Bowing before the god of technology

According to a new study, air pollution in our city is at its lowest level in 30 years, and we have technology to thank. I heard the words come out of the newscasters mouth, but I still couldnt believe them. Not the part about air pollution the part about thanking technology.

In many cities, air pollution certainly has been reduced from levels seen in the early 1970s. Our air is indeed cleaner than it was back then. Of course, with more and more cars on our roads and more and more energy being used, its starting to get worse again. Still, our cleaner air is a wonderful health and environmental success story one we dont reflect on often enough, nor learn from as much as we could.

But we can thank technology? Says who?

Well, it turns out the study was a simple analysis done by an industry-funded think tank. The technology angle was theirs and the TV news folks just followed along. On the surface, its actually true. New technologies and widespread application of existing technologies did help bring air pollution levels down. But no one appears to have asked the simple question: What spurred the invention and application of these new technologies? If they had, they would have found the real hero of the story environmental regulations.

Technology does not arise out of a vacuum. It does not invent itself (at least not yet). It did not wake up one day and decide to clean up our air. Technology is a result of societys values. In the case of air pollution, citizens got angry because their air was dirty and demanded their political leaders do something about it. The result was new environmental regulations that forced industries to clean up their acts.

Of course, many industry leaders did not want to be regulated. Regulation would force them to be innovative, hire new engineers and scientists, fix existing systems or build new ones. It would cost them money up front. And even if that investment paid off down the road due to better efficiency, the initial outlay would cut into their quarterly profits.

So many industries fought environmental regulations tooth and nail. From car companies, to electricity generators to appliance manufacturers, they fought change. They said such regulations would put them out of business. They said conforming to them would destroy the economy. Sometimes they said it couldnt be done that it was impossible.

But after all the fuss, once the targets and timelines had been set, industries went to work. They tried new things. They invented new products and processes, and they got the job done. Thats where the technology came from. It didnt just appear one day in a burning bush. It was a result of the hard work of a variety of different groups of people.

If we recognise that many problems are also opportunities, we can take advantage of them and regulation can help. Our cleaner air is just one example. Its saved countless lives, billions of dollars and improved the lives of millions of people. Phasing out ozone-depleting substances like CFCs is another success. So are seat belts and air bags. None of these advances would have occurred if it werent for the government regulation that spurred innovation and the people who made it happen.

So, we can thank the engineers and scientist who did the technical work. We can thank the leaders who had the political courage to stand up to nay-saying industrial groups and enact strong regulations. We can thank the health and environmental organisations, and the concerned citizens who demanded governments take action.

But thanking technology? Sorry, wrong hero.

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