Guidelines for Sustainable Technology

 This graphic (too appropriate to pass up) is from http://connexionsandcontradictions.blogspot.com/ (check it out)

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.