Public Policy Bits: Techno-fixes?

Albert Einstein famously proclaimed that “you can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it”.  But we keep trying to fool ourselves that we can. We see technology as our ultimate solution, from extending our lives through synthetic biology, to arguing that we must have genetically modified food and other organisms as we are growing out of proportions, available food and resources. It is an old Malthusian argument, but with a naive hope that if only technology is there, we can continue our unsustainable, non-reflexive, impulsive and consumerist behaviour with no or little impact on ecosystems. Wrong! We can’t.

This post is inspired by the story I read yesterday on BBC website — it is rightly named “Constant craving” and is about the rising demand for water globally, and that we can resolve this, or help resolve, by using smart water networks, similarly to so-called ‘smart-grids’ for electricity. The author mentions the OECD report which claimed that the “…global water demand is projected to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050 – without new technology”, and then goes on to claim that technology may be a solution with a comment under a picture of what is seemingly post-harvest maize field.

There are many technological solutions in the world of water which companies propel to help save water, but also, gain profit. This includes membrane technology run with remote osmosis, the drip irrigation techniques; in the 1980s it was the biological water treatment that revolutionized water supply and sanitation, and nowadays it is about the re-use and recycling of water…But these are so-called ‘end-of-pipe’ solutions, they do not touch the real heart and soul of the problem. Those who believe they will rescue the world are naive, hopeless techno-optimists.

In the spirit of many scientists and advocates of sustainability, I am very skeptical of any possibility of new technology without fundamental behavioural change to resolve our water scarcity or water quality issues. If anything at all, they will make water management more costly, as there is always a question of who pays for all those smart grids. And I am certainly against making public water supply and sanitation market-driven, as may be presumed by the comment of a representative of “Global Water Intelligence” that the water industry is too conservative.

A lot of issues unresolved , and a lot of issues unmentioned when techno-optimists make their point. And this has to be opposed. There is a wonderful book which puts my somewhat quick reaction in a more balanced, argued and evidence-supported way. It is called “Techno-Fix“, and I will write a review of it in August. So much for our idealistic belief in technology. Unless we are ready to give up artificially irrigated golf-fields in Dubai and air-con environments in places where humans should not live in the first place, unless we stop believing that water 24/7 at a low price with no environmental education is a standard to go for, and unless we do something about our own behavior, technology will only solve things temporarily, while making some businesses richer.

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