Technology – Friend or Foe?

The huge development in technology in the last 200 years has dramatically increased the amount and range of human impact on the planet. Two hundred years ago the fastest journey from London to Newcastle took two days, and two weeks to New York. Now it takes three hours by train to Newcastle, and five hours by air to New York. News which took a week to travel across Europe, today travels around the globe in seconds.

The development of science and technology has had enormous benefits for humanity. In the past most children died before growing up. Now with simple hygiene and medicine this is no longer inevitable. But it still happens due to poverty. The United Nations’ Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have calculated that more than 12 million children (37,000 a day) under the age of five die in the neo-colonial world every year, mostly from five diseases that cheap cures were long ago discovered for: measles, diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia and malnutrition. The figure would be cut to 350,000 if these children had access to the same health care and nutrition as in the advanced capitalist countries. These children’s lives could be saved for as little as $10 a year each.

Inadequate or contaminated water supplies still affect wide parts of the world, with over 40% of the world’s population facing year-long droughts and many more having temporary shortages or polluted supplies. Eighty percent of disease in the neo-colonial world, much of it easily prevented, is linked to water. Diarrhea alone kills nearly five million children a year. Clean water for the world could be provided at a cost of $300 million. Yet badly planned irrigation schemes have increased these diseases. The main cause is not lack of either technical skills or material, but poverty, caused by the inequalities built into capitalism. 1

Technology simply means an intervention into nature by humans: something as simple as deciding what seed to plant is a basic form of technology. Only someone who has never done hard physical labor would oppose technology. Such advocates should spend a week without any household technology, prepare all food by hand with no fridge, tinned or prepared food, scrub clothes and do all the cleaning by hand.

A Deal With the Devil?

Many people, whilst recognizing the advances brought about by science, are also suspicious of it. This is because great damage to human life and the natural world has also been done by the use of science and technology. Every part of the planet is now reached by pollution. War leads to mass extermination, with the threat of extinction from nuclear or biological weapons. Technology itself is often claimed to be the cause of environmental problems.

The horrors of Bhopal, India, and the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine are pointed to by many as the ‘end product’ of much modern science. Chernobyl contaminated 160,000 square kilometers of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia (equivalent to the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland). Over 400,000 people were forced to leave their homes. Damaging long-term effects have been recorded as far away as Lapland and North-west England. Babies are still being born with no organs and limbs missing as a result of the radioactivity released into the atmosphere that day. The full consequences of Chernobyl are still unclear, but many scientists believe that the worst is yet to come.


The disaster in Bhopal, when in 1984 a US-owned chemical factory exploded, killed at least 3,000 people with some estimates as high as 10,000. A further 200,000 people suffered long-term illness and pain, due o the release of 36 tons of highly toxic gas, a compound of cyanide. There was a long list of failures of safety controls. In spite of warnings, the owners, Union Carbide, had reduced the maintenance and safety staff prior to the explosion. The cost of the needed safety steps was only $1 million.

After the disaster, the management have done everything possible to avoid any payment of damages. Local organizations, such as the Bhopal Gas Affected Women Workers Association with 14,000 members along with other unions and ‘Struggle Fronts’, have fought a long battle to gain compensation and prevent such events occurring again. They have demonstrated, marched, faced battles with police – all to gain what should be basic rights.

In spite of the horror, no lessons have been learned. World-wide the number of major chemical accidents has increased since Bhopal, there were 74 major accidents, while in the eight years afterwards there were 106. In the USA alone between 1980 and 1990, there were 15 gas releases that exceeded Bhopal in quantity and toxicity. Fortunately for American people, most took place further away from urban areas. 2

Disasters such as Chernobyl and Bhopal were due to irresponsible management cutting corners and putting short-term savings of money above safety and human life. There are other wider failures of technology today which have more complex causes, rooted in the fact that science and technology is influenced by the society in which it exists. An examination of the benefits and harm arising for technology cannot be done in isolations from society.

Scientific Outlook

Science and technology were given a great impetus by the rise of capitalism. The search for new means of production, new markets and communication all fired the growth of science. In the past, explanations of the natural world were often based on religion and myth. Some past societies damaged the environment largely due to lack of knowledge. There should be no such excuses today. Science can give us a much better understanding of the world and the impact of out actions.

The scientific approach is based on a study of the material world with the view that causes and explanations lie in the physical world rather than by the actions of a god or gods. Science studies reality, develops explanations, which are used to make predictions and then tested. A constant process of observation and explanation gives rise to more thorough understandings which more accurately and fully describe reality.

The development of science is not only done in laboratories. Much must be done in the field. Western agricultural science grew rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly due to the work of practicing farmers. Only in this century has agriculture been taught at university and research dominated by work away from farms. Today much practically gained knowledge is often considered as unscientific as it is not done in laboratories.

New pesticides are developed in laboratories and then launched with claims that they will be a total success. Yet little consideration is given to the obvious likelihood that the intended pests will evolve a resistance, making the chemical ineffective in their intended use, but they will still kill and damage other, unintended, victims.

Science and Society

Science and technology as products of human society are not neutral. As best-selling science writer, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote in his book, Ever Since Darwin: “Scientists, as ordinary human beings, unconsciously reflect in their theories the social and political constraints of their times. As privileged members of society, more often than not they end up defending the existing social arrangements as biologically foreordained.

The negative side of science is a result of its use in the service of capitalism and profits, and its reflection of the short-termism of capitalism. Its dominant ideas, values and priorities are shaped by society. Things are often studied in isolation, out of their wider context and ignoring change. Science often uses simplistic models of explanation.

In medicine this results in the view that there is a single cause of, and cure for, most diseases and an emphasis on cure rather than prevention. This approach ignores the effect of people’s work and social position on health and how many factors interact. Although tuberculosis (TB) is caused by bacteria, the improvements in social conditions – better housing, cleaner water and food, the introduction of sewage systems, etc. – caused the decline in the incidence of TB, well before vaccination was widespread. Today TB is on the increase again. In 1995, 3.1 million people – the highest since records began – died of TB, due to an increase in homelessness and poverty.

Similarly, the view that knowledge of a person’s genes will allow science to know the whole person, is an example of simplistic and reductionist outlook. It is very convenient for right-wing politicians for scientists to ‘discover’ the ‘gay gene’ or even a ‘criminal gene’: but genetic make-up is only a small part of the complex influences – parents, school, friends, the media, society’s general outlook and a whole lot more – on any person which go in to make up their individual personality. (Leaving aside the fact that much of this research, for example, in relation to the ‘gay gene’ is scientifically very dubious, to say the least.)

Many of the problems of the environment arise from such a narrow outlook. The environment is a complex interaction of many factors, which are in constant change. By taking just a few factors out of context, disasters can arise. Solutions based on simplistic technical fixes, ignoring social, economic, and political factors, very rarely work.


The problems of a limited application of science combined with overriding consideration of profit are exemplified by reaction to the dangerous depletion of the ozone layer. The agreement in 1987 to protect the ozone layer by reducing CFCs was hailed as an example that the world could co-operate to protect the environment. In 1992 it was proposed to tighten this up by stopping all CFC production by 1996.

What is it all about? Ozone is a type of oxygen, which at ground level is damaging to health, but in the upper atmosphere absorbs some of the sun’s harmful rays (ultraviolet radiation). CFCs react, especially in the cold upper atmosphere above the Poles, to remove ozone. The lack of ozone leads to an increase in the dangerous ultraviolet rays reaching earth. These rays cause skin cancer, eye cataracts, affect plant growth, and can kill many forms of aquatic life. Already in southern Chile and Argentina illness is increasing among humans. Many sheep are suffering from tumors and cancers and marine life is dying.

CFCs, chlorofluoro-carbons, when developed were considered a great improvement, being safer than chemicals previously used as they were very stable and didn’t easily react with other chemicals. They are widely used in refrigerators, industrial cleaning, aerosol cans, and making plastic foam. But the stability of CFCs is one of the main reasons they cause problems, as they survive to destroy much of the ozone in the upper atmosphere.

The agreements, however, are not working as well as planned. The level of ozone in the Northern hemisphere in the winter of 1995-96 was the lowest on record with higher than normal ultraviolet radiation reaching the ground. As usual big business is finding ways to make money. CFCs are now reported to be the second largest illegal import through Miami into the USA. It is estimated that over 22,000 tons were smuggled in last year, worth some $350 million. Many of the proposed replacements are only marginally less damaging than CFCs.

At the same time the right-wing Republicans in the US government are trying to block the implementation of the total ban on CFCs by 1996. In spite of all the evidence, they argue that ozone destruction “is very much open to debate”. 3

The Wrong Technology

Science, like society, is dominated by elitist views. In some circumstances, science, rather than being an approach based on enquiry and challenging accepted views, is presented as a new religion. Many environmental problems arise because Western experts think they know best and ignore the experience of local people. In many parts of the world environmentally-friendly water gathering and agricultural practices built up over generations have been ignored for some mega-irrigation project or super crops, devised in laboratories thousands of miles away, with little or no consultation with local people, producing disastrous results.

Even the most well-meaning technology, taken out of context, will not work. In the rush to ‘aid’ the neo-colonial world, for example, Norway tried in the past to help the poverty-stricken population of Kerala in India, who have traditionally relied on small-scale and primitive fishing for a living. Norwegian aid provided them with brand-new steel and fiberglass ships, with electronic fish-finding devices, and insulated ice vans to preserve the catch. On the surface, ignoring the realities of capitalism, this seems like a good way to increase productivity, but all that really happened was that the local people couldn’t afford the new fish catches, made more expensive by the higher capital costs … and a local businessman made a fortune from setting up his own ice factory! Hunger amongst those the technology was meant to help actually increased. 4

Science for Sale

The search for profit has affected science, so even knowledge is considered a commodity to be bought and sold. Most of the money for research is provided by large corporations and governments. They direct science mainly to those fields which show the most potential for profit. Research and development departments are simply seen as another source of profits for big companies. The same is increasingly true of science and engineering departments in universities.

This means that departments have to compete against each other to get funding. Scientists are prevented from co-operating with rivals. They guard new discoveries from each other and fail to share results. Time and energy is also wasted by trying to duplicate research and development already conducted by competitors. This is especially the case in the pharmaceutical industry, where millions of pounds are wasted, along with the effort of hundreds of scientists, in trying to produce copies of successful drugs already produced by rival companies. All of this slows down and diverts the development of new socially-useful products. If necessity really is the mother of invention, the capitalists decide what is necessary.

Often big business hides behind science, claiming there is no proof of the environmental damage. The action of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides in forming acid deposition, including acid rain, is well understood. Yet governments and producers of these pollutants demand more research before anything is done.

Similarly it is clear that some organic compounds have many damaging effects, including increased deaths of marine mammals and falling male fertility. Yet no action is taken, while more research is called for. There are several millions of such compounds, with 30,000 new ones produced each year. They range from oil products, pesticides, to highly toxic dioxins and carcinogenic substances.

A new book, Our Stolen Future, published in the USA in 1995, has analyzed 10,000 scientific papers and reports on the effects of synthetic chemicals. The writers conclude that they are lowering human sperm counts and disrupting the normal development of babies’ brains in the womb. They claim that a substantial part of the population may already be suffering from lowered intelligence, learning difficulties and attention deficiencies because of these chemicals, which exert their effects at extremely low concentrations.

Many of these substances are produced without adequate testing or control. The narrow view of science and the desire for profit combine to produce inaction. Meanwhile the polluters keep making profit and the damage continues.

It is impossible to separate science and technology from society. Science, itself, is not a monster out of control destroying the world. It is capitalism, that dominates science and technology, that is the monster out of control. Genuine democratic control would free science from the chains of the narrow philosophy, priorities and uses of capitalist science.

The Killing World

The most obscene misuse of science is in warfare. The world spends over $800 billion ($800,000,000,000) a year on arms, $160 for every person on the planet. Pakistan’s military spending is six times as much as on agriculture, education and health, combined. Many trade unions in many countries, for example, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) at Lucas Aerospace in Britain in the 1970s, have put forward conversion programs to use the skills and machinery of the arms industry for society’s needs.

Lucas Aerospace Plan

In 1975, the workers at Lucas Aerospace plants had already experienced wide-scale redundancies and were facing a further round of job cuts. They produced an alternative plan for their industry, published in 1976. Their aim was to save jobs and convert production from weapons to socially useful products.

Every worker in the combine was asked to supply details of their knowledge and skills. Trades’ councils, other trade unions and community groups were asked to supply details of what products were needed. The shop stewards’ committees at various Lucas sites had detailed discussions and some aspects were put to mass meetings of up to 3,000 workers.

About 150 products were included that could be produced from existing skills of the workforce and technology already in place. They included remote handling equipment, for example for use in fire-fighting, mining and oil rig maintenance; alternative forms of public transport; electromagnetic fail-safe brakes for heavy vehicles; solar cell technology for heating housing estates; and a variety of aids for disabled people.

The Lucas Aerospace Plan captured the imagination of many other groups of workers in engineering, including in the car industry. The private owners of such companies were unwilling to produce goods for any reason other than profit and therefore, whilst some products were developed to a degree, many stayed on the drawing board because sufficient money couldn’t be made out of them.

Public ownership of the defense industry was rejected by the then Labour government. Yet, as part of a democratically controlled system of production aimed at providing for society’s needs, such plans would transform both the quality of work for defense-industry workers and the quality of life for everyone. 5

Conversion of the skills of arms workers and of the industry itself could have a dramatic impact on many of the problems outlined in this book. It is estimated in the USA that for every $1 million spent on guided missiles 12,100 jobs are created. The same money on air, water and solid pollution control would create 22,220 jobs, on local transit 28,900 jobs and in education 84,700 jobs: all much more useful and rewarding both to the workers and to society as a whole. 6

Nuclear weapons, and other forms of mass destruction developed by science remain the greatest threat to the planet’s environment. Nuclear disarmament, either unilaterally (by individual countries) or multi-laterally (by agreement between different states) should be supported, along with an end to all nuclear weapons testing, like the useless and environmentally devastating French tests in the Pacific, which were purely done for the prestige of the French ruling class.

Even worse than the waste of research into killing people more efficiently, is the direct waste of war itself. War has a devastating effect on the environment. Vietnam was effectively carpet-bombed by the USA – they dropped more than two-and-a-half times the tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than the combined forced of Britain and the US dropped on Germany during the whole of the Second World War. 19 million gallons of defoliant chemicals were poured over the country. The effects could last for 100 years or more. Already, there has been extensive damage to vast areas of forest, many children damaged in the womb, some 40 million people are refugees from war, living in hellish camps.

Environmental problems may also lead to war in the future. Battles for water are already waged, short of full-scale war, in the Middle East, in the Indian sub-continent, and on the Nile between Egypt and the countries up-river. Poverty, inequality and environmental degradation also increase tensions that can lead to war. As long as the world is run for power and profit there will be the threat of future wars.

Worldwide nearly a third of all the working scientists and engineers in research and development are involved in the military. The skills of these scientists and even a fraction of the $800 billion the world spends on arms each tear could dramatically improve the environment and quality of life if used for humanity’s life rather than death.


  1. Living in the environment, Miller, 1994.
  2. Miller; Scientific American, July 1995; Morehouse in the Ecologist, September 1994.
  3. New Scientist, 30/9/95.
  4. How the Other Half Dies, Susan George, Penguin, 1976.
  5. Militant International Review September 1984: review of The Lucas Plan: A New Trade Unionism in the Making?, Hillary Wainwright and Dave Eliot, Alison and Busby 1982.
  6. Swords to Ploughshares, Renners, Worldwatch Institute.