The conviction that new technologies will solve the world's environmental and social problems has overly dominated early negotiations leading up to the Rio+20 summit in Brazil in June, a UN General Assembly meeting has heard.
Mentions of technology were "almost endless" in the first draft of the outcome document, known as the 'zero draft', according to Pat Mooney, executive director of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), a non-governmental organisation based in Canada.
The message conveyed was that "... as policymakers, there's no longer any need to make policies, all you need to do is let technology sort your problems for you", Mooney told the General Assembly's Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature earlier this month (18 April).
Although the first zero draft has been revised several times since, he said, "there is an assumption of a 'techno fix' for every problem".
This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20
Many leading areas of science and technology (S&T) are converging at the nano-scale, he said, giving rise to a belief that, together, biotechnology, genomics, nanotechnology and synthetic biology could solve various planetary crises, such as food crises, pandemics, limits to growth and peak oil.
Mooney acknowledged that S&T are "critical" to solving problems, but he said the debate leading up to Rio+20 remained too narrowly focused on solving the problem of technology transfer.
"Technology transfer is extraordinarily important, and it's a failing since 1992 [the first Earth Summit, in Rio] that we have not had adequate technology transfer."
But, in addition to this question of 'know-how', it was important to consider the 'know-what' and the 'know-why', he argued.
Calling for an international technology assessment system that could answer these questions, he said: "If you don't have in the UN system the capacity to address those three questions together, collectively, then something's going to go wrong ... and perhaps we are going to get it wrong in extraordinarily expensive ways".
Mooney argued that billions of dollars have been wasted, often by governments, on promising new technologies that have done little for the poor, citing examples such as nanotechnology and agro-biotechnology.
Adequate assessment might have led to better investment decisions, he said.
The International Council for Science (ICSU) — which co-led one of the official contributions to the zero draft — agreed that, while technology has a "huge" role to play, there had been a "fixation" on it in the first version of the zero draft.
"We were quite concerned that there seems to be lots of discussion of technology transfer rather than looking at interdisciplinary research: an overall picture of human society, behavioural change, consumption patterns, economics, is equally important," said Peter Bates, science officer for ICSU.
But he was cautious on the idea of a technology assessment body, saying that safety concerns needed to be balanced against stifling innovation.
Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) Centre in the United Kingdom, agreed that there was a need for more technology assessment but said that, rather than this being done in a top-down way, it should involve participation across society.
Assessment should also recognise that most problems require a diversity of solutions, and will not respond well to a single fix, she said.
The second round of the 'Informal-informal' negotiations on the outcome document for Rio+20 continue this week (23 April–4 May).
This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20.