When it comes to the deployment of technology to solve problems the issues of democracy, power and access get thrown into stark relief.
Instead of debates reaching a balanced conclusion what we see is intense lobbying on both sides (of an often false divide) to the detriment of accuracy. The business side talks up the benefits when it wants to go ahead with as little interference as possible. Opponents feel obliged to (over)emphasise dangers and risks even seeking bans. The issue for political economy is simply this. We clever monkeys will keep on probing and questioning and inventing things. The technology genie is out of the bottle and is never going back. We are too many and our impact is too big, we will live or die by our brain power. We have to get organised to deal with both the challenges we face and the technologies that we invent.
Big High Technology
Technology advocates are usually optimistic. The MIT Energy review, whose mission is ''to bring about better-informed and more conscious decisions about technology through authoritative, influential, and trustworthy journalism" thinks we can use carbon capture to reverse the build up of Co2 in the atmosphere
Critics point out that leaving forests in place or rewinding currently do a better job
Take the example of genetically modified crops. This has been reduced to a simple battle between two camps, bio-tech business on the one side and ecologists on the other. It looks like the issue has as much to do with corporate governance as it does with biological hazards; in many cases GM crops are merely a speeded up version of what selective breeding has been doing since agriculture was invented. It should be possible to work through the pros and cons and come to a sensible decision. What stops this happening are the power structures which encourage a combative approach (the political system) and the privileges granted to business (ease of access, lobbying) compared to those granted to citizens who will be impacted by the decisions made either way.
The major issues for all high tech solutions are political (by that I mean properly democratic) control and the danger of unintended consequences. In a complex world, there are no silver bullets and the seduction of the big fix is nothing but a Siren call.
More modest approaches
Technology does not it have to be sophisticated to be empowering, it may be very simple indeed. This is the hallmark of the things originally advocated by the Centre for Intermediate Technology, which has been rebranded as Practical Action,
Tree planters are available to help with reforestation and there are different approaches to the same essential idea
But the jury is still out, it may be that a systems approach to the ecosystem is the only long term solution as argued here
The so called gravity lamp is useful where electricity is expensive or intermittent, so are wind up radios
But do we really expect people who want to catch up the industrially developed world to make do, even were we to answer yes I am sure that they would not.
The issues for medium and low tech solutions are those of empowerment and fairness, together with the difficulty of scale up to a sufficient size to make sensible inroads to the problems being addressed.
Technology needs to be under democratic control
For big high technology, if we take genetically modified crops as the example, some aspects are merely a speeded up version of what selective breeding has been doing since agriculture was invented. On top of that if I am lucky enough to reach 90, there will be another 3 billion people to feed. The battle over GM is emblematic of the problems holistic political economy seeks to address. With a lot of justification we hesitate to trust big capital (after all it avoids tax, maximises profit, and pays as low wages as it can) but we are in danger of stopping progress. We need to decide what to allow and for that we need political structures that support a sensible debate. We need to be able to reach decisions fast enough for the speed with which our world is changing.
For intermediate technology capital does not seem to be interested. There is no glamour, no power trip fix to be had, and any profits would be hard won. We need different forms of organisation to allow the scale up of workable solutions. We need to come up with ways that encourage people to make a right livelihood in the areas that big capital ignores. We need representatives who get this are are not in hoc to the the special interests who funded them on the campaign trail.