Simplistic technical solutions to complex environmental problems

Other Names:
Technical fixes to environmental problems

Complex environmental problems evoke ingenious technical solutions which may seem very attractive in the short-term but may do more to exacerbate the problems, or others related to them, than to alleviate them. Scott (2011) explains that "technical fixes only 'solve' problems when framed narrowly in the manner of an engineering problem.  When one takes a wider and longer view they tend to transform, relocate, or delay the problem – from this perspective 'problems' are not solved" (p. 219). They "avoid the problem of changing people's attitudes and behaviour … and do not get to the root of the problem … and because of this, one should expect side-effect problems" (p. 223). "Technological fixes can serve an ameliorative role" (p. 219) but they may "ultimately prove to be counterproductive … and make matters worse in the long run" (p. 208) (Scott, D 2011, 'The technological fix criticisms and the agricultural biotechnology debate', Journal of Agriculture, Environment, and Ethics, vol. 24, pp. 207-226).


Pesticides and fertilizers have provided quick cures to the uncertainties of agriculture. Fossil fuels have been treated as the cheap solution to bountiful energy (as wood had been treated in earlier times). Chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons were thought to be ideal solutions to a particular class of problems. The deliberate introduction of species to counteract some pest has in many cases created even greater problems. In 1990 a solution to the global warming problem has been put forward which involves the dumping of large amounts of iron into the oceans to stimulate the growth of marine algae to absorb excess carbon dioxide – neglecting the surprise effects if such a project were to go awry.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 6: Clean Water and SanitationGOAL 7: Affordable and Clean EnergyGOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and InfrastructureGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 13: Climate ActionGOAL 15: Life on Land
Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Date of last update
16.10.2020 – 17:49 CEST