Pathways to future

Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization
David Hess
MIT Press

Review by Brian Martin

Published in Chain Reaction, Issue #101, December 2007, pp. 45-46

Environmental campaigning - where does it lead? It's possible to see small impacts, such as a government restriction on logging or more people riding bicycles. But what about the long term and the large scale? How do our efforts fit into a bigger picture?

There are visions and debates about this, for example about the role of grassroots action versus influencing governments or about international coordination of campaigns. But, perhaps surprisingly, there is little research that sheds light on these issues.

David Hess is a professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in New York state, in a department with a long tradition of activist-oriented scholarship. His new book has a long title: Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization (MIT Press, 2006). It is not light reading either, with a large, complex argument and a wealth of case material. But it has some valuable insights.

At the core of Hess's argument is his concept of "undone science." Research is carried out in a range of areas. Some, like nuclear power or automobile design, receive heavy funding. Others, like energy efficiency, are neglected by comparison. There is a lot of research that could be done in neglected areas, but is not: it is "undone." Groups with money and power have the greatest influence on what science is done - and undone.

The lop-sided development of science and technology disadvantages environmentalists. They can't offer the same level of authoritative backing for the alternatives they advocate. But not all is lost. Hess points to community-oriented research, some sponsored by social movement groups, some by socially concerned scientists inside the system.

Given that powerful interests shape the "pathways" for science and technology, social movements can respond in several ways. One is to oppose damaging developments, in what Hess calls "industrial opposition movements." The anti-nuclear-power movement is a prominent example. Another response is to promote development of alternatives, filling in the gaps of undone science. Hess calls these "technology- and product-oriented movements." The promotion of renewable energy is one of these.

Hess also describes two other pathway alternatives. One is localism, which promotes local provision of goods and services, such as energy and food. The other is access, which promotes fair distribution.

Having laid out these four alternative pathways, Hess then examines developments in five broad areas: food and agriculture; energy; waste and manufacturing; infrastructure; and finance. This is an enormous enterprise. Hess draws on a huge range of sources plus his own investigations. To make the task manageable, he restricts his attention to the US.

The broad sweep of this analysis allows some general patterns to emerge. One of Hess's key findings is that movements seldom achieve a clear-cut victory. Instead, they bring about limited change, in a process that involves dominant groups making some changes but not nearly to the extent desired by radical campaigners.

The anti-nuclear-power movement, for example, was able to dramatically slow the introduction of new plants but not to terminate the nuclear industry altogether. The movement for renewable energy has led to the uptake of some sources, such as wind power, but mostly within the mould of existing energy systems. Alternative energy activists who hoped to see the emergence of self-reliant communities running their own affairs with their own energy systems have been disappointed; instead, most renewable systems are run by governments and companies. Hess finds this pattern of accommodation over and over.

This conclusion could be source of despair for idealistic activists. What's the point if every initiative is taken over by government and big business and used to maintain the status quo? But this is altogether too pessimistic. Hess questions the idea that social movements and dominant interests have entirely separate agendas. Movements do influence the trajectory of science and industry, just not in exactly the way they'd like. By influencing technological pathways, movements make the world a better place and lay the basis for future movements.

Go to
Brian Martin's book reviews

Brian Martin's publications on environment

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website