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Special series: Ecological economics, part 5
September-October 2009

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A fundamental conflict exists between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, as there is no way to continue economic growth without also irreparably destroying Earth. This fifth part of the series will explore the issue of technology and show why it will not result in ecological preservation without a parallel shift away from a growth-oriented economy toward a steady state economy. Much of this article is adapted from Brian Czech’s “Prospects for reconciling the conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation with technological progress,” in Conservation Biology, Vol. 22, No. 6, 2008 and

Human beings are completely dependent on plants and non-human animals for survival and these plants and animals are in turn dependent on Earth. It is important to remember that any increase in resource use by humans means a de facto decrease in resources available for other life forms. When a mountain top is blown up to extract minerals, the plants and animals there lose their habitats and food sources. As wildlife biologist Brian Czech puts it, “The foundation of the human economy is agriculture and extractive activity that directly impacts nonhuman species… In the absence of [humans], natural capital is allocated entirely to nonhuman species. The level of human economic activity determines how much natural capital is available for biodiversity.”

Yet many erroneously believe that technological advances in the efficiency of our resources will allow us to sustain an ever growing economy while decreasing our ecological footprint. Researcher Annababette Wils writes of three basic divisions of innovation in relation to resource use: explorative technology that helps find new stocks of resources that were previously undetected; extractive technology that helps extract previously inaccessible resources; and end-use technology that increases technical efficiency. Better technology in exploration and extraction of resources clearly lead to increases in resource use, so only end-use technologies offer any hope to reconcile the conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. Yet we will see that unless the drive for growth is curbed, no technology will be able to resolve that friction.

Consider improvements in fishing technology that increases the amount of fish caught and sold per unit of fuel consumed. This will lead to one of three basic scenarios: either the same number of fish will be caught and sold while using less fuel, which would reduce economic growth; or the same amount of fuel is purchased and more fish are caught and sold, thus increasing economic growth; or a combination where a little less fuel is used to sell a few more fish. If the overriding goal of the fishers is to grow the size of their operation, they will choose to increase their catch of fish, so the increase in technology does not result in any decrease in any overall resource use. Only by choosing to forego growth would the technology result in a decrease in resource (fuel) use.

In 1865, William Stanley Jevons noticed this phenomenon with the introduction of a more efficient steam engine. In what became known as Jevons’ paradox, he showed how instead of reducing overall consumption of coal, the increase in efficiency actually increased consumption noticeably. While the more efficient engine enabled greater production, it made the transportation of goods and people cheaper thus increasing the demand for it. Similar events followed other increases in efficiency.

In 1975, Congress mandated more fuel efficient cars as a way to decrease use of foreign oil. Yet as travel became less expensive, people traveled more, bought more cars and increased fuel consumption: By 1990, engine efficiency had grown by 34 percent, and fuel consumption had grown by nine percent. One way to avoid this increased growth in consumption is through a fuel tax, or a similar policy, that would raise the cost of fuel in relation to the efficiency savings. However, the growth mindset makes policies like this difficult to pass.

A good illustration of combining policy with technology to lower an ecological footprint can be seen in European productivity and GDP levels. In the early 1970s, European productivity per worker hour was about two thirds that of the U.S. and European consumption levels were similarly about two thirds the size of the U.S. Today, however, European productivity is almost equal to the U.S., yet its level of consumption has remained at around two thirds. While the U.S. used technological advances to produce and consume more, Europe used it to create more leisure time. Work hours were decreased and annual vacation hours were increased.

It is only by combining technological advances in efficiency with policies to reduce consumption that technology will help reduce humanity’s effect on the planet. If the current drive for constant growth is maintained, technology will only moderately slow down the rate of Earth’s destruction, not reduce it.

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