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Science and technology

The wonders of science and technology have brought to man higher standards of health, longer life, better jobs and education and a more comfortable existence than his forebears knew 100 years ago.

Commission to Study the Organization of Peace 1972

Number of countries connected to the Internet

This perception from the 1970s still holds true today. Science and technology have brought about major breakthroughs over the past 30 years in, for example, the fields of information and communications, medicine, nutrition, agriculture, economic development and biotechnology. Forty-six global hubs of technological innovation have been identified around the world, principally in Europe and North America (Hillner 2000).

Information and communications technology (ICT) particularly has revolutionized the way people live, learn, work and interact (Okinawa Charter 2000). The Internet, mobile phones and satellite networks have shrunk time and space. Satellite communications technology from the mid-1980s gave rise to a powerful new medium with a global reach. Bringing together computers and communications in the early 1990s unleashed an explosion of ways to communicate, process and store, and distribute enormous amounts of information. In 2001, more information could be sent over a single cable in a second than was sent over the entire Internet for a month in 1997 (UNDP 2001).

ICT is advancing rapidly, presenting tremendous opportunities for human development by making it easier for more people to access available information from remote locations, quickly and cheaply. However, the uneven diffusion of ICT means that access to related technological developments may be an advantage for the minority only. Today, Internet users are predominantly urban and 79 per cent of users live in OECD countries, which contain only 14 per cent of the world's population. Nevertheless, even in developing countries the increase in Internet use has been dramatic - for example, from 3.9 million to 33 million people in China between 1998 and 2002 (UNDP 2001, CNNIC 2002).

Mobile telephones have overcome the infrastructure constraints of fixed lines and the number of subscribers has increased from slightly more than 10 million around the world at the start of the 1990s to more than 725 million at the beginning of 2001, or one mobile phone for every eight inhabitants (ITU 2001).

Number of Internet users (millions)
Fixed and mobile telephone subscribers (millions)

Figures above demonstrate the explosive growth of the use of the Internet and mobile telephones - but even in 2000 only one-quarter of Internet users were from developing countries

Source: ITU 2001

Additionally, new technologies are helping people to better understand the environment. In July 1972, the US government launched the first LANDSAT satellite. By 2002, the LANDSAT programme has acquired 30 years of records which constitute the longest continuous record of data on the Earth's continental surfaces (USGS 2001). This has added a new dimension to environmental monitoring and assessment, enabling changes to be tracked, trends monitored and early warning improved (see image below). Images from this facility are included in the pages at the end of sections in -> Chapter 2.

Image over is the most detailed true-colour image of the entire Earth available in March 2002. Many months of satellite-based observations of the land surface, oceans, sea ice, and clouds were pieced together into a seamless, mosaic of every square kilometre the Earth

Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image

However, for some developing countries, technology can be a source of exclusion instead of a tool for progress. 'Technology is created in response to market pressures, not the needs of poor people who have little purchasing power. As a result research neglects opportunities to develop technology for poor people' (UNDP 2001). For example, of the 1 223 new drugs marketed worldwide between 1975 and 1996, only 13 were developed to treat tropical diseases (UNDP 2001). New technologies also come with unforeseen risks to human health and the environment: for example, ozone-layer depletion from the use of CFCs, the side effects of drugs, unintended use of new technologies as weapons, pollution, concerns over the impacts of genetically-modified organisms, and technological disasters such as Chernobyl and Bhopal.

'It is only through the deep concern, information and knowledge, commitment and action of the people of the world that environmental problems can be answered. Laws and institutions are not enough. The will of the people must be powerful enough, insistent enough, to bring about the truly good life for all mankind.'

- Commission to Study the Organization of Peace 1972