Remember the bumper sticker:
Technology is the answer! But what is the question?
In the 19th and 20th centuries most, new technologies were equated with our societies’ progress. We loved electricity, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, radio, television, the Internet and space exploration. We also welcomed urban skyscrapers, sanitation services, mass public transit, parks, playgrounds, community colleges, government R & D laboratories, public health advances, pharmaceuticals, and disease prevention.
By the mid-20th century in the USA and Europe, these maturing societies began to see the first questioning of the path of “progress” and the direction to which our technologies were leading us all. The most serious questions related to military weapons, the uses of nuclear power after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the Second World War. The race for space began in the 1950s with Russia’s Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
The questioning broadened after London’s great smog of 1952 which led to thousands of deaths from inhaling coal smoke on which Britain relied for electricity. In 1963, as a newly naturalized US citizen from Britain, I saw the smog in New York City and co-organized Citizens for Clean Air, so as to help find alternative ways to generate electricity and replace cars powered by gasoline-driven internal combustion engines. At that time, there were still plenty of non-polluting electric delivery vans on New York’s streets. We also discovered that the Los Angeles basin was crisscrossed with electric rapid transit lines, that were later torn up to build roads for gasoline-powered cars, and that solar panels and water heaters were ubiquitous on roofs there and in Florida until cheaper flared gas from Texas oilfields was piped in to replace them.
Thousands of volunteer groups like Citizens for Clean Air and Stamp Out Smog in Los Angeles grew to challenge air and water pollution, toxic wastes, landfill dumps, nuclear weapons and power plants, untested pesticides, industrial-scale agriculture, livestock-raising and processed junk foods. All these groups coalesced on Earth Day in 1970 and have grown exponentially into the huge global environmental movements now challenging the past technological choices of the earlier Industrial Era. These were based on fossil fuels, wasteful consumerism, faulty economics and led to climate disruption and the proliferation of lifestyle illnesses: heart disease, asthma, diabetes, obesity, depression and addiction.
All of this growing public awareness expanded to reveal how technological choices had led to widespread, often unanticipated changes with accumulating global problems: social impacts, costs, dis-services and dis-amenities. Economic textbooks allowed such social costs of corporate technologies to be “externalized” from their balance sheets! By 1974, I and many other environmentalists and groups lobbied successfully in launching the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). I served on its founding Technology Assessment Advisory Board (TAAC), composed of assorted Nobel laureate scientists, the presidents of MIT, CalTech, CEOs of Dow Chemical and Texas Instruments and a lone ecologist, Dr. Eugene Odum. My role was in public education and representing the views of voluntary NGO groups and all those US citizens uninvolved, yet impacted by technological choices, including labor unions, consumers and people in marginalized, under-represented places and constituencies.
Little did I realize the firestorm of controversy OTA would encounter in the US Congress! Most of our technology assessment studies and reports - albeit drawn from widely diversified experts from universities, industrial sectors, and civic society - were challenged by special interests from all sides! I witnessed the politicization of science and technology first-hand, including whose experts were chosen, which consultants paid by which special interests, and who would be seated on OTA’s expert panels in all our reports. Since I represented voluntary NGO groups with no financial stakes in OTA’s research or assessment reports, I was usually in the crosshairs! At that time few women were in science policy advisory positions, only one woman was in the Senate and only nine women in the entire Congress! Furthermore, we environmentalists and public interest voluntary groups soon became re-framed as more “special interest lobbyists”!
However, I was grateful for this sharpening of my intellect, speed-reading, advocacy and debating skills. I shepherded the first OTA report An Assessment of Technology for Local Development (1980), describing community-owned solar and wind-generated electricity, local organic, regenerative farming, energy-efficient buildings and construction, bicycling, pedestrian walkways, electric buses, and farmers’ markets - all flourishing again in 2021. As OTA’s technology assessments reviewed all such alternatives: in electricity, transport, medicine, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and basic directions of research in science, the opposing voices grew louder.
By 1996, the incoming Congress shut down OTA, as their industrial and financial sector supporters demanded. Luckily, OTA’s still ground-breaking reports are all available at the Congressional Research Service, the universities of Maryland, Florida, and Princeton, as well as in our Library at Ethical Markets. We re-published, along with the University of Florida Press, this 1980 report An Assessment of Technology for Local Development. During OTA’s short life, over 40 countries set up similar public programs to assure deeper examination of their science and technology research and resulting technologies.
Today in 2021, the Biden administration is considering re-booting OTA, which is still fully authorized and only needs re-funding. In 2020, over 40 members of Congress called for this re-booting of OTA - largely due to their embarrassing hearings over social media giants, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others, reported in the Washington Post’s Why Is Congress So Dumb?, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in answering ill-informed questions, revealed congressmembers’ ignorance of these information technology companies’ business models based on the free use of the Internet, algorithms designed to addict users and why these media monopolies had grown under special protection from liability for their content - unlike all other media.
If OTA had survived, these Congressmembers would have been provided with basic information and talking points. OTA provided this for all hearings on technological choices of the day: nuclear power, supersonic aircraft, solar-collecting satellites and space programs. Back then, administrations’ funding priorities were buried within massive budget documents that Congressmembers had insufficient staff to unpack. Thus, OTA recommended a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) be created to examine these budget documents and tease out the technological choices implicit in them. I remember testifying before Congress on the need for this new CBO, which today is a powerful part of all budgeting debates.
Today, the range of technologies needing deeper assessment include the impact on our democracies of social media monopolies; geoengineering to mechanically shield the sun’s rays; bioengineering, including CRISPR; preventive and wellness-based alternatives to medically-invasive surgeries and pharmaceutical approaches, regenerative agriculture to restore soils. All require overhauling GDP and all price-based macroeconomic statistics which still ignore all those “externalized” social and environmental costs. The current climate crises now require a much wider view of shifting from fossilized sectors to renewable resources and circular economies. These technologies of harvesting the Sun’s daily shower of free photons which are the basis of all life in Earth’s biosphere, using solar, wind, ocean currents, are now all scaling up with ever lower costs. The G7 meeting in Britain, June 13 report includes expanding the use of these technologies worldwide, while phasing out the use of coal, subsidies, and reliance on all fossil fuels.
Today, a re-booted OTA needs to focus on the dangers of our global food system‘s reliance on the planet’s 3% of freshwater, overlooking all the unused food plants, including all the nutritious salt-loving halophytes. These still thrive in 22 countries on unused, degraded lands without fertilizers or pesticides, with their deep roots which capture ambient CO2 more efficiently than forests or the costly, untested mechanical devices promoted for direct air capture of CO2. Today, our global meat diets produce 28% of greenhouse gases, use 50% of agricultural land for livestock, over-use antibiotics which contribute to resistant diseases and increasingly threaten human health. The expansion worldwide of ocean-farming of kelp, plant-based foods and beverages, urban farming, includes hundreds of start-up companies, others producing meats and fish from the cells of animals and fish, as well as using insects, eaten by billions of people worldwide, in pet foods and feed. All these will need OTA’s careful assessment. These disruptive new foods and beverages are tracked by the Good Food Institute. In addition, foods can be created directly from ambient CO2 by companies and others producing vodka and other drinks. All these technologies are already meeting stiff opposition from incumbent corporations, traders of monoculture commodities, agro-industrial sectors based on farm machinery, pesticides, fertilizers along with junk food producers and marketers.
Mining is under new scrutiny since metals and rare earth are needed for EV batteries and all electronic devices. Today, diamonds and other precious gems are grown in small labs worldwide, competing with global gem mining cartels, which are now clearly obsolete, as we confirm with our EthicMark®Gems certification of only gems not mined from Mother Earth. These gems are chemically identical to mined stones and of course, much less expensive. Global jeweler Pandora has now committed to switching to these human science-made gems. Swarovski’s crystals are made in Austria under strict environmental conditions while Britain’s Sky Diamonds creates its gems directly from CO2 in the air. Such new global technologies address the need for rapid progress that the IPCC warns is needed in the next decade if we are to stay within the 1.5 °C targets to address further climate disruption.
Ethical Markets and many scientists advocate the lowest hanging fruit for meeting our climate crises within the next ten years, as the expansion of the use of many more halophyte food plants, some of which have already arrived in our supermarkets, such as quinoa. This grain grows wild on the salt flats around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and many other places around the world and the United Nations proclaimed 2013 as the Year of Quinoa! Pioneer of global saltwater agriculture is the late Dr. Carl Hodges and his partner Elizabeth Hodges who carries on his work at the Seawaterworks, as well as many of Dr. Hodges followers. These include agricultural pioneer Neal Spackman, of Regenerative Resources, with his successful demonstrations of land restoration in Saudi Arabia and underway in Mexico.
NASA Chief Scientist Dennis Bushnell has been a longtime advocate of expanding proven saltwater agriculture to utilize desert areas, both to restore soils and to feed human populations while saving freshwater for human drinking needs. Arizona State University’s March 2020 symposium on “Halophytes” was co-organized by Dr. Carl Hodges and included agronomists from many halophyte programs around the world. NASA Chief Scientist Bushnell and I gave presentations on the ways to accelerate the adoption of halophytes to expand human food systems. I have made presentations to private investors interested in these opportunities to commercialize additional halophytes. For example, salicornia, pioneered in Africa by Dr. Hodges, also known as “sea asparagus“, is now served by gourmet chefs.
Clearly, it is time to reboot OTA, as green investing goes mainstream globally. We can avoid past costly mistakes and develop the soundest, long-term alternative technologies sustainably. Hopefully, those earlier 40 similar assessment groups in Europe and elsewhere can show wiser paths to protect Earth’s biodiversity, climate, and future human development. Global sharing of such technology assessments can help protect this research from opposition by incumbent special interests and finance. Such cooperation, based on collaborative research can become the basis of wiser globalization beyond mere GDP growth, focusing on well-assessed technology choices for our common future.