Opinion: Technology's failings in the field

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster and sits on various trustee boards

A group of fishermen near Bangkok were out at work when they noticed that the fish were literally popping into their nets. This good fortune, they quickly ascertained, was because the water was much shallower than usual. It was December 26. These men knew their waters well. They had lived all their lives in a type of intuitive relationship with the sea.

It told them that the receding of the waters indicated that massive waves would crash upon their shoreline later that day. So instead of filling their nets, they returned home, gathered their few possessions and took refuge in nearby hills. Nobody in their community was killed.

An environmentalist, working in the area, told me their story, an all-too-rare happy ending in the chapter after chapter of appalling and heart-breaking tragedies produced by the tsunami. Perhaps the Thai fishermen were just lucky. Chance, fate, God, call it what you will. But perhaps it was something more.

Technological progress has brought a terrible arrogance to our age. We are rightly proud of the knowledge delivered by scientific advances, but sometimes that pride can tip over into a wholesale rejection of more ancient wisdom.

Well-meaning organisations, some of them charities, have marched into communities and quickly started prescribing imported and expensive cures without giving sufficient weight to adapting what is there already. On my recent trip to Ethiopia I saw the first efforts at reviving the production of pesticides from local ingredients - principally cow's urine - after such methods had been all but wiped out by the distribution of chemical alternatives by US donors. Once the donors' focus moved elsewhere, local people couldn't foot the bill and feed their families.

Of course, I realise that many distinguished development charities have taken on board this message long ago, but many haven't. Equally, technology has much to offer, such as the early warning system I wrote about last week.

At the heart of this issue is often a clash between secular, Western values that place their faith in things that can be tried and tested under a microscope, and a more earthy, organic, spiritual system in the developing world. The way forward needs to be a blending of the two. Developing countries have as much to teach us about being in tune with our environment as we do them about how to harness it to our mutual advantage.

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