Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

Attending to the Context of our Innovations – January 2003

The Networker
I. Editor’s Note Carolyn Raffensperger
II. And Then What? Attending to the Context
of our Innovations
Frederick Kirschenmann
  I. Editor’s Note TOP
By Carolyn Raffensperger

With this issue of the Networker we celebrate SEHN’s ninth birthday. Much of our work has been devoted to the precautionary principle and related ideas of public interest research. We thought it appropriate to kick off this year with an article on this topic by a long time friend of SEHN, Dr. Fred Kirschenmann. Fred directs the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, Ames, IA. The article is adapted from a presentation at ISU’s Department of Chemical Engineering 2002-03 Seminar Series, January 16, 2003. 


  II. And Then What? Attending to the Context of our Innovations TOP
By Frederick Kirschenmann

A few months ago David Hurd, former CEO of the Principal Financial Group, told an audience that, as the head of his company, he had learned to insist on an important procedure. Whenever anyone in his company suggested any kind of innovation, he had learned to ask, seven times, “And then what?” This simple exercise, he contended, saved his company from many unintended negative consequences that might otherwise have caused the company significant harm.From a pragmatic perspective, Mr. Hurd’s caution is simply an appeal to common sense. We should try to foresee as many of the unanticipated consequences of our actions as possible before we engage in them. However, Mr. Hurd’s pragmatic management strategy also is consistent with recent scientific insights which force us to recognize that the world we live in is more complex and dynamic–and therefore much less predictable–than we previously thought.

The New Science of Caution
Hurd’s strategy corresponds with recent observations by physicists who suggest that if we took both Laws of Thermodynamics seriously, we might re-think the way we introduce technologies into the universe. The first Law of Thermodynamics stipulates that the amount of energy in the universe is constant–that it can neither be created nor destroyed. The second law stipulates that entropy increases irreversibly in all processes.

Hokikian contends that these two laws affect all physical, social, environmental, economic and intellectual processes. He asserts that humanity would be better served, consequently, if we devoted more of our energy to the development of knowledge and attitudes that help us understand the emerging world in which we live, (especially the irreversibility of natural processes) and less on technologies designed to control or reverse that emergence.

Based on insights reaching back at least to Descartes, Newton and Galileo, we had come to view the world as a static, mechanical and predictable system. Nature, we assumed, existed in a state of equilibrium and functioned much like a clock. It was believed that we could predict nature, and our interventions in it, with certainty. Consequently, it was believed that human intervention in nature for the sole benefit of the human species was morally mandated. Technological innovation to replace or improve upon natural occurrences came to be regarded as the salvation of the human species.

Today we understand that nature is anything but clock-like. It is a highly dynamic, constantly evolving, living system consisting of very complex sets of relationships. With each stage of the evolutionary process, things become more complex and more dynamic, and emerge with increasing speed. Life first appeared on our planet as single-celled creatures about four billion years ago. It took almost two billion years before nuclei began to appear in cells. It only took a few hundred million years for multi-cellular organisms to emerge. Then things really start to speed up. An explosion of diversity occurred a few hundred million years later. Within a couple of hundred million years of the present day, large plants and complex animals are already on the scene. Hominids evolved from the great apes roughly five or six million years ago. Then a species emerged about 35,000 years ago that was not only artistic, as attested to by cave paintings, but also had developed both the capacity to dramatically change its environment and to rationalize its behavior.

Since we now understand that we live in a very dynamic, emerging world, David Hurd’s pragmatic management protocol not only makes good business sense, but also suggests a vital way of living in the world. Asking “And then what?” at least seven times recognizes that we can never introduce any innovation into the dynamic, emerging world in which we live without setting in motion a series of related consequences that are rarely apparent at the time or place of introduction. The future welfare of the human species may therefore hinge on such cautionary action.

Asking “And then what?” at least seven times seems especially prudent as we contemplate introducing a new generation of technologies that are self-replicating and easily accessible. Thoughtful scientists are, in fact, now calling for exactly such restraint. Bill Joy, co-founder and Chief Scientist of Sun Micro-systems, was one of the first industrial scientists to call for much greater caution in the release of the new generationtechnologies–genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics.

Ecological Failures
In his essay “On the Meaning of Ecological Failures in International Development,” summarizing a 1968 conference, Barry Commoner outlined numerous examples of ecological failures that have resulted from technological innovations we had introduced. Irrigation projects resulted in dramatic disease outbreaks and geophysical changes resulted in a reduction of agricultural potential. Since irrigation systems increase the amount of standing water near villages and work areas, they also increase the prevalence of life-threatening, waterborne diseases such as malaria. Waterlogging and salinity problems associated with irrigation rendered soil unusable for food production. Similarly, synthetic pesticides introduced to control agricultural pests increased pest problems due to the development of resistant strains of the pest and the reduction of natural predators.

In other words, ecological failures associated with the introduction of novel technologies were already well understood in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yet we remain reluctant to employ adequate ecological screens to determine whether or not a new technology can be released into the environment without causing ecological harm.

Today we can readily add many more ecological failures to Commoner’s list:

  • The introduction of fossil fuel technologies contributed significantly to global warming.
  • The introduction of chlorofluorocarbons depleted the stratospheric ozone layer exposing life on earth to harmful ultraviolet radiation.
  • The introduction of synthetic chemicals is likely interfering with the reproductive process of many animals as well as the developmental processes of humans, especially children.
  • The introduction of PCBs and DDT decades ago continue to be a threat to the health of numerous organisms.
  • The introduction of nuclear power exposed human societies to many incalculable risks and incurred numerous unanticipated costs. Nuclear energy, in fact, serves as a chilling example of our failure to ask “And then what?” before introducing a technology into the environment. No one even addressed the problem of decommissioning nuclear power plants before they were constructed. “The International Atomic Energy Agency did not hold its first meeting on decommissioning until 1973, almost twenty years after the first reactor was built.”

Commoner reminds us that all of the innovations introduced into international communities in the 50’s and 60’s were thought to be “technological advances” that would spur international development and certainly were not expected to cause harm. But as it turned out “they were in operational fact powerful intrusions on large-scale geophysical and ecological systems” that often ended up causing more harm than good.Accidents vs. Design Failures
Commoner goes on to assert that these ecological failures were not the result of “random accidents” but were, rather, inherent in the way modern science and technologies are conducted. Commoner suggests that we fail to anticipate many of the unintended consequences of our technological innovations because our sciences have been “dominated by an intensely reductionist approach” and that such an approach is “a poor guide to the understanding of those realms of nature which are stressed by modern technology.”

It is such reductionism, Commoner argues, that leads us to believe that “the most fruitful way to understand life is to discover a specific molecular event” rather than to understand “the biology of natural systems.” It leads us to explore new ways to use nitrogen but think little about the “fundamental biology of soil nitrogen.” It leads us to focus on the immediate properties of a new detergent – Is it a good washing agent? Is it soft on milady’s hands? Will it turn linen whiter than white? Will it sell?” – and neglects to ask, “What happens when it goes down the drain?”

Reductionism, in other words, fails to ask, “And then what?”

The failure of reductionism has, of course, been acknowledged in many fields. Richard Levins and Cynthia Lopez point out that while reductionist science has given us many technologies to attack diseases it has fallen far short of the goal of promoting human health. “It is at the level of complex interactions that our science has been least successful. Fragmentation of knowledge prevents us from seeing the whole, and reductionist methodologies encourage explanations within the confines of single disciplines, assigning relative weights to ‘factors’ rather than elucidating their interactions.”

Reductionism is not evil science. Reducing complex phenomena into fragments that can be more easily understood is essential to our understanding of how the world works. It is using those bits of information to design solutions to problems, without considering the context of the dynamic, emerging world of which those bits are merely ingredients, that gets us into trouble.

It was not the act of reducing atoms to nuclei–which led to the discovery of nuclear fission and nuclear fusion, giving us the knowledge to convert mass into energy–that was problematic. It was our assumption that this knowledge provided a quick, easy way to alleviate energy shortages without considering the disorders (the entropy) that the introduction of the technology into the environment would inevitably cause. It is our failure to attend to the context of our innovations, not the potential for innovation produced by reductionist science, that causes, and will continue to cause, unanticipated ecological failures.

We assume that the way a particular technology works to solve a particular problem–like killing a target pest (the part)–has little to do with the emergent world in which the pest lives (the whole). What is particularly unsettling is that we continue to behave this way as we contemplate introducing a new generation of powerful, self-replicating technologies. We continue to be focused, almost exclusively, on a particular solution that a particular technology might bring to a particular problem and, at best, assume that strict regulatory measures will prevent the technology from producing unintended consequences. The Second Law of Thermodynamics would seriously challenge that assumption.

An Alternative Approach
The irony of all this is that there is another approach to problem solving that we seldom consider, an approach that promises more sustainable, long-term results. Joe Lewis, pest management specialist with the Agricultural Research Service’s Insect Biology and Population Management Research Laboratory in Tifton, Georgia, outlines this new approach with respect to pest management.

Lewis argues that we have been trying to solve pest problems in agriculture by introducing technologies to get rid of the pest rather than trying to understand the system failure that allows the pest to emerge. And it hasn’t worked! Instead of asking, “How do I get rid of the pest?” he suggests we should be asking, “Why is the pest a pest?” The former question leads us, inevitably, to inventing a direct external counterforce to the problem without understanding what caused the problem to begin with and without considering the disorders the intervention may cause. The latter question is more likely to lead us toward solutions arrived at by understanding and redesigning the system.

Lewis contends that this principle of pest management holds true for molecular biology as well as toxic chemicals. Fortunately some new approaches to science and technology that subscribe to those principles are now being inaugurated.

The Green Chemistry movement, for example, takes a fundamentally different approach to reducing potential negative impacts on the environment due to the use of chemicals. The traditional approach had been to minimize risk by limiting exposure–that is, by controlling circumstantial factors through regulating the use, handling, and disposal of chemicals. As we now know, that approach has largely failed to protect the environment. Green Chemistry attempts to decrease the risk of introducing chemicals into the environment by minimizing hazard–that is, by designing or selecting chemicals that are benign. It is one way of taking the “And then what?” question seriously.

Green chemists made several other interesting discoveries as a result of studying natural systems. Nature uses very few chemicals to accomplish a host of tasks. By contrast we have tended to use a host of chemicals to accomplish a few tasks. Similarly, while we were attempting to succeed at mechanical engineering, we failed to notice that plants had already gotten organic chemistry down cold.

The Biomimicry movement is another example of solving problems by redesigning the system rather than introducing an external counterforce. Spearheaded by physicist Janine Benyus, the biomimicry movement operates on the principle that nature, by virtue of its long evolutionary journey, has already solved most of the problems we are grappling with. Consequently, biomimicry suggests that we explore nature as a reservoir of solutions to be discovered, rather than a series of defects to be corrected. Redesigning systems to mimic nature represents one way, and perhaps the best way, of asking “And then what?” before introducing a novel technology.

With respect to agriculture, Wendell Berry counseled such an approach over a decade ago:

“. . . an agriculture using nature, including human nature, as its measure would approach the world in the manner of a conversationalist. It would not impose its vision and its demands upon a world that it conceives of as a stockpile of raw material, inert and indifferent to any use that may be made of it. It would not proceed directly or soon to some supposedly ideal state of things. It would proceed directly and soon to serious thought about our condition and our predicament. On all farms, farmers would undertake to know responsibly where they are and to consult the genius of the place.” They would ask what nature would be doing there if no one were farming there. They would ask what nature would permit them to do there, and what they could do there with the least harm to the place and to their natural and human neighbors. And they would ask what nature would help them do there. And after each asking, knowing that nature will respond, they would attend carefully to her response.”

The Precautionary Principle
Asking “And then what?” before introducing a novel technology is another way of saying that it is “better to be safe than sorry.” This way of acting has been adopted by proponents of the Precautionary Principle. The Principle suggests a framework for decision-making that enables us to introduce a technology when the science concerning its potential impact on the environment is uncertain. Essentially the Precautionary Principle suggests that we should act to protect the environment before scientific proof of harm can be established. Green Chemistry and biomimicry are proactive ways of applying the Precautionary Principle.
In other words, one way to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the introduction of a technology is through removing the intrinsic hazard by using technologies that have already been selected by nature. One of the positive side effects of this approach is that it reduces or eliminates the need for regulation and the associated costs of regulation. That is perhaps the most productive way of asking “And then what?”

What other benchmarks might we use in applying the “and then what?” question when we try to select appropriate technologies that will not produce unacceptable, unintended consequences? A few years ago I proposed four principles.

  1. If the magnitude of potential harm is limited, we might say yes to the technology. If the effect of the introduction of a material or practice could last for generations – if it doesn’t disappear in one generation – we should say no.
  2. If the geography of the potential harm from the technology is limited, we might say yes to the technology. The larger the area affected by the introduction of a material or practice, the more safeguards we must use. For example, if the technology to be introduced is airborne, waterborne, bio-accumulative, or in other ways ubiquitous to the environment, we should say no.
  3. If the biology of the potential harm is limited, we might say yes to the technology. Since all species in a biotic community have coevolved, we must take the welfare of all species into consideration. If the introduction of a material or practice potentially threatens the integrity or capacity for renewal of the biotic community, we must say no.
  4. If the potential social cost of the technology is limited we might say yes. Often we say yes to the introduction of a material or practice because the short-term economic gain is attractive, or because it has great potential for economic gain for one sector of society. But, rarely are these gains weighed against the long-term economic costs. If the introduction of a technology compromises future economic wellbeing or is achieved in one sector of society at the expense of another sector, we should say no.

Unfortunately in today’s industrial climate such precautions are seldom considered, and indeed some sectors of our society are hostile toward them. But as we make our way into what could be a perilous future, we would do well to remember the sage advice that “nature always bats last.”In any event we might begin asking “And then what?” at least seven times before we proceed much further. And we should probably all hope that the next stage of emergence on our planet is the emergence of wisdom within the human species!


This article was excerpted from a paper presented at the Iowa State University’s Department of Chemical Engineering 2002-2003 Seminar Series, January 16, 2003. Read the entire presentation.