It’s All In The Eye of The Beholder…

LeCain has rather cynically categorized techno-fixes into three categories: transformational, relocational, and delaying (LeCain, p. 138). His theory is essentially that techno-fixes are never able to restore something to its original pre-human state, but rather, they are “solved” within the narrow vision field of the “fixer,” and lead to other environmental problems down the road. LeCain provides an example of an early 1900’s copper mine in the Smoky Mountains that was heap roasting as a form of copper extraction. The deadly sulfur dioxide gas that caused the thickly forested region to turn into a wasteland was quickly captured and turned into sulfuric acid which was then sold to fertilizer manufacturers. LeCain argues that this techno-fix was a “win-win” situation because the timber companies’ interests were satisfied, and the mine continued to profit from both copper and its’ newly harnessed sulfuric acid. He describes this techno-fix as both transformational, because the sulfur dioxide gas was turned into useful sulfuric acid, as well as relocational because the sulfuric acid then became a different pollutant, by over-fertilization by farmers. The nutrient rich runoff caused eutrophication in many waterways around the nation, far away from the Smoky Mountains. 

Cottrell’s electrostatic precipitator is another techno-fix example used by LeCain. It was estimated that Anaconda Company’s Washoe smelter emitted 20 tons of arsenic into the Deer Lodge Valley every day in the early 1900’s (LeCain, p. 145). The electrostatic precipitator was able to harness about two-thirds of the arsenic, which was then used primarily as a preserver for the lumber used in the mines. When the mine shut down however, it left behind tons of dust which had incredibly toxic levels of arsenic in it. This is described by LeCain as a delaying techno-fix, because the arsenic never went away, it was just swept under the rug during the mine’s operating years. 

As long as people want to maintain their quality of life in the modern world, it seems that mining will be a fact of life. LeCain has very provocative ideas about techno-fixes that I can’t help but agree with. Knowing that our earth is a dynamic system where nothing is created nor destroyed, means that when metals, minerals, and other sources of energy are extracted, the remaining waste products cannot simply disappear. Arsenic is a good example, because it is an element. This means it can’t be broken down into something less dangerous, and when we concentrate it, and bring it to Earth’s surface, there’s no real good option with what to do with it. 

 

LeCain, T. (2013). The Technological Fix How People Use Technology to Create and Solve Problems. London: Taylor and Francis.

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