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Techno-optimism, economic growth, and transformative systemic change

Before the covid pandemic put limits on public gatherings, I used to give free public lectures on the science behind the present climate emergency, along with the psychological barriers to taking appropriate action, and an outline of what needs to be done (everything we can possibly do) and when (immediately) to lessen the impacts of climate breakdown. When I was still a college professor, I gave guest lectures in my colleague’s classrooms, department meetings, student groups- anyone who asked me to talk about the climate emergency- because nothing else was or is as important.

It was exhausting. Not just because having memorized the epistemology of an impending, and totally avoidable, catastrophe and repeating the evidence over and over again is exhausting, but rather the lack of appropriate response from the audiences was more so. I understand that a normal response to overwhelmingly bad news is denial or despair, neither of which lead to action. It is important to be compassionate to these folks. There was also a range of other responses- some people were motivated to change their consumption habits, some to join environmental groups, but most seemed stuck in some in-between world in their own heads, trying to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that they felt from living in a system that did not recognize the physical realty of a climate emergency that they just learned about. More on these folks later.

A fourth category of audience members, would raise their hand at the end of my presentation and earnestly (sometimes angrily) ask ‘but what about technology? Isn’t that going to save us?’ Some would cite specific technologies: Nuclear energy! A sun shield! Fertilize the oceans! Move to Mars! as sure-fire ‘solutions’ to human-caused impending climate breakdown. The implication was: we don’t need to re-examine our exponentially-growing economy on a physically finite planet, no need for sacrifice, somebody somewhere (but not me) will engineer humanity’s way out of this. This sentiment is commonly referred to as techno-optimism, and it is everywhere you look, because western cultures and the global economy are fundamentally based on it. And it is a fantasy.

A recent research publication defines techno-optimism as such:

“…the belief that science and technology will be able to solve the major social and environmental problems of our times, without fundamentally rethinking the structures or goals of our growth-based economies or the nature of Western-style, affluent lifestyles.”-Alexander (2019)

As I see it, there are two main categories of techno-optimism: 1) the ‘somebody will invent something’ sometime in the future that will save us all from having to change how we live on this planet narrative. This is the all-eggs-in-one-basket approach to disaster planning. 2) The ‘tech- growth economy-marriage’ that maintains that technological advances in the manufacture of goods (efficiencies) will decouple environmental impacts from production and allow the economy to grow indefinitely without damaging the climate or ecosystems. At first glance, these ideas sound pretty good, but they are not supported by empirical evidence. Techno-optimism has been described as “more of a faith” than a sound economic plan for ‘sustainable development’.

The main idea behind #2 is that as economies grow and produce more wealth, new technologies will reduce environmental impacts through efficiencies in production so that economies will still be able to grow AND environmental conditions will improve = “green growth”. It is based on the decoupling of economic growth from environmental damage/resource extraction. However, it does not work because with efficiencies, the cost of commodities to consumers commonly goes down, which incentivizes higher consumption of either that product, other products, or both (rebounds). This may still result in less environmental impact in localized examples (relative decoupling), but not most, and not in absolute terms. A recent study found that with every 10% growth in GDP, the material footprint of economies ‘only’ grew by 6%. At this rate of decoupling, we would still need 48 planet’s worth of biocapacity and materials to make continued economic growth literally sustainable.

Technology cannot and will not solve environmental problems so long as it is applied within a growth-based economic model.”Alexander (2019)

Growing the economy is not necessary for improving quality of life and pulling people out of poverty. Economic growth cannot be absolutely decoupled from environmental impacts, and we are already living outside of several ‘safe planetary operating zones’. It is not just about climate (although that is the big one).

Even transitioning to solar & wind has huge collateral costs involving the mining of raw materials and production of infrastructure– never mind the huge environmental impact of the mining operations.. Yes of course we need technology in a Just Transition away from fossil fuels, but to do so blindly without accounting for other planetary limits would be disastrous.

Even if resource extraction could be done without damage to ecosystems (it cannot), the materials, particularly rare earth elements needed for the magnets in wind turbines, will be difficult to obtain. We simply must learn to live with less stuff and energy.

Finally, continued global economic growth makes meeting already inadequate emissions reductions targets even more difficult. Over the past 20 years, the world has built 8 billion megawatt hours of new clean energy capacity, but during the same period, energy demand has grown by six times that amount. We must get our heads out of business-as-usual, couched in human exceptionalism, and admit that an intact Earth and all of its systems are the best and only technology that we need, and we must allow them to recover. Our present global economic system is literally fueled by our own destruction. Our only rational choice going forward is to stop extraction and live within the physical limits of our planet. It means re-imagining western social, political, and economic norms. It means transformative systemic change. Now.

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