Sustainable technology is an idea that may produce a new level of real progress around the world. But often today, the term is more of a marketing badge that may or may not prove to be true when put to the test. I have written before about sustainable technology and some of the problems with realizing that idea. In this article, let’s consider a set of objectives that we can use to actually measure whether something is sustainable.
Most often we hear about sustainable technology either in the context of things like renewable energy (solar power, wind power, etc.), or in the context of simple technologies that are implemented in developing countries. Usually, the traits that make them sustainable are said to be energy efficiency, less pollution, recyclability, and ease of maintenance among other things. And, those traits are a valid part of sustainability, but not necessarily the whole story.
For example, consider this carpenter shown in this photograph from Guinea, West Africa.
His tools are all hand powered: saws, drills, chisels; and he takes huge sections of logs straight from the saw mill and turns them into very nice pieces of furniture. The wood furniture he creates is durable and repairable, and will last long enough for a new tree to be grown to replace it. He doesn’t use any electricity at all, and the romantics among us might say that he is the most sustainable version of a small businessman.
However, his income is stagnant. This business is not economically sustainable in the event of any kind of injury to the owner, an economic recession or currency devaluation, natural disaster, or other problem that might befall a developing nation. He can produce only a certain amount of furniture each month, by himself. He hires helpers to produce more, but most of the increase in revenue goes to their salaries. He could doubtless double his production (or more) by using electric tools and a diesel generator, and use the increased income to improve his families education opportunities and health care, but then he would be consuming a non-renewable resource. Economic sustainability must also be included in the criteria for a sustainable technology.
Let’s review several traits that should be present in something we call sustainable.
(1.) A sustainable technology does not irrevocably destroy any resource (except an insignificant amount) that is not renewable. Steel can be recycled, wood can be grown again, glass can be turned back into sand, in case we run out one day, or more glass. This can also become a score like most of these criteria, where the fewer resources destroyed the better.
(2.) A sustainable technology is durable enough that any renewable resources it requires can be replenished during its life. Like wood used in furniture or construction, the product is expected to last long enough for the same amount of new wood to be produced.
(3.) A sustainable technology will follow a trend of reduction in resources required per unit such that increases in population and economic growth will result in the overall resource consumption remaining constant or decreasing. As in, I can drive farther in an automobile on a single gallon of fuel today than I could 50 years ago, so the overall population can drive more with the same amount of fuel.
(4.) A sustainable technology is economically viable creating more value than it costs over the long term. In the case of energy saving devices, a sustainable one will cost less than the energy it will save over its lifetime.
(5.) A sustainable technology and the training required to operate and maintain it are proportional in value. This is so that an individual capable of utilizing that technology cannot be much more highly paid performing other similar work. And also, so that the supply of individuals who can maintain the technology is in the proper proportion to the level of deployment of the technology. For example, if mechanics were not so highly paid, there may not be a sufficient number to repair all of the automobiles when needed.
While there are other possible criteria, I think these form a good foundation. Future articles will look at the sustainability or lack thereof of specific technologies.