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Spring 2016 stories

Environmental Justice, Technology, and Silicon Valley

Response to Cardinal Turkson’s Keynote Address, “Our Future on a Shared Planet” Conference, Santa Clara University1
By Kirk Hanson


By Kirk Hanson
Executive Director, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics,
John Courtney Murray, S.J. University Professor,
Santa Clara University

In his visit to Santa Clara University and to Silicon Valley, Cardinal Turkson addressed several themes which I believe can provoke productive moral reflection in Silicon Valley and beyond. Among these are:

1. Identification and Moral Critique of Destructive Uses of Technology. As Cardinal Turkson notes, much technology can be used for good or ill. A more robust discussion of good and bad uses of specific technologies must be developed. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, for example, is developing a partnership with the iconic Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley to include such a discussion in the presentation of future exhibits at the Tech Museum.

2. The Socially Beneficial Uses of Technology. Cardinal Turkson could be more effective in his engagement with Silicon Valley and all technology-centric groups by emphasizing more how technology can and must be harnessed to benefit our common home and humanity. In Silicon Valley, a pre-existing and substantial interest seeks “technology benefiting humanity,” exemplified by a prominent awards program sponsored by the Tech Museum of Innovation and co-created by Santa Clara University. Silicon Valley is already committed to “social entrepreneurship,” a concept advanced by the Silicon Valley-based Skoll Foundation, created in 1999 by eBay co-founder Jeffrey Skoll. Notably, Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship strongly promotes such efforts.

3. Access to the Benefits of Technology. “Access”—a topic long raised by Silicon Valley participants and observers—must be encouraged. Valley entrepreneurs have frequently discussed the “digital divide,” often imagined as simply a connection to the Internet, but we need a more sophisticated notion that includes access to applications of technology which can enhance human flourishing. For example, can the poor access the wealth of educational and health management resources on the Internet?


4. Technology and Its Impact on the Human Spirit. Cardinal Turkson has dealt with how technology, particularly electronic devices, can occupy and preoccupy the days of both young and old. The effect of this trend on moral awareness, particularly, on being aware of people outside one’s social and cultural group, is troubling. Too little time is left for a spiritual life and its practices. Whatever stirrings of awareness about this topic in Silicon Valley exist today ought to be encouraged.

5. Silicon Valley Wealth and Our Common Home. The cardinal’s emphasis on the Earth as our common home is an important theme for Silicon Valley. A prevailing assumption holds that the wealthy of Silicon Valley can escape negative environmental consequences. They may avoid urban pollution, congestion, and even “the cries of the poor” who cannot flee these same threats. Yet although the rich may retreat to higher income suburbs or gated communities, or even fly in private jets to second and third homes in the remote wilderness, we must focus on how technology and environmental degradation harm the poor and the 99 percent who don’t share in the fabulous wealth being generated in Silicon Valley.

6. The Moral Critique of Capitalism. Laudato Si’ and other writings of Pope Francis on the morality of capitalism reflect what some in Silicon Valley may perceive as a naïve European perspective. While Cardinal Turkson has not addressed this theme as frequently as Pope Francis, he has an opportunity to shape a more sophisticated critique regarding how modern capitalism works. The development of a more incisive moral critique would be a significant contribution to Silicon Valley and the broader North American culture.


Kirk Hanson is executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and John Courtney Murray, S.J. University Professor of Social Ethics. He has been at Santa Clara since 2001 taking an early retirement from Stanford University, where he taught in the Graduate School of Business for 23 years. He has written extensively on the ethical and public behavior of corporations, and has consulted with over 100 organizations on managing ethics. Hanson currently serves on the boards of the Skoll Community Fund and the Center for International Business Ethics in Beijing.



  1. Cardinal Peter Turkson, “Laudato Si’ from Silicon Valley to Paris,” keynote address, Our Future on a Shared Planet: Silicon Valley in Conversation with the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis conference, 3 November 2015, Santa Clara University.
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