Technological Disasters: The Modern Challenge to the Enlightenment

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Technological Disasters: The Modern Challenge to the Enlightenment


The philosophers of the Enlightenment believed that humankind could maximize happiness through the application of science and technology. By the end of the twentieth century, however, several technological disasters had caused many people to rethink the role of technology in society.


The seventeenth century was a turning point in the technological development of the world. Within the intellectual establishment of the West a significant change in how truth was identified took place. There was a rejection of the Aristotelian mode of syllogistic deduction in favor of the logic of induction, which is based upon individual experience. The new natural philosophers referred to the universe as the "Book of Nature," which could be understood through experiment; the universe was created by God and operated under a series of natural laws. These laws could be discovered by humankind through a process known as the scientific method. This method, based upon experience and mathematical proof, was a multi-step approach to discovering truth.

This new way of looking at the world also had a significant social impact. It created the ethical principle of utility, which stated that happiness is the highest value; all ideas are to be judged by their contribution to happiness or suffering. Empiricism, the philosophy of the scientific method, was materialistic in its orientation. Philosophers of this school believed that the only truth we could be sure of was that based upon the five senses. Thus, the new principle of utility created a view of happiness centered upon material gain. Science and technology, in turn, were perceived to be tools of materialistic utility.

The first uses of science and technology in expanding utility were concentrated in the areas of food production and public health. By the eighteenth century great strides had been made in increasing the productive capacity of farmland. The scientific application of fertilizer, crop rotation, and the mechanization of farm labor had greatly increased productivity. The same held true in the area of public health. The invention of vaccines, the evolution of germ theory, and the control of drinking water and sewage greatly reduced the death rate. The success in both of these areas had an important impact on society by both increasing the population and decreasing the number of people needed to produce food. A sizable surplus of human capital was thus created for the next great technological expansion, the Industrial Revolution.

The success of industrialization was the result of another change, the energy revolution. Energy is the force or power that is needed to accomplish a particular task. Over time, energy sources have evolved significantly. The earliest form of energy used by humans was muscle power from themselves or animals. This situation progressed with successful attempts at harnessing the power of water and the wind. These two energy sources increased the amount of energy humans could utilize, but they were very unreliable. The first major breakthrough came with the invention of the steam engine.

Steam power drove the pursuit of materialistic utility until World War I, when petroleum replaced it as the energy of choice. Oil was used to drive the combustion engine. This device was small, powerful, and had both peacetime and military applications. Petroleum, a fossil fuel, has a finite supply and is unequally distributed around the world. Petroleum has thus changed the global geopolitical situation; areas such as the Middle East have become important because of their oil reserves.

In 1939 the first atomic chain reaction took place, and the world entered the nuclear age. This energy was not just viewed as a new weapon; many people believed that it could become an infinite source of power for domestic consumption.


This march toward utility, based upon a belief in humankind's ability to solve problems through the proper application of scientific and technological principles, did not operate in a vacuum. In the twentieth century ideology began to dominate the quest for utility. Two economic, political, and social philosophies dominated the world during most of the century—free market capitalism and scientific socialism.

During the Enlightenment, free market capitalism was the economic system created in the quest for happiness. Adam Smith, its founder, stated that in a free market people determine the goods and services to be produced. He believed that people would never act against their own best self-interest; thus, their economic energy would always be used in a positive way. The success of this philosophy, in turn, was to be measured in material prosperity.

The other economic model was constructed by Karl Marx as an attack against the volatile and sometimes destructive forces of the free market. Originally known as scientific socialism, it stated that the true natural law of economics was one that promoted economic equality. This equality, in turn, would be established and guided by a strong revolutionary elite.

Both economic philosophies were grounded in the production and distribution of goods. As industrialization evolved in both systems, energy became an increasingly important factor. By the last half of the twentieth century, the pursuit of material utility began to strain the financial and energy resources of the world. By the early 1960s, many technologists believed that nuclear power was the "wave of the future," while others argued that, at least initially, there would have to be a combination of nuclear and fossil fuel.

Beginning in 1979, however, a series of major technological disasters set in motion a process that would eventually begin not only a debate over the perceived infallibility of science and technology but also the ethical foundation of Enlightenment utility. March 28, 1979, was first day in this new process. On that day, in a nuclear power plant called Three Mile Island, located in Pennsylvania, a series of errors—both mechanical and human—allowed water used to cool the plant's reactor to drain. This event caused the plant's radioactive core to overheat and begin to melt down, eventually consuming a third of the core element. While proper steps were taken to avoid a major disaster, serious questions about the ultimate safety of nuclear energy took hold of the American consciousness.

Several years later, a nightmare scenario began halfway around the world from the United States in the territory of its major rival, the Soviet Union. On April 26, 1986, a major explosion occurred at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, which is in the Ukraine. The largest radiation disaster in history, the explosion created a cloud of cesium 137 and iodine 131 three miles high and ten times more radioactive than the one from the Hiroshima bomb. A total of 9,500 kilometers of land were contaminated in Byelorussia, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. Twenty-eight people were killed outright, but eventually 650,000 would be affected by the radiation. This disaster was of apocalyptic proportions, and, over 13 years later, its specter still haunts that area of Central Europe. Since the disaster, there has been a dramatic increase in thyroid cancer, along with a significant increase in illness and birth defects among newborns.

These two disasters refocused much of the energy community back to the use of fossil fuels. Once again the belief that technology could create cleaner, more productive engines helped breathe new life into the use of petroleum. On March 24, 1989, however, the super-tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. This tragedy not only killed about 250,000 sea birds but also devastated the fishing industry in the entire area.

Bhopal, though not energy related, still reflects the technological drive to utility. Though the use of pesticides in the Industrial World has become suspect, its application in the developing nations has been viewed as an acceptable risk. As in Europe over two centuries earlier, a strong, stable population was regarded as a prerequisite to development. Western companies knew that large profits could be made by providing developing nations with pesticides. Human error and shoddy workmanship, however, caused 40 tons of lethal methyl isocynate and hydrogen cyanide to escape from a plant and eventually kill 16,000 people in Bhopal, India.

In reaction to these disasters, people initially focused on the ideologies of the two participants. The rigid, oppressive, controlling nature of Marxist Leninism was blamed for the Chernobyl disaster. The Soviet system proved incapable of containing the nuclear emergency. Once the accident occurred, moreover, the initial reaction of the totalitarian government was to control everything, including the flow of information. This decision allowed radiation to pollute most of the Soviet Union's neighbors.

In the United States, there was also an initial attempt to control information on the part of the government in both the Three Mile Island and Exxon disasters. A more open society with a free press eventually resulted in a release of information, but the capitalist system of the United States had also created the gluttonous appetite for material goods that had contributed to these disasters. The energy needs connected to satisfying the production levels required by this appetite have created one of the most important problems facing the American community today. Questions about how long the natural environment can withstand these types of violations are beginning to find an important place in U.S. civil debate.

The major philosophical problem in this situation revolves around the question of choice. There is a tension between the absolute right of the individual to pursue happiness (based upon the materialistic orientation of the Enlightenment's concept of utility) and the rights of society to have a safe, clean environment. The free market economy, which has over time raised a lifestyle based upon material acquisition to the level of a human right, is now being questioned. Many scientists believe that this model of mass consumption is not an environmentally sustainable one.

These questions have now entered the political arena. For example, the international political organization known as the Green Party has made the environment its sole concern; this group is in favor of instituting laws, regulations, and policies that would drastically control the amount of energy and resources the world's population expends. Technology and lifestyle will be at the center of one of the great debates of the early twenty-first century.


Further Reading

Martin, Daniel. Three Mile Island: Prologue or Epilogue. Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing, 1980.

Medvedev, Grigori. The Truth About Chernobyl. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Stevens, Mark. Three Mile Island. New York: Random House, 1980.

Weir, David. The Bhopal Syndrome. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1987.


Forged artwork has been a problem for centuries, and forgers have imitated the work of virtually every important artist. Recently, however, it has become somewhat easier to detect art forgeries, thanks to modern technology. While there are a host of techniques used, there are some general categories that bear mentioning. One family of techniques is based on analyzing the materials used. Carbon dating, for example, can show if a painting is a 500 year-old artifact or a 50 year-old fake. Chemical analysis of pigments can show if the ones used even existed when a painting is said to have been painted. Other analyses of shellac, varnish, canvas, and other materials are also used to help determine authenticity. One common factor is that virtually all of these techniques require removal of a small sample of the piece of art. Another family of techniques looks at the physical properties of the artwork in question. For example, infrared analysis of a painting can show if an artist's signature was painted over the top of someone else's name or if the original signature was covered over. Non-invasive techniques can also be used to look at the chemical properties of some of the pigments, which can be compared to the properties of pigments used by authentic works by the same artist. For example, an artist who used ground lapis to make blue in one painting is unlikely to have used a chemical dye in another. This is, however, a contest likely to continue for some time as both forgers and verification technology become increasingly sophisticated.

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Technological Disasters: The Modern Challenge to the Enlightenment

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Technological Disasters: The Modern Challenge to the Enlightenment