Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Opinion: Environmental sustainability and Information Society; a panoramic sweep

Information society and Sustainable Development
It has become widely recognised and ever-increasing attention placed; on human induced planetary problems associated with resource and (fossil) energy depletion, waste and pollution, overpopulation, land-degradation, loss of bio-diversity etc. Associated consequences include (but are not confined to) issues such as; climate change, Starvation and malnutrition (inflicting third world nations), environmental catastrophes, human health issues, economic concerns (need for continual economic growth) and overall ‘quality of life’ concerns for the wider planetary population. A cycle of consequences results from Humanities complex interdependence with the natural environment. As a result of an ever increasing body of evidence recognising this inter-dependent relationship and which directly attributes Man’s (or woman's) impact on the environment with many of the problems and challenges Man faces; a mounting call for ‘sustainable development’ of the human civilisation has been urged by many concerned stakeholders. ‘Sustainable development’ is widely defined as, ‘meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations’.

At the same time, it is now becoming apparent that in terms of societal evolution, we are in the midst of an ‘information revolution’. Society has undergone tremendous changes in the past 30 years, particularly because of technological advancements in ICT’s. Many theorists argue we are, or are approaching; a new ‘epoch’ or ‘age’. Terms include informatised society, information society, information age, knowledge society, network society, post-industrial society. What is clear is that the increased capacity and speed of processing information correlated with the exponential growth of ‘technical/technological/scientific knowledge’, (given the conducive economic/political conditions; democracy and capitalism combined, and favourable quantities of energy and physical resources) has resulted in enormous societal ‘advancement’ or ‘progress’ (seen from a western scientific view of progress).

Benefits of Progress
This ‘advancement’ or ‘progress’ has been associated with a notable rise in western material living standards, the degree and sophistication of the built environment and available technologies, the shift of labour from the agricultural and industrial sectors to the services sector, the advancement and application of scientific knowledge in all fields from medicine to engineering. Many Individuals in western countries now enjoy richer, more diverse livelihoods: They communicate more widely, travel further and more frequently, consume more extensively, are more knowledgeable, live longer lives; with work becoming more mentally challenging and less physically demanding.

Raison d’ĂȘtre pour ‘Progress’
‘Enlightenment’ Progress, delivered principally through capitalism and democracy, concerns emancipating the wider population from the drudgery of life, from misery and suffering and hardship, from control to freedom, from ignorance to literacy, from predetermination to choice. ‘Enlightenment’ progress is a faith in man to change his own condition for the better. Thus accumulating technical and scientific knowledge aids man in directing his own course. However, it is said by many ecologists, that capitalism (which has become the predominant economic model for achieving ‘progress’) is in its current guise creating many of the problems and barriers to achieving such conceptions of ‘progress’. This is because of the many ‘positive feedbacks’ built in to its system, which entails the spiralling and unpredictable consequences of our actions, the invisible ramifications of development which are difficult to identify because of the sheer complexity of our system. The root of the problem lies in neo-classical economics disciplinary isolation. Its failure to recognise the interdependence of our eco-system. It’s reliance on the nation state and global governance to ensure the necessary conditions for growth and to address the evident implications or ‘vicious cycles’ with which it creates. This is aside from the voracious and unapologetic character of capitalism and the values it trumps. Ecologists and some economists see our pre-dominant economic model as deeply flawed. At a more fundamental level, it is the meta-narrative or overarching ideology of western civilisation in the past 200 years, that has led to many of humanities problems and challenges which it faces. In particular, this entails the separation of man and nature in a number of ways; from modes of production, through distance between production to consumption, from the rise of the cosmopolitan cities, and a predominant western technological faith; what some ecologists term the western ‘age of optimism’. This removal of man from his environment has only recently being redressed in terms of a counter-balancing environmental consciousness and a more pro-active governmental attitude. Recently an alternative model; ‘Ecological economics’ or ‘environmental economists’, have been suggested, with aspects of the model beginning to become integrated into government economic policy. This has resulted in changes imposed through government regulation. Within the economic sphere itself, ‘corporate responsibility’ has become a term used to signify a growing recognition of the environmental and social consequences of a company’s actions and a wiliness to change by the companies themselves out of ethical concerns. Amongst the wider population, there have been grass-root movements such as ‘green peace’, political movements such as ‘the green party’ and recognition among sections of the community to be environmentally aware and responsible. This has been a marvellous achievement in itself, and has been facilitated by the information revolution itself. Thus, although the ‘information revolution’ has permitted western development and its associated consequences, it has similarly facilitated a wider awareness and understanding of the impact of these developments.

The principle driver for the breadth and speed of change in the past 30 years has been the evolution of capitalism with features of the information society as its key enabler, as its tools. The principle features of an information society being; 'information flow', ‘knowledge’ and ‘Information Communication Technology (in the form of software, hardware and the internet). ‘Information society’ policy seeks to cultivate ‘human capital’ and ‘knowledge capital’ in accordance with the market, leading to virtuous cycles of innovation, productivity, efficiency etc. Ultimately here, Capitalism is now seen as the only viable economic model for achieving social goals for many nations’ citizens, particularly since the collapse of communism. Wealth creation through continued economic growth is now seen as providing the foundation upon which a nation state ensures equitable ‘quality of life’ for its citizens accompanied with varying degrees of state policy interventions. It has been a combination of factors which has led to this change; the cold war leading to military technological innovations eventually being exploited by the market, the oil embargo of the 70s restraining growth and leading capitalism down a new path, a quickening pace of development subsequent to the second world war, the formation of regional economic alliances such as the European coal and steel alliance eventually evolving into the EU. In particular though, it was the technological revolution as a result of ICT’s which has been recognised as the principle tool for change.

Recent Changes
Thus far, it can be seen that the speed and breadth of change associated with ‘infomatised global Capitalism’ of the past 30 years (term coined by social theorist ‘Manuel Castells’) has resulted similarly in the speed and breadth of change in the physical environment. Rampant; population growth, urban development and ‘material consumption per capita’ has accompanied economic growth. This has resulted in a planet under environmental pressure and becoming resource depleted in important areas. The beneficiaries primarily being 20 percent of the world’s population who consume 80 percent of the world’s resources, while much of the negative environmental consequences being bore by underdeveloped nations in more extreme climates. Many of these resources are now approaching exhaustion or becoming less economically feasible to extract. However, it is the character of this new infomatised capitalism, which has ensured continued economic growth regardless of these limits in resources (dictated through price in a market economy). Knowledge has become the key to further growth through allocating a percentage of wealth to ‘research and development’; leading to innovations which translate to efficiency and productivity gains. These gains lead to products becoming less materially intensive to produce and resources becoming available to create more products. Accumulated Knowledge has led to efficiencies throughout the socio/economic sphere (not just in products) whether in production and management, or in transport and logistics. Efficiencies have led to time/space compression resulting in a quickening pace of change, as we can do more with less time; life has sped up. Another recent feature has been the emergence of the ‘digital economy’ which can be seen to be founded upon and reliant upon the material economy but which does not rely directly on material resources for its growth (but which operates in the same financial market, thus diverting capital from the material economy.)

The globalised economy has resulted in increased cross border trade of goods and services as well as companies becoming organized horizontally across national borders. It has resulted in reduced friction or barriers to trade and the emergence of ‘footloose companies’. This has taken place under the belief in ‘comparative advantage’. The benefit lies in each nation producing goods and services which are economically advantageous to its environmental/social/political climate while importing goods and services which are more suited to another nation’s climate. Thus, goods that are cheaper to import than produce internally are sourced elsewhere. The removal of barriers to trade and capital flow, results in goods and capital more easily flowing to where they are needed. For example; the environmental climate of Spain is more suited to farming ‘Oranges’ than the cooler climate of Ireland and can be done so at lower cost. The manufacturing of textiles is more suited to Taiwan because of abundance of cheap labour. Thus, given economically viable transport and logistics; we import oranges and textiles. However, ecologists may argue that we in Ireland shouldn’t be eating oranges anyway. That we should produce and consume largely products which are suited to our climate while reducing production and consumption which are not. Ecologists principally argue that international transport and logistics has enormous environmental consequences, which in turn results in invisible costs filtering into the economic/social sphere. They point to our dependence on Fossil fuels which account for 85% of the international energy market in subsiding global trade which would otherwise be economically un-viable for 2 reasons: Firstly, there is simply not enough alternative energy available to power the global economy and secondly, oil and gas are incredibly rich and versatile sources of energy unparalleled to any other energy source. However, what some ecologists fail to consider is that the leaps and bounds in technological progress, creates the possibility of alternative sources of energy as well as addressing limits in available resources. Through the information society, we create the conditions for technological innovation at a speed and scale unparalleled in human history, which in turn are applied to all conceivable limits to growth. But the future is uncertain, we do not know as to what extent technological innovation can address the aforementioned problems of energy and resource dependencies. Furthermore, technological progress does not by itself address disparities and inequalities in our global society.

The majority of the planets resources are being imported to western nations for consumption. For example; according to a ‘New Economic Foundation’ Report, Europe consumes twice its own level of bio-capacity, which effectively means purchasing the resources of other nations. Many of these resources include fossil fuels, iron ore and various minerals which are non renewable and will have to be purchased in to a nation in future at a considerably higher cost. The free market is advantageous to developed nations now but there should be no going back. Any closure of markets in the future will essentially entail hording of resources by developed nations. What ecologists refer to as ‘scope enlargement’ and ‘drawdown’ entails the market operating at ever increased scope (becoming viable as a result of a sufficient transport and sophisticated ICT infrastructure). This benefits the market as resources and labour etc become sourced at the lowest price for the producer. New markets of consumers become available and nations must compete by providing a suitable political/social/economic climate for footloose transnational companies to operate in. ‘Peer Polity’ ensues, causing nations to competitively invest in infrastructure, education and ‘research and development’ in order to maintain and attract footloose companies. This proceeds at a spiralling rate, resulting in diminishing marginal returns on development for nations. Increased scope of the market results in increased competition that drives innovation and productivity, but which results in companies always seeking to externalise negative environmental costs in order to stay competitive. Overall, the system requires ever-increasing rationalisation of the socio/economic sphere at every level in order to maintain economic growth, particularly as resource and regulatory limits arise.

New Economy
It has been argued that the character of the infomatised economy has managed to sizably decouple economic growth from growth of energy and resource consumption and so; (assuming wealth creation from economic growth continues to be seen as the best means of delivering societal goals) the continued development of the information society will provide the conditions under which there can be continuous growth and ensure a nations competitiveness in the global economy. Although economic growth over the past 30 years hasn’t resulted in a net decline in resource use (in fact the reverse has been seen), approaching limits in available physical resources means that future growth may rely almost entirely on mans innovation and ingenuity and not on increasing resource consumption. Not only must western economies continue to grow but developing economies must be allowed to grow also. The emergence of powerful economies such as China (with annual GDP growth of 9 percent and a population in the region of 1.2 billion) highlights this need for expansion and growth of the global economy. The human population is expected to increase from 6.4 billion at present to a figure of up to 9 billion in the next 50 years. Yet, even today, the entire material resources of the planet could only support up to 1.8 billion people at western material standards of living. The availability of cheap fossil fuels has become a thing of the past. Peak supplies of oil and gas only a short period ahead with annual declines in extraction expected henceforth. Available land for agricultural production becoming limited with salination, desertification and degradation on existing lands as a result of over production. Added to this, we must consider the environmental implications from the global economy (as it stands) in terms of ‘sources’: resources’ and ‘sinks: pollution and waste’. Here, enormous international focus has been given to the environmental consequences associated with economic development in recent years. Thus in a market economy, these limits in natural resources and on natures ability to sustain, represent increased costs for what is available.

Not only must companies in future produce products which are sufficiently economically viable (given the increasing cost of physical and energy resources), they may increasingly be required by regulation to produce products in a less environmentally burdensome way; from production, through to product use, and in disposal. An area of research known as ‘Life Cycle assessment’. In Europe, such initiatives include the WEEE directive and the implementation of the ‘Kyoto Protocol’ (resulting in carbon trading etc.) These policy measures are consistent with calls from ecologists and many ecological economists to reintegrate the disciplines of economics with ecology and recognise that the price of products should better reflect the imposed environmental and social costs.

The economy itself may increasingly become a closed system, relying less on the ecosystem upon which it currently depends. This argument lies on the idea of the recycling economy. The economy may become such that it manages its resources and wastes rather than rely on the environment and state to provide resources and deal with its waste. This expansion of rationalisation into ‘waste’ is a requirement for the continued growth of the material economy. It does raise questions of the proliferation of ICT’s and the plethora of electronic devices such as RFID’s in the year ahead in terms of their viable disposal. A good example of the growth of trade in ‘second hand’ or ‘used products’ is e-bay, originally begun in the USA during the dot-com boom, it is now an international operation handling thousands of used goods daily. A system as versatile and user-friendly as this has only being possible thanks to the internet. It also represents a cultural change, an acceptance of bartering or auctioning, and the growth of individuals becoming accepting of purchasing second hand goods and moving away from a ‘throw away culture’

Character of the information society
Overall, there is currently and will need to be; enormous structural and behavioural changes in the economic/social sphere in order to cope with these grim environmental and physical realities. What is equally true is that there are enormous behavioural and structural changes in the economic/social sphere as we transcend to an ‘information age’. Not only will the 'information society' be crucial for the economy to continue to grow through efficiency and productivity gains etc, it also offers the alternative of providing lifestyle choices which are less materialistically dependent, Etc. Importantly, the networking characteristics of new ICT's allow a reconfiguring of social and economic relations with the prospect of negative to positve consequences for the environmental prolematique. The very character of the ‘information age’ may be one which is more eco-friendly, where lifestyles are less materialistic. The ‘information society also heralds the ability to address many environmental challenges. However, the ‘information age’ is also one which is irrevocably coupled within a predominantly capitalist system. Thus, the many faults and failings of this system can be attributed to its utilisation of ‘knowledge capital’ and ‘information society technologies’.

Age of Limits?
Many ecologists believe we have approached the ‘age of limits’. Modernity and faith in ‘Progress’ has served only a fraction of the human population well but at the detriment to the wider population and to future generations. The ecological cost of modernity has been colossal. Some ecologists referring to man as ‘homo-colossus’. We have now reached a threshold, our planet reaching environmental breaking point. But, we continue to have faith in the modern project, on the ability of science, technology and the market to address our troubles given more time. Our experience of both past and present continues to bolster this faith. New innovations in wind-energy technology increasing efficiency by 50% (announced by China), Intelligent Vehicles being able to substantially reduce their energy consumption by utilising geographical information on the gradient of the roads in which they travel to regulate their engines RPM’s whilst en-route. ‘Composite materials’ replacing ‘aluminium’ and ‘wing design’ mimicking those of birds in new Boeing commercial jets. ‘Knowledge capital’ and ICT’s can and does make significant differences. Substantial investment is being pumped into experimental technologies such as the ITER facility in France, which hopes to test the viability of commercial Nuclear Fusion reactors. Nation States seek to increase their percentage of GDP upwards of 3 percent to R&D seeking important innovations in return and ensuring nations competitiveness. Thus, the ‘information society’, seems to enbue the essence of the idea of ‘enlightenment’ progress. One which many ecologists seem to neglect in painting bleak pictures of the future. For example, Grossmann (2005) points out ‘that often people in the area of sustainability are unaware of the ongoing evolution of the information society’ (Grossmann, 2005, p180) However, it is uncertain as to what extent the transition to an ‘information society’ can positively affect ‘environmental sustainability’. Much empirical research highlights many negative as well as positive contributions of the ‘Information society’. The architecture of the ‘information society’ in terms of ICT’s has many negative environmental aspects. It is uncertain as to what extent people will attain a ‘quality of life’ through digital leisure activities etc. What is clear is that the current ecosystem has suffered tremendously as a result of ‘global infomatised capitalism’. What is hoped is that the current self-transformation and induced transformation of the ‘global infomatised’ economy will result in one which is less environmentally burdensome and which is conducive to sustainable objectives.

In conclusion, it becomes clear that changes taking place from a transition to an ‘information age’ will affect the imperative to achieving 'environmental sustainability'. Thus far, arguments that increasing resource efficiency will reduce the environmental burden, have not been empirically shown (Spangenberg, 2001) as increased mobility and the ‘rebound effect’ or ‘boomerang’ effect offsets any possible overall environmental gains. Widespread ‘environmental consciousness’ has not been felt in OECD countries, as the impetus behind various awareness campaigns quickly dissipates and western societal norms prevail. The onset of a digital economy hasn’t appeared to substitute material consumption but has tended to accompany it.

Finally, this discussion points out that systematically understanding the linkages must be seen as an important and valuable area of research looking ahead. To understand the relationship between the ‘information society’ (in terms of Information Communication technology and theoretical and codified information and knowledge) and ‘environmental sustainability, one must recognise that ‘global infomatised capitalism’ lies at the heart of the issue. Economy is a crucial link between both fields of research and should be the focus of future research. As mentioned earlier, ‘the information society’ is irrevocably coupled within our economic system and the transition to an ‘information age’ may in some respects be seen as a necessary response of capitalism to the physical limits of the planet and not just a stage in economic/societal evolution. In many respects the information revolution permitted capitalism to get us into this mess, equally, it will take the ‘information revolution’ to get us out of it. Perhaps the age we are moving towards is infact the”eco-information age”.

CASTELLS, M., 1996. The rise of the network society. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

GROSSMANN, W.D., 2000. Realising sustainable development with the information society - the holistic Double Gain-Link approach, H. PALAN, U. MANDER and Z. NAVEH, eds. In: 1999 Aug : Snowmass, CO, 2000, Elsevier; 2000 pp179-193.

SPANGENBERG, J.H., 2005. Will the information society be sustainable? Towards criteria and indicators for a sustainable knowledge society. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 1(1/2), pp. 85-102.Copyright ©

2009 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

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