Next problem: Over-developed countries (1)

Thursday, October 27, 2011 12:00 AM    Views : 1281by:YUEN-TSEH LEE

I would like to begin by retracing the development of human societies. It is within this broader story of human development that we can understand the role of science and technology in getting us to where we are today.

Our sun and our position within the solar system are what distinguish us from all other planets we know. The Sun provides the energy that recycles some materials on Earth, preventing our planet from falling into disorder. This, of course, is the basis for life. Our ancestors appeared on this planet about 2 million years ago, and evolved on its surface through time.

But around 250 years ago, things began to change very quickly. The industrial revolution kicked off in England with the invention of the steam engine and the weaving machine. It then spread to Germany and France, with the internal combustion engine, and to the United States, producing amazing inventions like the harvester, the sewing machine, the elevator, nylon, and atomic energy. Fossil fuels quickly replaced energy from photosynthesis.

In 1850, fossil fuel provided 9% of all energy in the United States, while wood provided over 90%. By 1930, this had completely reversed. Fossil fuel now provided over 90%, and the proportion provided by wood fell to 6%. People invented machines that soon took the place of human labor. We effectively dissociated ourselves from sunshine.

In the 20th century, civilization based on technology moved into a new phase: namely the popularization of industrial products for consumption. Henry Ford’s Model T began mass-production in 1908, ushering in the advent of mass-production consumerism. After the war, Japan played a key role in the development of high tech mass production at a low cost. Asia became a booming playground for industrialization and the world’s factory, beginning with Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and later joined by Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and China.

With efficient mass production, automation and the invention of new materials, high tech products became cheap enough that they were now available not only to the rich. Middle-class or even lower-middle class households could have them. Cars, televisions, video cameras, CDs, personal computers, cell phones, fax machines, air conditioners, color-printers, automatic washing machines, you name it. Technology was democratizing. But it was also individualizing. Every individual now wanted his or her own personal laptop, smart phone, iPad, cars, and flat-screen TVs. And they switched to the latest version all the time, abandoning the older versions. Expanding markets and encouraging consumption became the goals.

These trends are not likely to stop with China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies. Developing countries everywhere from Asia to Africa are looking to follow the footsteps of America and Europe, and become societies of individual, mass consumers.

Of course, all of this has certainly increased immensely the use of energy and the exploitation of natural resources, and has produced huge amounts of waste materials. The impact of all this on nature is considerable.

According to the global footprint network, the world population now consumes resources that would take 1.4 Earths to produce. If everyone in the world lived like the Americans, we would need 5.4 Earths. If we all lived like people in England, South Africa or Argentina, we would similarly be living beyond our natural means. Whichever indicators you choose to look at for the human impact on nature, they are only going up.

The largest of these impacts is climate change. While in 2001 scientists thought a 2 degrees C temperature rise above the pre-industrial level would present little to moderately significant risks, improved science eight years later showed that the risks will likely be substantial and severe.

Unfortunately, we are not anywhere close to making sure that temperature rise stays within 2 degrees C. The most up-to-date research, surveyed by UNEP shows that global GHG emissions must fall to 44 billion tons CO2-equivalent by 2020 for us to have even a reasonable chance (that is, a 66% chance) of staying under 2 degrees. Sadly, even if we fulfill all of the most ambitious pledges made in Copenhagen, we would still end up emitting 49 billion tons by 2020, or 5 billion tons too much. Although some studies suggest we could go as much as 12 billion tonnes over the limit.

Meanwhile, many of the consequences of climate change have already arrived. If you look at extreme weather, the number of floods worldwide, they have increased through the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and so on. The Asia Pacific has seen by far the largest increase. Just within the last year, we saw absolutely horrible flooding in Pakistan, Australia, and Brazil. Taiwan went through the Marokot Typhoon, which killed 800 people overnight.

Resource extraction and exploitation of this magnitude has put severe strains on biodiversity. Many of us do not realize that 1/3 of the food we eat is pollinated by wild insects. Nature services provide almost twice as much GDP as is created by human societies. Therefore, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation will certainly result in great impacts on human welfare.

All of this leads to a clear and inevitable conclusion: the world is over-developed. We have to change course right away, and begin charting the way towards more sustainable forms of development, much more in harmony with nature.

Science and technology will continue to play a central role in this change of course, just as they have been central to every step of human development thus far. But if they are to help push human societies in the right direction " a sustainable one, that is " the development of science and technology will have to be guided by a few principles.

1. First, and arguably the most important, is the fact that the American and European way of development is not to be followed. This bears repeating: we cannot follow the path of development of America and Europe. These earliest industrial countries developed through over-consuming and over-exploiting the environment in unsustainable fashion. Instead of calling them "developed countries," it would be more appropriate to call them "over-developed countries." The emerging economies and developing countries, or, as I like to call them " "not-yet-over-developed countries" " have to find another way. If every Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian person lived like the average American or European, then we are all doomed. Thus, science and technology must help drive the world away from these forms of development, and towards truly sustainable ones.

2. We need to re-establish the central role of the sun in providing energy, recycling the materials on earth, and protecting the living environment. In addition to the development of renewable energy and improvements in energy efficiency, we have to restore the ability of the earth to absorb CO2. There are already encouraging developments in this respect. However, the existing technology is not enough. We must continue efforts in research and development, and educate the young generation of creative scientists.

3. We have to re-orient the development of science and technology to the community. We should develop technology not as much for the desires of individual consumers, but for the benefit of the community and the society as a whole. Instead of the personal automobile, we should have public transit systems that are clean, convenient, safe, accessible, and affordable. We should design cities such that much of what needs to be done is within walking distance.

4. We have to tap into our diverse cultures and traditions. Our ancestors lived for thousands of years in harmony with nature. There are surely profound wisdoms in their ways of life that we can learn from. Culture will play a key role also because in today’s technological development, manufacturing equipments has come to maturity, and software and content will become more important than hardware. The question has become: how can we use the technologies we have and the cultural resources we possess to create more ideal social, political and economic arrangements? What I want to say is that we should not believe that there is only one pathway toward development; and we should not simply accept the view of development from the "over-developed" world. For the not-yet-over-developed, there are better ways to go.


Dr. Lee was a l986 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry and former president of Academia Sinica in Taipeh. This article was based on the keynote speech he delivered at the UST Global Conference on Ethics in Science and Technology last week as part of the university’s 400th anniversary celebration.




S & T Trivia

" WIPO Inventor of the Year 1995 Edgardo Vazquez brought home the Gold Medal for the modular housing called Vazbuilt. This is a system for building fire-, termite-, typhoon- and earthquake-proof houses in less than a month using prefabricated posts and panels. Engr. James Reamon also took a gold from the WIPO in 1984 for his Jimbo Ventilation System. "

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