Democracy, Technology and Alternative Planning

Professor Lloyd J. Dumas, University of Texas at Dallas, Dallas, Texas, USA.  Remarks at the Global Teach-In, April 25, 2012.

The idea that military spending is a burden on any economy goes all the way back to Adam Smith, the founder of capitalism. In the US, over the past 70 years, high levels of military spending have diverted key economic resources–especially the talents of engineers and scientists–to economically unproductive military activity and away from the kinds of activity that improve economic well being. This certainly includes diverting technological talent from the improvement of renewable energy and materials technologies and the search for greater energy efficiency. This diversion has had a considerable opportunity cost in terms of economic well being in general and “green jobs” in particular, as well as environmental sustainability.

But security is a serious business. If we are to step away from the economic and ecological costs of the military burden, we must have a workable and effective alternative plan for providing security that does not depend so heavily on the threat or use of military force. In my latest book, The Peacekeeping Economy (Yale University Press, 2011), I argue that it is possible to build a more effective national and international security system by relying primarily on economic relationships built around four basic principles: 1) Create balanced, mutually beneficial (rather than exploitative) economic trade and investment relationships; 2) Seek independence in critical goods (energy being one of the most important); 3) Emphasize development instead of just growth; and 4) Minimize ecological damage. I argue that economic peacekeeping is not just a nice idea but a demonstrably practical project. And I lay out a series of pragmatic, real world strategies for building a peacekeeping economy.

I don’t have the time to elaborate here on the these arguments, but I do want to point out that at least two of the four peacekeeping principles directly depend upon our moving toward green development and green jobs. There is no prospect of achieving energy independence without intolerable environmental damage unless we dramatically increase both the efficiency with which we use energy and our reliance on renewable energy and material resources.

Actually, the third principle–emphasize development–also cannot be sustained without carrying out economic activity in ways that minimize negative environmental impacts. If raising economic well being in the world’s developing countries really depended on bringing them up to the level and type of energy and materials consumption that have been common in the US, it would do enormous damage to the global environment. Fortunately, it does not. By taking a “greener” approach to economic activity, there is plenty of room to raise global standards of living.

Our failure to take a greener path threatens us in other ways too. It has led us to develop dangerous technologies–from highly toxic industrial chemicals to nuclear power to nuclear weapons– whose very existence in the hands of a species as prone to error and malevolence as we are increases the likelihood of technological disasters, and makes us less secure. We all know that human beings are fallible. And yet we always seem to assume that we can control any technology we create, no matter how powerful, no matter how dangerous. It simply isn’t true.

Consider, for example, the accident at Japan’s Fukushima-Daichi nuclear plant in March 2011. On the surface, it may seem that Fukushima was the result of a natural disaster, not human error. But human error actually played a key role. The people who designed and built those nuclear power stations designed them to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters. But, among other things, they seriously underestimated the severity of the earthquake and tsunami those plants ultimately had to face. They weren’t careless; they weren’t sloppy. They just made a mistake. But that’s exactly the point–people make mistakes.

We need to move away from technologies–like nuclear power –that do not allow a very large margin for error without causing disasters–and toward technologies like wind power that do. The accident at Fukushima severely disrupted hundreds of thousands of people’s lives and did many billions of dollars worth of damage. On the other hand, the worst imaginable accident at a comparable field of wind power generators might kill or injure perhaps a dozen people and do a few million dollars worth of damage. And it would not contaminate the countryside for years to come. (These arguments are developed in detail in my 2010 book, The Technology Trap).

Don’t let anyone tell you that we must either continue the technological paths we have been following or go backwards–or that scientific and engineering principles dictate the technological paths we must follow. The choice of existing technologies to deploy and new technological directions to follow is a social choice, not a scientific necessity. Engineers and scientists are more able to develop new technologies than the rest of us, but they have no special knowledge as to which technologies to develop. That is for us to decide. And, given the power of technology to shape the world we live in, it is important for us to participate in that decision.

Aside from our inherent fallibility, one of the most important characteristics of human beings as a species is our flexibility. That adaptability is one key reason why we have been as successful as we have been on this planet. We are not only capable of developing new ideas for more effective and economically beneficial systems of security, like the peacekeeping economy, and defining greener more sustainable technological paths to the future, we are capable of working out practical plans for getting from here to there. And that we must do, because real progressive change requires more than a vision; it requires a plan for making that vision a reality.

Thank you.