Risk and Technology: The Cost of Progress

Article By Florimond Krins

posted by UK, May 11, 2023

Risks and TechnologyThe introduction of new technologies has always brought many debates and controversies until they were finally accepted and became an integral part of societies. It is natural to oppose some kind of resistance when habits and lifestyles are suddenly changed by new ways, especially when it is hard to predict if their outcome will be beneficial in the long or medium term.

In his book “l’Apocalypse Joyeuse”, translated literally as ‘the Happy Apocalypse’, the French scientist and historian Jean-Baptiste Fressoz tells of the introduction of new medical procedures in the 18th and 19th centuries to decrease the death rate from certain viruses like smallpox. The resistance from the population to this new approach for treating viruses was mostly due to religious beliefs and the fact that the new techniques were not always successful as experience was lacking. It took centuries for the process of vaccination to bear fruit and for its side effects and risks to be mitigated.

J-B Fressoz then goes on to the development of chemical and coal industries in the end of the 18th century and the similar resistance these industries faced at the start. The main complaint from the population was about the pollution such as smoke, acid clouds and bad smells coming from the factories. Police and other government forces were often involved in dealing with the issues, forcing the factories to move outside of cities. Industries were forced to pay damages to neighbouring farms and residents, hoping that fines would be a strong enough incentive to improve their processes and reduce pollution. Unfortunately, lobbying of politicians and the economic benefits of industries outweighed the costs enforced for damages.

Often new techniques, even if they improve our quality of life, bring new dangers as they can push us to want to go further and enter unknown territories. For example, the introduction of new and better ways of navigating the oceans allowed us to circumnavigate the globe, develop trade and discover new continents. But it also had the consequence of infecting the new populations with viruses and parasites from which they were defenceless and probably were responsible for the death of tens of millions of individuals.

The development of industries and new forms of transport brought economic wealth to the few that were in power fairly quickly, while the quality of life of the masses took time and many revolts to improve. And even if our lives, in the more technologically developed countries, has improved, we have been exposed to new dangers and risks that constantly need to be understood and controlled or at least mitigated. Some of those risks have been such an integral part of our lives that we call them “the cost of doing business” or “the cost of progress”. It is then not a coincidence that the creation and now proliferation of insurance businesses started in the 19th century and are present in all aspects of our modern life.

As industry grew, risks increased and the costs related to such risks followed, businesses found ways to avoid the repercussions and costs by moving to cheaper and less regulated places. But as time passed and these loopholes were repeated again and again, we have now come full circle, or should I say, full globe, as the effect of industries on the other side of the planet can be felt at home. As we neglected the natural side effects of industries and have continued to expand always beyond our environment, we are bound to feel the effects and consequences of our actions, until the day we consider and implement the real cost of doing business.

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