Innovation is harming us in ways we have yet to understand
Professor Alex Coad discusses the dark side of innovation.
Is the world becoming a better place?
Some indicators of the human condition are improving. We have rising life expectancy, fewer homicides, eradication of polio and smallpox, and fewer people in extreme poverty. But our world is deteriorating according to other indicators, such as air pollution, plastic waste, destruction of coral reefs, mass extinctions and ecosystem collapse. Many of these problems are linked to industrial innovation.
Innovation requires the continual invention and commercialization of products and processes that are increasingly artificial. As the simpler and more obvious innovations are found earlier, prolonged efforts at industrial innovation lead to the discovery and mass production of increasingly un-natural chemicals and materials. Their long-term properties, such as their side effects on public health or their ability to be broken down and assimilated into the environment at the end of the product’s life, are mostly unknown.
Our modern lifestyles are making us sick. Some of the problematic innovations have been identified and banned, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which have been linked to ozone depletion, and leaded petrol, a powerful neurotoxin and a potent cause of violent crime and antisocial behaviour. Leaded petrol has been robustly estimated to account for losses of at least 6 IQ points for all children exposed. After mounting scientific evidence, the leaded petrol industry fought aggressively for decades to halt or slow regulations, but in the end, it lost (meanwhile causing incalculable suffering).
But many harmful innovations still remain. For instance, fracking is a modern production process that damages the environment via carbon emissions. It also produces massive quantities of radioactive waste, but this inconvenient truth is concealed to such an extent that even the truck drivers disposing of the radioactive waste are not aware that their truckload is radioactive.
Innovation may be killing us in ways we do not fully understand. For instance, even after taking longer life expectancies and improved cancer detection into account, there remains a statistical relationship whereby cancer rates are higher in richer industrialized countries. Allergies such as asthma are becoming more prevalent in many industrialized societies except – interestingly enough – in Amish communities that shun many modern innovations. Human sperm counts have dropped over 50% in the period 1973-2011, but we don’t know why.
The harmful side of innovation can be categorized into several dimensions.
First, there are issues of scale: small-scale explorations by lead users are relatively harmless until they are scaled up to become the dependence of mass consumers. Innovations may grow so popular that their production and consumption affect the stability of ecosystems and democracies, such as plastic waste choking our oceans, or Facebook becoming an increasing threat to the stability of democracies around the world.
Second, there are end-of-product-life considerations that are not properly taken into account, such as dismantling a nuclear energy facility or the recycling of electronic waste.
Third, the harm from innovation may come not from regular use, but from unanticipated consequences, as shown in the Chernobyl disaster.
Fourth, innovation may be undertaken to deceive consumers and regulators about the nature of a product. The classic example from recent history would be Volkswagen’s intentional programming of its diesel engines to give misleading measurements of NOx emissions during regulatory testing. We might also mention here the case of complex financial market innovations designed to trick unsophisticated investors.
A fifth dimension relates to the social injustice whereby those who gain from an innovation differ from those who lose. A recent Oxfam report estimates that the richest 1% of the world’s population is responsible for more than twice the carbon pollution of the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of emissions growth.
Taking into account the downsides of technological innovation as well as the advantages leads us to think about the tradeoffs involved. The ‘precautionary principle’ suggests that regulators should not wait until an absolute scientific or societal consensus is achieved before taking regulatory action against dubious products and processes. It was the ‘precautionary principle’ that led insurance companies in the USA and Canada to stop selling life insurance to asbestos workers back in the 1920s. Since then the evidence of asbestos’s deadly effects has grown, and over 50 countries have banned all forms of asbestos, although asbestos has not yet been banned by the USA or Canada.
The ‘precautionary principle’ therefore seems to be far better understood by private firms than by government regulators. We share the view that a laissez-faire approach to regulating innovation has not worked in any known society, and that pro-innovation governments should be quick to act against suspected toxic innovations in proportion to their enthusiasm for promising new products and technologies.
The innovation scholar Richard Nelson wrote that innovation has a direction as well as a rate of change. Think tanks and policymakers often seek to maximize innovation, R&D investments, and patents, under the assumption that ‘the more innovation, the better.’ But this neglects crucial considerations of the direction of innovation.
Innovative activity, left alone, is a threat to well-being, global ecosystems, and the health of our planet. We need to take innovation off its pedestal and recognize the dangers that can arise from unfettered innovation – a process that yields abominable monstrosities as well as benevolent mutations – if innovation is to continue in the direction of making a positive contribution to our well-being.
For further details, see:
Coad A., Nightingale P., Stilgoe J., Vezzani A., (2021).
Industry and Innovation, forthcoming.