The impacts of Technology and Ethics on Sustainability and Business

What impact do businesses and other organizations have on the Environment?

Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren developed a formula for examining environmental impact stating that I = f(PAT) where I is impact, P is Population, A is Affluence, T is Technology. In other words, if we increase global population, which is inevitable, in order to maintain environmental impact, we must reduce either the Affluence, or create Technologies that reduce individual and collective impact. Brown and Garver changed the formula to I = f(PATE) and added the influence of Ethics. They also conclude that each of these variables have an influence on the others. Without going into a deeper description of the variables, we can generally agree that from a world population view, this view of human impact of the planet seems fatalistic because we know that the planet is already stressed beyond limits and on average, Population and Affluence are both increasing.

This would seemingly leave the entire hope of humanity resting upon the ability of Technology or a sudden swell of Ethics to decrease our net impact on the planet. Recent flooding in Pakistan disrupting the lives of 12 million people and leaving 4 million with food shortages, the worst in 80 years, mudslides in China, and a massive block of ice (260 square km and half the height of the empire state building) which recently fell off the ice shelf in Iceland into the water suggest that our climate is still shifting in uncontrolable and potentially dire directions. Ice falling off a land based shelf, by the way, does contribute to elevated ocean levels, cooling of oceans in the immediate vacinity of the ice, and vast amounts of fresh water (i.e. desalination) being dumped into the ocean and affecting ocean flows.

So here’s the question: Can we solve the issues facing us with only Technology and Ethics before our planet is irrepairably damaged and forces our hand on the factors of Affluence and Population?

The short answer is “probably not”! But there are ways in which Technology and Ethics can have an a positive impact on affluence and ethics and here’s how one idea of how a solution could unfold from an individual, business and global perspective.

The Influence of Technology and Ethics

Can technology alone solve the complex issues of planetary degradation? At first glance technology does not seem to have the answers to our current dilemma. We know that technology has vastly improved our ability to communicate, upgraded efficiencies of business through applications like ERP and supply chain management, improved our ability to service customers, enhanced our quality control systems leading to more durable goods and provided the ability to reduce travel costs through collaborative software. Our ability to harness more power from less fuel is also benefiting our automotive technologies and air travel per mile is benefiting from lighter materials, advanced engines and cleaner fuels. But have we actually used these technologies to reduce our net power consumption and CO2 production per capita? Well, perhaps just a little.

Technologies such as “LED” televisions for example, which at first glance might seem much more efficient than older CRT technologies, actually use about twice the power for the same screen size or three times for plasma TVs, not to mention the requirement for digital boxes ( although these technologies too are improving with the latest generation of Energy Star ratings). In addition to brighter more beautiful pictures, the addition of channels and the larger screen sizes (which also require more power) might tend to increase viewing hours. The power consumption due to newer technologies, in some respects is going up, not down, thus increasing our impact on all fronts. And the effect of having more perceived efficiency leads us to use power more freely.

And let’s face it, if all the other three factors are creating a greater impact on the environment, we would have a  tough time claiming that our ethics are improving.

I = f(PATE) suggests that we currently have a failing grade.

Having said that, many companies have made concerted efforts to implement collaborative technologies. I have personally worked with many individuals and some companies who use skype or conference call technologies to meet rather than meeting face to face thus reducing travel and CO2 emissions. At this stage in technological evolution, meeting in person is still far better, but technology, according to Ray Kurzweil, is continually growing in it’s capability, power and scope of application and, at some point in the not too distant future, meeting virtually may provide an experience which is close to that of meeting in person. The fact that virtually all technologies have continued to advance exponentially and appear to be continuing on this path (despite suggestions of those that hold that Moore’s law will break down) might suggest that solutions are closer than we currently perceive.

Simple examples of recent advances in solar technologies include panels which can catalyze hydrogen from water using only sunlight and CO2, essentially mimicking photosynthesis, as well as new coatings that allow heat to be used advantageously in the generation of solar photovoltaic energy rather than wasting it, making solar cells cost competitive with energy developed through burning oil. Carbon nanotubes have proven valuable for many applications including storage of energy and high speed computing, and wireless signals. Communications using quantum attributes such as quantum entanglement are leading to smaller and virtually instantaneous communication approaches. AI (Artificial Intelligence) approaches constantly advance our abilities to understand each other and share information (e.g. through automated language translation devices) and new applications of context based search enable us to more rapidly find relevant information for expanded research sharing. Neural interfaces are already being used for some applications which could theoretically make our ability to access an ever expanding ocean of knowledge almost instantaneous. Google’s CEO reported that in two days we now produce as much information as we previously did through all of recorded history up till 2003. And our ability to mine this information is also rapidly advancing. Although many of these more recent technologies are not yet at their production phases, they are making their way to practical applications through the advanced business practices and through the internet which allows for rapid prototyping and less-expensive mass implementation.

Our challenge is to use technology in an ethical way that recognizes the global environment as the foundation for all of our business and commercial advances and for human life in general. No amount of technology will help if we use it only to mine marketing data to market more products and encourage more consumption. How to use information is an ethical issue which companies like Google and Yahoo are struggling with. Just because you have the information doesn’t mean you should use it for marketing every product. CEO’s of major corporations will need to make major strategic decisions to take global ethics into account and to take an oath similar to the medical oath “do no harm”.

As greener technologies make their way through the business world, production expenses can be “theoretically” reduced through lower resource needs and using renewable energy devices. By lowering consumer prices of green technologies and communication technologies, business leaders can put tools in the hands of consumers which will help them to save energy and resources (e.g. faster implementation of technologically advanced solar cells, electric cars, etc.), thereby encouraging less resource consumption and a greater focus on services. Business leaders who have adopted good ethical practices see the benefit of sharing profits with their workers because it encourages them to become promoters of their products and services. Good economic practice includes paying workers well rather than creating wage disparity. This in turn helps the economy by creating customers with purchasing power and the ability to take advantage of newer technologies.

Naturally, some problems with new technologies can be anticipated, but according to Kurzweil, as more and more of our daily lives become technology and information related and as the power of technology continues to advance exponentially, our ability to become more green through technology could begin to take the same exponential path that other technologies are already benefiting from.

Another trend in technology that may lead to greener outcomes is that of convergence, where cellphones and other mobile technologies begin to occupy more and more of our time, thereby reducing the need for other devices in our lives. Convergence of devices can theoretically reduce our production and energy needs. This, however, also depends somewhat on our ethics and our awareness that reducing production and resource usage is actually a desirable end result. If all we do is continue to add more devices to our already vast collection, we will have gained little.

The implications of exponential technological growth are not well understood by most people. Kurzweil argues that most of us tend to think linearly, not exponentially. If you double capabilities each year, in 10 years you get a 1000 fold increase in capability. If we can make most technologies energy neutral and begin to use the exponential growth capability of new technologies, especially those that are specifically designed to reduce our energy requirements and to supply our energy needs, a 1000 fold improvement in our green technologies over the next ten years may not be out of the question. Technological paradigms such as nanotechnologies which will help us to put more power into smaller devices, artificial intelligence will enhance context based search capabilities, and continued enhancements in solar power collection will benefit from both our growing ability to rapidly market and implement green technologies through mass communication.

In addition, each year the number of social justice organizations and businesses leaders that support positive social change is growing. As the cost of technology decreases, it also provides new capabilities and a means for educating developing nations, which incidentally has an impact on reducing population. Educating women especially tends to help them set up a family support system that doesn’t depend on having large families to provide for future security.  Technologically advanced devices can lead to vast increases in affluence and education without an enormous demand on planetary resources.

While Ethics and Technology aren’t the only factors that will play a part in the solution, they are an important component. And if we are to use the technology to reduce our consumption, we must also change our values and elevate our ethical conscience to include global as well as local concerns so we don’t just add capability without changing our ways.

All the best,

Garth Schmalenberg

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