Guidelines for Sustainable Technology

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Technology: Neither Savior nor Villain but Choice

By Madronna Holden

Since Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, declared that humans should do things because they can do them, our technology has taken on a double life as hero and villain. On the one hand technology is the hero in the story of progress, in which it assumes the power to shelter us, feed us, and extend our lifespan.  In this heroic guise, technology conquers nature and harnesses it to human ends.

However,  to conquer nature we must not only conquer our natural selves but override the natural order.  Technology conceived under this worldview has led to climate instability, the destruction of vast quantities of ocean life, toxic releases into our environment and accompanying cancer epidemics, persistent loss of soil fertility in industrial farming, and loss of the biodiversity that underlies the resilience of natural systems.

In the face of such crises, some resort to denial—denying that human actions contribute to climate change, for instance. Media financed by corporations dependent on current technologies have a hand in this:  whereas a recent review of peer-reviewed papers in science journals found 97 per cent of them took climate change as a given and focused on tactics to deal with it, over forty per cent of media stories in the same period focused on climate change “skepticism”–giving the impression of doubt in the scientific community that does not exist.

Such publicity also supports the idea that we can fix our problems with more of the same:  fantastic technologies to set mirrors in space to control the sunlight falling to earth, for instance.  It presents technology as eventually winning out if we just keep at it.  By this reasoning, it is okay to amass nuclear waste on faith that some generation in the future will figure out what to do with it.

In the context of overwhelming environmental crises, by contrast, many see technology as a villain.  They would return to a time “before technology”.

But technology itself is nothing more or less than a tool.  In fact, we became human through the technology of culture: by passing down our knowledge and experience between generations.  There is no human society without technology to return to.

And importantly, conceived as either hero or villain, technology is both larger than life—and impervious to choice.

Sustainable Technology Guidelines

In his historical analysis of modern technology, Ulrich Beck  argues that when we create technology without designing standards for it. the very technology that was meant to free us becomes a kind of fate– spiraling out of control. 

We must remedy this by choosing the kinds of  technology we will accept in order to fulfill the UN’s classic definition of sustainability: that the current generation of humans meet its needs without compromising the ability of succeeding generations to meet theirs.  As Amy Kocourek indicates in her comment here, this brings up the important issue of our definition of need.  Sustainable technology can never meet the needs of ourselves and of future generations if it seen as simply a new way to maintain the consumerist society we currently have.

Here are my suggestions for the criteria on which we might base that choice.

  • Sustainable technology must put us in touch with the results of our actions

Using a tool in the dark is dangerous for both ourselves and our world. Too often, technology (the food processing industry, modern sewage systems) disguises our relationship to the natural lives upon which we rely– and the results of our actions on these.

The contrast between the technology that distances us from the results of our actions and technology which brings us closer to them is illustrated by the difference between the “readiness to harm”  flowing from the invisibility of nuclear hazards outlined by  Arjun Makhijani,  and Siletz Takelma elder Grandma Aggie’s technology of story, which brings us face to face with the effects of our actions on other species and other nations.  In the one case, dangerous technologies spring up in the breach between our action and our perception: in the other, technology fosters the careful observation and compassionate care that led to sustainable indigenous practices persisting for thousands of years.

Though it is unlikely that each of us would be able to become experts in the range of technologies used by our current society, this rule implies public transparency of an industry’s processes.  There is a reason why Polyface Farm, with its emphasis on sustainability with its careful modeling on natural system, places transparency as its first principle, and by contrast, the commercial US meat-packing industry fought not merely  to keep visitors out of its premises, but to keep pictures of its processes private.

Knowing what goes on in the technology that produces our food or energy tends to lead to more responsible– and healthful– choices. This rule is related to the public’s right to know, following current  right to know initiatives like that in Eugene, Oregon, which requires business reporting of toxic releases.  Over time, such data allows for the analysis of environmental effects of particular chemicals.  It also motivates businesses to become leaders in developing and using processes that they are proud to showcase:  as in the case of Forrest Paint in Eugene, which has become a national leader in recapture of chemicals in paint manufacturing and re-constitution and re-use of leftover paint products.

(Thanks to my student Neyssa Hays whose comment below reminded me to draw out this guideline in further detail).

In using resources from natural systems, we must follow nature’s debit system.

Human technology is capable of increasing the long term abundance and fertility of natural systems by returning to them more than it takes, as illustrated by the indigenous botanical practices in the Pacific Northwest—or the restoration and recovery of lands in Bangladesh and Mexico though indigenous agricultural methods.

In contrast, industrial agriculture is highly unsustainable in its failure to pay its natural debts.  Soil scientist Fred Magdoff details the negative feedback loop in which such agriculture compensates for the declining soil fertility it creates though injections of energy (chemical pesticides and fertilizers) from without.

There are many ways to be clever about this:  as in the recent idea for chemical-free pest management in rice fields that both raises soil fertility and cuts waste.

  • Sustainable technology must honor the limits of natural systems

Growth is an aspect of the natural world that expresses its fecundity.   But natural communities grow through transformation, exchange and creation of diversity—not by the accumulation of material goods in a way that toxifies, removes, or ties up the stuff of life away from its natural community.

We must grow within the context of natural systems: following the model of “natural capitalism”, for instance, we would conserve material resources and grow human ones such as knowledge and craft. The former are limited; the latter are not.

In honoring natural limits, sustainable technology must use renewable energy sources (this addition courtesy of Amanda Wilson) and/or put back what it draws from natural systems (courtesy of Brandt Hines).

  • Sustainable technology must be recognizable to natural systems and other natural lives

This is the primal wisdom of societies who saw all natural lives as their kin:  for hundreds of millions of years, ecological systems have developed in balance and concert so that all lives recognize each other in their physical make up, fitting together as the family of life.

Our technology must adapt itself to our natural family rather than expecting the chemistry and order of the natural world to adapt to us. . In referring to the living roofs, for instance, William McDonough says: “Imagine that you have a building that looks up into the sky, and the birds flying overhead can look down from the sky and say. ―Oh, it‘s our people – they‘re back! ‘ “

  • Sustainable technology must  follow the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle states that we must not release new technologies into the environment until they are proven safe. This reverses the usual practice in the contemporary US, in which chemicals, for instance, must be proven dangerous before we stop their release.

The precautionary principle is a way of extending our care into the future, as “fore-caring”. This principle honors human ingenuity with the faith that we can observe our world with care and act with finesse.

This is a principle of justice as well as ecology, which inhibits the creation of profit for some by transferring harm to others.

  • Any waste produced by sustainable technology must be food for natural life

This simply follows the model of natural systems in which waste produced by some always equals food for others.  This means that any heavy metals, etc., used by a particular technology must not be waste:  they must be safely re-captured and reused.

Whereas sustainable technology cannot turn food or energy into waste, it can do the opposite:  catalyze the turning of waste into food.  Bringing the leaves from my neighbors’ trees that our city would otherwise haul away onto my yard as food for the soil is an example.  The city of Olympia, Washington does this on a larger scale, hauling away all forms of kitchen and yard waste to a business contracted to turn it into compost.

  • Sustainable technology must foster biodiversity and thus natural resilience

Resilience is intimately linked to biodiversity through a simple bottom line: the more choices one has, the more options with which to survive stress.

In honoring diversity, technology should be specific to place, responding to the irreplaceable specificity of the land—and the lives of all species that have thrived on it.

What would you add to this list? Which particular technologies ought to be included or excluded on these grounds?

Jon Unger has suggested two additions that are linked to the social context of sustainable technology that have caused me to add two more ideas for consideration here:

  • Sustainable technology should be democratic in its  development, implementation and accessibility

If society does not choose its technologies, as stated at the beginning of this essay,  it becomes governed by them.  Technology that is readily understandable and user friendly  is key to being able to choose it– or reject it– according to its effects.   This is an issue central to the democratic nature of sustainable technology.

In the words of OSU student John Aldridge, “It is important that highly-industrialized nations recognize their moral obligation to pay their environmental dues” by making sure that the technological “help” they provide other nations passes the  “litnus  test”  of being environmentally sound, as well as being freely accepted by and  “consistent with the worldview of the receiver.

“Furthermore”,  Aldridge continues, “developers and distributors of technology should not market their tools as exclusive goods. If a nation is in need of a good, it should be available.”  This means, for instance, that patent laws should not stand in the way of health or environmental sustainability.  If developers and distributors do not wish to follow the model of Gaviotas and make their developments patent-free, they can at least avoid the actions of the pharmaceuticals who sued South Africa for patent infringement when it developed an inexpensive antibiotic to prevent infant deaths.

Further,  technological development must not infringe on other populations by using their DNA for genome research or their traditions for profit without their knowledge or economic compensation. In terms of patents in general, Vandana Shiva’s standards in the  “no patents on life” campaign is a good way to avoid patent abuses such as that in which a US firm patented the basmati rice that was developed in India– making it “illegal” for its own originators to use it without paying this firm.

  • Sustainable technology should be cost effective

Mr. Unger sees this as part of sustainable technology’s appeal to the “mass consumer”.  I see it as something more.  It is important that technology be available to the larger portion of humans rather than only to the upper or elite class. As the community of Gaviotas indicates in its refusal to patent any of its inventions, sustainable technology should be grounded in its values and effectiveness–in its use for all– rather than profit for a few.

To make technology cost effective, the US must cut its “perverse subsidies” that result, for example, in fresh local food raised organically and purchased locally being more costly than highly processed and packaged food transported over thousands of miles.

Without “perverse subsidies”, sustainable food production would be less costly (and thus more readily available to all), since it has lower costs of transportation, packaging, advertising, chemical and fossil fuel inputs, than does highly processed food. There is a parallel case to be made in the example of energy:  if we cut massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and price technology at its true environmental and health costs, other energy producing  technologies would be cost effective in comparison– including the most important energy producing tact of all– conservation. And since nuclear plants are so expensive to insure, they would never be built without their government subsidies.

As Laura Zeljeznjak notes in her comment below, another aspect of this cost-effectiveness is that sustainable technology should be cost-effective for the natural world.  It should be made or drawn from sustainable materials rather than those and use up rare and irreplaceable resources, as well as ravaging other natural lives and their habitats.

Altogether, the “pricing” of sustainable technology must follow an emphatically different model from technology based on  “profit” for its developers (or in the case of patents on particular natural products, its self–proclaimed “discoverers”).  As discussed in the “The Trouble with Progress”, technology driven by the profit motive has succeeded only in ravaging the planet and undermining our relationships with other lives, human and more than human–and thus is the opposite of sustainable options.

We belong to this world, whose history has gifted us with our intelligence and our capacity for care. We must accept this tremendous gift and bear it with the honor it deserves for the sake of  all the lives who share our world.

It Can be Done

Polyface Farm, for instance, has developed an agricultural model that fulfills all of these criteria.

Gaviotas in Colombia has developed an entire community grounded in such principles, still going strong after over 40 years.

And then there are the sustained yield forest practices of the Menominee Tribe.

Any examples you want to add here?

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

141 Responses

  1. I think this is an amazing list! I cannot think of anything more than can be added to it. Our world most certainly has a skewed view on technology, and this list has some amazing ideas on how to incorporate technology with nature so that the world is a better place for everyone to live.

    My favorite idea on this list is “Any waste produced by sustainable technology must be food for natural life.” The waste we produce for our own “needs” is appalling. It makes me wish people were more aware of the effects of this so that we can support ways to fix this problem.

    • Thank you, Samantha. I am glad you liked it: I must say that I drew these ideas from a number of different sources.
      I appreciate your consciousness on the waste issue– I agree absolutely.

  2. There is a reason for the saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I prefer to believe that most of the damaging technological advances that have been made, especially over the past two centuries, were not done with the intent to cause as much damage to the natural world as they have. It took many decades to comprehend the damage that burning coal (and other fossil fuels) would have on the planet, and the health of those exposed to the smoke. That is just one of thousands of examples of a technology that started out as a great idea and with good intentions, but lead to and continues to deteriorate portions of the natural world.

    The precautionary principle is an effective way to lessen some of the impacts that can and have been associated with technological advances throughout history. Though it will not completely eliminate the risk. We can test and study technology, but we may not be able to fully understand what damage an “advancement” is capable of doing until it is too late.

    One thing I might add to the list above would be that sustainable technology must be powered by a sustainable and/or renewable energy source. There are industries that strive toward sustainability, but still rely on nonrenewable energy sources as the main source of energy. This is another one of those “road to hell” scenarios.
    While they are doing positive things in one area, they are using destructive methods in another area. For example, many river restoration practices include the use of herbicides to eliminate invasive species because they are cheaper then manual removal. While they are doing a good thing on one hand by eliminating invasives and replanting native species, they are also contaminating water system (even if only marginally) that can have results that are not yet fully known.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Amanda. I agree that much technological damage was done without direct intent to cause harm: the problem is, as you point out, the “good” intentions. I think these have severe predispositions to harm when they are cast in a conquering-nature dualism–and without conscious analysis of whether we as a society want them or not. This dynamic is why Ulrich Beck calls modern society, a Risk Society.
      I agree that if we had known in advance the problems that would be caused by, say, the gasoline engine, we would not have opted for it. But there is also unfortunate evidence of fore-knowledge that was hidden — as in the case of the CEOs of chemical companies portrayed through their own memos in the PBS documentary Trade Secrets. These CEOs were told by their own doctors that the manufacture of their plastics caused their workers’ bones to dissolve (they had the x-rays to prove it)–and continued to put the word out to the general public about the “progress” behind plastics while carefully hiding the negative data. (This came out as a result of a suit brought by a worker who got brain cancer from toxics exposure at work).
      My point is that I concur that many good people used destructive technology without a clue as to its negative consequences– but others put profit above human safety, knowing full well the problems. Today, there seems to be another trend: many have become so enamored of current technology, they don’t want to hear about its negative effects.
      I absolutely agree with you in the example that highlights how doing good work in one arena should not override our standards in another. The herbicide use in river restoration is, in my mind, a very serious problem. We had (still have?) standards that do not allow use of herbicides within a certain distance of a water-course in a logging operation. What makes us think we can suspend the problem of herbicides getting into waterways because we are doing environmental good? That is certainly a “good intentions” problem– since we are supposedly doing environmental good, we can do whatever we want to push our project forward.
      One thing I hoped in presenting these guidelines is that they would ALL be followed in concert. I didn’t imagine an instance in which one could use non-renewable energy while still living within nature’s debit system. But hey, I also did not imagine that the directors of one of my favorite places for three decades, Buford Park, would start a program of intensive herbicide use to cut out “invasives” (as if herbicides are not more “invasives” in their own right). I will add another guideline regarding renewable energy into this post as soon as I get a chance.
      Thanks again for your comment.

      • Wow, that is pretty gnarly. You would think that CEO’s would just chock it up as a failure and just a cost of R & D, rather than carry on developing one of the worlds most toxic substances. I wonder how to make people in power care about people and the health of the environment versus the health of their bonuses. Someone else had mentioned the power people have with their purchasing power and I think that’s the best approach. It sends chills up my spine to think that these people go home to their families at night knowing that they are helping to propagate the epidemic of cancer in our country.

        • Indeed, it is truly a problem that CEO’s because they put their own interests above everything else. After all, if we move to different, cleaner, technologies many of them will lose a lot of money and could even lose everything they worked for. From their perspective, they worked hard to create something and because of new discoveries it’s being taken away from them.

          The true problem lies with convincing people to abandon everything and switch to a new technology. Yes, electric cars are better for the environment but the oil industry will nosedive if we were to switch to them. I believe that everyone knows deep down that certain things are bad for the environment but it’s hard to publicly admit that when you stand to lose your livelihood.

        • The economic tie ins with unsustainable technology is a serious problem, Mark– not the least of which is the “perverse subsidies” that the government pays to agribusiness to do exactly what we do not want.
          Elsewhere I responded about the potential in the Safe Chemicals Act and the upcoming Farm Bill re-write.
          As for CEOs and jobs, there is a recent study (linked in my recent responses to comments elsewhere recently) that indicates that the transfer to safer chemicals would boost jobs. On the CEO side of things, there has been a strange dynamic occurring over the past two decades, in which CEOs are no longer compensated by stock in their companies: and their salaries are no longer tied to performance in other ways as well. Indeed, some of the CEOs that LOST the most money for their corporations were the most highly compensated last year– they were also the ones who put the most workers out of work– including by sending jobs overseas.
          I think this relates to another important issue: economic blackmail. Certainly, if you tell someone they have a choice of doing environmental responsible things or feeding their family, the environment will suffer, but in fact, that is not our only choice.
          Thanks for bringing up things to ponder in the complex society we have created for ourselves.

        • That last post kind of came out like I was supporting CEO’s whose business practices harm workers and nature. What I’m trying to say is that we need to find a way to convert existing technologies into clean, moral technologies but doing that is almost impossible for many industries.

        • I think you raised some good points in your last comments; and this post brings to mind the fact that we ought to honor all those “transitional organic” farms that are doing the right thing by changing over to organics but need some time for the lack to recover and get rid of its toxics. Perhaps we need a similar transitional program for changes in other aspects of our infrastructure.

        • It is a sad result of our system of money first, Stephanie. Looking at the xrays of their workers’ bones dissolving and then conspiring to hide this with CEOs of other plastic manufacturers worldwide could hardly be a clearer breach of ethics.

  3. I don’t understand why people think we need to conquer nature especially considering the damage the “conquering” mentality has caused. When are they going to get it? What is is going to take?
    The list a great and I completely agree. The issue now becomes how do we get there? With money being such a driver in mainstream society, how do we get people to see what their doing?
    I am not saying I’m perfect but this essay makes compelet sence to me and makes me want to do something about it.

    • Great point, Loni– one would think that if an action yields all these negative results, we would get the point and stop doing it!
      I appreciate your enthusiasm! As it turns out, some of these changes can actually make us money, as in this study that just came out on the job-creation flowing from overhauling our dated and dangerous chemical policy:

    • I love how forward you are with your disappointment. “When are they [we] going to get it?” is exactly right! With so much knowledge at our disposal, you would think that more people would put their efforts toward making positive changes rather than making new toys. I feel like that problem is that many people are money-seekers rather than solution-seekers. And the problem that goes along with that is that you have to have money to fund finding solutions. It seems to me that this issue is a continuous cycle, so long as we put off using the knowledge of technology in a positive way.

      • So true, Jenni– if we have the knowledge, it is time to figure out just what stands in the way of our using it– especially since the stakes have become so high in terms of our current survival on this planet.

  4. I so agree Madronna with the article. We can’t demonize technology but allow it work for the betterment of “humanity” and future generations of all the Planets peoples.
    I heard a quote yesterday that went something like this ” we must allow humanity to overtake technology”. I am paraphrasing and can’t quote the source, but it was so on point.
    We can also achieve sustainable development using mindful technology. It’s simply a change of mindset and goals. The UN Brundtland definition is “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” ( World Commission Environment and Development,1987)

    • Hi Maureen, great to hear from you in this forum. I hope this spring finds you well. Indeed, until our humanity “overtakes” our technology, we are in for problems.
      I very much like the Brundtland definition of sustainable development; seems that this definition works for consumer choices as well– as Samantha intimated in her statement about how much we throw away in our personal lives.

  5. This list is full of wonderful ideas and examples of how to create more sustainable technology, and its is funny how simple all this seems to be. But what’s not funny, is that is not. There is definite logic to these ideas that almost anyone could understand, but I believe the idea that some idea of new technology of the future, that is touched on here, is very much the reason no one seems to care. Where did anyone ever get the idea that we can maybe just find a new planet after we are done with this one? That’s absurd.
    I also believe the points touched on regarding waste disposal and management/recycling etc. are the most realistic goals for our nearest future. Its very simple for a consumer based society to buy what everyone else is buying. And thank god, everyone in Hollywood is in on sustainable technology. I believe they have more power than they know, and I am curious to see what happens as this newer generation reaches adulthood and if ideas like these become realities.

    • Your statement about “finding a new planet after we are done with this one” about sums it up in terms of choices that make no sense (partially because they were never choices at all).
      Thanks for your hopeful points about what we could easily move on (waste) and public figures on the right side of things– we need to counter corporate-financed media somehow.
      If we can’t peer into the future maybe we can at least act in such a way as to consider those who come after us.

    • It is a funny idea that people just shrug their shoulders and say: “Oh well, by then we will find some new planet to live on” As if we are flying around in space cars with robot maids now. I think with every generation we come to the same problems as the one before, the lack of willpower is just not there. Unfortunately it might never be there until its too late. It’s like you said about peoples buying power, especially if they have the public’s attention. Celebrities are the ones who either make it acceptable or not to wear fur or buy exotic leathers. Hopefully the costs of sustainable energy will decrease to the point where the rest of us can implement it. Until then there’s always energy efficiency.

      • Sustainable agriculture at least, according to forum published last week in Science, is easily within our grasp– in fact a number of innovative farms are using it. The problem is gearing our system to use it–and the upcoming Farm Bill is a way to do this (see my response to Gabe on this point).

  6. I completely agree with the idea of technology being on the side of both good and evil. As much as technology has changed (and in some cases improved) the world around us, it is scary how we heavily we depend on it. Despite the knowledge that we have about the harms technology causes, I think it is still important to continue developing. However, we need to start focusing more on using technology to help ourselves and the world around us. Let’s stop spending so much time, money, and effort developing new electronic toys, and focus on using this rapidly developing product to make positive changes.

  7. Because technology is a tool it can be used to solve problems or create them, if we don’t follow the above approaches. It’s difficult though to show people how important it is to error on the side of caution because of the immediate financial gains that are appropriated to a select few. This makes the rewards of using technology that we don’t quite understand yet very seductive. Because we can’t say for sure that something is harmful and the rewards are convenience, low prices, etc. then its hard to convince people not to use something that is useful in the short run.

    • I agree with you completely, the main hurdle that humans need to get over is creating “green” alternatives that are less or equivalent in expense. Economics makes all the decisions for us and as we dig deeper into new technologies the green options will be more viable.

    • Thoughtful points, Stephanie. I think that worldview and culture has something to do with how hard it is to convince anyone to give up short term gains for the sake of longer term ones.
      It seems like the members of societies with a broader appreciation of history are more likely to look to long term goals: there are societies in which “instant” anything has little value.

  8. This article exemplifies everything that we should hold as valuable with regards to technology and the environment. Modern technology holds the potential for great good yet we are more interested in making money than in taking care of the world we live in. I especially liked the precautionary principle:

    “The precautionary principle states that we must not release new technologies into the environment until they are proven safe. This reverses the usual practice in the contemporary US, in which chemicals, for instance, must be proven dangerous before we stop their release.”

    In the US, we see animals (and the environment in general) as inferior to humans. This is why pharmaceuticals and food must be thoroughly tested whereas pesticides and farming practices are barely monitored. If we held the environment in equal terms as we hold ourselves, we wouldn’t have nearly the amount of problems as we do now.

    • Is it just devastating to see how little people care for other people and animals. It is really a sad shameful thing that money is worth more than personal values and life itself gets pushed out of the way. We need to fix how we feel and the ways that we get emotional towards these, I think. Instead of someone being a tree hugger or wimp for thinking twice about littering, this culture should be accepting and say good for you!

      • We do indeed need to change our reward system–both economically and personally in this culture– to reflect our values such that we reward the actions that lead to results most of us want– like clean water and air and healthy lives.

    • Thank you for the feedback, Mark. Important perspective on the ways in which our notions of the inferiority of other species and natural processes blinds us to being more careful with our health and that of the ecosystems that sustain us.

  9. My biggest agreement to these guidelines is the one that states we must be put in touch with the results of our actions. I think this is where many people falter with being connected to nature and the world. It is an emotional disconnect that separates us as people, races and cultures refuse to step into others shoes, as well as a separation as a natural species. Even the most basic thought of wondering how that whale feels when we dump toxins into its home? If people FELT more then they would be more understanding and less in denial.

    • Powerful point, Samantha. This kind of compassion is the motivating force of many of the world’s ethical systems–and it only makes sense that we cannot make good decisions without knowledge. I think this is one reasonable why traditional folklore is so important: it impacts information through allowing us to stand in the shoes of others.

    • I think that you are right Samantha. Many people are not connected to nature or what their personal actions are doing to our world. I do not know if it is a lack of knowledge or a lack of caring but I think that it is an emotional disconnect that somehow as a people we need to find a way to solve to fix this problem.

    • I agree Samantha. If people are more in touch with the results of our actions, then we will realize the damage we are causing. Most people are more concerned with the product of their actions, and not the negative impacts it may have.

  10. Cash is king in our world and for the masses to make change it has to be economical weather we like it or not. Humans are a part of nature and most people do not see it that way, we think the damage we are doing is unnatural when it is part of the evolution cycle. We are learning how negatively we are effecting our own environment and we are the only ones who have the power to make that change.

  11. Cash is indeed “king” in the capitalist system, Jake. I also think there are those with other priorities, as we see in the many (heartening to me) organizations and individuals working for a better world without such motivation.
    If you are saying that we must disentangle our economic system from bad environmental systems, I am with you on that one. So it Science (see our quote to ponder page and sidebar at the left) and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
    Thanks for your comment.

  12. Its true we belong to the world and every day we do not worry about the imprint that we are leaving upon it and the legacy that we are leaving for our childrens children to deal with. The nuclear waste issue is a major problem and we should be worrying about how the furture generations of our planet will be living. I appreciate how cities are becoming involved like that of Olympia Washington which is not far from where I live. They are using materials like used kitchens and recycling them back into compost. That is amazing. Just think if all the communities took the extra time to recycle their materials and find the usage for reclaiming them for future projects and composting how that would make an impact on our garbage problem alone.

    • It’s true, I don’t think most of us take the time or energy to really think or worry about what kind of imprint we are leaving. I know I could really do better. So much of my day is spent around my job and raising my kids it’s really difficult to reevaluate everything you do. It starts small though and then it builds. I try to tell myself to do one thing at a time until it becomes habit and then over the course of a year- I’ve got to think it’s doing some good!:)

      • Change does start small and build, as you notes– by making new habits in a step by step process. It is my sense that it is doing immense good– when you add up everything everyone is doing.

  13. I do agree that sustainable technology, and sustainability in general is important, I also find it as a lost cause. Because of the damage that has been done to our world, I doubt that there is much we can do to reverse our damage. I do like the list of guidelines provided above, and I hope if followed they can help change our world for the better. I work in the construction industry, and a big emphasis is on green building nowadays. Although my company tries to be as environmentally friendly as possible, we still do tons of damage to the enviornment with our use of plastics and other materials. This is why I think it will take a dramatic change to return our earth to a healithier state.

    • Thoughtful response, Troy. You have a good vantagepoint from which to develop your view. However, I hope you do not feel defeated before you begin– I have seen too many use such a stance for apathy. And perhaps it is true that we will not make the changes we need– we have so much to do. But if we are convinced we can’t make them our own thinking has defeated us before we have even begun to chose or to act. I just saw a small garden in backyard that sustainably produced 800 pounds of food a year; we an capable of amazing things!
      And I appreciate both your construction choices and your sense of where more needs to be done.

      • Hi Troy

        I agree- the net impact that one person makes by choosing to live more sustainably is nothing compared to the net damages being wrought by large corporations and industry. It’s depressing to evaluate the impact of one’s own choices in the context of the larger picture!

        • Yes– and yet there is another way in which we ARE the “larger picture”– each of us, one on one. I for one disagree with the “great man” idea of history in the US that implies that no one ever does anything important expect a handful of powerful men. Time to defeat such inequities by beginning to value ourselves and honor our values.

    • I understand your perspective, however I am hopeful in creating smaller local sustainable initiatives rather than waiting for a nation-wide program to revert our impacts on the environment. If communities came together to ban the use of synthetics, ie. The Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance in San Francisco, CA, or started creating small scale solutions of using recycled materials in housing development, the amount of degradation on a given are would reduce because people would become more sustainably minded. I am not down playing the effect of nation and world wide damage but I believe that the reason there is not much sustainability represented in our laws is because we are trying to find a universal solution. There has been a lot of damage created, however instead of focusing on how much can actually be recovered, I think it is vital to focus on how much can be changed in one small community at a time.

      • Thoughtful perspective, Priti. And in fact, much alternative technology already has such creative grass roots beginnings. We need national initiatives, but shouldn’t wait for them all the same. Plastic bag and bottle initiatives, as well as precautionary principle laws are two very good examples. For that matter, so are California auto emissions standards, which are stricter than federal ones.

  14. The point that technology can be used for good or bad is an important one in this essay. With modern development at its current rate, the fantastical vision of the future is that it will be run by computers and robots for our convenience and consumption. But is that really something we want — for technology to get out of our hands? As creators of technology, it is our ethical obligation to control it, not let it control us.

    As an aside, I also liked the points about using technology to the environment’s advantage. My dad is self-employed in the pest control business, which at first seems like a detrimental profession, but he has a great care and respect for the ecosystem. He specializes in catch-and-release methods, because typically the animal is involved in just as much of a safety hazard by being there as the client is. He also uses environmentally friendly products, not chemicals, and he trained the family dog to sniff out termites, so she sometimes accompanies him on the job. Most professions negatively impact the environment one way or another; the difference is being willing to do all we can to reduce that impact. I think he is an example of using technology in tandem with the environment to produce the most potential benefits.

    • Very important consideration about controlling our technology rather than letting it control us, Marissa. We at least have a chance at controlling our technology– whereas controlling nature is something else again!
      Good for your dad! There is a great pest control business in Ocean Shores, Washington that writes a regular column for the local newspaper touting natural pest control methods, and often, indicating why there is NO need to control certain animals because of the good they do. A very information public service. Just as lawn care professionals can use alternatives to toxins, so can pest control workers.

    • I enjoyed the story you listed about your dad and his business. I think it is great that he can take a “detrimental profession” and turn it into something that is good and beneficial for the environment. This is a great example of sustainable technology and using a holistic understanding of the environment to benefit his career and the lives of those he works for. Thanks for sharing.

  15. I think the whole idea of sustainable technology is extremely important. And, it is encouraging that there is a lot of recognition for sustainable living, architecture, and design. This is really becoming a popular idea and model and I think that is the way it needs to start to become status quo. The more people that subscribe to and adopt this idea, the better off we will be for future generations.

    • I think so, Jen. Do you see any intersection between particular ideas of sustainable technology and particular environmental values?

      • Professor Holden,
        I must say that I see a distinct tie between sustainable technologies to the idea of care and fitting into the order of nature. Utilizing sustainable technologies is the first step in ensuring that humans are removed from the dualism of humans versus nature and placed into nature where we can then adapt to and work with the natural world.

        • Good thought and the connection between care and fitting into the order or nature and sustainable technology– these are the values underlying the technology that sustained native societies in this area for thousands of years. It seems to me very important to make very clear the values we express in the creatoin of our technology. It is indeed time to prove how smart we really are by working with the natural world instead of trying to change or dominate it.

    • Jen, sustainable technology is definitely being recognized but not enough in my opinion. I took a course titled “Sustainability for the Common Good” (GEO 300), which was a closer look into these technologies. The instructor for the course revealed something amazing to us during our discussions of sustainable energy systems. He described that he was installing a solar panel system that was extremely pricey and would provide all the energy his household needed for essentially free. How? Because government subsidies and tax breaks as well as EPA incentives were essentially eliminating the entire cost of the system. So why doesn’t everyone have a solar panel system on their home now? The reason comes back to the fact that our media give us the impression that they see as most economically favorable. I think we must take back the power the media have and use it to educate our public about the good that can be done not only for us but for the world in which we live as well.

      Thanks for sharing!

      • It is sad when media spins rather than sharing news that might help up all, Amber. I absolutely agree that we must take back/insist on the right to proper knowledge– we certainly cannot make citizen decisions without it.

  16. I think sustainable technology is key to success and survival in the future. If we can develop and use technology that follows the guidelines presented in this essay, we will foster a healthier environment now and into the future. I think renewable technology is a key part of this and allowing time for the renewal process to work. If we invent something that only consumes and does not renew or give back, that technology is bound to fail because it will run out of resources.

    • This is a good thing to add to this essay, Brandt. Sustainable technology should draw from renewable energy sources –and also give back to natural systems whatever it depletes from them.

    • Good point. If we use technologies that use nonrenewable resources we will run out of resources, but also if we use technology that uses renewable resources at a rate faster than the resources can be renewed we will also run out. I think using sustainable technology must be aligned with conservation as well or we will continue to expend our resources. Often sustainable technology is not built with 100% sustainable parts and that maybe 85% is sustainable. Thus the technology is better than other technology available but it still needs to be used conservatively since the non-sustainable parts are harming the environment.

  17. I’ve always enjoyed learning about technology and learning about sustainability so this essay hits on two of my favorite topics, using technology to aide our sustainability. My favorite sustainability guideline that you used was “Sustainable technology must be recognizable to natural systems.” I liked this guideline because often even the most eco-conscious person forgets that every step they take in the environment impacts it in some way. By taking a sustainable path we are just making a lighter footprint, but it is still a footprint in the environment. A couple of guidelines that I thought also made sense at least from a mindset that this technology would be used by all people would be that “Sustainable technology must be easy to implement and use” and that “Sustainable technology must be cost effective”.

    Sustainable technology must be easy to implement and use
    In order for the mass consumer or people in general to adopt a device the technology must be easy to implement. There are many technologies that only a skilled professional can implement and thus the person in a third world country with little education would not even care to implement such a technology. If the sustainable technology is just as easy to use or easier than the non-sustainable technology then the technology has a chance at being implemented on a wide scale.

    Sustainable technology must be cost effective
    In order for the mass consumer to buy-in to the idea that sustainable technologies are better than those that are not eco-friendly then the technology must be cost effective in terms of financial costs. I’m sure the environment in the long run sees that all of these technologies are cost efficient, however, in order for others to share the same view in the short term the technology will have to be cost effective.

    Lastly, like you mentioned, technology is only a tool. Humans can use technology to harm or help the environment. It is first up to the human to change their mindset before any sort of technology can be used in a helpful manner.

    • Thank you for your well thought out comment, Jon. there is much to consider here. I think there is an issue with being “cost effective”, since we must define what that means– and be wary of pricing certain things out of existence before they are even created. Many “perverse” subsidies for the fossil fuel industry now make coal less expensive than solar and wind– but we need to adjust our economic structure to support healthy alternatives rather than accept a less sustainable technology because it is less expensive. Making a technology “cost effective” actually takes political support-and some adjustments in our economic system. The most effective “cost effective” measurement I can think of is the ecosystem services criteria– which means we must tie our economic system into natural “costs”. This guideline is important in that we cannot offer technology in a democratic fashion if few can afford it. This would raise the issue of economic justice–and mimic the unfair dynamics in which healthy food is less available to the poor: healthy environmental choices should not be any less available to them than to others in our society.
      I would also like to ponder a bit more about technology being “easy to use”– on the one hand, this is important in that we cannot expect users to be responsible for a technology they don’t understand how to operate; we don’t need more technology that separates users from the results of their actions. On the other hand, we don’t want to fall into the trap of “convenience” pushed by modern advertising– into carelessness and laziness.
      In sum, what I am saying is that these are great ideas I want to add to the post in some way, but I need to think about the wording. It will be a few days before I can get to this– but will let you know when I include your ideas here. And thank you very much for your suggestions!

  18. Our largest fault in technology is our lack of recognizing the adverse effects of our creations. We have become accustomed to create new without understanding or even recognizing unforeseen drawbacks. Sustainable technology follows a more cautious rule of viewing how much nature can be altered adversely before looking at the comforts created for humans. If we as a community/society placed higher value on our fellow ecological systems of wildlife and plant life, the technology created would already factor in the effects on an area as a whole and there would be less need for “reform” or ecological clean up. That said, there are numerous forms of creative technology that can help reconstruct healthy natural systems such as composting, recycling, community planting programs that all fall under the sustainable technology principal of incorporating the well being and health of all aspects involved.

    • Thanks for your comments, Priti. It seems that the failure to recognize the problems with our creations is parallel to the failure to learn from the past: a culture can hardly live a successful future without either of these. “Fellow” ecosystems are actually our own: we are all interdependent., And you make a hopeful point about beneficial technology!
      Well being and health resulting from operation should be a criteria for any successful technology, I think!

  19. Sustainable technology must take into account what will be done with the equipment once the technology is obsolete. With how quickly technology changes things become obsolete on a regular basis. What is to be done with the equipment once it is? (This goes hand in hand with the any waste produced by sustainable technology must be food for natural life guideline but addresses a different concept of waste.) Do we build on the old technologies or do we reclaim the equipment to be recycled into something else? Habitat perhaps? The main thing is to not just leave it were it is how it is.

    • So it is not only the technology itself that must be sustainable, but the equipment used to produce it (as well as the materials put into it). Good point, Tamara. Watch for the additions I will be adding to this post soon as a result of the suggestions of yourself and your classmates.

  20. There is a reason for the saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I prefer to believe that most of the damaging technological advances that have been made, especially over the past two centuries, were not done with the intent to cause as much damage to the natural world as they have. It took many decades to comprehend the damage that burning coal (and other fossil fuels) would have on the planet, and the health of those exposed to the smoke. That is just one of thousands of examples of a technology that started out as a great idea and with good intentions, but lead to and continues to deteriorate portions of the natural world.

    The precautionary principle is an effective way to lessen some of the impacts that can and have been associated with technological advances throughout history. Though it will not completely eliminate the risk. We can test and study technology, but we may not be able to fully understand what damage an “advancement” is capable of doing until it is too late.

    One thing I might add to the list above would be that sustainable technology must be powered by a sustainable and/or renewable energy source. There are industries that strive toward sustainability, but still rely on nonrenewable energy sources as the main source of energy. This is another one of those “road to hell” scenarios.
    While they are doing positive things in one area, they are using destructive methods in another area. For example, many river restoration practices include the use of herbicides to eliminate invasive species because they are cheaper then manual removal. While they are doing a good thing on one hand by eliminating invasives and replanting native species, they are also contaminating water system (even if only marginally) that can have results that are not yet fully known.

    • Renewable powering was added to this list as a result of your comment last term, Amanda– your name is even on the idea here. Check it out!
      I think you are right that we can expect unexpected negative consequences and should prepare for this as long as we try to “manage” nature– and as long as we have a profit first approach in our economic systems. Though it might that there were many good intentions gone awry here, there were also far too many examples in which industry leaders knew exactly the harms of their products but conspired to keep these secret to protect their profits: unfortunately, there may be hundreds of such instances in the last hundred years. Check out the book titled, “The Secret History of the War on Cancer. “

  21. The standard definition of sustainable technology is that which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. I’d like to suggest adding this basic definition to the laundry list of guidelines specified in this essay. It’s important to emphasize that the technology we create actually meets our needs: we should be careful not to create a bunch of superfluous junk even if we create it in a sustainable manner.

    • Hi Amy, I assumed that this standard definition of technology put forth by the UN a few decades back was SO well known and generalized that it was both assumed and needed some fleshing out– which I did using largely what I know of societies who technologies have endured in the long term.
      As you bring up, the idea of what we “need” in this standard definition becomes a concern; we need to define what we need closely so as to avoid our current habit of over-consumption–and hopefully, following these guidelines, over-consumption would be unlikely. Thanks for your comment.

  22. The U.S. needs to learn from the works of other countries dealing with sustainability. Europe is a good example, they have really been a leading force on sustainability. It’s the entire planet that needs attention; its not just a few countries causing damage we need to work as a team.

    Modern technology has so much potential for good yet we are so greedy and money hungry that we have forgotten what is really important. Our actions are causing damage on a massive scale, we need to change our ways before it is too late.

    I recently came across this quote: “‘It seems to me that if you wait until the frogs and toads have croaked their last to take some action, you’ve missed the point,’”-Kermit The Frog

    This quote should be viewed from every aspect. It is not only amphibians that are in decline, our air quality is declining, our water qualitiy is also. We know we have a problem the government need to enforce rules and regulations to help stop further damage.

  23. Not only is nuclear power expensive to insure, but it’s waste does NOT create food for anything, except, maybe, for some mutated species if cockroach. This is a very positive article about the positive use of technology. I am totally guilty of rejecting technology. I missed out on the silicon boom because I fully rejected computers and did not learn how to use one, really, until the crash. And, I still have plenty to learn. I think that appropriate use of technology can be life saving for our society. Asking people to forgo electricity, modern transportation, global communication is unrealistic, but investing in wind/solar technology, sustainable, localized agriculture, non-pollutive public transit, computer graphics (wouldn’t it be great if Hollywood could blow things up virtually instead of realistically, eliminating the waste of fleeting entertainment? I know they are moving in that direction) is very doable.

    • Hi Amy, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Actually, nuclear power as currently generated does create food for one unfortunate (though not living) thing– it is essential for making nuclear weapons. A hopeful vision here– it is only a society with a dualistic worldview that would assume that either we have bad technology or none at all–and a worldview that does not entail human responsibility for human choices– not to mention, human care and ingenuity.

  24. I’ve spent the last two days at a conference held by The State of the Salmon entitled “Salmon in a Changing Climate.” It’s been two days of scientists telling us that while we clearly know the world is heating up, we don’t really have a clue what affect that will have on the salmon. There are just too many variables and mysteries to the oceans for us to really guess. But most importantly interwoven into all of the discussions is a deep seated belief that the salmon will “adapt and overcome.”
    Portland now composts all of its food and yard “waste” as well, as I’m sure you’re aware since it’s going to a facility near Corvallis. In my family, we’ve been composting for years, but I’m thrilled now to have someplace to put things like meat and cheese scraps and trimmings from bushes that are too woody and acidic to go into my backyard compost pile.
    I would add to Mr. Unger’s point of ease of use and implementation that sustainable technology must be understood by its users. Part of the problem with many of our technologies today is that few people understand them and their effects on nature. Even renewable energies can get out of hand if the people using them don’t understand how they work and the proper use of them. Wind farms, for instance, have been placed in the flight “highways” of birds, causing the maiming and deaths of hundreds of birds who use such thoroughfares. Even well-meaning people can do harm if they don’t thoroughly investigate before acting.

    • I certainly hope that the salmon do indeed adapt– and it would not hurt us to cut back our carbon emissions to help them out a bit. I understand one of the issues here as not being whether or not the salmon might adapt, but how much time they have to do it in with global warming increasing so quickly. Olympia is doing the same as Portland.
      Making technologies user friendly in terms of understanding them is a good point, Neyssa. We cannot choose wisely (or even use wisely) something we do not understand at a basic level. I cannot imagine we will ever have no specialization– after all, native peoples sustained salmon runs through the use of religious experts who forecast the well being of particular salmon runs and outlined the catch accordingly. Ditto for the religious leaders who oversaw controlled Kalapuya burns. Perhaps rather than requiring that technology be completely understood by everyone, how about making a criteria of transparency–as is the case with Polyface Farm and not with factory slaughterhouses. Transparency allows citizens of a democracy enough knowledge to make their effective choices. I think this can be added under sustainable technology’s putting us in touch with the results of our actions.
      Your point about investigating before acting is related to the precautionary principle listed here. And even so, there may be surprises, since we cannot know everything beforehand–however, if we uphold standards in terms of honoring natural systems as do the folks at Gaviotas, for instance, we are more likely to get pleasant rather than unpleasant surprises– their own surprise was the resurgence of the rainforest in the wake of their activities.
      I added something of these points in this post under the guideline of making us aware of the results of our actions–and gave you a bit of credit as I did so.

  25. Any sustainable technological waste produced must be food for natural life, what a great concept. This would incorporate all of the concepts that are outlined in the article, it is also parallel to the precautionary principle. I believe that technology can have great benefits humans AND the environment as long as we try and focus more on the effects of the technology before it’s in place, and focusing on how we and a new technology interact with the natural world will help.

    • Nice perspective, Nick. Interesting thought that waste equals food (which is, after all, the hallmark of natural systems) incorporates all the others. Certainly this concept was a motivating force in designing Polyface Farm. Michael Pollan makes an excellent case that factory feedlots have turned a formerly precious resource– cow manure– into a problem. Obviously not the smartest way to set up a food system. And that is not even to mention the production of toxic chemicals that are not good for any natural life.
      Our current laws totally sidestep this issue, though at the Senate hearing yesterday, some chemical manufacturers lobbied against the precautionary principle, a coalition of 200 others acknowledged the need for change.

      • Those 200 others acknowledged the need for a change, but I bet the chemical manufacturers got their case across (unfortunately) because our system is sometimes corrupt to big business. Still I admire the coalition and the efforts from people like that!

        • Thanks for the follow up comment, Nick. I think we absolutely have to keep plugging away on this issue. Hopefully, the coalition of the willing will be growing.

    • I completely agree. I think the focus of new technology should be fully researched BEFORE it is put in place. Doing this would possibly cost a bit more, but save us in the long run. I also think another focus of technology should be its impact on nature, instead of just humans. I don’t think enough innovators do this yet!

    • I also agree. It is very difficult to do this becuase it does cost a lot more. But it should be worth it becuase it protects the environment and money is not everything.

      • Good points, Summer. And someday I hope we will drop the “perverse subsidies” that make fossil fuel use so much cheaper than these technologies.
        And someday as well, we may have both a free market and social values that support the economic production of such environmentally friendly technologies.

  26. This is an awesome essay and deserves to be looked over by policy makers. If all technology was created with each of these ideas in mind, I cannot imagine how much different (and healthier) our world would be. This includes nature and humans both! I think the key to this is putting us in touch with our actions. No one really understands what happens to their waste once they flush the toilet…well maybe they should! This is just an example, but it is things like this that need to be educated onto people so that they have a better understanding and can make an educated decision on their own.

    • Good point David,

      If more people understood where their wastes went, where their food comes from, and how technologies interact with the natural world, and policy makers make sure this happens then maybe things would naturally become more sustainable and community values would be greatly improved, like that of many indigenous peoples before us.

    • Thanks for the feedback and the examples, David. If we kept better track of what is done in our name (or for our convenience) we would certainly make wiser choices.

    • Awesome suggestion on the policy makers, I agree they should be more aware of the harms that go in the US and around the world.

  27. I think for technology to be sustainable, it should be made out of sustainable material. Almost every electronic that we own is made with precious metals, and those metals are mined, refined, and produced all in very unsustainable ways. Mountains are moved, chemicals are used, and almost nothing is recycled. You see that much of our old technology, especially portable kinds(i.e. computers, laptops, phones, iPods, iPhones, etc.), and it’s not recycled for the useful precious and rare metals that are find inside them. They are either send to the landfill or to a different country for them to solve. I also think that for sustainable technology we also need to try and get as many products to build those technologies from local sources, or even national sources. If you look at where most of the material comes from that goes into making products, its astounding. I know my “American” Ford car has parts and labor from all around the world to be shipped and then assembled in America.

    To me these need to be guidelines for every company and that we should all demand products that will fit the U.N.’s definition of sustainability. It’s an excuse and greedy to say that technology will fix it. It is a problem that they most likely no isn’t going to be fixed by technology, but they’re making their money anyways. In order for sustainable to be commonplace in the industrial market we all need to stand up and demand for it.

    • Good point about sustainable materials, Laura. This is another way of emphasizing two of the rules here as they would play out in reality: one, that waste equals food (toxic metals in certain electronics are not food for anything) and the other, that materials should be recognizable to natural systems (again, not at all clear how natural systems should recognize and assimilate plastics).
      Good point about not using up rare materials that are extracted in distinctly environmentally unfriendly ways– fracking to obtain natural gas is the latest in such abuses.

  28. The more we can gear our technology towards working with and honoring nature, the better off our race will be until the end of existence. We will never beat nature, we will only beat ourselves and life will carry on without us just like the dinosaurs.

  29. I think the media has too much control on what people are shown about sustainability and technology. They portray most of it as being “weaker” in a way. Take for example the Chevy Volt. This car has potential to surpass gasoline vehicles, but with the negative media and the company itself limiting its ability, people see this now as an inconvenience to their way of life. They want something that is green and that will not change the way they live. But at the same time, Tesla motors and Fisker have made a couple of nice electric cars that, granted are expensive, but they blow the doors off gasoline powered vehicles. Once the media can stop showing green technology as inferior or a hassle to use, people will see it as lees of a life style change and just as a change in technology.

    • Some points to ponder in your comment, Stephen. “Green” technologies are not liable to be used among those who do not wish to change anything about the way they live indeed.
      There is an interesting documentary called “Who Killed the Electric Car? that indicates that new technology choices are not about quality but about political wrestling, economic pay offs, etc.

    • I guess media has too much control on what people are shown about sustainability and technology too. But have you ever consider about why the electric vehicle is better than gasoline one. I do not see much difference between them because the electricity is produced from coal, nuclear, etc.. (Renewable energy become famous but it create tiny amount of energy).

      • Good point: the electricity must be produced sustainably or electric vehicles do not make sense. Renewable energy could be producing must more of our electricity (as solar currently does in Germany) if we made a resolve to support this type of development instead of pouring billions into subsides for gas and oil drilling.

    • Unfortunately, far too many people watch too much television and are very susceptible to the brainwashing of mass media—if not through subliminal messages, through repetitive imagery and wording. Where people want to fit into society—currently drowning in a high-throughput-economy—and buy things that they really don’t need, nor are such things given much consideration. This is the nature of the beast. Corporations and fossil fuel industries don’t want us to think about what we are buying, they just want us to keep buying. Going back to fitting in, sometimes people feel they must keep up with the consumerism nature of others around them or they will look bizarre. Being normal or conforming to the norms of society is a disease that cripples our society. We should confidently be ourselves and encourage others to do the same, instead of shunning our differences we should embrace them.

      Take for instance, wearing mix-matched socks. Why socks are very much alike, but yet most pairs differ from another pair. Well, what do we do when we lose some of them, and have a bunch of similar socks that don’t match? Most of us probably use those non-matching socks as rags or throw them away, and buy new ones. Why don’t more people wear mix-matched socks? I think it’s because this isn’t generally socially accepted, because it isn’t a social norm. This doesn’t seem “normal” to me.

      Here is an interesting extrapolation on why this may be so, due to natures of our brains…..

      • Hi Rose, this brings up a link with an ad, which won’t work on this site as an embedded video. Is it possible to give us a link that will lead to the “watch” site so that readers have a choice as to whether to link to it.

  30. I agree that the sustainable technology must follow the precautionary principle. Our lives become pretty convenient since the technology has been developed dramatically. There is no human society without technology. Sustainable technology is the technology that can improve the better environment and better future. Renewable energy is the one of the biggest sustainable technology. Renewable energy is energy which provides from natural resources such as wind, rain, tides, geothermal heat, and sun light. When we use our-technology we must think about environment, like how that technology affect on environment. If we consider a bit about nature before we actually use it the situation can be different.

  31. This article is particularly interesting to me becuase I own and manage a renewable energy start up company. Ocean Energy LLC. We. are developing a technology that transforms the energy in ocean waves into usable energy that can be fed to the grid.

    What I am wondering is how do you feel about such a thing? How can I ensure that my technology gives back more than it takes?

    • Wonderful, Summer! Thanks for sharing this. I am not an expert in this technology, but I think the very fact that you are considering the question as to how this technology “gives back” to natural systems is a step in the right direction.
      You might be interested in reading about Gaviotas’ struggle with developing technology to fit their values. The main thing is to hold to those values and be open, flexible and critical (and watch for side effects) as you move forward. Congratulations on your new business venture. It sounds like a very exciting proposition!

      • I have been working with a company that wants to develop wind farms, and so we are doing bird surveys first to see what type of impacts there might be – predetermine any side effects. Even though I think the idea of wind farms if necessary to combat climate change and as an alternative power source, I think that the impacts may be severe. Perhaps not so much due to birds hitting the towers, but because they collide with the powerlines needed to move the power being generated. So I think the challenges of finding technologies that somehow “give back” may be difficult. This might be the case with alternative energy more than anything, because there is very little that is as calorie-dense as oil. I think being flexible and adaptive is very important. For instance, why not put the wind towers in urban areas next to individual homes?

    • How does it work? How do you make it power cities, homes, and etc. Does it in anyway damage the environment? If so, by how much? I guess my concern is what if the product (Ocean Energy LLC) will release wastes in the ocean or etc. If so, is it detrimental to the health of living organisms in the ocean. If not, I’d say it sounds like a good idea. However, how expensive is it to build? Does it require a lot of resources to make? Is it a realistic product/creation? Can it be done logically?

    • Summer;
      I wanted to say I’m taking OSU classes to get a bachelor’s in environmental science and become a part of wave energy on the Oregon coast. I do not know how much intensive studies you have done on wave energy or renewables, but I feel that is part of it. I have done some major studies from 2006 till now on wave energy even as to talk to many local fishermen. The whole thing is to use guidelines as Dr. Holden teaches in this web comment. OSU is doing some great research on wave energy and you can go to seminars at HMSC. Also it is good to keep up with the Territorial Sea Planning Process there are meetings open to the public which are very interesting and at break you can ask people there opinions on wave energy. Web site gives dates and places:

  32. I think television and other media influences impact what people believe about sustainable resources and other forms of technology. Sometimes the influences are negative and others positive. However, I feel like a majority of the time media influences are negative and have too much of an impact. I think the stereotype is that sustainability is a weak argument. For example, in some places recycling is considered silly/a joke or seen as too difficult. Recycling is very beneficial to our environment. However, in some places basic needs for people are not even met. Therefore, recycling isn’t even worth the time or even possible in certain situations/circumstances. The truth of the matter is that people try to find the easy way out or try to make decisions and life choices based on the convenience. I believe medial has a big impact and they should reconsider how they advertise and what they advertise.

    • Especially corporate-controlled media is problematic, Brianna, since it is much more focused on supporting their own agenda than giving us tools for long range critical assessment of society’s choices.

  33. Guidelines for sustainability sounds great, but we need away for all food companies to understand them and follow them. I was glad to see you mentioned Polyface farms, for Joel Salatin has been a great inspiration to me for years. When I watched Salatin on the documentary “Food Inc” I learned how important it is to feed cows by grazing. Salatin stated how cows should be grass feed for it is better for the environment, the cow, and the people who eat the cow. To have food that is healthier for us and the environment sounds smart. “Real time and real solar dollars” that is how Salatin puts it.
    We say it is all about the money but what about people like Joel Salatin who want a nice get by living without hurting the environment. There are farmers in Oregon who feel the same way that growth would only hurt them and our world. These are people who know what is going to save us, but how do we get the greedy ones to know the same? One time I was told by a very educated man that environmentalist like me would have us all back in the dark age with no gas cars, or electricity, and we would be gardening. I said yes and that I lived that way before and loved it.

    • Polyface Farms is a rather amazing example of what humans MIGHT do in food production.
      Speaking of the “dark age” as any one that does not exactly mimic what we have now indicates a pretty limited view of our potential and choices– not to mention, our responsibility.

    • I am glad you are inspired by Polyface Farms. There is a great portrait of this farm in Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.

  34. Pollution prevention, rather than pollution cleanup, would be a viable contribution to using technology sustainably.
    Also, we do have to address the reality of toxic wastes that already exist. In order to ensure that future generations have uncompromised natural resources to fulfill their needs, we will have to manage toxic/nuclear wastes in the most environmentally-friendly fashion possible. This would entail not polluting water systems nor the atmosphere, not hurting living organisms in the process, not producing more nuclear/toxic materials, and eliminating/storing the toxic wastes currently in existence on a global scale. Unfortunately, if we can’t figure out how to make these wastes disappear, then we will have to monitor and store them safely for thousands of years.

    • And thus we have no right to produce the kinds of toxic wastes that future generations inherit? I am thinking of the child who spoke before the UN on environmental issues, pleading to the adults of the world: “If you can’t fix it, at least don’t break it”.
      The idea of prevention is an essential point that falls under the idea of the precautionary principle. Thanks for your comment.

  35. Also, I believe overcoming social norms will naturally encourage positive evolutions for mankind, similar to the Renaissance. The human mind is powerful and if we learn how to utilize it fully, encourage individuality, creative thought and behaviors, while respecting others, we will be capable of great things. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

    I guess it comes down to the logic that we create our own destinies and our thought processes are a very important manifestation of our reality.

  36. The list presented here is a fantastic guideline for what can and should be our guding principles for sustainable living. Reading about Gaviotas, and the piece in the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” about Polyface Farms gives me hope that others will see and begin to take steps to live a lifestyle that can be sustainable. It also shows the power that people have if they have the courage and commitment to accomplish something that may seem unthinkable. I also appreciate the bravery that these people who live in these locations exemplify in their commitment to sustainability and helping others to live a better life. Like the cartoon mentioned at the beginning, sustainability really is just a creation of a better life for all. This sustainable world will be without the need to destroy or inhibit someone or something else from living its own existence. Sustainability is a harmonious worldview that seeks to create solutions, assit people, and solve problems in order to seek a life that can be fulfilling and be fully connected to the world around it.

    • Thanks for your eloquent response here, Travis. Yours is both a hopeful and heartening comment.
      I love your definition of sustainability as a “harmonious worldview that seeks to create solutions, assist people, and solve problems, in order to seek a life fulfilling and full connected to the world around it.”
      It is wonderful to envision the lives that might emerge from this. I have no doubt that you will one of those to lend his energy to enacting this vision!
      You are not alone; our media too often overlooks the many who are doing truly amazing things for the sake of humans and the planet we share.

  37. It seems to me that the real villianous nature of technology is its ability to control our lives and as the essay states “distances us from the consequences of our actions”. This is what causes technology to become dangerous to ourselves and the natural world. Warnings about the use of technology in the form of nuclear weapons and waste have been mostly ignored by our culture in spite of beloved classic illustrations such as the “monster” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

    I was recently told by a forest manager that the concern of natural resource managers should be seven generations into the future. We cannot acheive sustainability until we make this consideration far more important than what we can extract and use immediately. Along with economic feasability and ecological soundness, social acceptability is one of the key points of sustainable management and perhaps the most important, without social acceptability the best intentions and ideas will be futile.

    • I think you have a solid perception about the dangers of a technology that separates us from the consequences of our actions– not to mention, separates us from the natural world.
      We certainly could ponder more closely our ability (and in certain case, propensity) to create our own Frankensteins in this context.
      It is great that the forest manager had this foresight in terms of resource manager goals’ to care for seven generations in the future.
      The importance of “social acceptability” of sustainable technology tells us we need to shift our worldview, and I also think that we are a practical people– so that if we experience something as truly working, we will be motivated to make some of the changes we need.
      Thanks for your comment.

    • A very good response Paul. Technology can be dangerous when we do distance ourselves from the consequences and let it control us. However, one great thing about technology is its abilityto expose and bring to light problems too. Events like the “Arab Spring,” and the “occupy” movement would not have been as successful without our technology. It is truely up to us as to how we handle and use our technology to ensure its benefits and not its negativities.

      • Indeed, Travis. Great point about technology’s ability to bring to mind some of our problem choices– one of the reasons why the Union of Concerned Scientists is working to bring solid science to public decision-making, as is the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose publication recently contained an editorial titled, “We love Science”.

    • Paul,

      Your opening statement to your comment is true in every aspect, we do have a very villainous nature of technology that controls our lives and yet make us feel less guilty to the harm that we are causing this planet simply because now a day’s technology is deemed “Green” safer to use and at the same time healthier to the environment. What we don’t see is how much “Greener” these technology advances truly help our environment. Just like the earthquake that struck Japan and caused many nuclear plants to spill radioactive material in the water and in the environment, it is then when as humans we realize that we are poisoning our planet, but it is sad that it has to come to this extent to make us realize that we have damaged our world to an extent that will take many generations to fix. Technology is both necessary and practical nowadays, what we need to do is find the perfect balance between nature and technology where both can coexist and benefit both.


      • We indeed need more balance in the use of contemporary technology, Moises–and sometimes some sweeping changes in getting rid of problematic technologies like fossil fuel reliant one’s that are causing climate change.
        As you point out, the search for technologies that do not ravage the planet on which our survival depends must shift from cleaning up our messes after the fact to preventing them by careful forethought.

  38. The title of this essay sets the tone for many of our decisions today. We have the opportunity to choose how we use the technology we have. I believe that technology is not the enemy, but a “tool” as you point out. It is what and how we use it that determines the consequences. As discussed in the essay, if we do not change our ways now we place the burden on those in the future to fix the problems of today. The sustainable criteria outlined in this essay is outstanding. It holds individuals accountable for their actions as they obtain knowledge of their practices.

    • Thank you for the feedback on these guidelines, Chris. I should emphasize that they are not ones I myself developed– but often those used by human societies that have sustained themselves long term.
      In the last analysis, as you remind us, technology is ours– and not only how we use it but how we shape it is up to us.
      As you also point out, we can’t make rational decisions about this use and making without knowledge– both knowledge of the consequences of these practices and also, I think, some self-knowledge.

    • Hi Chris, I’ve been grappling with this idea of technology as a tool. I also believe that technology is in fact a tool, but I haven’t come to a conclusion on whether it’s for the betterment of man or not. If there weren’t ships and trucks for the commerce of goods then we would have to feed ourselves locally. This is only one example how technology has opened doors that has lead to adverse changes to the environment such as climate change. So the best technology for a more sustainable future just might be anti-technology.

      • I am not sure there is any conclusion on the nature of any technology, Aaron– it depends on that particular technology and how it is used.
        I would propose that we increase our list of technologies to include not only the passing on of historical lessons between generations, but things like place-based knowledge of the land.
        And if you are proposing that there is much of potential as well as real hazard in modern technology that might better lead us to scrapping, I think that depends on a case by case assessment as well, but it is certainly likely that a good bit of our modern technology should be scrapped. As Einstein noted, we cannot correct a problem with the same type of thinking that created it.
        And I don’t think we can correct a problem caused by a particular type of technology with the same kind of technology that caused the problem in the first place.

  39. Dr. Holden,

    Yet another important and informative article that outlines the issues that humans cause on this planet.
    Technology not only gives us an advantage over the natural world to be able to predict major catastrophes but at the same time it separates us from the natural world and destroys the bridge between humans and nature. Of course technology has helped us in many ways my believe is that many of the inventions created due to technology were not created with the intention of harming the natural world but were created to make our lives easier. Yet, we failed to test such products to the extent of known how it will damage our natural world, as Americans we lack the ability to test the technology that we use to make our lives easier and we don’t think of the consequences that it creates to the natural world such as the waste produced from these inventions. We all remember the damage that nuclear weapons caused when we used them against our enemies, not only did it devastate the country but it damaged the environment to the extent that nothing grew there. Just think of the damage that cars have on the environment, but in today’s day and age we cannot survive without having a car, it will be impossible to go to work, or even buy groceries, we have become dependent on the technology that harms our environment, in an average day there are millions of humans across the planet who are driving to work, school, malls or just taking a drive, this alone causes some of the worlds greatest pollution and damage to the ecosystem. We have the technology to help us and is practical, what we need to do is change it to make it more sustainable to our environment.

    • Thoughtful points, Moises. “Practical” and “helpful” technology designed to make our lives easier often has a destructive backlash when it is shaped by those holding a worldview that sees only short-term consequences or sees humans as separate from the rest of natural life.

  40. I must say that I am having a real hard time with the word sustainable at the moment. While Madronna gives her definition for sustainable as the same as the UN, I find this to be an inadequate and vague definition of sustainable. Especially when it comes to technology. I definitely agree that we should implement technology that puts us in touch with our actions, this is key to quit alienating ourselves from nature, but the only tool I see in technology is one for economics. Technology is the primary driver for capitalism, so I feel it would be hard to implement rules for sustainable technology without recognizing how technology and commerce are practically the same thing these days. I feel that there would need to be a fundamental change in our society before we could make rules for developing sustainable technology. Dare I say that it may take a bit more of a socialist shift.

    • Thanks for your comment, Aaron. I would hope we can implement changes in tandem, and in more than one realm if we shift our worldview. The suggested rules here would (I hope) take the profit out of certain destructive processes and evaluate others– like storytelling and community memory, which underscore our ability to learn from history and cost nothing–and are perhaps the fundamental human technology.
      Just because our current technology has problems in its tie in with the profit-first system (and thus has led to a cascading series of abuses as I discuss in the “trouble with progress” essay here, that does not mean it is the only kind of technology that might exist. I am reminded of the banner held by students in the May-June 1968 protests in Paris: “The worst oppression is the idea that reality is the only possibility.”
      As for socialism, it would be great to resurrect this word in some more substantial meaning than as a stone used to fling as political candidates we do not like. It is Einstein who predicted that our denigration of this term along went hand in hand with the “capitalist anarchy” that had the potential for destroying our planet (as my analysis on the BP oil spill and beyond here discusses).
      Thanks for some important points to ponder.

    • And it would be great if you wanted to share a bit about what you see the UN definition of sustainability as lacking/problematic.

  41. Sustainable technology should be available to third world countries, but not the type of technology that is cheap.

    It is important that highly-industrialized nations recognize their moral obligation to pay their environmental dues–perhaps in the same manner rich countries are allowed to exchange technological tools with struggling countries to offset their own carbon emissions. While type of trade allows polluting countries to justify their emissions, it is better than nothing–better than playing the part of the free-rider. However, we have a need for some sort of litmus test that ensures the “help” that is provided is needed, useful, environmentally sound, maintainable, perhaps profitable, accepted, and finally, consistent with the worldview of the receiver. Furthermore, developers and distributors of technology should not market their tools as exclusive goods. If a nation is in need of a good, it should be available.

    • I very much like your idea about richer nations (technologically speaking as well) being responsible for paying their dues, John. In assessing our “help” to poorer nations, such a “litnus test” as you outline is absolutely essential. Just as our technologies with short terms goals (such as pesticides) have done the opposite of what they purport to do (such as creating super weeds), we have too often passed on one size fits all technologies in ways that create profound harm to other nations Not to mention, multi-nationals have too often used development as an excuse for exploiting the human and natural resources of other nations–and destroying local subsistence base in the process. I am thinking, for instance, of agricultural megafarms that ousted Mexican subsistence farmers on the border to grow strawberries for import to US markets.
      The issue of patents is another serious issue with respect to your idea that developers of technological “goods” should not lock up their goods from others in need. I am thinking of those pharmaceuticals who sued South Africa when it wanted to make its own cheap antibiotic products; and the Texas firm that “patented” the rice indigenous peoples of India had developed, after which time they could not use their own product without paying the corporation that owned the patent. Vandana Shiva’s “no patents on life” campaign offers some other important standards in this arena. Thanks for indicating these modifications to this list: I will add something to the post regarding them when I get some time in a day or two.

      • Absolutely! Your examples seem fitting to me–although painfully unfortunate. People need to see these instances. Those who have it so easy need to wake up, to become aware of these real life nightmares. What will it finally take for us to be thankful for what we have? Where will we find the spark which ignites the fire for real solutions? When will society and industry understand that “the best things in life are not things,” to find generosity in our hearts, and finally put the environmental crises and struggle to rest?

        • Excellent question concerning waking up in a way that “makes us grateful for what we have.” It seems to me that gratitude is often the basis for the wisest human decisions.
          There is stirring vision here in your other questions…it seems that part of the spark we should see to “ignite” us into action rests in you.

  42. And this comment is from Peter Murphy:
    This may be the most interesting article I have read on Earth/Ourselves thus far. I think your criteria for technology covers just about everything while still leaving room for technological advancements. I admire Polyface Farm’s policy about business needing to be ‘transparent’ so that the consumers have the necessary information about the products they are buying. I too believe it is the responsibility of the business and factories to make their impact on the environment and on society easily attainable; it is then the consumers’ job to make themselves aware of this information.
    The bullet point that I think is hardest for society to abide by, especially capitalist ones, is that sustainable technology should be cost effective. When we only make these products available to people with money we end up separating the world between the rich and the poor instead of between the environmentally-conscious and the non environmentally-conscious. This inadvertently develops a closed loop in commercialism; the ones who become aware of the environmental risks of the products they are buying are typically the ones that cannot afford to buy the ideal product…and the ones who can were already buying them. Naturally grown foods and environmentally friendly tools and cleansers need to be made available to all people if we want society to benefit on a substantial level.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Peter.
      Great point about economic distribution of sustainable technology. John Aldridge, a classmate, detailed this issue in his comment with respect to sharing technology with poorer nations, and I will be posting an addition to the guidelines that cover this issue in the next day or two.

  43. I appreciate all the points this article makes. This essay drives home one of the many persistent themes, which coincide with a holistic worldview, that are presented in our class- the need for consumers to see the effects of their actions. Issues such as an unwillingness, by our own government, to be transparent further hinders the public’s inability to make sustainable choices. It is becoming promising as more and more local farmers and businesspeople who take pride in their product, are showcasing their efforts.
    In our world, where a twisted survival instinct is triggered when developing a potentially life-saving form of technology (that requires a person to get a patent), it is no wonder that the precautionary principle is not utilized. I agree with the need for full-disclosure and transparency in our society. But, until we demand it it’ll likely not change.
    Thank you for also mentioning the need for technology to be available to the larger portion of humans. What drives me the most nuts is the premium price tag on whole, organic foods when compared to processed junk that sometimes travels thousands of miles.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Latifa. Since you have aptly applied these guidelines to food production and availability, you might be interested in looking into and supporting the new Farm Bill developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists– listed under “action alerts” and “your choices count” here.

  44. Thanks, I will look into that.

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