Some Reflections by Thomas R. DeGregori
According to Dr. Thomas R. DeGregori, the concluding speaker at the symposium and a self-classified "technology optimist," the choices made by the visionaries among us over the past 30 years have made an extraordinary difference in the world. The power of science and technology has been harnessed to transform the world at a pace and at a magnitude that is unprecedented.
DeGregori challenged his audience to imagine what kind of world we would now have if the visionaries - such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations - had not decided on their own to fund basic research, thereby defying the arguments of those who believed in the 1950s that we should not engage in research? We should only transfer the existing technologies, they argued; research was too long term. Today, we would be growing 50 million tons less grain, he declared, and we would be feeding one half billion fewer people.
What kind of world would this be if we had followed the advice of those who during the 1960s and 1970s were advocating "triage" - that is, allowing starvation in large areas of the world?
We learned later that the basic analysis upon which the triage recommendation was based - namely, that the world could not accommodate the growth in population that was occurring - was fundamentally false. In fact, a look at the world food supply shows that world food production records have been set in 33 of the last 37 years. And in 1986, the last year for which the data are complete, a record was set in per capita food production. Thus, the world has been able to accommodate this population growth. Moreover, the evidence is overwhelming that the catastrophe predicted by many will simply not come about. The indicators - life expectancy, child mortality, infant mortality - confirm this.
In fact, as was emphasized repeatedly in this symposium, the transition experienced over the last 30-35 years is unprecedented in human history. The gain in global life expectancy during this period is greater than that of the last 10,000 years, and infant mortality has been halved. In simple terms, the number of people who died of all causes in 1950 was greater than those who died of all causes in each of the next 24 years. And even today with world population doubling, the number of people dying is not that much greater than it was in 1950.
And what about those who say that the changes of the last decades were a one-time anomaly that will not be replicated, asked DeGregori. They should remember, he said, that "in 1950 we looked back at the previous 200 years of the industrial revolution and agreed that those years brought about an advanced standard of living, a transformation in the way of life, and a rapid increase in life expectancy that was unprecedented in human history." Even earlier, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, Adam Smith described the wealth of nations as a result of the previous several hundred years, which he said brought about a change in Europe that was unprecedented in human history. Yet the unprecedented change that he described was dwarfed by the one that followed.
Thus, the pace of human change and of scientific change is cumulative' concluded DeGregori; it builds on itself. And because it builds on itself, it has accelerated through time. "Based on any reasonable historic perspective, therefore, in projecting change in the twenty-first century the various panelists in this symposium were being circumspect."
If all countries continue to enact policies that encourage scientific and technological research' the technologies needed to sustain development as well as to bring about even greater acceleration will become available. He acknowledged, however, the question often raised in development circles: If we are doing all of these things and growing rapidly, won't we exhaust the world's resources?
Dr. DeGregori is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and author of A Theory of Technology: Continuity and Change in Human Development (Iowa State University, 1985).
It is ironic, he pointed out, that when the triage theorists were suggesting that we abandon large areas of the population, the "limits to growth'' modelers were saying that we were exhausting the world's resources. In fact, the world is producing 10 percent more food each year than world demand. Moreover, today virtually every major raw commodity - food, fiber, mineral - is in excess supply. It is a world that has consumed resources at an unprecedented rate since World War II and yet world resources are at a record high, emphasized DeGregori. Reserves are increasing faster than they can be used, so the world is not running out of resources; they are becoming more abundant. They have become so much more abundant, in fact, that it is difficult for those in countries depending on resource exports to manage their resources. Over the last 200 years, for example, all economic measures indicate that the real price of mineral resources has been declining. For the last hundred years at least, the real price of food - that is, the real price in hours of labor that must be worked, or the price adjusted for inflation - has been declining. Thus, it is a long-term trend.
As one economist has said, DeGregori quoted, "Resources are not; they become." Resources are not original properties of objects, but capabilities that humans, through intelligence, apply to them. A million years ago, our hominid ancestors turned stones into tools, thereby turning the stones into resources. "There was nothing inherent in those stones that were resources until we created those resources. Thus with our ideas, we created resources," he said. Later, fire was made into a resource and a tool, as were various parts of the ground, such as metals.
When we were gatherers and hunters, he continued, we had apparently reached the limits of our environment without expanded technology. Yet agriculture was developed? and this could not have been predicted. Agriculture did not depend upon arable land; arable land depended upon agriculture. DeGregori continued to build the case, using numerous examples, that mankind has created the conditions for its existence throughout the world. "We created ourselves with technology, as the physical anthropologists and the evolutionary biologists have pointed out. Thus, the reason that we are not running out of resources is that we are creating them."
Science and technology, therefore, has a purpose beyond that of contributing to development, DeGregori concluded. Equally as vital, science and technology are the very stuff of the creative process that is essential for mankind's survival. If the earth's resources are fixed, even with falling birthrates in the world and the population dynamics presented at this symposium, the continued growth from the previously large birthrate as not well as the continual growth in economic development would soon exhaust these resources. Science and technology are the remedy, DeGregori reasoned. For example, from 1945 to 1975 the world used one and a half times as much copper as was known to exist in 1945, yet in 1975 four times as much copper was available than in 1945. Had not new sources of copper continually been sought and had not new technologies been developed that allowed the use of lower and lower grade copper ore and cheaper processing, the world would have run out of copper. He added, however, that the one exception to his optimism about the endurance of the world's resources is the diminishing pool of potential biological resources.
In drawing a final implication of the issues raised by this symposium, DeGregori admitted that changes brought about by the introduction of new technologies also create new problems. Zambia, for example, built a $200 million cobalt processing plant in 1979, when the price of cobalt was $40-$50 a pound. Now they have an idle plant and two years' worth of cobalt lying on the ground because they cannot sell it. Why? Because thanks to its high price, innovators have substituted ceramics for cobalt in magnetos and have come up with high-temperature alloys that use less cobalt. By August 1986 the price of cobalt was down to $4 a pound. In 1986 a look at the commodity index for all raw commodities showed that the money price of commodities was the same as it was 10 years earlier, even with inflation, and that the real price adjusted for inflation was back to depression levels.
Thus, the new technologies are creating new sets of problems that will have to be dealt with simultaneously, thereby compounding the difficulty. The developing countries especially may have to attack problems of poverty and abundance. Countries such as Zimbabwe and Malawi may have food shortages one year because of drought and a bumper crop of coarse grains the next year that they cannot sell on the world market because of the food glut worldwide. Thus one year they are hi' with the problems of poverty, and the next year they are impoverished and victims of the problems of abundance Development programs and international policies must be able to deal with the multiplicity of problems simultaneously.
DeGregori concluded by observing that we will always have problems; it is the nature of the life process. Had we not solved past problems, our plight would be far worse. The ongoing human endeavor of solving problems and creating new ones should be understood as a challenge and an opportunity. For it is in this problem-solving process that we have devised not only the basis of our physical existence but have also crafted the means for artistic and intellectual expression. It is not by accident that the earliest Homo sapien sapien (about 35,000 years ago) was associated with art (the cave paintings of Lascaux, for example) as well as with advances in technology and population. One could reasonably argue that in tool using and problem-solving, humans have evolved with a built-in curiosity, creativity, and desire to know. In the words of T. S. Eliot¹:
We shall not cease from exploration
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