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close this bookEco-restructuring: Implications for Sustainable Development (UNU, 1998, 417 p.)
close this folderPart I: Restructuring resource use
close this folder3. Ecological process engineering: The potential of bio-processing
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentEditor's note
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe current situation: The status of biotechnologies
View the documentPotential and promises
View the documentMarket penetration by biotechnology
View the documentBarriers to penetration
View the documentFinal remarks
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Editor's note

The best introduction to this chapter is a book written over 20 years ago by Lewis Thomas (1974). Thomas, writing about medicine, makes the important point that current medical technologies are either "non-technologies" or "halfway technologies" (1974, p. 32). In the medical case, Thomas defines "non-technologies" as supportive therapy, or "caring for" a person with a disease whose underlying causes and mechanisms are not really understood. As examples, he mentions cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and advanced cirrhosis. Today one would certainly add AIDS and Alzheimer's disease to that list. Although most of the diseases on his list are now better understood than when Thomas wrote, it is doubtful that any of them, except some types of cancer, have moved even to the next (half-way) level.

It is fairly natural to suggest that other technologies can be characterized along the same axis as medical technologies. A non-technology in the production sphere is perhaps one in which nature does essentially all the work. The current technologies of forestry, ranching, and dairy farming (for instance) are virtually non-technologies. Nature does everything. The human contribution is largely limited to culling and harvesting (with a bit of tree planting, animal breeding, and veterinary medicine).

"Half-way technologies" are the ones that dominate current practice. In the medical sphere, Thomas defines them as "the kinds of things that must be done after the fact, in efforts to compensate for the incapacitating effects of certain diseases that one is unable to do very much about" (1974, p. 33). His examples include organ transplants, most types of surgery, wheelchairs, and the "iron lung" that was used to assist victims of infantile paralysis to breathe. Technologies that assist detection and diagnosis (but not cure) are also surely in this category.

Conventional agriculture may be characterized as a half-way technology. In the case of agriculture, the state of conventional technology can be summarized as breeding, tilling, fertilizing, seeding, weeding, and harvesting. Machines utilizing fossil fuels have been developed to do a lot of the tilling, seeding, weeding, and harvesting, while chemicals (also based largely on fossil fuels) do the fertilizing and pest control. Yet this combination is wasteful, harmful to wildlife and soil, and unsustainable in the long run. This would seem to be "half-way" technology. Moser argues that knowledge based biotechnologies can potentially do a lot more, reducing the need for machines and chemicals on the one hand, and reducing harmful side-effects on the other.

The third type of medical technology, according to Thomas, is "the kind that is so effective that it attracts the least public notice; it has come to be taken for granted." Vaccines, antibiotics, and hormone treatments of endocrine disorders are examples. The ability to clone and grow replacement organs in vitro would be a big step forward over the current techniques, but the ability to regrow organs in vivo would, of course, be the ultimate substitute for surgical transplants. The discovery of the Salk vaccine, which essentially made "iron lungs" obsolete and eliminated infantile paralysis as a threat (and forced the "March of Dimes" to find another target for fund-raising), perfectly exemplifies the transition from "half-way" technology to truly advanced technology. An important and perceptive observation by Thomas is that what we often think of as "high-tech" medicine is, more often than not, actually the expensive and complicated "half-way" variety rather than the truly effective variety.

Indeed, most other conventional production technologies are undoubtedly very primitive when compared with the technologies utilized by nature. Is there any fundamental reason why complex metal, ceramic, or plastic structures could not be "grown" as an organism grows? In the very long run, I see no fundamental barrier. In fact, current developments in semi-conductor manufacturing and advanced ceramics technology seem to point in that direction.

Moser's principal contribution, in this chapter, is to lay out some of the next intermediate steps in this possible evolutionary development. His notion of "eco-technology" corresponds to a considerably more advanced stage of this possible evolution, but one that can be plausibly envisioned in general terms at least by a technological optimist - within the next half-century.

I have to say, here, that Moser's original paper contained a great deal of interesting material, including a considerable discussion of measures of and criteria for eco-sustainability. Because much of this seemed to be beyond the scope of his assignment, or was essentially covered in chapter 1, the editors were forced to prune it rather drastically for lack of space. It is to be hoped that, as a biologist, Professor Moser will recall that roses, too, must be pruned to make them bloom more abundantly. I have also added some parenthetical remarks in a few places in Professor Moser's text.