Photo credit: Supreme Court Pediment by Flickr.com user Kevin Harber

7 Steps Toward a Sustainable Society - #4

Here is the fourth step we should take to reach a sustainable society (click here for step one, step two, and step three). Four: Judge technologies not just on what they do for people but also to people and their life-support systems. A novel synthetic chemical added to the plastic in a sports bottle may increase its durability or prolong its life. But if it leaches into the bottle's contents or into the environment and functions in tiny doses as a cancer-causing agent, is the risk worth the benefit? In general, benefit-cost analyses are not done frequently or carefully enough before the introduction of new technologies. Freons (chlorofluorocarbons) looked extremely beneficial until it was discovered they could destroy the ozone layer and with it all life on land. Risk cannot be avoided completely. But a cultural change toward more careful analyses and deployment only of technologies that carry very clear benefits will help humanity keep the odds in its favor. It is an example of where the small group alone just can't produce the necessary cultural evolution - information from the large-group institutions of governments and international science necessarily must be integrated into the process. What do you think? Leave us a comment. Check back next week for the fifth step we should take toward a sustainable society. ———- Paul R. Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. He is the author of hundreds of scientific papers, and numerous books including The Population Bomb and Betrayal of Science and Reason (Island Press, 1997). His latest book is The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, which he co-authored with his wife Anne.