Recent years have seen such a shift in the ways in which we communicate they have been dubbed the “information age”, just part of the post-industrial era of unprecedented technological development the twentieth century has seen. This locomotive of revolution has pushed development on us across all areas of society, rarely with any thought for the long-trusted methods and ideas it was sweeping away. But there are signs that this trend of heavily accelerated change may be about to witness a sea-change towards a new way of thinking, one which may just be essential as we begin to run out of the resources that have fuelled such relentless development for so long. We must avoid, as we move towards a post-fossil-fuel era, making the same mistakes as the twentieth-century steam-roller, by taking stock of the negative repercussions such unprecedented development has had worldwide and upon the benefits of some of the ancient ideas it heedlessly replaced, particularly when it comes to the three key needs of human society, food, goods and transport.
The 1960s were called a “green revolution”, as chemical pesticides, fertilisers and machinery were rolled out in an attempt to boost food production like never before. Of course, change hadn’t started there: the Haber process of nitrate production was developed in the First World War, and soon revolutionised fields across the world, now accounting for a large proportion of all the nitrogen found in our food and bodies. But it was in the latter half of the century that all kinds of food, imported from across the globe, were made relatively cheaply and readily available, no matter what the season. Certainly, these industrial methods increased production. But they failed to solve the food problems on a global scale, as they swept away more old-fashioned methods: the poorest around the globe are still starving, whilst we in the developed world waste around one third of the abundant food once scarce and treasured, throwing away any benefit the new methods could have brought.
Hence, we were left with the negative repercussions of these sweeping changes, with few of the benefits. Too many potential dangers were ignored as farming was transformed on a global scale, sustainability sacrificed in the name of efficiency. Excess pesticides, fertilisers and refuse from the new “factory farms” rendered air and water polluted whilst new mechanised methods, efficient in the short-term, stripped our land of the diversity and natural capability that had for so long sustained it, forcing yet more use of these chemicals just to produce the same amount as previously, as occurred in France’s “breadbasket”. We had previously been able to rely on a natural balance of species to control pest numbers and mix the soil, but were now left with over-ploughed, polluted fields, pushed too far by the relentless application of the empirical method to maximise efficiency beyond the land’s means. Traditional insight was ignored at our expense.
This is where the twentieth century has brought us, and why, now, we see fit to employ new methods of development to improve the situation. No longer do we press ahead with what seem to be the best short-term methods of maximising production, but take into account the wisdom of the old ways alongside that of the new to obtain a better balance in the field. We are already moving towards fields filled with not one crop but a rich variety, some restoring nutrients to the soil, others deterring pests, without the need for added synthetically produced chemicals. In a reversal of twentieth-century innovation, the mechanical ploughing of fields may be replaced by manual cultivation, which, though it may not be so cost-effective, will become more economically sustainable as fuel becomes scarcer and more expensive. All of this, working alongside, rather than against, nature, serves to reduce energy and water use as well as chemical pollution.
There’s certainly no doubting that the average Briton now has more possessions than ever before. As standard of living has improved, the price of everything from clothing to cutlery has dropped dramatically, spurred on by the new synthetic materials developed in the twentieth century and rapid, cheap transportation that has enabled manufacturers to scour the globe for the cheapest available labour. But not only has the twentieth century seen the prices of long-needed goods drop to rock bottom, thus extending a relatively good standard of living beyond the upper classes that traditionally enjoyed a monopoly on such comforts, it has also made apparently essential to us a whole range of devices, including televisions, mobile phones, computers and many others, which require a disproportionately high amount of resources to produce and are made, often as cheaply as possible, to be replaced. The latest iPads and mobiles, each with features we never knew we needed before but without which life suddenly seems impossible, are testament to a system of continual superseding and replacement. Our collective talents, as a society, to create and innovate have been focused far too much on production of bigger, better, consumer products that we don’t really need at all. Suddenly a gramophone and standard definition, analogue television, which once seemed perfectly suitable, are no longer good enough.
This rapid, relentless and often unthinking development has been the trend over the last few decades. Overall, of course, this has been no bad thing: the future world, it is to be hoped, will not be one a dull, backward-looking planet of Luddites. But we may soon see the desire for continuous redevelopment of perfectly adequate technologies replaced by an emphasis on lasting quality. For a long time already, “made in China” has been an undesirable stamp, a symbol of cheap and short-lived products now perhaps going out of fashion. We may not have much of a choice, in a future world where China is just as developed as the West, but to pay higher prices for manufacturing and use our resources more carefully. Recycling has increased dramatically over the past decade in all areas, and we are beginning to see investment in producing devices that are not necessarily bigger, or faster, or sleeker than those they replace, simply longer-lasting and more sustainably produced. The days of computers becoming out of date every couple of years may be numbered as we come against economic and scientific barriers, and come to realise that the twentieth-century model is simply no longer environmentally viable.
Read Part 2 of “New Technologies” next week, where Tobias goes on to talk about the transport sector and draws some conclusions.