By Tim Jackson, University of Surrey, UK

A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series

Are we a clever species or a stupid one?  It’s not a trivial question. Put our society in the dock with a jury of our future peers and the verdict would be far from clear cut.

Exhibit A, m’lud: the leaf-blower. Here is an instrument of profoundly meaningless intent, powered by increasingly scarce fossil fuels. Pumping pollution directly into the atmosphere, the modern leaf-blower has a power rating of around 2,500 watts.  Its task: to chase leaves into hidden corners, from which, in the course of a couple of days with the onset of the next cold front they will be blown onto the streets again by the wind. But that’s OK, because we can send out the workforce a second time, ears muffled ineffectively against the relentless din, to repeat the task. And guess what? These adventures in mindless pollution will contribute positively to the Gross Domestic Product of the economy. Over and against the humble broom, you can clearly see how great an advance this innovation represents in the progress of a clever humanity.

Hm yes…

Exhibit B: the cardio-pulmonary bypass (CPB) pump.  Conceptualised by Robert Hooke in the 17th Century, developed by Dr Clarence Dennis and his team at the University of Minnesota Hospital and first used during heart surgery in 1951, the CPB pump oxygenates and circulates blood mechanically round the body, while bypassing the heart and lungs. This procedure ‘perfuses’ oxygen to the other limbs and organs (crucially the brain), while allowing the surgeon to work on the heart or lungs in a bloodless environment.  Heart surgery as we know it would be next to impossible without it. The pump uses around 5 watts in operation – less than 0.2% of the power of the leaf-blower.

OK. I know what you’re going to say. It’s not a fair comparison.  Eight hours a day blowing leaves around isn’t comparable with 2 hours under bypass to save someone’s life. You just happen to be someone who likes sweeping leaves with a broom. And besides, your son was born with a ventricular sepal defect (VSD) which would have led to an early and unpleasant death if he’d not undergone surgery at the age of six months to correct it.

Both things happen to be true. In a world where reflective simplicity is at a premium and connection to nature mediated by too much in the way of noise and machinery, I am nowhere more content than a spending a couple of hours on a November Sunday playing leaf chase with a broom in my hand.  And then a few months later, spreading the composted mulch to fertilise my too often neglected garden. I have a sense of profound respect bordering on affection for those who do this sort of thing for a living. Personally I’d pay them a lot more, but that’s beside the point.

And as for the heart thing, I admit to profound terror at the prospect of having a surgeon bust open my son’s chest and tinker with his heart.  And to being only mildly comforted by the fact that, when he stood to shake my hand, the surgeon turned out to be 5 foot tall with the smallest and most careful hands I’d ever seen. If anyone was going to sew a piece of gortex into an infant chest I was glad it was this man. I may have been terrified. But would I rather it hadn’t been an option?  Absolutely not.  So if it were simply a comparison between these two innovations, perhaps I’d better be excused from jury service.

Even so, I can’t help feeling there might be some criteria through which we could and should judge the value of such innovations. Their contribution to human wellbeing might be one of them. Their sustainability in the face of finite resources and a fragile ecology might be another. Their potential for misuse or accidental harm another. Their impact on our working life and sense of fulfillment yet another.

And even if these are not the right criteria to judge by, are we really so sure that there are no such criteria that might be applied when our case comes to trial?  So sure in fact, that we’re prepared to prize innovation for innovation’s sake forsaking all others for as long as we all shall live?  So sure that we’re happy to defer the value of innovation to a single metric judgement based on monetary value?  So sure that in pursuit of the good life, we’re happy to favour innovation repeatedly over tradition (and conservation)?   So sure that, as I’ve argued extensively elsewhere, we’re prepared to structure our entire economies around the continual production and consumption of novelty?  For better or worse. Come hell or high water.

At the end of the day, of course, Exhibits A and B aren’t excatly to be compared against each other in a straightforward manner. Rather they’ve been called into play as evidence at a mock trial regarding humanity’s stupidity.  All I’m saying is, I can’t help feeling they’re likely to be balanced against each other during the jury’s deliberation.

Exhibit C, m’lud: an economy predicated on relentless growth – fuelled by thoughtless, unguided, socially disruptive, ecologically-damaging innovation.

If only I could rest my case.


Tim Jackson is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity without Growth – economics for a finite planet (Earthscan 2009)