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(6) The technological fix

6.1 The geography of technology

6.1.1 What is technology?
Humans invent technology and it is with this that we are set apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Human
inventions include tools, machines and systems. Technology allows humans to control their environment and improve
quality of life. Some examples include:

Medicines reducing the impact of bacteria and viruses, prolonging life

Crop breeding increasing yields and thus the calorie intake
Just-in-time delivery systems increase profits

Technology cannot be avoided; people in the developed world are somewhat reliant upon technology

Agricultural technology produces virtually all our food due to mechanisation of this industry
Medical technology is relied upon to fix the smallest of ills, and all the equipment thats required to perform
intrinsic surgical procedures
Petroleum & nuclear technology supply our energy needs which are ever-growing around the world, decreasing
supply and an ever-increasing demand

The removal of technology, even for only a moment has extreme and devastating consequences, which disrupt different
flows and patterns, across the world. This can lead to massive crises, in 2007/2008 a global crisis was created by oil
prices rising to US$147 per barrel. Another example is the 2012 UK oil tanker potential strike which saw many people
panic buy and run some petrol pumps dry.
While technology is widespread its not universal, and access varies across the development spectrum massively.


Access to electricity, 2000

Access to improved sanitation,


Internet access population

penetration, 2010

Power stations; transmission


Water supply network; purification

equipment; sewage treatment

Computers; wireless or other


















This shows how the level of development is linked to the dependency on technology. Access to electricity in the UK is
ubiquitous but much rarer in Bangladesh.
6.1.2 Geographical patterns and access
The traditional north-south divide is evident on a map, but the patterns of Internet access are a lot more complex:

Southern and eastern Europe has fewer users than northern Europe
Latin America has similar levels to parts of Europe, despite being less developed
Asia and especially Africa have low percentage of users, but many Asian megacities such as Mumbai or
Shanghai have levels of internet access over 40% whereas rural areas have levels under 5% (internal DG)

Economics explains much of this pattern. In Uganda in 2006, it cost $2300 for an annual Internet connection, far beyond
most peoples economic means/situation. There are also a number of other barriers to Internet access:

Language most web pages are in English, Chinese or Spanish

Electricity required and access to a computer
Content needs to be what people want to use, appropriate to the population
Internet service providers required to maintain and control the use of the internet

The level of development in countries sometimes establishes and determines their accessibility and use of the Internet
across the world, however this is debatable in a number of regions depending on the sector of industry and other key
elements which would affect the usage patterns.
Air travel has a distinct global geography. Some global regions are very well connected, such as Europe, southeast Asia
and America whilst others are known to be peripheral. Africa and Russia are only well connected significantly to Europe.
Air travel requires infrastructure such as airports and air traffic control systems. Lack of air travel connectivity suggests
some global regions are poorly integrated into the global economy and as a result there is little demand for travel. A
lack of connections might also mean that new technology takes longer to reach the peripheral nations.
6.1.3 Environmental determinism
We all suffer periods of environmental determinism snow prevents travel or a heat wave gives many people sunburn.
In the developed world this is unusual: sunscreen and snow-ploughs are readily available. For some people, technology
is not available and they are thus more vulnerable to the environment. Agricultural technology means crop production
is now determined much less by the nature of the environment and farmers are less vulnerable to the environmental
hazards. Subsistence farmers in the developing world may have extremely limited access to any of this technology.


Vulnerability without technology


To provide additional water for crops during dry

periods, or all of a crops water in dry regions

Dry regions produce fewer crops in a shorter

season: drought can lead to crop failure


Sprayed on crops to kill pests and increase yields by

decreasing the crop losses

Expected yields factor in a % loss to pests; crops

vulnerable to pest plagues


Added to soil to provide additional nutrients for

growth to be effective often requires irrigation

Yields restricted by natural nutrients available in

the soil


Used to replace human labour and increase

efficiency on the farmed area

Size of farmed area is determined by population

and the distance they can travel; crops may have
to be abandoned during floods or severe
weather due to lack of manpower


Inter-breeding of crop varieties under controlled

conditions to produce disease or pest resistance
and higher yields

Crops could become vulnerable to a pest or

disease with no viable replacement

Access to farm technology reduces vulnerability and increases food security. If yields are secured, lifestyle and health
improvements should follow. Developing world farmers often do not require high-tech solutions such as GM crops but
do need improved seed varieties, simple irrigation and fertilisers (appropriate). Much of sub-Saharan Africa even such
strategies have proved hard to deliver.

6.1.4 Barriers and inequalities

Access to the numerous technologies is usually very strongly correlated with the level of economic development in the
region, but there are also other factors which explain the lack of access to, or an unwillingness to use, particular

Physical reasons renewable energy technologies are only suited to certain physical locations, e.g. solar and
wind power. HEP requires suitable water supply and a valley
Political reasons In N.Korea, internet access is not available to ordinary citizens. The government prevents use
to restrict the flow of information that people receive and also to ensure the correct political message is
maintained (communist regime)
Environmental reasons certain groups voluntarily shun the use of certain technologies, e.g. organic farmers
do not use pesticides or cattle antibiotics because of their supposed negative environmental and health
Religious reasons contraceptive technology is rejected by some religions such as Roman Catholic Church;
other religions such as Islam, accept some forms of contraception but not others
Military reasons nuclear technology has been controlled by the international Nuclear non-proliferation
Treaty which aims to prevent nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. The International Atomic Energy
Agency tries to ensure states with nuclear power do not use it to develop nuclear weaponry

Everyone has a view on technology. Parents may consider the Xbox as dangerous. Many people are ethically
uncomfortable with genetic engineering. People who reject technology are known as technophobes.
Humans invent new technology but simply inventing it does not make it available. New technology is often very
expensive and investors and developers invest time and money in invention and the law ensures they get a return on
their investment:

New inventions are protected using intellectual property rights

A patent is given to the inventor of a new technology preventing it from being copied
Inventors usually license companies to manufacture the new technology, and receive financial royalties

Royalties and license fees keep new technologies expensive until the patents expire which is usually after 20 years or
so. The patent system could prevent a new drug from being made widely available because the pharmaceutical
company that invented it charges high prices to recoup its research and development costs. For this reason, Thailand
and Brazil have begun producing generic drugs (illegal copies) to treat AIDS/HIV patients and have lowered monthly
treatment costs from US$500 to US$30 per patient.

6.2 Technology and Development

6.2.1 The technology gap
Developed world economies are increasingly knowledge based as we move from the industrial age to the information
age. In a knowledge economy, ideas, information and services make money, not goods. The growth of the knowledge
economy has been promoted by:

Globalisation of markets and free trade

Networking using the Internet technology
High-tech products and services

Much of the developing world is still industrial. Apples iPhone illustrates the technology gap. As with many industrial
products, complex components are made in Japan and the NICs. Less complex assembly is completed in China. The LICs,
e.g. Africa plays no role in the iPhone design or manufacture.

Research and development is one explanation for this technological divide between nations:

Globally, around US$1trillion is spent every year on R&D

1/3 of this is spent in the USA
Developed world 2,000-5,000 research personnel for every 1mil people, but only 10-50 in the LICs

Research and development allows the technologically developed to stay that way. Most technological innovations, as
measured by the patents granted, originate in the developed world. In 2007, 51% of all patents originated in the USA,
20% from Japan and 16% from the EU. Patents gain royalties and license fees and these show an extraordinary
concentration in the rich world.
Developed world governments and TNCs invest huge sums in R&D, and high rates of funding for universities ensure a
steady stream of skilled graduates who can carry out yet more R&D for the future.
6.2.2 Leapfrogging
For the developing world, keeping up with the ever-expanding and rapid development of new technologies is hard. They
would like nothing more than to break into the R&D, patents and royalties club, but this is hard to achieve due to a
number of reasons:

Skilled researchers are required, meaning investment in universities

Much R&D spending is by TNCs of which there are few in the developing world
Governments budgets are tight and earmarked for water and housing projects, thus theres little extra money
available for other investments and projects
Labs and research facilities are expensive

NICs such as Taiwan and S.Korea are becoming big R&D spenders, but only slowly. Samsung, a S.Korean TNC, spent
more on R&D in 2007 than IBM.
Mobile telephones





Water purification

A telephone landline network


A water purification and distribution network

Requires installation of a mast network, access

to electricity to charge the battery of the
phones: villages often have mobile chargers
linked to a car battery, and theres limited
signal coverage available restricting the number
of people that can use such technology is this


30cm long tube (straw), which purifies water using

filters, iodine-coated beads and active carbon; can
be used anywhere and lasts for approximately 1

Around US$40 per year


US$3 per person per year

Increases ability to search for jobs, keep in

touch with family, access prices at markets: can
be used to warn of natural hazards


Major improvements in health kills virtually all

bacteria and parasites; does raise iodine levels in
users; although many are iodine deficient anyway
due to poor diet

For other developing countries, technological leapfrogging provides one possibility. This is when a technology is
adopted without a precursor technology. The classic example is mobile phones, which have been adopted by countries
that dont already have an extensive landline network, there are, of course, a number of other examples:

Laptops and Wifi without a hard-wired network stage

Solar panels and micro-HEP without complex electricity transmission grid

The technologies that usually have the ability to leapfrog are generally mobile and physically small. They need to be
stand alone e.g. cars must have roads.
One criticism of mobile phones, lifestraw, laptops and GM crop technologies is their developed world origins. This
means the developed world companies collect royalties and profits from the developing world the very people who
need the technology the most but do not harbour enough money to afford it.
6.2.3 Costs and benefits
Technology is neither good, bad nor neutral is a common view of technology (Kranzberg). This means that technology
has some impact. Most technologies are introduced with a particular aim but may have other, unforeseen impacts
referred to as externalities. These are the costs and benefits that are not accounted for in the financial cost of the
product. The introduction of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and GM crops in the 1990s are both examples of this.
The Green Revolution increased food supply, especially in Asia. Since the 1960s, HYVs have had to be developed every
few years to replace those that succumb to pests and disease. The Gene Revolution is more problematic. Much of the
production is exported as fibre or for cattle feed (cotton, maize, soy) so food security has not increased, although with
GM2 this may improve. Both technologies have had unforeseen environmental impacts and often led to social

Technology and the original


Economic impacts

Social impacts

Environmental impacts

Green Revolution

+ In many cases yields have

increased dramatically

- Introduction of machinery
leads to unemployment and
increases rural-urban

- Increased use of fertilisers

causes nutrient rich runoff
and eutrophication

High yielding crop varieties

(HYVs) plus fertilisers,
irrigation and machinery
double or treble wheat and
rice yields, increasing food
security in the developing
Gene Revolution
Genetic makeup of crops
(maize, cotton, soy) altered
so they can resist pests,
disease or herbicides, or
tolerant of drought; yields
and food or income security

+ Two crops per year could

be grown and harvested
+ Increased food security

- Only relatively well-off

farmers can afford the new
+ Improved diet and health

- Farmers become
dependent on seeds and
chemicals from TNCs such
as Monsanto
- Some studies suggested
yields have not increased
+ Increased exports and
rising farm incomes

- Public opinion, in
countries like the UK, reject
the technology
- In Argentina, larger GM
maize farmers have tended
to buying out smaller ones,
leading to social

- Pesticides over-spray
damages biodiversity
- Some HYV monoculture
wiped out by pests and
- Weeds may be developing
resistance to herbicides
- Deforestation in Latin
America in order to increase
the farmed area

- Many of the crops are for

export, not for food

6.2.4 Dealing with externalities

Using technology has consequences. The more technology we use, the greater the environmental impact. This is due

Goods require resources, which have to be extracted and processed

Manufacturing causes pollution
Technology has to be powered or fuelled, which usually means fossil fuel use

The most technologically advanced societies use the most energy resources and have the largest ecological footprint.
Extensive use of technology leads to carbon dioxide emissions and global warming with large potential impacts for
human and ecosystems wellbeing:

Rising sea levels may flood coastal cities

Increased sea temperature may cause coral bleaching
Increased drought may lead to crop failure and water shortages
Increased flooding may destroy homes and livelihoods

There is increasing pressure to move towards the polluter pays principle/model/approach. This would mean that if
people treat the environment as a pollution sink they have to pay: green taxation.

The EU Emissions Trading Scheme sets pollution quotas, exceed this quota and carbon credits must be bought
UK Car tax now linked to CO2 produced per year
Congestion charge

These taxes are designed to encourage pollution reductions. It is the type and the energy intensity of our technology
that causes GW, if the technology we used was less demanding on resources and more renewable, the impacts would
be much smaller.
6.3 Technology, environment and the future
6.3.1 Contrasting approaches
Most inventions aim to make life better new drugs, labour-saving machinery or improved crops. However, humans
produce weapons too, so not all technology is beneficial. Some technologies are considered to have extreme negative
consequences that they are banned or controlled e.g. landmines, chemical weapons, CFCs and GM fall into this
Technology is used as part of the development process. There are differences between whats best, whats appropriate
and what is wanted in different situations.
Those in favour of intermediate (appropriate) technology argue that the developing world technology needs to be fit
for purpose. This means for the LICs and developing world that the technology fitted needs to be low cost and easy to
repair locally. High-tech solutions mean people rely on high-tech companies. The intermediate technology generally is
environmentally friendly as is alternative technology. Alternative technology can be high tech such as a hydrogenfuelled car.
Intermediate is generally bottom-up with local people and organisations involved in the planning, building and
maintaining of technology, and then they are able to take ownership of it: its also easy to implement elsewhere at a
similar rate and very simply. Large engineering schemes and high-tech projects are often controlled by govt. and TNCs:
this creates arguments which means local peoples needs are often not met and usually compromised
Small is beautiful

The bigger the better

High tech is best

Renewable future

Intermediate technology
low cost, simple, small
scale, using local resources

Mega-engineering projects
that provide a one off
solution at very high capital

Most advanced solution

possible/currently available
e.g. nanotechnology,
bioengineering and

Alternative technology
lowest possible
environmental impact and

Example: village hand pump

installed by NGO

Example: large dam funded

by the government

Example: nanofiltration
systems from TNC R&D labs

Example: solar powered

water pump TNC/NGO
joint venture

6.3.2 The big fix?

Arguably, the ultimate technological fix would be the technology that could reverse the global environmental problems
that humans caused, e.g. global warming and land degradation. These fixes have been researched and referred to as
planetary or geo-engineering:

Proponents of geo-engineering argue that techno-fixes for global warming are more likely to work than
persuading people to change their lifestyles (attitudinal fix) to reduce pollution
Opponents of geo-engineering argue that such solutions are effectively a big experiment with unknown

The precautionary principle is arguing against technology on the basis of possible unknown outcomes. Those against
GM crops often argue that the material might accidently be transferred from crops to wild plants and cause unknown
consequences and because its not proved that it wont happen they should not be used.


The Aral Sea Disaster

Artificial global dimming

Transform arid USSR steppe lands into

productive cotton-growing farmland using megascale irrigation


Reduce solar input by creating an artificial aerosol

blanket in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back
into space

Dams and diversions of the Amu Darya and Syr

Darya rivers redirect river flow along 40,000km
of canals to irrigate an extra 3.5mil hectares of


Using aircraft, rokets, artillery or balloons to shoot

sulphur dioxide aerosols into the stratosphere to
increase concentrations

Rivers dry up
Aral Sea shrinks to 25% of the original
Exposed sea bed is scoured by wind,
creating salt storms dumping salt and
farm chemicals on people and land
Chemical pollution increases local
incidence of cancers
Fishing industry collapses
Flora and fauna in the sea have died out

Impacts and

Aerosols to cool the planet by reflecting

incoming solar radiation and promoting
cloud formation
Calculating the amount of sulphur dioxide
required to create the desired cooling could
be difficult
Additional sulphur dioxide can lead to acid
Cooling could have wider consequences and
knock-on effects altering climate in
unforeseen ways

The Aral Sea is often viewed as the worlds worst ecological disaster increasing cotton production but destroying the
ecology of the worlds fourth largest inland sea. Opponents of geo-engineering argue we can never know the full effects
of such large-scale schemes until its too late. Any further attempts to solve these problems will need to be progressed
with extreme care.

6.3.3 Technology and sustainability

Countries have very different attitudes towards technology and its environmental impact. Its generally accepted that
for humans to have high QOL, they need to live in a healthy environment: the egg of wellbeing.

GDP per capita


The Economist
quality of life


Comment on ecosystem
wellbeing vs human





Both high, balanced





Both relatively high,

despite middle income

Sri Lanka




Human wellbeing exceeds

ecosystem wellbeing





Low ecosystem wellbeing,

high QOL





Low ecosystem wellbeing,

despite higher income





Ecosystem wellbeing
similar to USA, low QOL

Sweden manages to maintain high ecosystem wellbeing and a high human wellbeing. This is a rare balance. In the USA,
ESI are similar to Ghana despite huge difference in wealth.
Technology and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive. Some hard choices have to be made if the use
of technology is compatible with the concept of sustainability.
Some technologies fit the criteria better than others, e.g. wind and solar power as opposed to coal or gas. Current
technologies, such as the motor car, and large-scale technological fixes such as mega dams do not fit the criteria well
and suggests difficult decisions will be made in the future.
6.3.4 Futures
There are several possible futures because there is no presensory knowledge about whats to come:

A divergent world technological advances in the developed world, but an increased lack of access in the
developing regions. This would ensure large numbers of people were on the wrong side of the technology and
development gap. Many would continue to rely on aid, especially in the aftermath of major natural disasters
A convergent world increased transfer of technology to the developing world, this would begin to bridge the
technological divide. This would require a major technological transfer that the current laws prevent. Increased
use could intensify global warming if energy sources follow a business as usual scenario
Switching world to a more renewable resource based one. Making and powering technology with renewable
resources avoids the negative outcomes.

Theres some evidence of convergence, albeit only in a very limited number of countries. Chinas R&D is growing close
to that of Japans (23% between 2001 and 2006) whilst the USAs is growing but slowly (1-2% 2001-2006). In S.Korea
companies spend about 6.5% of their budgets on R&D compared to only 5% in Europe. These countries are NICs and
have gradually built their wealth. Many now have governments with deep enough pockets to spend heavily on
innovation and also have their own TNCs that invest in R&D. In India, some home-grown TNCs have bought slices of
high-tech industries e.g. Tatas buy-up of Jaguar Land Rover, and Mittal Steels 2006 purchase of Arcelor (Luxembourg).

In the LICs, technology transfer currently relies heavily on the work of NGOs and bodies such as the UK Governments
Department for International Development. There are signs that this may change. In 2008, the Global Environment
Facility (GEF) was given responsibility for technology transfer to the developing world. GEF works to transfer
technologies such as:

Energy-efficient lighting and appliances

Efficient and renewable power generation
Fuel-cell buses

The GEF has the support of 180 countries and a US$3bn annual budget, recognises that without technology transfers,
the developing world will continue to use polluting technologies such as coal, contributing further to potential huge
ecological disasters. Technology transfer is needed for both development and environmental sustainability.

6.4 Synoptic Links




Most technology developed by global

TNCs, e.g. GM crops, new drugs and IT
applications. Technologys rapidly
adopted in the developed world.
NGOs are often responsible for
introducing the appropriate and
intermediate technologies in LICs;
those who really need it

Large-scale, high-tech fixes are

favoured by governments as they
provide visible solutions to national
problems, e.g. Three Gorges Dam.
However, the local peoples needs are
often sacrificed. Intermediate
technology is appropriate and
approaches a sustainable route to
development which is favoured by
those who believe in grass-roots

Could be business as usual with the

HICs adopting new tech, better access
whilst LICs are becoming
marginalised/limited access. More
sustainable future technological
transfer in order to improve QOL.

Other units:

World at Risk
Water Conflicts
Energy Security
Bridging the Development Gap
Superpower Geographies
Tectonic activity and hazards
Biodiversity under threat

Wider global issues:

Environmental crisis
Development gap

6.5 Summary

Technology allows humans to control the environment effectively and improve QOL
Scales from mega high-tech projects to small-scale low-cost projects and emerging nanotechnology to
Access varies north-south divide, socio-cultural, political & economic factors
Barriers to development physical, environmental, political, cultural, religious and economic
Leapfrogging can narrow the tech/devlp. Gap

Leapfrogging adaptation of advanced technology without precursor technology being adopted (e.g.
Green Revolution and GM crops costs and benefits vary SEEP
Appropriate technology, e.g. desalinization plants vs rainwater harvesting
Controversial technology solving the worlds greatest problems, e.g. Global Warming should it be an
attitudinal fix, or an expensive geo-engineering strategy at a high-tech/scale approach
Techno-fix can be sustainable, many continue to increase carbon-footprint
Future hard to predict divergent world where we continue to pollute, or convergent where we transder
technology to narrow the devp. gap, or a green sustainable technological world where technology increases the
dangers to the worlds peoples