Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Leaf Blowers and Antibiotics: A Buddhist Stance for Science and Technology

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Leaf Blowers and Antibiotics: A Buddhist Stance for Science and Technology

Article excerpt


Sustainable technology, like mindfulness, requires cultivation. It is a process of constantly attending in the face of considerable distraction, a process that leads to a self-balancing wholesome state that has beneficial properties for both self and others. This brief essay begins with a consideration of science, scientism and technology. I will then use a handful of examples to consider how technologies appear to behave autonomously, often perverting the good intentions of their inventor or revealing unexpected opportunities for wholesome behavior. In many cases, it seems that apparently neutral technologies fit together with unwholesome tendencies, locking humans and machines into an accelerating and apparently unstoppable destructive dance. I will then propose a general strategy for engaging technologies which draws on traditional Buddhist practices, with two particular objectives: to gain insight into, and maintain awareness of, the actual bias of any particular technology, and to discover tactics for interrupting the destructive cycles which are the cause of the ecological crisis in our world.


In trying to understand the "slippery" nature of new technologies I must offer my thanks to the many people with whom I have worked in the development sector over the past two decades. I had the privilege of helping those engineers who, for a few fascinating years, worked to transplant the shoots of the emerging digital revolution into the developing world and into the hands of those whom the emerging internet threatened to disenfranchise. I was witness to a process of social and technological transformation on a global scale, and part of an ethical response to that transformation. The project succeeded and has been supplanted by other less obvious challenges, such as wresting control of the Internet infrastructure from the multinationals and national surveillance services. My thinking on how technologies embed constructively or destructively in social contexts has been informed in part by an essay of Roy Rappaport, "Adaptive Structure and Its Disorders" (1979:145-172). Though I have surveyed some of the literature in the social science of technology such as Pinch and Bijker (1984) and its successors, it is oddly divorced from ethical questions.


I take it as a given that sustainable technology is a good thing. Human civilization is a fact in which we live, a part of the given situation within which I am writing this article, and it proceeds by technological advances: language, fire, smelting, money, guns, margarine and spandex. The conflict between human technologies and the survival of life on this planet has become the defining crisis of our age. It is a simple fact that none of us may have great-grandchildren because the planet has become uninhabitable for humans within three generations. If that seems too alarmist, then extend the timeframe to, say, three hundred years and most people will agree that the change in climate, the steady increase in radioactive contamination, the emergence of new diseases and the loss not just of species but possibly of entire classes of organism will have had drastic consequences for the viability of all species, not just our own, on this planet. I will return to a more precise definition later, but for now I take sustainable technology to be a term indicating choosing to develop and adopt only those technologies that reverse the damage already done, or at a minimum inflict no further harm. A different study of sustainable technology might aim to strike a balance between economic development and ecological health, but this is fundamentally misguided in proposing that there ever could be economic development in the absence of a thorough and sudden movement to repair the planetary ecosystem. Mine is a crisis definition. In medical terms, we need triage or the patient will die.

Science? Technology?

I see no conflict whatsoever between science and a healthy planet, or between science and Buddhism. …

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