Cutting Through Environmental Issues: Technology as a double-edged sword

Slack covers everything. It sifts in everywhere. Slack is what doesn’t melt in the mountains of red ore-a metal particle, powdered ore, powdered metal. It silts down all growing things. You can see the tiny bits of ore gleaming in your hands. The shining ore dusts your coat. It gets in your hair. On certain days they blow the slack out. Mighty currents of air blow the choking slack out of the costly mill chimneys onto the cheap human life outside. Those days the sun is darkened, and the steel workers returning home hide their faces as from a sand storm. They duck along, jackets over heads, under the fury of the falling slack. You find it everywhere. . . . Nothing, between soot and slack, can be clean long in the steel towns. “Steel Towns,” from Men and Steel, by Mary Heaton Vorse

The Industrial Revolution brought forth extraordinary gains in financial prosperity. Between 1870 and 1910, per capita income in the United States rose almost 40 percent, and the value of manufacturing output increased sevenfold. Yet rapid industrialization left in its wake darkened noontime skies, noisy and unsafe machinery, and severely compromised living conditions.

It took nearly three generations before the first concerted efforts were made to bring pollution under control, but once begun, progress has been real. The air quality index for the United States now shows a 42 percent improvement since 1980. The number of U.S. cities failing to meet national air quality standards for ozone, 199 in 1990, was just 70 by 1995. Automobile emissions of six principal air pollutants have decreased 31 percent even while the number of vehicle miles driven has more than doubled.

Having dirtied the earth, air, and water for more than a century, technology is now showing promise in environmental cleanup. Technological innovations specifically aimed at reducing pollution-from cleaner manufacturing processes to flue gas scrubbers to catalytic converters-now figure prominently in mitigating some of the growing pains of an increasingly technological world.

Technology, in other words, is a double-edged sword-one capable both of doing and undoing damage to environmental quality. In what follows, we look at technology and the environment in four key areas: energy, climate, water quality, and waste cleanup. In each case, we illustrate the dual nature of technology’s environmental implications. We also touch on the emerging relationship between the Internet and environmental quality, one that again seems to cut both ways. We then note how technology is helping to fashion policies that allow producers and consumers to recognize and internalize the environmental costs of technology and thus to spur innovation to clean up the environment. .


All the world’s economies continue to face big challenges in using energy-the lifeblood of the industrial age-while maintaining environmental quality. Although U.S. energy efficiency is much greater than ever before, growth in the economy has assured rising energy consumption. While the average fuel efficiency of new passenger cars has more than doubled since 1975, the environmental gains are increasingly offset by the popularity of lower-mileage light-duty trucks and sport utility vehicles, increases in miles traveled per vehicle, and large increases in vehicle ownership. .

Nonetheless, technology-impelled by economic, regulatory, and environmental pressures-has made possible impressive reductions in vehicular emissions of volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide per mile traveled. Reductions in both by 70-80 percent since 1977 would not have been possible without substantial innovations in, most notably, electronics. Here, the development of sensors that can closely calibrate energy use to demand has meant that both modern engines and industrial motors can be operated much more efficiently. Microcontrollers and digital signal processors also underpin a new generation of auto emissions sensors, which now consume up to 25 percent less energy. Modern autos have 20-90 of these sensors to control their engines precisely. .


Discussions of energy use lead naturally to the question of how it may be affecting the earth’s climate. In the United States, the energy sector accounts for more than 85 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, with energy-related carbon dioxide alone responsible for about 80 percent. Most U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from the use of coal and petroleum in electricity generation and transportation, respectively. But two newer technologies, fuel cells and small, single-cycle gas turbines-induced by economic and environmental considerations as well as by innovation policy-offer substantial environmental advantages over traditional, large, centralized power plants. Local generation by smaller plants can not only reduce transmission losses, but also improve air quality since they can be fueled by hydrogen and natural gas-much cleaner than coal on a per kilowatt hour basis. If fuel cells become widely adopted in transportation, emissions will plunge there too. .

Adopting such technologies may not be a perfect solution, however, particularly in power generation. Some fuel cell technologies release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. In addition, small-scale plants serving only residential areas or small businesses may be less able to balance the peaks in demand than are larger plants serving both types of customers.

Water Quality

Air quality and climate change are the dominant, but not the only, environmental issues relating to energy use and production. Industrial and vehicular emissions, particularly of nitrogen oxides, are also detrimental to water quality. Nitrogen deposition acts as a fertilizer and promote the growth of algae in lakes, rivers, and estuaries, creating eutrophic conditions that kill submerged aquatic vegetation. In some places, such as the Chesapeake Bay, eutrophication threatens commercial fishing as well as recreational pursuits.

Even more serious is the agricultural runoff of pesticides, fertilizer, and animal waste. Technology and policy are now beginning to address runoff pollution, but it is hard to measure, much less control, because it stems from widely scattered, “nonpoint” sources.

In the past few years, however, the tools of geographic information systems (GIS) using remotely sensed data have offered new ways to identify and observe these sources. The techniques combine land-use information with hydrology, topography, and soil data to make detailed, digitized maps at very fine scales and measure the potential for runoff. Remote sensing data on actual farming activities, collected by aircraft and satellites, can be combined with the digital maps to provide more accurate and timely monitoring and estimation of runoff. While it may not be possible to trace all the runoff to its original source, it is increasingly possible and cost-effective to trace much of it.

GIS tools have also fostered precision farm practices using real-time, computerized, and detailed information about crop health. Remote sensors on harvesting equipment enable growers to discriminate among rows of crops for irrigating and for applying pesticides and fertilizer, thus increasing crop yields and reducing chemical use. And precision agriculture may have a bright future: information technology sales in the farm sector are now comparable to sales of farm equipment.

Remote sensing technology has also begun to improve the efficiency of municipal water use. Even in the United States, water is priced in a way that encourages wasteful consumption. The problem is compounded in many other countries, particularly in the developing world, because of a lack of infrastructure to meter water use. In Buenos Aires, for example, customers pay for water based on the size of their houses or apartments. The city has recently updated its real estate maps using remotely sensed data. Some hotels had been masquerading as studio apartments and were billed accordingly. While remote sensing has not replaced the need for metering, the new data have at least allowed the city to price water more accurately.

Despite their promise, even GIS and remote sensing technologies are “two-edged” in their environmental implications. The technologies raise some privacy concerns, for instance, that could lead polluters to cloak or hide their polluting activities, further inhibiting pollution monitoring and cleanup. Several legal cases concerning constitutional protections against warrantless searches have been motivated by the use of aerial photography for monitoring environmental compliance, and in more recent cases polluters had attempted to shield their actions from surveillance. Most recently, Midwest farming conglomerates have expressed concern about the public availability of aerial imagery if it is detailed enough to disclose farming practices. Such concerns could lead to curbs on the use of remote sensing for pollution monitoring and regulatory enforcement.

Waste Management

The trade-off between benefits and costs of new developments in biotechnology has made headlines in the case of genetically modified food supplies. Similar concerns surround the technology of bioremediation. Naturally occurring microorganisms have long been used to break down human, agricultural, industrial, and municipal organic wastes. Now, genetically engineered organisms are being used to treat not only industrial effluent, but also wastewater, contaminated soil, and petroleum spills. Bioremediation treats about 5-10 percent of all toxic chemicals and other hazardous waste; has successfully treated oil, gasoline, toluene, naphthalene, pentachlorophenol (a fungicide and wood preservative), and agricultural waste; and is being used at more than 30 munitions test areas across the United States.

Bioremediation can be a particularly cost-effective approach. Most of the costs of traditional cleanup technologies come in removing and disposing of contaminated soil, water, or other materials. Bioremediation requires only delivering the bacteria to the site, not excavating or otherwise disturbing it, thus reducing post-cleanup costs.

These benefits must be balanced against what some critics view as potentially large drawbacks. One concern is that bioremediation may largely immobilize rather than fully remediate contamination. Another is that instead of reverting to its original state, the site will be transformed in some unexpected way. A third concern is that the potential risks of adding genetically altered organisms to the environment, or even redistributing naturally occurring ones, may not be fully understood.

The Information Revolution

The revolution in information technology promises economic changes almost as great as those of the industrial revolution itself. Digital data storage, manipulation, and communication may not appear to have environmental implications, but some examples suggest otherwise. High-speed, high-bandwidth connectivity between our homes and offices may allow us to telecommute; it may also worsen sprawl around metropolitan areas if workers find it increasingly practical to live farther from their work. Whether online shopping replaces visits to the mall or takes place in addition to trips to the dentist and dry cleaners (trips that might have been combined with trips to the mall) will also shape the Internet’s impact on auto travel. Packaging of e-commerce goods for shipping may be more materials- and energy-intensive than store-bought goods. Some controversial studies have even suggested that growth in demand for electricity, driven by new kinds of customers such as computer server warehouses, may have helped overload the electrical grid in northern California last summer. The net effect of new information technologies on energy consumption, land use, and travel has yet to be carefully studied.

From another perspective, as a tool for research and communication about the environment, the Internet appears to hold much promise. For research, it offers online bibliographic search engines, data archives and retrieval systems, rapid exchange of research results with distant colleagues, and software for scientific modeling of complex environmental processes. The Internet has also greatly expanded the public’s access to and awareness of detailed environmental information.

Economic Incentives and Technological Innovation

Realizing the environmental promise of these and other new technologies-that is, exploiting the beneficial side of technology’s dual nature-depends in part on “getting the prices right.” New technology will be better deployed to reduce environmental costs if these costs are recognized. For example, if automobile prices reflected all the environmental costs of tailpipe emissions, auto makers would have stronger incentives to use new pollution control technologies in new car models.

The “social costing” approach to environmental regulation has increasingly come into its own in the United States. For instance, tradable pollution permits-such as for sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants-have created financial incentives for electricity generators to adopt cleaner production processes. These market-based approaches can be more cost-effective than traditional emissions limits or technology standards, because firms that can reduce emissions most cheaply cut them more than they otherwise would-and then sell their excess permits to firms that cannot. At the same time, the market-based approaches induce innovations by putting a price on emissions and reductions.

The use of such incentive-based approaches is growing not only here, but abroad. International policy discussions on global climate change include taxes on carbon emissions and the use of marketable permits. Similar approaches to getting prices right in managing water quality and waste, as in our examples above, are likely to discourage environmentally harmful uses of these resources and further encourage use of new technologies in managing them.

Information technologies in particular will help expand the scope and effectiveness of incentive-based approaches, for at least four reasons. First, improved remote sensing technologies are making incentive-based regulations, which rely on emissions monitoring, either to enforce compliance or to levy taxes on pollution, more practical. Second, technological advances will help extend these approaches even to “smaller” polluters, possibly including small businesses and individual automobiles. Third, new information technologies are making it possible to fine-tune prices and regulatory programs-for example, by allowing pricing to reflect time of day, congestion, or atmospheric conditions. Finally, in the case of international resource management, remote sensing from space-based satellites may make it easier to monitor environmental compliance across countries.

From the steel towns of yesteryear to today’s wired cities, the interplay of new technology and its environmental effects has indeed been complex. Technology will always be a double-edged sword, but creative use of new economic approaches to environmental management should help blunt its destructive edge and hone its capacity for good.