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11 Ethics and Technoscience

It would be a strange juxtaposition if science surrounds itself with immaculate innocence while technology holds the burden of guilt, irresponsibility and irony. The modern praxis is completely different and conceptually demands a new integration of science and technology, and a nuanced harmony of theory and practice that goes beyond the current standard linear view of science -> innovation -> technology transfer. The concept of techno-science has been coined to capture this. This techno-science is a hybrid entity, and quite different from technology and from science as we normally conceive these. Yet, technoscience constitutes both technology and science.

One of the key characteristics of technoscience is the increased interaction, if not seamless transition, between the spaces occupied by science and technology. This is clear in the industry-university relations. Values and norms of industry and academia are changing as a result of actors moving from one space to the other and back. That different sets of norms are emerging is not disputed. Which new norms are replacing the old ones and whether that is desirable is an issue for dispute. One example of this is the evolution of the IPR norms and the accompanying discussions.

An efficient system is often viewed from supply-side considerations. Efficiency is typically interpreted as technically and/or economically efficient. The demand side—the people who “receive” the system and its output—is inadequately represented here.

Often, the only representation at the demand side (i.e. the user side, or societal side) resides in utilitarian calculations and arguments, often—ironically—provided by the supply side. The standard argument then becomes that the system’s output serves the greatest good to the greatest number.

From a Gandhian perspective, such utilitarian ethics may not be the best way to conceptualize the wishes of the people, or the efficiency on the demand side. Remembering Gandhi’s adage for pursuing any activity—that the activity should ameliorate the condition of the weakest and the neediest individual—the utilitarian view becomes ethically disputable. Gandhi’s critique in Hind Swaraj of railways, hospitals and the legal profession, was that all these institutions might help some, but could also increase the probability of wrong-doing. And this was unacceptable to Gandhi.

Energy Swaraj

One important example of techno-science, and a good example of how a new ethical approach might work out, is energy generation and distribution. What would an “energy swaraj” look like? The quest for Energy Swaraj could begin by revisiting the pioneering work of Amulya KN Reddy and others on energy for sustainable development. In the mid 1990’s, they advocated a paradigm shift in energy from the current GROSSCON (Growth Oriented Supply Sided Consumption directed) paradigm to the DEFENDUS (Development Focused End Use oriented Service directed) paradigm. They attributed seven sins to GROSSCON: unwise (having a consumption emphasis), unfair (bypassing the poor), unclear (not being transparent), un-frugal (ignoring efficiency improvements), unbalanced (having too much of a supply emphasis), uneconomic (with an exorbitant capital requirement), and unsustainable (having a negative environmental and societal impact).

This critique of GROSSCON could indeed be a starting point for formulating an energy swaraj, but the framework needs to be adapted to today’s changed context. This context is marked by a high impact of liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation policies, an increasing neglect of the poor, a weakening of institutions, over-straining of natural resources and the impending fuel-climate crisis. An energy swaraj framework should be based on integrated resource planning, which maximises the area of intersection of the three E’s—economy, equity and ecology. Including economic growth is necessary to support income-generating activities and increase purchasing power. Equity implies an explicit focus on access, targeting of subsidy, fairness in quality of service. And ecology focus implies an internalisation of environmental and livelihood impacts, of promoting end use efficiency and renewable energy sources, as well as ensuring climate justice.

This approach would mark a shift from the current energy policies, which largely have a short-term focus on the energy utilities (minimising cost and maximising profits), to a paradigm of trusteeship with a long-term focus on all actors—energy utilities, consumers and society at large. Examples of this include efficient wood stoves; solar water heaters, cookers and lighting systems; afforestation; support for public transport; promoting energy efficiency; innovations for renewable energy etc.

What would the components of such an energy swaraj be? Swaraj, or self-rule, has to address the concerns of all. This implies an emphasis not just on energy service and energy supply, but also on democratic processes of decision making and energy governance. This Manifesto will thus elaborate this example of energy swaraj under three broad headings: energy service, energy supply and energy governance.

Energy service

Energy service is to be the central aim, rather than energy supply. Let us identify the major energy service areas that have a transforming impact on the majority of people, and focus on improving them: in countries like India, for example, this would include cooking, lighting, drinking water pumping, irrigation pumping, etc.

The first priority then is to provide such energy service to meet the basic social needs (household lighting, cooking, community drinking water supply etc), which may require small quantities of energy, but would result in a significant improvement in the quality of life for many. The next priority would be to meet economic needs (irrigation pumping, cottage industry etc), which enhance the purchasing power and help overcome factors that keep people poor. While planning for transport, the priority would be to encourage public transport options, and towards minimising travel needs through better planning.

Buildings should be constructed (and managed) to minimise artificial lighting and climate conditioning. Water use for agriculture should be optimised through a natural resource management approach, which takes land use, cropping pattern, efficient irrigation techniques and community water resource management into consideration.

Energy supply

The idea of trusteeship implies internalising livelihood and, social and environmental impacts while planning large centralised energy supply options (coal, gas, large hydro, and nuclear). This might lead to different choices about a balance between centralised and decentralised energy systems. An equal treatment of both these systems should be guaranteed, so as to give people the highest benefits with the smallest risks; it is likely that this will result in much higher allocation of resources to decentralised systems.

Additionally, and in the light of current climate change threats, it is crucial to promote renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, small hydro, and bio-mass.

Energy governance

Planning, implementation and monitoring of energy systems should be democratised by an informed participation of citizens and users.

It will help to internalise and strengthen the linkages to other questions—including livelihood issues, fuel and climate constraints, and gender dimensions of energy. To counter the recent withdrawal of the State from service delivery sectors and to support an increasing role of de-centralised energy systems, participatory regulatory mechanisms need to be developed at national, state and local levels.


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Ethics and Technoscience by Florence Piron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.