfully aware that our economic activity is beginning to exceed the limits that our ecosystem can sustain. The combined effects of an affluent wasteful, resource-consuming minority and, to a lesser extent, a poor majority struggling to stay alive are rapidly closing the gap between resource consumption and the planet's productive capacity. Rapidly changing technological practices are not only compromising the planet's basic biological systems, but increasingly threatening our social life and cultural values.

Our agricultural and industrial practices are now capable of making holes in the ozone layer and changing the global climate. Garbage is piling up faster than we can find ways of disposing of it. In filling our ecological niche so successfully we have made the planet collectively ours, and now we must begin to accept responsibility for things that were once accomplished for us by nature. Water and air must be made pure. And whereas we once built walls to protect our cities, we must now fence the wilderness to keep people out. The confrontation with global ecological limits is a current - not a future event.

Confronted by growing evidence as to the adverse environmental and social impacts of existing policies, mainstream policy-makers and planners have belatedly recognised the need for change. Kay international reports such as those of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (WCED, 1987),and the World Bank's Consultative Group on Production: Implications for International Agricultural Research (FAO, 1988) have given "sustainability" the status of an officially recognised concept.

Unfortunately, while there is general agreement that sustainability calls for change towards a new order of things, there is far less agreement on exactly what new order of things will be sustainable. Nonetheless, there are certain key questions that we must begin to ask, if we're seriously interested in passing on a viable future to our children.

Who controls the introduction of technology in our democratic society? Who benefits from technology? And what sort of world do we want to design with our technology?

Curiously, as Dahlberg (1989) points out, the deep historic faith that general advances in technology lead to "progress" is combined with a strong cultural belief that individual technologies are "neutral". Together, these two beliefs have taken on mythic dimensions, so the above questions are rarely asked. Yet, by default, these questions continually go unrecognised by society.

For example, just a few months ago the Commerce Commission approved the merger of Taranaki's last two dairy co-operatives. A merger that is likely to leave the province with one factory where once there were more than a hundred. For the few thousand residents of Inglewood the expected factory closure, with the loss of about 300 jobs, would be the most devastating blow in a recent series that has seen a clothing and toy plant close (The Dominion, 1992). It's a painful experience that has become all too common in rural communities throughout New Zealand.

What is often forgotten is the secondary costs paid by the affected communities. In Inglewood's case it goes far beyond the immediate impacts of unemployment on the factory workers and their families. The school loses children, teachers and parents from boards of trustees. The town loses its volunteer firemen, its playcentre and Plunket workers - all those human inputs that together make a viable community. And this is just one specific example where society can legitimately ask, "is this the sort of technological progress that we want?". Because it is technological progress that has made Taranaki's remaining dairy factory the world's largest, and it is technological progress that is transforming the lives of these individuals and communities - and not necessarily in a desirable way.

Still the bottom line remains the bottom line - or does it? As the Dominion (1992) article comments, "If the merger makes the most sense in terms of efficiency and profitability, farmers could hardly be expected to (vote) otherwise, whatever the cost to Inglewood....". However, I would like to suggest that we hear too much about efficiency today without taking the question a stage further and asking: Efficiency for whom? Whose interests are we seeking to sustain? And to the detriment of whom?

With a little more reflection, many of our recent so-called efficiencies - in whatever sector - appear far less efficient than we have been led to believe. Farmers, businesses and corporations have merely transferred enormous costs to society as a whole: Social costs of unemployment, decimated communities, family breakups, violence and crime; environmental costs such as pollution and soil erosion. When these are seen as costs of production, many so-called "efficient systems" turn out quite the opposite.


And the story played out in Taranaki has been repeated worldwide. There is little doubt that measured against narrow productive and economic criteria, industrialized agriculture is a story of unparalleled success. But if we begin to assess technical progress in terms of different values the picture changes. Modern industrial agriculture has also:

  • Displaced millions of farmers and farm-workers from the rural sector either through displacing their labour by machinery or forcing them from the land through the "production treadmill".
  • Decimated tens of thousands of rural communities as farm numbers dwindle and processing plants are amalgamated.
  • Caused massive soil erosion and pollution through mechanisation, the use of agrochemicals and the drive to maximise productivity at all costs.
  • Replaced natural, healthy diets with junk food as the agricultural processing industry has expanded its influence.
  • And helped in the ruination of many Third-World economies through the dumping of food surpluses and resource substitution.
  • Meanwhile, the very basis of agriculture is being undermined by the expansion of the wider industrial economy. On a local scale, farmers have been increasingly displaced from productive land by roading and urban expansion. And, on a wider scale, acid rain and climate change threaten the very future of sustainable agriculture. "Taken separately, those adverse impacts of industrial agriculture might be held to be unfortunate side-effects of an otherwise successful system, taken together, they paint a picture of a system that is destructive, socially unjust and unsustainable" (The Ecologist, 1991). But more importantly, when we look at our agricultural system (or indeed any other system) like this we begin to see a deeper underlying crisis - a crisis of values.

    To return to our earlier example; the steady industrialisation of our Taranaki dairy industry has ramifications for the wider New Zealand society. It impacts on our demographic patterns and lifestyles; on the environment; on economic performance; and even our foreign policy. In allowing, or even encouraging, these design changes to occur we have (unconsciously perhaps) been publicly affirming our narrow valuation of the dairy industry. And in the process, as Hooker (1991) points out, we have been declaring the priority of agricultural price competitiveness, over the costs of social dislocation. We have been devaluing the possible risks posed by ecological degradation to our descendants, against current benefits to ourselves. We have been affirming the greater value of New Zealand's engagement with the world economy, over a policy of autonomous self-containment, and so on.

    It's clear that these are all fundamental value judgements because they play a fundamental role in shaping the design of our New Zealand society and landscape. If that is really what we want from our agricultural system, well and good. However, unless our agriculture is consciously approached in this larger system context our society and landscape will continue to be shaped by rather narrower productivity and economic criteria. So we see that values are the driving force behind society - but the understanding of our values must be based less on what we say and believe about our society, than on what sort of society we actually live in.

    To take another example: I've never heard anyone who advocates pollution. We all say we are against it. Yet imagine if someone from another planet were to see our depleted and poisoned water supplies, our growing mountains of wastes, or our crowded motorways - would they believe us? And as specific measures to remedy these problems are either undercut by "legitimate" interest groups, or demand the kinds of regional co-operation for which our current political systems cannot easily provide, the crisis continues to deepen. Thus we deserve our increasing pollution because, according to our structure of values, so many other things have priority over the sanctity of human health and respect for the natural environment that sustains us.

    As Lynn White (1973) points out, this gap between our words and our actions is not hypocrisy. "It's something more dangerous: self-deception". We won't begin to cope with our ecological and social crises until we learn to understand and articulate more clearly what our real values are.


    However, if we are to properly understand the nature and challenge of technological decision-making and its ramifications for our future, it is useful to look back and gain an appreciation of our current value system in its historical context.

    Traditional human cultures resist change and (for the most part) had a fair idea of what tomorrow would bring - more of the same. Our western European culture promotes change and, consequently we have no idea of what the world will be like when our children grow up. For most of history our ancestors lived sustainably in small cohesive communities - because their survival depended upon it. They developed cultures which reinforced practices that worked. Their technology was deeply embedded in social relations and rationalised through its mythology. These traditional societies resisted change and were quite properly, focussed around maintaining stability. Indeed, sustainability was the original economy of our species. Our early ancestors were absolutely connected to the animals and plants on which they subsisted. They were part of the landscape, not set apart as masters - inderdependence rather than individuality was the rule. But around three of four hundred years ago we changed the rules. The rise of modern western society is marked by a number of transitions in thought and organisation that completely redirected our social, political and economic destiny. Each of these transitions concerns a shift from a communal conception of society to an individualistic ethic - from a fixed vision of the world to an open, more non-committal one.

    Our world today - with all its associated environmental problems - is essentially that created by a society that has wholeheartedly adopted Newtonian science. The "founding father of modern science" replaced the traditional notion of an organic, living, spiritual universe with that of the world as part of a cosmic machine governed by exact mathematical laws. This drastic change in the image of nature from "living being" to "machine" had a strong effect on people's attitudes towards nature, particularly as it built on already established Judeo-Christian beliefs regarding man's separation from the dominance over nature. The organic world view of traditional societies had implied a system conducive (in theory at least) to ecological behaviour. Unfortunately, these cultural constraints disappeared as the mechanisation of science took place (Capra, 1982). This new view of the universe as a mechanical system provided both the "scientific" knowledge and sanction of the exploitation of nature and acceptance of change that has become typical of our contemporary culture.

    It's significant, therefore, that the development of individualism, free markets and representative democracy can all be traced back to the development of the universe as machine. Buried within the new scientific framework was the implication that not only the cosmos and nature - but also society and people - behaved according to certain fixed and predictable laws. Just as the atoms of a gas would eventually settle into a balanced state, so John Locke and other leading philosophers of the Enlightenment believed that human individuals would settle down in society in a 'state of nature' (Capra, 1982). Thus the function of a government was not to impose old laws on the people - but rather to discover and enforce the natural laws that existed before any government was formed.

    So it's not surprising that the shift to representative democracy shares no constraining goals and ideals similar to those of a traditional society. The ideals of democracy (equality before the law, freedom of speech, universal education, etc.) are all aimed at freeing us to pursue the conduct of our individual lives. They are not in themselves committed to any particular conception of the future society that will emerge. Similarly the market economy advocated no particular set of values - no particular set of societal goals to constrain the opportunistic exploitation of change. Indeed, the market is arguably nothing more than an exchange network through which goods and services are routed to their appropriate destinations. From the market point of view the future remains completely open. This is again in striking contrast to traditional societies with very powerful conceptions of what is acceptable socially and culturally.

    And so we have inherited a society which has no mechanism to express, or even debate, its values. We live in a society with no vision of its destiny. Nonetheless, the future remains in our hands, if we choose to grasp it. As we have seen the society and environment we create through our technological and economic "rules" are the realisation of our value judgements in facts - in the concrete designs and social infrastructures of our world. Public values are realised in the designs of public systems, just as private values are realised in the designs of individual lives.

    And as Hooker (1991) says, a little reflection reveals we are intimately immersed in our chosen public designs representing the possible, and the preferable. "We are surrounded by our technologies and the environmental designs which they create (roads, cities, aeroplanes, etc.). Our agriculture is dominated by plant and animal species that are already largely human designs - and will become increasingly so in the future with genetic engineering."


    Indeed, biotechnology promises to change society perhaps even more profoundly than anything we have yet experienced. Genetic engineering represents the ultimate technology. It extends our reach over the forces of nature as no other technology in history. So biotechnology immediately raises the issue of who should control science - perhaps even life itself - and forces us to see that we all have a stake in the outcome.

    For with our newfound ability to manipulate the very blueprint of living organisms, we assume a new role in the natural scheme of things. For the first time in history, humanity has the power to become the architect of life itself - the creator and designer. "As we begin to reprogram the genetic codes of living things to suit our own cultural and economic needs - we are taking on the task of creating a second genesis" (Rifkin and Kimbrell, 1990).

    And here we see reflected in the biotechnology industry both the non-neutrality and the power of those who control science and technology in our modern culture. Increasingly dominated by a handful of transnational companies, modern biotechnology is almost completely in the hands of private industry, outside any form of democratic decision-making process. Not surprisingly, current trends in research and development are primarily oriented towards short-term commercial interests. As a growing number of researchers are observing (Dahlberg, 1989); Cooper, 1990) there is scant attention being paid to the likely effects on biodiversity, food security, rural communities or even the world agricultural system as a whole.

    Biotechnology is being used for crop substitution and for delivering inputs for capital-intensive farming systems. Sugar substitutes have already cost certain southern countries, like the Philippines, in foreign exchange and increased unemployment (Allen, 1992). And in other sectors, as production increases, commodity prices will drop - affecting agriculture-dependent economies even further. Current trends in biotechnology research threaten to increase our dependence on monocultures and tie the world's farmers even more closely to the transnational seed and agrochemical corporations. Large-scale cloning further threatens the diversity of species and individuals within species - and ironically, the potential for the continued development of biotechnology itself (Allen, 1992).

    A timely illustration is the recent research and development of bovine Growth Hormone (bGH). When this naturally-occurring hormone, cloned through genetic engineering, is injected into cattle on a daily basis it can provide increased milk yields of between 10 and 40 percent (Kline, 1990). If bovine Growth Hormone is introduced into the dairy industry milk prices will almost certainly drop as production increases - and the Taranaki rural workforce will dwindle further. If we accept that farm life is of value and that the world is awash with dairy products, the introduction of bGH would appear likely to displace valued activity for little reason.

    It's just one more case where technological genius does not appear to be aimed at the general or common good. And, what is more disturbing - we see that there does not appear to be anything intrinsic in either the market or technology itself that will (perhaps invisibly) guard our welfare, or our communities. However, once we realise that every technological change is simultaneously and necessarily a social change, we see too that in a democratic society - which we profess to value - decisions about what research should be done are too important to be controlled by a small elite. Especially if they have little legal, political, social or ethical responsibility for the consequences of their actions.


    If our children are to have a viable future it's up to us to start asking the broader questions: "Should we do it? Do we want to do it? And what will happen if we do?"

    Consider the new biotechnologies. They permit the opening of far more scientific pathways than there are scientists to study. Shall we look for sources of herbicide tolerance, or should we be looking for new plants that shade out weeds? In the past we have looked to replace agricultural labour with capital. Technology might just as well make agriculture more efficient by replacing capital and purchased inputs with the labour and management of more family farmers. Clearly, the particular paths pursued by researchers will have important implications for the kind of society our children will grow up in.

    Science has avoided publicly debating these issues, at least in part, because of a quite rational fear of political interference. But this fear is in part the product of our individualistic concept of freedom. It's worth remembering that from an ecological perspective, there can be no freedom in the long run without recognition of interdependence. One person's freedom to burn their wastes can violate society's freedom to breathe healthy air. And when the community faces common dangers, government inaction may be a greater threat than intelligent regulatory action. But to have such action there needs to be wide debate and discussion. And yes, including the wider society in these discussions is more chaotic than dictatorial decisions laid down by either self-serving market forces or an authoritarian state. But this is the only alternative.

    "The authoritarian system is quickly choked by constricted information flows and constrained in intelligence by its lack of feedback and the few at the top. The free market is constrained by its imperfections and its lack of foresight. In practice we have tended to combine the worst features of both designs in our public institutions (suffering monolithic bureaucracies) each concerned only for its own policy field - working towards the most economically efficient technology for that field. Both designs are constrained by their inability to represent within their workings the reality of our dynamic, interconnected world" (Hooker, 1991).

    Just as ecological systems remain healthy by using constant feedback (information on air temperature, stressful situations etc.) so our public policy processes will be successful inasmuch as they are structured to take advantage of feedback. Feedback; from our newly discovered environment; from other countries; and from new conditions of change (such as the increase in human numbers to an unprecedented five billion, or the growing hole in the ozone layer).

    And our public policy processes need to be institutionalised so as to reinforce the capacity for participative democracy. If we're serious about designing a better world for our children we need to expand our approach to planning - to create our future. And how successfully we do this will depend largely on the extent to which our societies can structure themselves to utilise feedback and, where appropriate - to change the rules.

    What is becoming increasingly obvious is that prices and votes do not in themselves provide the democratic feedback necessary to ensure the survival of our modern, complex society. We need new mechanisms and new approaches to planning to ensure that technical change is aligned with values we have defined as being important. Equally, technical decisions are too important to be made without making a fully conscious choice about what kind of world we want to live in. It's no longer enough for those controlling science and technology to ask "Can we do it?" - measuring progress in terms of narrow productivity and economic criteria - while the rest of us live with whatever consequences emerge. Society and their planners must begin to place more emphasis on asking "Should we do it?"

    Of course, it's possible that in the future we as members of society will have to choose between either a path of development driven by technology with a minimal social process - or a rich, social process of decision-making, and a correspondingly modest technology. As Busch (1991) points out, most developed nations have already concluded that drugs and agri-chemicals should be reviewed and tested for safety and health before they are marketed. We do that because we value those ends more than the instrumental end of progress. This slows down the progress of technical change, but it also ensures (with all too imperfect human errors) that these new technologies serve the public good. The old adage, "that haste makes waste",could well be applied to new technologies.

    Some will argue that such checks on technology will slow economic growth and is tantamount to stopping progress. But as we have seen such an argument conceals the question "Progress for whom?" Surely not for the thousands of farmers displaced around the world by new technologies, or the millions of indigenous people who have died in the face of western industrial expansion.

    What is needed is a reorientation of values - a shift from a "profit-oriented" to a "people-oriented" and "life-oriented" culture. This will require us to articulate an imaginative vision of the future - our sense of responsibility to children yet unborn.

    This is not to neglect the importance of individual action. After all our private lives reflect our private values. We can use biodegradable products and take public transportation or walk wherever possible. We can all cut down on excessive consumption and shop for green products. We can promote small discussion groups in the context of work, neighbourhood, church or community. There is no substitute for personal responsibility in our own actions.

    But above all, as members of society, we can participate in democratic public processes. For I have argued that our public designs reflect our public values. And if the values of our technological systems conflict with our democratic visions - then it's time to change the rules.

    And that is one of the fundamental questions facing us today - to ensure that technology is redirected to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor, the inequalities between North and South, and the growing imbalances in our ecological systems. We have the technical ability and organisational skills to realise our dreams - once we take seriously our ideals of justice and equality.


    Allen, W. (1990) "Biotechnology: for people or profit?" in ECOFORUM 14: 6, Environment Liaison Centre International, Nairobi

    Brown et al (1991) State of the World 1991 New York, W Norton & Company

    Busch, L. (1991) "Tending the garden: making nature together responsibly" presented at the Hawkesbury Centennial Conference on "Agriculture, Environment and Human Values", University of Western Sydney, Richmond, NSW, Australia

    Capra, Fritjof (1982) The turning point; science, society and the rising culture. (8th ed) William Collins, Glasgow (1990)

    Cooper, D. (1990) "Patenting life forms: implications for developing countries" in ECOFORUM 14: 6, Environment Liaison Centre International, Nairobi

    Dahlberg (1989) "The ethical content of agricultural technologies and their effect on rural regions and farmers" presented at the conference, Ethical Choice in an Age of Pervasive Technology", University of Guelph

    Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) 1988 Sustainable Agricultural Production: Implications for International Agricultural Research FAO, TAC Secretariat, Rome

    Kline, D.A. (1990) "Agricultural Bioethics and the Control of Science" in Agricultural Bioethics Iowa State University Press, Ames

    Hooker, C.A. (1991) "Value and system: notes towards the definition of agri-culture " presented at the Hawkesbury Centennial Conference on "Agriculture, Environment and Human Values", University of Western Sydney, Richmond, NSW, Australia

    Rifkin, J. & Kimbrell, A. (1992) "Creating a second genesis?" In ECOFORUM 14: 6, Environment Liaison Centre International, Nairobi

    The Dominion (1992) "Making the biggest block of cheese" Saturday, April 4

    The Ecologist (1991) pers. comm.

    White, L. Jr. (1973) "Continuing the conversation" in Western Man and Environmental Ethics Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Philippines

    World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) 1987 Our Common Future Oxford University Press, New York

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