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Chapter 6:

Technology, Energy and the Environment

Main Idea: The most serious negative consequences of technological advance has been damage to the environment. Nevertheless, history suggests that technology can be a part of the solution to the environment and energy problems.

  • Technological innovations damage the environment through depletion of non-renewable resources and pollution.
  • The widespread use of fossil fuels generates a large amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) which is responsible for the greenhouse effect. While it is generally agreed that the greenhouse effect results in global warming there is no agreement on the severity or impact of global warming. 

    Possible effects include

    • Melting of polar ice-caps and rise of sea level
    • Rise in average temperature
    • Drought
    • Loss of current crop-growing areas
  • Other problems resulting from technological innovations include:
    • Acid rain: the by products of burning fossil fuels include nitrogen and sulfur which combine with water to produce acid rain. 
    • Deforestation: 28 hectares are cut each minute.  The burning of these trees creates more CO2 and  decreases the number of trees to absorb CO2.
    • Hazardous waste: 279 million tons are created each year. 
    • Depletion of fossil fuels: although it is difficult to determine the size of oil and natural gas reserves and it is impossible to know with certainty the future rate of consumption, it is generally agreed that production will peak around 2010.
    • Loss of topsoil has increased cost of farming and potential loss of food production capabilities. 
  • History demonstrates the potential negative impacts of technology, but it also shows us how some threats have been addressed.   In particular, one can discern a pattern of substitution of one energy source for another and development of new energy sources.
  • Technology may thus provide a substitute for fossil fuel and the development of systems that use alternative fuels.  Several obvious options have serious problems, however:


    •  Requires 12 years worth of energy to create a nuclear power plant.
    • Will not significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels
    • Limited amount of uranium requires "breeder reactors" to produce plutonium - which can easily be used for weapons.
    • Nuclear waste remains dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years.


    • Still in early stages of development
    • Inefficient when one compares cost to actual benefit
    • Some question its reliability

    Wind Power

    • Requires a means of storing electricity
  • In the short term, technology may be most helpful in conservation measures. In other words, we can reduce pollution and slow down the depletion of resources such as fossil fuels through the use of technology that increases efficiency and reduces pollution.
    • Energy intensity is the ratio of energy used to production output.   It reached a peak around 1915. Since that time, technology has helped us make more efficient use of energy. 
    • The oil embargo of 1973 accelerated the decline of energy intensity.  As a result energy consumption level remained constant between 1972 and 1985 even though the economy expanded significantly.
    • Technology led to increased MPGs for automobiles through reduced weight, improved aerodynamics, and more efficient engines. 
  • It will probably take a combination of government policy and the free market to address the energy and environmental problems created by technology. 
Study Questions:

What are fossil fuels?

Explain the greenhouse effect.

What causes acid rain?  What are some of the effects of acid rain?

What is a hazardous waste?

What does the term "energy intensity" mean?

What are the potential problems with nuclear energy?

 Self Test