David Suzuki on technology

Dr David Suzuki, media personality, environmental campaigner, eco guru and perhaps prophet has recently visited Australia to promote his latest book, “Good News”. While in Sydney he addressed a conference of the Australian Institute of Environmental Health on Thursday 31 October.

This dynamic 64-year old grandfather is a passionate and inspiring speaker. For more than an hour he delivered a message of urgency, a message of inspiration and a message of hope. In a disarmingly forthright manner he spoke about the crisis that the planet currently faces, the need to revere our resources and his own plans for the future to engender change. He also spoke at some length about the limitations of an economic system that allows uncontrolled financial growth at the expense of natural resources and a healthy planet.

Among Suzuki’s many themes was the topic of new technology, which has relevance to readers of this newsletter.

New technologies, said Suzuki, have inherent risks. These risks, as history has so often demonstrated, are not always obvious at the outset and therefore cannot be properly addressed by legislation. How can we regulate new technology, he asked, when our knowledge about it is so primitive? We simply delude ourselves if we think that we can fully understand all of its implications in the early stages of its use.

The assumption that science can anticipate all possible eventualities of a new technology, he suggests, has been the cause of immeasurable damage to public health and the environment in the past. Suzuki cited the example of DDT. Discovered in the 1800s, DDT was first recognised as an effective pesticide in the 1930s. Not until it had been widely used in agriculture and other applications was it discovered that DDT could be harmful to humans because of the phenomenon of biomagnification.

Biomagnification is the amplification of an effect at the start of the food chain in the higher echelons of the chain. In the case of DDT, it meant that minute amounts of the chemical ingested by insects feeding on affected crops became concentrated in the animals that fed on them, and eventually in humans. Toxic levels of DDT have even been found in human breast milk. Because biomagnification was unknown in the 1930s, politicians could hardly have regulated the use of DDT effectively at the time.

This is true of any new technology. Suzuki said at the conference, “since our knowledge base is so young and so primitive, there are going to be effects, I promise you.”

In a society where technology is gold and its growth is rampant, this is a sobering thought. It means that, to avoid the mistakes that litter our recent history, we must apply the most stringent of precautions to its use. The Catania Resolution and the Freiburger Appeal are among those calls for precaution.

EMR News Dec 2002, Vol 1 No 4