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The problem(s) with techno-optimism, part 1

Apologies in advance for some repeat information in these next two posts, but recent online interactions have led me to write a much longer and more detailed musing about techno-optimism and those who cling to it. Below is part 1:


I recently posted a link to Greta Thunberg’s new piece in The Guardian on twitter, with the comment ‘this is sooooo good.’ For a young person (or any person), she is very eloquent, has an ability to synthesize specialized information from different fields to paint a bigger picture, and consistently backs up that picture with references to experts and empirical studies. If she were my student, she’d earn an A+ in climate emergency analysis.


The piece by the way is an excerpt from a soon-to-be-released book aptly titled The Climate Book, in which over 100 of the world’s leading climate scientists, policy experts, economists, anthropologists, philosophers, Indigenous leaders, engineers, visionaries and others collaborated to create a “global overview of how the planet’s many crises connect”. This is unprecedented cross-disciplinary scholarship, and it is badly needed.


In response to my post, there were the usual likes and retweets, the echoes of the echo chamber that is social media. That’s fine- we need to be reminded that we are not alone in facing these overlapping crises. There were also a few exasperated ‘we’re screwed’ responses. Fine too- we all need to express our fear and sorrow at the state of the world, though leaving it at that can be a form of denial, an ‘oh well, there’s nothing I can do’ sentiment of absolution from taking action.


There was also another respondent- who posted several replies in a row- angry in tone and rather belligerent. They immediately dismissed the article, saying Thunberg “doesn’t know shit”, that people believe her only because of a cult of celebrity, and that they themselves could ‘solve’ the climate crisis and keep our global economy growing in one grand vision of synergistic technologies and development of natural ecosystems. Ah, I see, a Techno-optimist. An angry one at that. What am I talking about?


Techno-optimism is rooted in human exceptionalism:


The view (paradigm) that humans are different from all other organisms, all human behaviour is controlled by culture and free will, and all problems can be solved by human ingenuity and technology.


This is a belief that has essentially fueled privileged humanity’s path to the precipice of global catastrophe. Where we are now. An offshoot of this belief, Techno-optimism has been described as:


“…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 & Rutherford, 2019


I distinguish two main kinds of techno-optimism: 1) The tech-efficiencies-growth marriage of growth capitalism, ‘green’ growth, and ‘sustainable’ development and 2) The hero narrative, the ‘somebody will invent something’ someday, just in time bedtime story of human exceptionalism, usually of one exceptional person, usually the one promoting their own exceptional ideas without the need for collaboration or consensus-building. Let’s take a closer look.


Techno-optimism type 1: The belief that our global economy can continue to grow (measured by GDP) indefinitely on a physically finite planet, because environmental impact from production of goods is lessened as economies become wealthier, through new technologies that increase the efficiency of extraction & production. The magic ingredient in this recipe for perpetual success is environmental-economic decoupling. Sounds great, right? The problem is that it doesn’t work, because of rebounds – when gains in efficiencies are cancelled out by more of that product or others being produced - basically economic growth. We can even end up with more production and destruction. ‘Green growth’ and the UN sustainable development goals are both based on the decoupling theory. 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 material resources to make growth literally sustainable. Some countries try to claim absolute decoupling of production and economic growth from planetary harm, commonly by shipping waste products and production to other countries and extracting materials from others. But on a physically finite planet, absolute decoupling is impossible or could not happen quickly enough to sustain a livable planet. But this isn’t the main topic for today, so moving on!


Techno-optimism type 2: We (or one exceptionally smart & likely outrageously wealthy individual) will invent technologies/solutions in time to stop climate breakdown and then actually reverse it. Nothing to worry about! Subscribers to this type of T-O generally focus on future advances in two areas: A) Green energy technology to replace fossil fuels, and/or B) Geoengineering, typically the artificial or enhanced biological removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, or solar radiation management. Most scientists will agree that some form of geoengineering will have to be employed; even most IPCC emissions-reductions scenarios (SSPs) rely on some level of future carbon dioxide removal (CDR) much greater than we have today. The problem is, these ‘solutions’ pass the buck to younger generations, depending on them to clean up our mess (and there is no evidence to suggest that this would be possible), so that we can continue with the resource-extractive model of economic growth. Even if we combine existing technologies to get off of fossil fuels, in the absence of the reduction of resource and energy use in rich countries, we are putting all of our eggs in one tech basket, carried by a toddler.

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