Humanity and Technological Innovation

Jillian Martin, Grade 12

Continual innovation is crucial within the scope of engineering and the advancement of society as a whole. Innovative ideas have the potential to improve living standards, increase efficiency, and provide overwhelming opportunities to those it reaches. Whether it be indoor plumbing, electricity, vaccines, automobiles, or smartphones, technological innovation has shaped every industry and facet of life. However, all things come at a cost. Oftentimes innovative technologies are produced at the expense of the environment and the health/wellbeing of other communities. Throughout history, the environment and other nations have been exploited for resources and the profit that accompany innovative success. Countless wars have been fought over oil alone. While technological advances have great potential for good, they can do equal harm. The issue of incorporating sustainable, ethical, and healthy practices into the process and production of innovative technologies remains. One cannot consider the successes of innovation and ignore its faults. For far too long innovators have taken an approach of “do now, worry later,” where they ignore potential harms that accompany their technology; focusing on repairing later rather than prevention beforehand. This ideology has significantly contributed to the ongoing climate crisis and enduring social issues of the current world. In a time faced with several existing and fast-approaching challenges, innovation must learn to coexist with sustainability in order to continue to progress without further harm.

The unregulated exploitation of natural resources has serious and widespread ramifications. As natural resources have fueled innovations for centuries, many of these consequences are currently visible. These consequences branch across the environment, health and safety of local communities, and wellbeing of all involved in the production process. An overwhelming desire for profit and development of an innovative technology results in carelessness and disregard for the environment. Thousands of acres of the Amazon Rainforest are deforested each year for resources such as palm oil, which is used in countless food and cosmetic products. These plantations displace old-growth forests, in turn contributing to climate change, loss of habitat for indigenous species, loss of biodiversity, and the destruction of entire ecosystems (1). Similarly, innovations within the food industry have led to a rise in monoculture farming to create the greatest volume of a resource—and in turn the greatest profit. This farming system destroys biodiversity, ruining the soil overtime as it reveals itself to be extremely unsustainable long-term (2). The various energy sources often behind technological innovation also have damaging effects on the environment. Extensive fossil fuel manufacturing/usage is linked to habitat destruction, air/water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and chemical leakage. The same can be said for other natural resources like lithium, cobalt, and nickel (3). Innovation also finds itself linked to several ethical dilemmas. In an attempt to cut costs, companies and nations often turn to unethical, but cheaper, labor practices. This may include outsourcing labor to developing nations or using prison labor and/or child labor. These workers are treated as expendable because of the goal of maximum profit and manufacturing on a mass scale. They are underpaid and forced into dangerous work environments. These labor practices allow systemic injustice and inequality to go unrecognized, as those most affected are developing nations and impoverished or underprivileged communities. Even disregarding labor, the exploitation of resources in the name of innovation leads to other ethical dilemmas. Oftentimes, huge manufacturing plants displace or otherwise uproot entire communities. Referring back to the Amazon, deforestation fueled by the desire for the resources the rainforest holds uproots indigenous communities, strips them of their sovereignty, and makes it much more difficult to survive and maintain their ways of life (1). Resource exploitation has also resulted in dire health consequences. Working and/or living near places where resource extraction and development takes place has numerous associated health risks. Pollution from fossil fuels and toxic raw materials are linked to cancer, respiratory disease, birth defects, and many other chronic illnesses (4). Additionally, dangerous work environments associated with obtaining raw materials lead to a greater number of workplace injuries. Overall, natural resource exploitation has formidable consequences that affect all aspects of life.

In response to the consequences of blind innovation without concern for the environment and other communities, engineers must focus on incorporating sustainability and ethicality as a necessary component of their plans. No longer should these issues be seen as something that can be pushed aside and dealt with later. This should include partnerships with environmental scientists and indigenous community leaders during all stages of development of potential technologies. These people know how best to protect the environment, and have a more focused perspective on sustainable development. Whether or not they have bad intentions, those developing a technology often are not concerned with the potential harm it may cause the environment. Additionally, the search for sustainable energy sources and alternative practices should be considered a main goal of technological innovation going forward. Engineers and others involved in the production of technology must learn that the Earth is not something to be conquered and molded to fit a designated purpose, but a partner to work with throughout the entire process. To promote more ethical practices, engineers must also reject partnerships with companies that continue to utilize prison/child labor or fail to provide living wages. The safety of employees and surrounding communities must also be considered a priority in the innovation process.

While advancements toward a more ethical, sustainable future are made each day, continuous self-reflection and regulation is needed to reduce the harms of innovation. Overall, the development of technology must be treated less like a business and more like a collective research endeavor.  The desire to profit is what often leads to unethical, unhealthy, and unsustainable development. Innovation should instead be driven by the desire to do better and improve life for everyone. Innovation can, and must coexist with humanity. We must revive our compassion for the environment and for others. If measures are taken to prevent harm before it occurs, technological innovation will advance the entirety of society for generations to come.

1. J. Webb, Palm Oil: Unhealthy For You And The Amazon, (2019)
2. B. Watts, The Dangers of Monoculture Farming, (2018)
3. A. Katwala, The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction, (2018)
4. Duke Health News, Despite Studies, Health Effects of Coal-Burning Power Plants Remain Unknown, (2018)
5. R. Cronin, A. Pandya, Exploiting Natural Resources: Growth, Instability, and Conflict in the Middle East and Asia. Stimson, (2008)

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