Citation: This article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Sustainable Development and the Need for Technological Change', 21C, Summer 1993, pp. 32-39.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

In October 1987, the goal of sustainable development was endorsed by the governments of 100 nations in the UN General Assembly. The UN endorsement followed the completion of a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, published as "Our Common Future", which defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The concept of sustainable development has succeeded in gaining widespread support amongst the world's decision makers and power brokers because it aims to protect the environment without the need for radical change. It sets out to make necessary modifications that will enable normal economic activities to be sustainable into the future. At the same time it recognises that serious and irreversible environmental degradation should be prevented because it could diminish the ability of the planet to sustain such activities.

Sustainable development represents a significant shift from the early environmentalists' idea of sustainability, which precluded unlimited growth on a finite planet, to a sustainability that is more compatible with growth. Industry groups and business associations have produced numerous documents and policy statements on sustainable development outlining how the environment can be protected in a context of economic growth, freed-up markets and industrial self-regulation.

The support of environmentalists for the concept of sustainable development has been less universal. Whilst some welcome the newfound attention being paid to environmental protection and the opportunity to negotiate with governments and developers on these issues, others are more wary because of the minimalist approach that seems to be inherent in the sustainable development approach. They argue that more fundamental institutional and social changes need to take place, including a shift towards steady-state economies.

Sustainable development seeks to change the nature of economic growth rather than limit it. In its introduction to the Australian edition of the Brundtland report the Commission For the Future pointed out that "Rather than growth or no-growth, as the debate about environment and development has sometimes been cast, the central issue is what kind of growth. The challenge of sustainable development is to find new products, processes, and technologies which are environmentally friendly while they deliver the things we want."

At the heart of the debate over the potential effectiveness of sustainable development is the question of whether technological change can reduce the impact of economic development sufficiently to ensure other types of change will not be necessary. Changes in population growth and consumption levels seem to be off the agenda since nations were unable to come to any agreement on these issues at the recent Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. If environmental impact is a function of numbers of people (population), resource use per person (consumption) and environmental impact per unit of resource used (technology), this leaves technology as the remaining variable available for manipulation.

Can technology give us environmental protection and economic development? Can it ensure equity between and within generations so that everyone, now and in the future, our far neighbours and our great-grandchildren, can enjoy the standard of living we do? Such an accomplishment would require more than just a few adjustments to existing technological systems. It would require a radically different technology. Yet if technology is socially shaped, as modern scholars of technology studies argue, can we achieve radical technological change without equally radical social change taking place?

Attempts to invent and design different types of technology that were more environmentally sound are not new. The appropriate technology movement which blossomed in the 1970s attempted to do just this. The appropriate technology movement has been going for more than twenty years in many countries, and today involves an extensive network of groups, an identifiable literature of its own, as well as numerous demonstrated technological innovations. Despite this, it has failed to influence the pattern of technology choice exercised by mainstream society. Kelvin Willoughby, a US scholar who has studied this movement, points out that while it has "achieved a modestly impressive track record of successful projects" and despite the "appeal and commonsense nature of the movement's core ideas, the movement has largely failed to evoke the transformation of industrial and technological practice in most countries in accordance with the principles of Appropriate Technology. In other words, while becoming a significant international movement Appropriate Technology has remained a minority theme within technology policy and practice." (1990, p. 12)

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.

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 as the Appropriate Technology Movement before them. Having the technological means to reduce pollution and to protect the environment does not mean that it will automatically be used.

According to Patrick McCully, writing in The Ecologist, "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. (1991, p. 250)

Given that there are many environmentally beneficial technologies are already designed and available for implementation, there is a need to look beyond the designer of technology to other people in society who affect decisions about technological choice including businesses, governments and consumers.

Business and Industry

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the governments of 170 nations signed Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development which said that "Through more efficient production processes, preventive strategies, cleaner production technologies and procedures throughout the product life cycle, hence minimising or avoiding wastes, the policies and operations of business and industry, including transnational corporations, can play a major role in reducing impacts on resource use and the environment. Technological innovations, development, applications, transfer and the more comprehensive aspects of partnership and cooperation are to a very large extent within the province of business and industry."

Yet although the burden of technological change seems to lie with business and industry, many firms are not implementing environmentally beneficial technologies, despite their availability. The ESD Working Group on Manufacturing found that firms did not "appear to have made full use of available technology and management with respect to energy efficiency" and that "in many industries, a range of technologies for green products and cleaner production are already available but have not been generally adopted."

Moreover, efforts to clean up the environment have tended to concentrate on technologies that are added to existing production processes to control and reduce pollution (end-of-pipe technologies and control devices) rather than changes to the production processes themselves. The alternative to end-of-pipe technologies is to adopt new `clean' technologies that alter production processes, inputs to the process and products themselves so that they are more environmentally benign. It is suggested by Cramer and Zegveld (1991, pp. 461-2) that process technologies should be used that require less water (for example, by alternative drying techniques), energy and raw materials, and that reduce waste discharges (for example by developing detection and separation machinery and process-integrated flue-gas cleaning and filter systems). Also, raw material inputs and processes can be changed so that, for instance, solvent-free inks and paints, and heavy metal-free pigments are used. The end products can be redesigned to reduce environmental damage during both manufacture and use, and waste flows can be reused within the production process rather than dumped.

Clean technologies are preferable to end-of-pipe technologies because they avoid the need to extract and concentrate toxic material from the waste stream and deal with it. The ESD working group on manufacturing has categorised waste management strategies according to a hierarchy of desirability, ranging from clean technologies to disposal methods--the latter being the least desirable.

The OECD found that, in 1987, most investment in pollution control was being used for end-of-pipe technologies, with only 20 per cent being used for cleaner production. Cleaner technologies are not always available and, even when they are, companies tend not to replace their old technologies until they have run their useful life. Also, companies prefer to keep to a minimum the organisational changes that need to be made; they like to play it safe when it comes to investment in pollution management. The ESD Working Group commented that, "it is apparent that in many cases end-of-pipe technologies are readily available, easier to adopt and more evident as anti-pollution measures than clean production processes".

According to the working group, "The rate of uptake of new cleaner technologies by industry will depend on each firm's assessment of a complex array of long and short-term costs and benefits from this action. The age and residual life of current plant and equipment, and the investment climate, will be critical to new capital expenditure decisions. The prospect of gaining consumer goodwill and a competitive edge from cleaner production, or the prospect of increased costs for pollution and waste disposal, would also be expected to be important determinants ... Adverse publicity or its likelihood may act as a powerful incentive to lagging firms to clean up their act. (pp. 62-3)"


A series of media reports and books, such as The Green Consumer Guide (Elkington & Hailes 1989), have given many people the impression that the environment can be saved if individuals are responsible in their shopping habits and buy only environmentally sound products. The idea is that firms wanting to take advantage of this new demand for green products will change their production processes and redesign their products to meet the demand. Environmentally sound goods will become profitable. This view has been reinforced by David Pearce, former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, and his colleagues who stated that "Sustainable Development means a change in consumption patterns towards environmentally more benign products, and a change in investment patterns towards augmenting environmental capital. (Pearce, Markandya & Barbier 1989, p. xiv)

The tendency for consumers to prefer environmentally sound products has already become evident. Surveys show that a significant proportion of consumers in Australia and other high-income countries, although by no means the majority, make an effort to buy green products such as pump packs, unbleached papers and items made of recycled paper. About 28 per cent would pay more for safe aerosols and biodegradable plastic products, and 35 per cent for natural foods that were not produced using pesticides.

Firms of suppliers and users can also influence firms through their purchasing or product stewardship policies. Some firms are already introducing systematic environmental purchasing policies, and some are making specific demands on their suppliers for products such as plastics without PVC or plastics that can be recycled more easily.

Marketing managers who recognise the opportunities that might be opened up by the growth of green consumerism can encourage their firms to invest in `clean' technology and then market their products on that basis. They can also convey to their firms the potential for environmentally damaging activities or discharges to receive adverse publicity. (Schot 1992, pp. 48-50) Such ideas have already prompted a surge of advertisements and labels claiming environmental benefits. Green imagery is used to sell products. Caring for the environment has become a marketing strategy.

However, the power of consumers to influence technologies is limited. Often their information is confined to advertising claims that may well be misleading. The claims may have very little substance. Greenpeace campaigners Dadd and Carothers (1990, p. 10) claim that Chevron, a multinational oil company, spends about five times as much publicising its environmental actions as it does on the actions themselves. The choices that a consumer faces are not clear cut either. Green consumers tend to prefer natural fibres rather than synthetics, but the cotton industry and large-scale sheep grazing also result in significant environmental problems. The debates over whether plastic packaging is better or worse than paper packaging for the environment, or whether milk bottles are better than cartons, are sure to confuse consumers.

The ESD working group on manufacturing points out that any judgement about whether a product is ecologically sustainable is extremely complex, requiring long-term assessment from manufacture to disposal, and taking consideration of how long the product will last, whether it can be reused or recycled, whether it is biodegradable, how much energy it consumes and how efficiently it uses resources. Other matters that need to be considered include the way the product will be used, transported, distributed, marketed and packaged.

Dadd and Carothers point out that the products available to consumers do not necessarily reflect consumer demand. If it is cheaper for a company not to recycle bottles, then it will not. They say that car companies push "big cars with high compression, high-pollution engines on the American public" because they get the biggest profit from them, not because the public demands them. Another example is given by US scholar Patricia Hynes (1991, p. 474). She argues that in the USA organic food products make up only 4 per cent of the market, although demand would easily be 5 to 10 per cent. She argues that government policies prevent farmers from giving up methods of farming that are highly dependent on agricultural chemicals.

Whilst consumers may influence packaging and some ingredients of products, they are usually unable to influence more hidden aspects of a product such as whether a retailer or manufacturer uses rail or road transport to transport their goods. They are unlikely to to affect more fundamental production decisions that might lead to clean technology rather than end-of-pipe technologies.


Governments are in a much better position than consumers to influence such decision through a variety of mechanisms. They can reinforce the role of the consumer through provision of information about the health and environmental impacts of products and production methods used in their manufacture and by preventing false advertising. They can also encourage the development of new technologies by funding or subsidising research and development.

Governments tend not to be very good at translating government financed inventions into commercial successes. Policies to subsidise firms to change their innovation processes for environmental protection purposes have not been very successful, either. Experience in the Netherlands between 1975 and 1990 showed that subsidies were not usually spent on clean technologies, and that they usually went to larger firms that would have made the required investments anyway. Moreover, subsidies have tended to lead to development of end-of-pipe technologies rather than changing the direction of the technologies being developed.

Governments can also encourage the development and implementation of clean technologies through the use laws and regulations which cannot be met without technological change or through the use of economic instruments which are meant to provide a financial incentive for technological change.

A number of studies have shown that environmental legislation can be a key factor in many industry innovations. A study of 164 innovations in Europe and Japan found that regulations (mainly environmental and safety) not only promoted innovation but were a factor in the success of these innovations, particularly in the chemical and automobile industries (Royston 1982, p. 15). This was because the technology for meeting the regulations was often readily available; it had not been implemented because company engineers had other priorities. Government regulations had forced a reordering of priorities, allowing technological changes to take place fairly quickly, and environmental and safety improvements to follow.

However, regulation seldom leads to the development of radically different technologies; rather, to technologies closely related to those already being used. Laws and regulations tend to lead to end-of-pipe technologies because they are usually too weak and are aimed at quick remedies to severe environmental problems. In order for them to affect the original design and shape of a technology, they need to be very stringent--so stringent that existing technology will not suffice. They also need to be introduced progressively so that a firm can anticipate what will be required and have time to develop innovations.

In some cases in the USA, standards have been set on the basis of environmental or health requirements rather than on available technologies. This has resulted in new technologies being developed and implemented. Lawsuits, regulations and the threatened ban on PCBs forced PCB users to develop product alternatives. Most of these substitutes were cheaper than the PCBs they replaced. Bans on CFCs in aerosols resulted in two innovations: a non-fluorocarbon propellant was developed using carbon dioxide, and a new pumping system was introduced that did not depend on propellants and was actually cheaper.

Wastewater pre-treatment standards proposed for effluent from the electroplating industry were predicted to force a closure of 20 per cent of electroplating workshops. A research and development project following this announcement produced a new rinsing method--the `providence method'--which reduced water consumption by one-third and cut hazardous waste production by 50 to 70 per cent (Caldart & Ryan 1985, p. 315).

All of these cases show that constraints on industries are not necessarily detrimental to their viability. Charles Caldart, of the Centre for Technology and Industrial Development, MIT, and William Ryan of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, have expressed the conviction that regulatory approaches "must not be bound by existing technologies and existing economic conditions. Rather, public policy must encourage the type of innovation that can spur technological breakthroughs and alter economic circumstances. In short, we believe it is possible to change production technologies." (1985, p. 310)

Economic instruments also seek to encourage technological change by providing a financial incentive to encourage firms to direct their research and development towards environmentally sound technology. However, like legislative instruments, economic instruments have tended to be too weak to achieve any real technological change. The OECD (1989) has found that in most cases charges are too low to provide such an incentive and merely act to redistribute money from the polluter to the government. Similarly, tradeable pollution rights have been found to save money for industry but not to have improved environmental quality significantly.

Because of the reluctance of governments to act against business interests, legislation and economic instruments are seldom tough enough to foster technological change of the type required for ecological sustainability. Although such regulation would probably strengthen business in the long run, business people see strong government intervention as an infringement on their autonomy. Barry Commoner, a well-known US environmentalist, argues that business people are supported in this because there remains a strong public conviction "that the decisions that determine what is produced and by what technological means ought to remain in private, corporate hands." (1990, p. 153)

Sustainable development relies on technological change to achieve its aims but will governments take the tough steps that are required to force radical technological innovation rather than the technological fixes that have been evident to date? Such measures would require a long-term view and a preparedness to bear short-term economic costs while industry readjusts. It is hard to see governments being willing to do this in today's socio-economic climate in Australia. David Dickson, a well-known writer on technology and former editor of New Scientist, has pointed out that an alternative technology can "only be successfully applied on a large scale once an alternative form of society" has been created.

Even if cleaner technology can be implemented will the reductions in pollution be enough? Dutch Professors Cramer and Zegveld argue that they will not, if production continues to grow. Giving the example of their own country, where the purchasing power of the average person is expected to increase by 70 per cent by the year 2010, they argue that "an incredible reduction in discharge levels and waste flows per product unit would have to be realised to achieve the aim of a sustainable society" (1991, p. 464). They believe this is not realistic. On top of this, production would need to increase ten times if everyone in the world were to live at the same standard of living as those who live in affluent countries such as Australia. They claim that the growth of both production and freely disposable income would have to be restricted if pollution levels are to be reduced.

It would appear that so long as sustainable development is restricted to minimal low-cost adjustments that do not require value changes, institutional changes or any sort of radical cultural adjustment, the environment will continue to be degraded. The ESD Working Group chairs, in their Intersectoral Issues Report, pointed out that, unless substantial change occurs, the present generation may not be able to pass on an equivalent stock of environmental goods to the next generation. "Firstly, the rates of loss of animal and plant species, arable land, water quality, tropical forests and cultural heritage are especially serious. Secondly, and perhaps more widely recognised, is the fact that we will not pass on to future generations the ozone layer or global climate system that the current generation inherited. A third factor that contributes overwhelmingly to the anxieties about the first two is the prospective impact of continuing population growth and the environmental consequences if rising standards of material income around the world produce the same sorts of consumption patterns that are characteristic of the currently industrialised countries." (ESD Working Group Chairs 1992, p. 10)

Environmental degradation is not precluded by a minimalist approach to sustainable development however. The goal of sustainable development is viewed by some economists and business groups as being merely to preserve the environment to the extent that it is necessary for the maintenance of the economic system. For them future generations can be compensated for the loss of environmental resources by increased wealth and human capital with which to meet their needs.

Such a scenario would see Australians living in an increasingly artificial world with areas of unspoilt wilderness increasingly distant, crowded and less diverse. They would be spending more of their money and time obtaining those things that are often taken for granted today - clean air, clean water, clean food, places to walk, play, swim. Not everyone would be able to afford these things and certainly not every nation would be able to enjoy the living standards of Australians.

But of course this scenario presupposes that our policy-makers will be able to make the finely balanced decisions that ensure those functions of ecosystems that are necessary for human survival and economic activities are preserved; that our societies are knowledgable enough to know just how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere can take, how much pollution the air and water around us can take without triggering a sudden and irreversible collapse. Any scientist will tell you we don't know these things.

Even if Australians put their faith in the ability of human ingenuity in the form of technology to be able to preserve their lifestyles and ensure an ever increasing level of consumption for everyone, they cannot ignore the necessity to redesign our technological systems rather than continue to apply technological fixes that are seldom satisfactory in the long term. Technological optimism does not escape the need for fundamental social change and a shift in priorities.

Environmentally sound technologies are unlikely to emerge from a sustainable development approach that seeks to incorporate the environment as part of the economic system and therefore to subordinate it to economic needs. There is a real need to value the environment apart from and above its input to our economic well-being, to see that environmental quality is irreplaceable. Only then will the short-term financial costs of the move towards sustainability be willingly borne by all parties.


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