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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 572-573

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Book Review

Technology and Global Change

Technology and Global Change. By Arnulf Grübler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. x+452; illustrations, figures, tables, notes/references, bibliography, index. $49.95.

Arnulf Grübler is a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and has written an impressive list of articles and books about the history of technology and the environmental impact of technological change. His most recent, Technology and Global Change, is intended "for researchers and professors, graduate students, people engaged in policy planning . . . , for environmental activists (NGOs) and for the wider public interested in history, technology, or environmental issues" (p. i). As the dust jacket promises, it is "an important contribution to the global change literature." Particularly important to a proper understanding of the history of the environmental crisis since the beginning of the industrial revolution, this fine study bridges economics, technology, systems analysis, and environmental history.

Grubler's conclusions are sobering. We cannot do without new technology; there is no turning back. Neither are we able to forestall a certain amount of damage to the environment, say to the ozone layer, however we may try. On the other hand, there are technological changes that work in the right direction. Most important of all, the decarbonization of our energy supplies contributes to the deceleration of CO2 emissions. In asking for "careful optimism" in this respect, Grübler joins his colleague J. H. Ausubel, who in the March 1996 issue of American Scientist gave an affirmative answer to the question "Can technology spare the earth?"

The book has one big shortcoming. It is amazing that in such a significant study about global change, written by such an important scientist, hardly anything is said about the consequences of this change. Take, for instance, the Waldsterben, the death of the forests. The problem of acid rain is perfectly explained, as is the reduction of emissions that cause it, but one can find no more than a few lines about the danger of forest die-off, a subject of heated debate in Europe as well as the United States. Similarly, we learn about the history of the chemical industry and the hole in the ozone layer, but virtually nothing of its effects. Why not? Those effects are also contested; the World Health Organization, for example, has termed the risk of a dangerous increase in skin cancer caused by depletion of the ozone layer trivial in comparison to the effects of increased sunbathing in southern regions. The same questions arise in the section devoted to climatic change. Information about consequences is sketchy and sometimes not in line with the conclusions of the IPCC. Although we are told by Grübler that we can expect more "heatstrokes" because of global warming, the IPCC in 1995 stressed the uncertainties of this matter.

Controversies over the prospect of an increase in the number and [End Page 572] intensity of tropical storms and the melting of the polar ice caps are not mentioned. Even though the IPCC regards the effect of global warming on the ice caps as unknown, the presence of a critical danger is often taken for granted; Ross Gelbspan's The Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle over Earth's Threatened Climate (Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1997) is a perfect example of such a doomsday scenario. As far as the IPCC is concerned, there is no evidence for stronger or more frequent tropical storms. In Grübler's discussion of forest die-off he makes no mention of the problem of mass species extinction. Why not? Is it because this once-predicted calamity in the tropics has failed to materialize?

So, one wonders, if these doomsday scenarios about global change are not confirmed by the scientific evidence, what is all the fuss about? The so-called greenhouse skeptics are certainly exploiting these false predictions in their political battles. In order to help the environmentalists (for whom this study is written) Grübler could have mentioned the real dangers of changes in precipitation on agriculture, especially...


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