STSE Harms


Although they have been highly regarded, fields of science & technology also are linked to many harms to wellbeing of individuals, societies & environments. Devastation from climate change linked to fossil fuel combustion is among the most threatening, but there are many others, as described below (and here and here). As illustrated at right, many or most harms are likely not so much due to the nature of science or technology; but, rather, to relationships among science & technology and societies & environments (STSE). Extents to which such relationships are considered ‘harmful,’ though, often are controversial – with some people, for instance, appreciating their products (e.g., fast foods) while others are very critical of them. Among reasons for such debates, a common factor seems to be a person or group’s political values (e.g., as at Political Compass). While acknowledging such controversies, it seems reasonable, nevertheless, to focus on possible harms and attempt to overcome them.

Relationships Among Science & Technology and Societies & Environments

Causes of STSE Harms

Most harms in STSE relationships seem related to products & services – like those at right – generated with help from fields of science, technology, engineering & mathematics (STEM). Most ‘blame,’ however, for such harms seem due to overwhelming influences – even in disasters – of pro-capitalist individuals (e.g., financiers) and groups (e.g., corporations & transnational trade organizations) on most living & nonliving entities – as described by George Monbiot and by me. Capitalist influences are, indeed, resilient – largely, it seems, because they have orchestrated most living & nonliving entities into a global network, co-opting services of STEM fields & their educational counterparts and much more. Nevertheless, STEM fields are major instruments of capitalist dominance – which, as noted by Sheldon Krimsky, The Union of Concerned Scientists and me, for example, often compromise integrity of STEM work – and, so, wellbeing of individuals, societies & environments – for sake of private profits that are now highly concentrated (e.g., Oxfam, 2020).

Commodities as ‘Trojan Horses’

There is much evidence and theory (e.g., ANT) to suggest that capitalists have created vast networks (called dispositifs) that are composed of myriad living, non-living & symbolic entities that largely cooperate to support common causes. A major capitalist cause is consumerism; that is, strong motivations (often via self-esteem & personal identities) for continuous cycles of acquisition (often with disposal) of goods & services (e.g., The Story of Stuff series [also see T-shirt lifecycle). Consumer desires to acquire items is largely generated through semiotics; that is, images that can generate different – often unrealistic – abstract meanings, feelings, ideas, etc. In looking at genetically-modified salmon like that at right, consumers might interpret ‘abundance’ of food supply. Such signs can motivate consumption and distract consumers from noticing or investigating larger networks to which the commodity (fish) belongs – such as that shown at lower right, awareness of which might alter consumer choices (e.g., due to sea lice damage to all fish). Such subterfuge (like a Trojan horse), when used for many commodities, can become normalized – largely subconscious, unquestioned & resistant to change.

Summaries of Some STSE Harms

Climate Emergency

As the teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has repeatedly advised (e.g., Rolling Stone, Time Magazine & WEF 2020), based on her readings of IPCC reports, humanity is facing a climate emergency – with only about a decade to address devastating and irreversible temperature increases. A group of prominent climate scientists also have published a dire warning to humanity about this. Amounts of atmospheric CO2 can be monitored at the Scripps Institute. As might be expected based on claims above, it appears – e.g., according to Naomi Klein – this emergence is largely due to persistence of pro-capitalist entities in continuing to promote fossil fuel mining & combustion.

The video below illustrates dramatic temperature increases, notably accelerating after emergence of neoliberalism.

Drug Crises

Natural and manufactured drugs, such as ASA (for pain & inflammation) and methotrexate (for cancer), respectively, have been very helpful to individuals & societies. As indicated in the video at right, although some drugs (e.g., opiods) have been useful for treating severe pain, aggressive promotion by pharmaceutical companies (among other factors), often with government legal sanctioning, have expanded uses of such drugs so that many people have been harmed or died. Although it may seem obvious to blame drug companies, there are concerns that causes of unhealthy drug uses are more societal – perhaps stimulated largely by capitalist ideologies.

Manufactured Foods & Beverages

Among leading causes of sickness & death in many (technologically ‘advanced’) societies are ailments like cancer, heart disease & diabetes – and, to a great extent, they are caused by government legal support for companies to manufacture unhealthy foods & beverages. In addition to perhaps obvious problems with fast foods, processed foods (often in central rows of supermarkets) often are harmful. At the same time, there is much justifiable concern that people in poorer communities and countries have inadequate access to healthy food (i.e., food security). Analyses of food sources & availability can be found via the Nutrition Action Health Letter.

Electronics Terrorism

Although mainly in technologically ‘developed’ regions (e.g., G20 nations), electronics devices (e.g., computers, cell phones, televisions, etc.) use many minerals mined in poorer regions of the world. Some of these, such as tin, tungston & tantalum, though, are mined in regions where armed militia abuse miners, their families and others to maximize profits. Big companies, like Apple™ & Google™, apparently use such ‘conflict minerals,’ despite knowing about related abuses. Problems like these are tracked and opposed through organizations like Global Witness.

Air Pollution

The air we need to breathe often is not safe! Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, about 7 million people around the world die from air-borne pollutants every year. Much of this comes from burning of fossil fuels which, as you might expect based on comments above, companies – with assistance from government laws – continue to encourage, rather than switching to renewable energy forms. Air pollution is worse, unfortunately, as air temperatures increase – which, again, is tied to government-company supported fossil fuel consumption.

Media-facilitated Propaganda

Many of us spend much of our spare time being entertained through different forms of popular media (e.g., in television, movies, phone gaming, etc.). These can be informative and stress-reducing. However, to a great extent, many of these represent – as described in the video at right – types of propaganda by powerful individuals (e.g., financiers) and groups (e.g., corporations). Much such manipulation is accomplished by subliminal aspects of media. To a great extent, such manipulation encourages consumerism, but also particular political views. Particularly vulnerable are children, who are increasing targets of powerful advertisers.

Surveillance Capitalism

Although products and services generated, in part, by fields of science & technology have been beneficial in many ways, there are growing concerns that living & non-living things are being increasingly connected to form the Internet of Things – which, in turn, appears driven by surveillance capitalism, as stated here. As Dr. Shoshana Zuboff suggests in the video at right, companies mine user data from smart phones, social media, automobiles, fitness tracking devices, (increasingly) living things, etc., etc. to, in a sense, learn about us and engage in behaviour modification processes for profit. Such privacy invasions and manipulation appear, moreover, to be increasing a result of increased online work, etc. due to CoViD-19.

Normalizing Power

Related harms outlined above to surveillance capitalism & media-faciliated propaganda, are concerns about losses of human individual agency (independence of thoughts & actions). Michel Foucault raised such concerns in, for example, his discussions of normalizing (vs. oppressive) power – and, perhaps especially, his uses of Bentham’s concept of the panopticon prison, as discussed in the video at right/below. This is related to his concept of governmentality; that is, people believing they are self-governing, but are – actually – enacting ideologies of more powerful others. Such concepts are, largely, socio-cultural – focused on relations among people and human organizations. However, Foucault also discussed such power in terms of socio-technical assemblages – such as his concept of dispositifs, in which ideologies circulate among many living & non-living actants that act as a whole.

Animal Testing of Commercial Products

Before many manufactured products, particularly those containing potentially-toxic chemicals, are sold to humans, they are tested on animals. But, as shown in the video at right, often such testing is very cruel. Organizations, like PETA, investigate such cruelty and attempt to stop such testing. However, often companies persist – with profit often their motive.

Wealth & Income Inequality

There is much evidence indicating that, since about 1970, when neoliberal capitalism greatly expanded around the world, there have been dramatic increases in differences between wealthy people and groups (and high earners) and poorer ones – as discussed in the video at right and summarized by Oxfam. While poorer people tend to have much less access to goods and services that wealthier societal members may enjoy and, so, perhaps have less healthy and happy lives, their poverty also means more difficult – and, in some cases, deadly – work, such as in mining (e.g., for mica) or in low-wage, long-hour, manufacturing jobs (e.g., for cell phone production).

Labour Injustices

As emphasized by Karl Marx, in their perpetual search for private profit, capitalists work intensely to minimize – if not eliminate – their costs. Besides using less expensive – often inferior – materials and more efficient technologies, for example, they have typically worked to reduce labour costs. With help from neoliberal capitalism, job losses (e.g., via offshoring) and, recently, increasing precarity (the ‘gig’ economy) seemed to have greatly increased private profits – at expense of wellbeing of many individuals, societies & environments. Some suggest this is a new, ‘modern,’ form of slavery – a phenomenon that now is being intensely tracked and about which we can explore about our own lifestyles.