Technological Progress and Environmental Degradation
Our present culture glorifies technological progress above all else; its hypnotic quality mesmerizes us, and its eternal promise of innovation causes dangerous addiction. Progress means something good, an improvement on a previous version, an upward line that appears to continue forever. Our blind belief in progress makes it difficult to question it, especially when the technological progress is linked to the base of our economic system, consumerism. Unfortunately, the collateral damage caused by the requirements of unchecked technological progress is becoming more and more evident with climate breakdown and the environmental degradation of our planet. Our perception of improvement depends on the set of variables we choose, we can see the positive side of progress in health, education, entertainment, ease of living, but unless we also see the negative consequences, we are not doing a real assessment of the high risks this progress means to our own quality of life.
We are facing a serious degradation of the planet with regards to pollution, species extinctions, soil and water quality deterioration, plus the mammoth disturbances our energy bingeing have caused on the Earth’s physical systems. Classical economists like Economics Nobel Prize winner Robert Solow have influenced our culture greatly by disseminating the idea that more technology is the answer to any problem we might have. In 1974 Solow said that the world could get along without natural resources because technology and money could always find replacements. He later modified his extreme assessment, but his main message of growth based on technological advances and money, ignoring the environmental damage caused, permeated the mainstream culture quite well.
Our belief that we have found the standard quality of life for humanity and that it should be extended to the rest of the world, implies a willful refusal to see the reality of our finite physical world and the rules under which it operates. Capitalism requires expansion of markets and this implies exposing more people to technological progress, the supposed solver of all of humanity’s problems. This expansion has allowed for big increases in population and life expectancy, which have created an exponential growth in consumption, increasingly taxing the Earth’s ability to sustain us.
The expansion of technological progress and consumerism around the world has also created an increase in what energy economists -borrowing from the physics concept- have called ‘Entropy Production’. This is a very useful term that allows us to think not just about the good results of technology, but the disorder in the environment caused by the extraction of materials, manufacturing, transportation and use of the technology. Entropy production balances the equation for a true appraisal of technological progress.
During the 20th century many people noticed the folly of unchecked technological progress based on a belief in infinite resources that took millions of years to create. One of those was economist Nicholas Georgescu Roengen, who rejected classical economics of the Solow persuasion, after he had the insight about economics as an entropic affair. He recognized that “economics is primarily about transforming highly valued natural resources (low entropy) into waste (high entropy)”. The more technological advances we have, the more resources we need and we necessarily end up turning them into waste, while we try to create some organized matter, like a cell phone, a car or a dam. His assessment is based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that energy transformation always extracts a price, since only a small percentage of that energy is useful for work and the rest is dissipated as heat.
Our culture takes for granted the goodness of all new technological inventions and accepts them as the new norm, without noticing that we are in a universal thermodynamic cycle in which the more processes we develop, the more collateral ecological damage we create. I have chosen two examples of technological developments that allowed humans to supplant nature, as Solow advised, but have had unintended consequences that are presenting serious threats to our survival: Industrial Agriculture and Plastics.
The so-called green revolution, or the advent of industrial agriculture appeared to be a positive improvement for humanity, a promise of eternal food abundance. The mainstream story about it is one of a self-evident success that doesn’t allow any questioning about the environmentally dire consequences.
With the discovery of fossil fuels the use of increasingly complicated machinery in agriculture became widespread. This use implied extensive monocultures that are detrimental to the health of the soil and make plants more vulnerable to pests and require more fertilizer. Nitrogen had been used as a fertilizer in its natural occurrence in the form of guano and other animal by-products since the beginning of agriculture. The more technologically advanced agriculture became, the more nitrogen was needed and the natural one became insufficient. Progress came to the aid in the 1930s in the form of the Haber-Bosch process which produces nitrogen artificially. Unfortunately, there was an unforeseen result in our hubris of outdoing nature, we ended up overproducing nitrogen and altering its natural cycle. This has had severe repercussions for life all over the planet.
The excess nitrogen pollutes aquifers, lakes and rivers creating toxic algal blooms and red tides. The nitrogen then arrives at the sea creating dead zones where marine life can’t survive. One of the biggest is in the Gulf of Mexico, where the arrival of the Mississippi River brings all the excess nitrogen from Midwest Agribusiness. These dead ocean zones are expanding all around the world, mostly on the shores of highly developed countries with intensive agriculture. Unfortunately, fertilizer use has increased dramatically especially in developing countries, but this overuse of nitrogen is an exercise in diminishing returns. Scientists are noticing an efficiency reduction in fertilizers, less is being absorbed by the plants and more is going instead into the environment creating high toxicity all around.
The human disturbance of the nitrogen cycle also affects the atmosphere. Fertilizers need bacterial action to fix the nitrogen in the soil and the byproduct of that process emits nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas with a Global Warming Power (GWP) 300 times more potent than CO2. At the advent of agriculture on Earth, the levels of nitrous oxide were 28% lower than today and though they have oscillated up and down, they had never experienced the meteoric rise that accompanied the development of industrial agriculture.
Industrialization correlates with soaring increases in the concentration of the three main greenhouse gases: CO2 (GWP=1), methane (GWP=21) and nitrous oxide (GWP=300). The main culture has focused mostly on CO2, making people think that cuts in CO2 emissions are the only solution required. Even if we would stop all CO2 emissions now, we would still have a greenhouse gas problem in our atmosphere with the nitrous oxide from industrial agriculture and the uncontrolled methane emissions from cattle raising and the melting glaciers and permafrost.
The negative consequences of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere don’t stop there, once it arrives at the upper part, the gas reacts with high-energy oxygen atoms to produce a deadlier compound, nitric oxide (NO), a destroyer of the ozone layer. Nitrous oxide acts in the atmosphere in a similar way to Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals that were banned because of their ozone-destruction capabilities. The only difference is that CFCs made ozone holes in the Arctic zones, while nitric oxide thins the ozone layer all over the world.
The thinning of the ozone layer allows for the dangerous UVB rays to pass into the troposphere, disturbing photosynthesis and affecting the reproductive capacity of phytoplankton in the upper layers of the ocean. Phytoplankton is the basis of the food chain in the ocean, so its depletion is something that contributes greatly to the deterioration of the overall health of the ocean. It is also essential for the wellbeing of all the life on Earth, since it absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen. A sharp decrease of phytoplankton would unbalance even more the chemical composition of oceans and atmosphere.
UVB radiation also affects plant life, especially trees like conifers can become sterile and other trees may have more and more trouble staying healthy and reproducing. Scientists are already noticing that trees all over the world, from baobabs in Africa to trees in Canada and California, are dying in unprecedented numbers. The combination of UVB, droughts and rising temperatures is making it hard for trees to survive. UVB also causes cell death in plants and small animals like rats, and will sharply increase skin cancers in humans. It is evident that the disturbance of the nitrogen cycle affects everyone on the planet, there are no lucky communities that can escape.
The pesticides and herbicides needed for such intensive agriculture also damage the hormonal metabolism of all animals, causing the most harm to the smallest ones like insects and small birds. The neonicotinoids, widely used as agricultural insecticides have a very detrimental effect on bees, whose pollinating activities are essential for our own survival. Insects are crucial components of many ecosystems, they aerate the soil, pollinate blossoms, and control insect and plant pests. In a culture based on technological progress, insects are seen as pests that reduce our profits, we forget that we are still a part of nature and we survive thanks to it.
Our belief in eternal progress has divorced us from nature and from the fact that we are interconnected with all living things. We are now experiencing the 6th extinction, the first one caused by the top predator of Earth, Homo Sapiens. There had been extinctions before, but never caused by the most rational creature on the planet. People might think that losing 60% of insects is not bad, after all, we are not insects. But since we are all in nature and we depend on each other, their disappearance has bad omens for humans too. Technological progress has led us in a hubristic path that precludes our being aware of our vulnerability to the disturbances we cause in the ecosystem that maintains us.
GMOs complete the list of ills caused by the technological advance of Agribusiness. They have been touted as the answer to all our problems while ignoring their extreme entropy production. The herbicide Roundup is so toxic, that its creator, Monsanto, had to develop GMO plants able to withstand its extreme toxicity. If the developers of Roundup knew that normal plants like soy and corn can’t withstand Roundup’s toxicity, why wouldn’t they expect for it to be highly polluting of the world’s soil and waterways, and in the end, very counterproductive?
Monsanto does not like to use its profits in research for sustainable agricultural models, instead prefers to spend big amounts of money on K Street lobbyists, bribing the EPA so they pronounce, contrary to all evidence, that Roundup is safe. Their money also helps the creation of think tanks that produce ‘experts’ to pepper the media outlets with stories about the goodness of GMOs. From 1955 through 1966, Monsanto sponsored the Hall of Chemistry in Disneyland, which helped to give a veneer of futuristic wonder to toxic creations like Agent Orange.
The insistence of Agribusiness and neoliberal ruling elites to extend their GMO practice all over the world in order to increase their profits, is causing big problems for the developing world. India was forced to use GMOs as part of requirements for loans, GMO cotton was introduced as the panacea, but it turned out to be a disaster that reduced yields, polluted the areas and ruined many farmers.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believes that Africa won’t be able to feed itself without GMOs so it is pushing Monsanto seeds and herbicides in the continent. Gates is convinced that African farmers can buy expensive GMO seeds and related products, when 75% of Africans lives on less than $2 a day. The idea of including Africa in a technological progress that has created serious problems of environmental damage and the increase in greenhouse gases all over the world, just for the sake of progress and profits, is not a rational idea.
Africans have farming traditions adapted to their localities and these have been updated with sustainable models that prove that GMOs aren’t needed. Bringing industrial agricultural practices to Africa will not bring more food availability, instead it will pollute and make most African countries food insecure and dependent on foreign aid.
After the above evidence, it is easy to conclude that the environmental price paid for industrial agriculture is too high. Unfortunately, there is an extreme cognitive dissonance between the optimistic view of industrial agricultural as a panacea, and the realities of its collateral damage. Unless the main stream culture reduces this dissonance by giving equal reporting to the damage, there won’t be enough momentum to force Agribusiness to change.
The invention of plastics presents another good example of the negative consequences that technological progress can have for our well-being. Plastics are ubiquitous in our environment and have improved the lives of everyone on the planet. The first commercially viable plastic was developed by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869, after a firm in New York offered $10,000 for anybody who could find a substitute for ivory, the main resource used for billiard balls and piano keys. Hyatt created the first plastic using natural materials like cotton and camphor, what he called nitro celluloid.
The advent of fossil fuels in the 19th century provoked a creative leap in humans, the energy abundance allowed us to bypass nature and create our own resources. This way of thinking led to the creation of the first truly artificial plastic, which was done in 1907 by Leo Baekeland. He created Bakelite, used to replace natural shellac. Since then. fossil-fuel-based plastics evolved and their presence extended to every human activity.
Natural or shale gas is the preferred fossil fuel for making plastics. Its byproducts ethanol and propane are the main components of most plastics. Such wonderful new product, transparent, clean and able to be molded at will, plastics were perceived as the epitome of modernity. We have become accustomed to their ubiquity and usefulness, while ignoring the high entropy production in our environment.
The toxicity of plastic can be viewed within three categories: the components, the manufacturing and the leaching into the environment after being discarded. The environmental toxicity of plastics is a combination of the chemicals involved in the above three processes. Plastics are made of polymers and a study found 29 % were partly or completely made of monomers that are classified either as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction. These chemicals include heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which can disrupt important physiological processes of animals causing diseases and problems in reproduction. It has been found that at least 78 % of priority pollutants listed by EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) and 61 % listed by EU are associated with plastic litter.
Besides the toxic chemicals in the plastics themselves, the additives that provide strength, rigidity, flexibility, or flame retardation are highly toxic also. Bisphenol A is an example of what is called a plasticizer because it makes plastic more flexible. Water bottles, Tupperware and plastic bags use it. Heat makes the BPA leach into the water inside the bottle or into the ocean. When you think that Coca-Cola makes 3200 plastic bottles a second, you can imagine the mountain of toxicity that we are creating just by an activity that seems innocuous and widespread.
Once the plastic is discarded, contrary to our beliefs in the efficiency of recycling, the fact is that only 9% of the plastic in the world is recycled. The rest is either incinerated creating toxic fumes or stored in landfills that seep into the soil, rivers, aquifers and finally the sea. The action of the elements in the environment degrades the plastic allowing for its toxic chemicals to leach polluting our water and soil.
Many plastics have an affinity for other fossil fuel-based plastics so they tend to stick together forming huge plastic garbage islands in the oceans. The biggest one is the North Pacific garbage patch, the second is in the Indian Ocean and the third is in the Atlantic. The toxic chemicals seep into the water and when ingested, damage all marine life, beginning with the phytoplankton. From the bottom of the food chain, the toxicity of plastics is transferred to the fish that animals and humans eat, creating a chain of hormonal disruption, reproductive problems, mutations and cancers.
You can see big garbage patches in the ocean and plastic bags hanging to trees and littering beaches around the planet, but there are smaller plastics that we can’t see and still wreak havoc with the rivers and oceans. Microbeads are used in cosmetics and personal hygiene products and have similar toxicity to larger plastics. They tend to clump together in bite-size chunks and are mistaken for food by ocean fauna. In 2015 the Microbead-Free Water Act was signed into law, but unfortunately it only covered rinse-off products like shampoo. The law still allows for plenty of products with microbeads to continue arriving at the ocean through sewage systems.
The other invisible danger from plastics comes from Microfibers, which detach routinely from synthetic clothing every time you wash them or with rough outdoor use. We are so used to the comfortable synthetic clothing that clings to our body and keeps us warm without much bulk, while being unaware that it is quite possible that by 2050, the ocean is going to have more plastic than fish, and our fish will increasingly be more contaminated with plastic pollutants.
The chain of collateral damage that industrial agriculture and plastics have caused is putting our survival at risk, yet, we insist on believing in their positive side because it forms part of our belief in the absolute goodness of technological progress. Any rational view of progress should verify empirical data about all its effects and adjust accordingly. Unfortunately, we live in a culture in which profit is more important than survival and quality of life, we take for granted that technology and money solve everything, as Robert Solow once said. This is very evident with the unwillingness of corporations to check the entropy production of their products and practices. They prefer profits to research and development of sustainable practices and they use their extra cash to subvert the democratic balance by influencing politicians and media to suit their dirty habits. They are interested in short-term profits, but ignore that the survival prospects of humanity, including them and their offspring, might be the greatest long-term gain of all.
How can we prefer profits to the preservation of our friendly pollinators, the bees? How can we prefer to laud industrial agriculture when it has altered the balance of the nitrogen cycle on Earth with dire consequences? How can we continue accepting plastic as a necessity, when we know that it is a pervasive polluter that is ruining our waterways and oceans?
The Edinburgh-based Global Oceanic Environmental Survey (GOES) Foundation fears the entire marine ecosystem could collapse within the next 25 years and the only way to avoid planetary disaster is to acknowledge the problem and change now. “We only have around 10 years to effect change and eliminate not only plastic but priority toxic chemicals such as oxybenzone used in thousands of products from lipstick to sunscreen.” To add to the woes of the ocean, excess CO2 in the atmosphere is forcing the ocean to absorb it in big quantities, raising the water’s acidity. This, combined with the warming of the water and the pollutants from Agribusiness and plastics can trigger a cascade collapse of the ocean ecosystem with the possibility of marine life disappearing in a few years. These events will in turn spark the breakdown of the terrestrial ecosystem with high probabilities of widespread extinction.
We are at high risk of a complete climate breakdown, that combined with the entropy production produced by our unchecked technological progress, is bringing us each day closer to catastrophe. This is the time to “wake up”, notice what is really going on and decide to act. If not, we will have to face the consequences of a painful set of environmental disasters that will end our current quality of life and dramatically reduce our chances of survival as a species. Really waking up means admitting that our beliefs have led us down the wrong path. The current state of the planet demands that our values change in a way that cooperation based on the commons, resource conservation, and quality of life based on creativity and the importance of human interaction, become our top priorities. This change has to be done now, otherwise it will be too late, and our species will face the unspeakable and unthinkable: extinction.