Environmental Context

Technological Choice

Technology & Environment
Appropriate Technology
Clean, Green Technology

Social Shaping of Technology

Case Study: Clean Production
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Technological Choice

Social Shaping of Technology

solar collectorsWhy Green Technology is Not Adopted

Bullet pointEconomics

Belief: Green technology costs more

Costs more to whom?
Short term or long term costs?
Capital or Operating costs?

Solution: Economic Instruments

Bullet pointNeglect

Belief: Environmental protection not a priority

Priority to whom?

Solution: Legislation

Bullet pointKnowledge

Belief: Environmental protection not a priority

Whose knowledge?

Solution: Research and education

Bullet pointVested Interests

Belief: Some people have an interest in not adopting green technologies


Solution: ??


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The reluctance to adopt alternative technologies

Not all technological options and alternatives are developed or explored. Although this is often because alternatives are more expensive or less economical, there are often other reasons, too. Some writers explain the narrowing of options in terms of a technological paradigm. This is a term borrowed from Thomas Kuhn (1970) who postulated in 1962 that science progresses through periods of 'normal science,' which operates within a scientific paradigm, interspersed with periods of 'scientific revolutions'.

Several writers have applied the concept of a paradigm to technological development. Edward Constant (1984) argued that the routine work of engineers and technologists, which he called 'normal technology', involves the 'extension, articulation or incremental development' of existing technologies. A technological paradigm or 'tradition', Constant said, is subscribed to by engineers and technicians who share common educational and work experience backgrounds.

Giovanni Dosi (1982) described a technological paradigm as an 'outlook', a set of procedures, a definition of the 'relevant' problems and of the specific knowledge related to their solution.' Such a paradigm, Dosi said, embodies strong prescriptions on which technological directions to follow and ensures that engineers and the organisations for which they work are blind to other technological possibilities. Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter (1977, p. 57) also observed that a technological paradigm or regime will define for the engineer what is feasible or at least worth attempting:

The sense of potential, of constraints, and of not yet exploited opportunities, implicit in a regime focuses the attention of engineers on certain directions in which progress is possible, and provides strong guidance as to the tactics likely to be fruitful for probing in that direction.

As a result, technological development tends to follow certain directions, or trajectories, that are determined by the engineering profession. Ideas are developed if they fit the paradigm; otherwise, they tend to be ignored by the mainstream engineers, the bulk of the profession. An example is the development of sewerage engineering. The range of ways of treating sewage is limited by a sewage treatment paradigm that assumes that sewage will be delivered in pipes to centralised locations near waterways. Treatment is classified into three stages&emdash;primary, secondary and tertiary, which build upon one another. The first stage is to remove some of the solids from the sewage; the second stage is to decompose the sewage; and the third stage either removes more solids or decomposes the sewage further. Any new technology will only be thought of or developed if it can fit within this system.

Generally, technological change is gradual and occurs within technological paradigms. Radical technological innovation is often opposed because of the social changes that may need to accompany it&emdash;for example, changes to the work and skills of employees, to the way production is organised, and to the relationships between a firm and its clients and suppliers (Cramer & Zegveld 1991, pp. 453, 456). Dutch scholar Johan Schot (1992) argues that radical technological change can only occur if the social context also changes.

Langdon Winner (1986) has argued that most people in the appropriate technology movement ignored the question of how they would get those who were committed to traditional technologies to accept the new appropriate technologies. They believed that if their technologies were seen to be better, not only in terms of their environmental benefits but also in terms of sound engineering, thrift and profitability, they would be accepted.

Winner says that appropriate technology was generally seen as a way of effecting change without challenging the established power structure of western societies. This allowed a sense of optimism that had been lacking in the ranks of those who were unhappy with the direction and values of the societies they lived in. They believed that, as the new technologies caught on, social change would follow:

As successful grass-roots efforts spread, those involved in similar projects were expected to stay in touch with each other and begin forming little communities, slowly reshaping society through a growing aggregation of small-scale social and technical transformations. Radical social change would catch on like disposable diapers … or some other popular consumer item. (p. 79)

Not all advocates of alternative technologies ignored the social and political dimensions, however. David Dickson recognised the difficulties that would be encountered by those proposing radically different types of technology when he proposed the name 'utopian technology'. He said that he used the word 'utopian' because an alternative technology could 'only be successfully applied on a large scale once an alternative form of society had been created' (p. 99).

However, many of the advocates of appropriate technologies made no attempt to understand how modern technologies had been developed and why they had been accepted or why alternatives had been discarded. Winner claims that 'by and large most of those active in the field were willing to proceed as if history and existing institutional technical realities simply did not matter' (1986, p. 80).

It is important not to put too much emphasis on technological factors without considering the social, political and economic factors that can be crucial in the shaping and implementation of technologies. It seems that those pinning their hopes on technology to deliver to us a sustainable future may well be doing the same thing. Having the technological means to reduce pollution and to protect the environment does not mean that it will automatically be used. According to McCully:

The reason that the USA is the most polluting nation in the world has little to do with a lack of energy efficient technologies or renewable methods of producing electricity: it has a lot to do with the size of the country's oil, coal and automobile industries and the influence they have on the political establishment. In the UK, the public transport system is expensive, unreliable and infrequent, not because the government cannot afford to improve it or does not know how, but because the vested interests behind public transport have negligible power compared to the influential road and car lobbies. (1991a, p. 250)

Given that there are many environmentally beneficial technologies are already designed and available for implementation, it is necessary to look beyond the designer to other people in society who affect decisions about technological choice. In the next chapter we will consider the role of business and industry and in the following chapter, the role of governments and consumers.

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