Dozens of issues populate the Global Issues Matrix. There are myriad interrelationships among them. The issues have been grouped into seven major headings. Below are global issues under the general heading of Technology, with comments on their characteristics and relationships. Not surprisingly, technology impacts a number of aspects of globalization, not the least of which is how cultures connect to each other.
Agriculture Productivity – At the end of the 18th Century, Thomas Robert Malthus wrote that the increase in world population would ultimately be limited by the earth’s capacity to produce subsistence. Mechanization and technology combined to increase that capacity and support ever-increasing numbers of people. Over the last fifty years, while the earth’s population doubled, total land under cultivation increased only 12 percent, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Improved seeds have contributed heavily, and pesticides reduced loss, but overuse led to environmental damage and health issues for both farmer and consumer.
Agricultural products companies have devised processes for genetically modifying seeds to avoid various diseases. These seeds can be modified to address localized soil, water, and weather conditions. However, long-term effects of genetic modifications are unknown and are cause for some governments and environmentalists to forbid or avoid using them. Technology, such as drip irrigation perfected in Israel and the United States, continues to provide opportunities for increased productivity of existing farmland. However, climate change has destroyed some areas’ crop-producing ability. Large areas of Africa have experienced desertification, and long-term droughts in other areas have caused famine and driven people from their land. Forecasts of future climate change in Africa imply severe impacts on productivity. The technology that has been applied to crops like wheat and maize has not been applied to vital African crops such as cassava and sorghum.
Energy – The quest for energy has shaped United States foreign policy since oil began replacing coal and the U.S. needed more oil than could be produced internally. Freedom from dependence upon foreign oil has been an elusive goal. Supply security has been problematic when a supplier such as Venezuela is openly hostile to the U.S. Suppliers that deny basic human freedoms to their citizens present a conflict of interest to countries that promote what are deemed to be universal human values. When those suppliers rise in opposition to their rulers, supplies may be disrupted and oil importers are conflicted as to which side to support.
Extracting oil from shale is a costly process which has come into practice as the price of crude oil has increased. Shale oil has similar environmental impacts as coal, creating unsightly landscapes and polluting water supplies and air, but it has reduced the amount of oil that some countries must import.
Because of cost and availability, coal remains a prime source of energy, but coal mining leaves unsightly scars on the landscape. Past coal mining practices have been cited for causing chronic disease among nearby residents, as well as polluting streams with acidic mine drainage. Burning coal for energy creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
When coal and other natural resources are depleted, renewable sources of energy will no longer be optional. Although the debate over when this time will come is on-going, scientists work toward producing renewable energy ever more efficiently. Wind, sun, geothermal, ocean tide, and biomass are candidates for producing shares of the energy demands of the future.
Food Security – Whether local food supplies are grown locally or imported, food security is an issue. To achieve food security, food must be plentifully available, economically as well as physically; it must provide a nutritious diet to maintain active health; and it must be handled from planting to eating with care taken to avoid disease and unsanitary conditions. Technological research enters into the accomplishment of the goal of food security at several stages.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a Green Revolution brought new varieties of wheat and rice that were credited with saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. The drive to improved varieties continues with such innovative processes as applying genomics to seed analysis. The science of pest control that relies on the use of beneficial insects offers hope toward the elimination of pesticide chemicals. Irrigation techniques and groundwater management address problems of water shortage. Food contaminants can be safely and economically eliminated through irradiation. Management of natural resources and even innovative financial products contribute to growing and sustainable production of adequate food.
The growing populations of China and India have introduced a new dimension to food security. Countries such as these that fear they may not have enough arable land to provide food for their resident population are buying farmland outside their sovereign boundaries. Sovereign states as well as international investors are reported to have purchased large tracts of land in East Africa to serve future needs.
Genetically-Modified Crops – Use of genetic engineering to alter the DNA of organisms in food is designed to increase food production, promote resistance to herbicides, disease, and drought, or improve nutritional value. Acceptance that this is achievable is far from unanimous. Quite the opposite, claims that genetically-modified crops cause health problems and environmental damage have led many countries, including all the countries in the European Union, to restrict or ban them. While the hope for providing a plentiful supply of highly nutritious food for a growing world population remains a goal of genetic modification, the objections of many organizations and even scientists continue. Benefits, in terms of productivity and reduction in pesticide use, have been proven. Health risks have not been proven, but could remain unobserved for years. In the meantime, policy of most of the world’s governments prohibits genetically-modified crops, including those where genetically-modified crops could address on-going starvation and malnutrition.
Media/Communications – Vast changes in communication technology have shortened the time it takes for news of events to be distributed. Organizers of demonstrations and protests respond to government or corporate action, or inaction, by using cell phones and social media to bring thousands of people together spontaneously. Unrest in Egypt, Libya, and Syria occurred through the use of communications among individual actors, using technology that was not available a generation ago. Disparate groups finding common cause form new alignments that reshape both internal and international politics.
Mass communications have also enabled people in developing countries to see what life is like in the West. What they see may not be typical of average citizens, but nearly any video communications to which they are exposed reveals a lifestyle they may not have known existed. They desire the same standard of living that Western populations enjoy. That is not likely to happen. Achieving it would cause a level of demand for natural resources beyond what could be sustained. As demand increased, the price of natural resources would soar, making the goal further and further beyond reach.
Productivity – Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler wrote a book titled Abundance, published in 2012. In it, the authors leave no doubt as to what technology can accomplish. In their words,
Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them.
They project that the exponential growth of technologies, such as biotechnology, networks and sensors, robotics, and nanotechnology will make this dream possible. Medical diagnostic labs-on-a-chip, point-of-use water purification, and self-contained toilets that produce no waste and generate excess electricity, are among the technologies waiting to serve. Diamandis believes that steering and speeding innovation can be facilitated by offering incentive prizes. He is in a position to know; he is the chairman and CEO of the X Prize.
Sustainability – Sustainability should be the goal in addressing numerous pressing issues. Problems, such as environment degradation, over-farming the land, exhaustion of natural resources, and governance that ignores demographic trends, will reach tipping points beyond which recovery is extremely difficult if not impossible. Policy decisions should take the long view, even if it is not politically expedient to do so. The late economist Herb Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Presidents Nixon and Ford, stated a blunt truth about sustainability, saying, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” But an unsustainable activity can stop in one of two ways. Those in control may realize that continuing to act in the same manner will produce consequences that are wither distasteful or destructive and will cease, as a sort of self-corrective action. Or they may not realize, or chose to ignore the consequences, in which case the action will be self-destructive.