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Commentary (February 9, 2005)

Bet on the Sustainable Option

Takamitsu SAWA (Professor, Kyoto University)

In the 20th century, science and technology was aimed at contributing to economic development and growth. In the 21st century, though, it must seek to promote sustainable development.

Until the 1973 global oil crunch, the slogan for technological advancement was "bigger, faster and stronger," as exemplified by the jumbo jet and the Concorde supersonic jet. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the focus of technical development shifted to "more fuel-efficient and more cost-efficient" equipment. This trend was enhanced by global environmental problems that emerged in the 1990s.

Generally speaking, technical innovation is driven by constraints and shortages. There are two meanings to the phrase "The 21st century is a century of the environment": Global environmental problems are likely to become more serious, and environmental constraints are expected to drive technical innovations.

It is often said that technical innovation has led to the affluence of modern society. It is no exaggeration to say that transportation (such as automobiles and aircraft), home appliances, communications equipment and computers have reached a level of near-perfection. Materially speaking, there are no shortages.

Future technical innovations are likely to be driven by the insatiable quest for perennial youth, longevity and health as well as by environmental constraints.

One problem is the irreversibility of science and technology. New technology, once it is introduced, is rarely removed from the market -- as a result of a legal ban or public opposition -- on the grounds that it is harmful to life and the environment. As far as I know, the exceptions include only a few harmful substances: the insecticide DDT, the sleeping drug thalidomide, and the ozone layer-damaging chlorofluorocarbons.

Science and technology is irreversible because, for one thing, innovations foster groups of professionals with special expertise in the fields involved.

All technologies come with tradeoffs, such as efficacy of new medicines vs. the side effects, stem-cell research vs. ethical issues, nuclear power plants vs. accident risks, large-scale public works projects vs. environmental disruption, and the benefits of digital equipment vs. adverse effects on society.

In pondering science and technology's role in sustainable development, we must place more emphasis on the principles of prevention. At issue, for example, is whether the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and antiglobal warming measures (reducing carbon-dioxide emissions) should be weighed according to the principle of prevention or the amount of scientific information available. The former could require unnecessary costs, while the latter could lead to irreparable damage.

As to which alternative to take, a wide gap exists between European nations on one hand, and Japan and the United States on the other.

There is no immediate risk of a global food shortage even if GMOs are not produced. Nevertheless, U.S. agribusinesses are growing and exporting large amounts of GMOs. It has not been proven that GMOs are harmful to human health; nor has it been shown conclusively that they are safe.

We need to turn to GMOs only when we face a global food shortage. Furthermore, GMO production is not the only solution to a food crunch. There are other remedies, such as securing the necessary farmland, to deal with the problem.

Likewise, in my view, it will never be possible to scientifically prove a causal relationship between climate change and the various man-made activities and other phenomena widely believed to contribute to global warming. However, there is an extremely high probability that the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing climate change. Reducing carbon-dioxide emissions would not seriously damage life's conveniences; nor would it cause an economic slump.

Sources of fossil fuels are limited, and reducing energy consumption would prolong the supplies. Those who argue that there should be no rush to develop measures against global warming and climate change, since there is insufficient information on the subject, are likely to take no action at all. And that could threaten coming generations.

With the Kyoto Protocol taking effect Feb. 16, we must change our lifestyles to contribute to the creation of a sustainable society.

(This article appeared in the January 7, 2005 issue of The Japan Times)

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