Evolution or revolution? Solar panels or a new world religion?

By Joern Fischer

So I have a question to all of you who regularly read this blog (thanks by the way! I know we’re only coherent about once a week … let’s hope today is one of those days…): Will the Toyota Prius solve our sustainability problems?

This question is either a sign that I’m definitely moving beyond issues on which I know what I’m talking about, or I learnt a lot about cars just in the very recent past, or … this is simply a somewhat lame hook to keep you reading. Yeah well, it’s the latter (keep reading). Kind of.

I was recently in Stockholm, and along with California, this seems to be the place where Toyota sells most of its hybrids. Much more fuel efficient than conventional cars, arguably — and hence a big step in the right direction. Is it?

But let me rephrase my question. Here is what I’d actually like your responses on: Will better technology help us to solve our sustainability problems? Or is technological development, by and large, simply missing the point altogether? I think there are three possible answers:

1. Technology is not going to help us. Sometimes it might be beneficial, but that’s so rare that overall, better technologies are pretty much not something we ought to even focus on in debates about sustainability.

2. Technology will help us! After all, if we powered our needs by solar energy, drive hydrogen cars etc, this will be extremely useful! Plus better communication technology helps us find better solutions, and means we don’t have to fly as much. And so on.

3. Technology might help us at times, but we need to look elsewhere, too. This is boring middle-ground type stuff. Probably true. But to what extent?

So, if you can be bothered to respond, please do: Honestly, what do you think? Do we need a revolution of values, completely overhaul our society’s order, and re-invent the goals of humanity? Or do we just need to get better at using the avenues already open to us, e.g. by using smarter policies and cleaner or more efficient technologies? Most importantly, to what extent should we focus on either type of solution? Eighty percent technology, or 80% societal overhaul? And to add one more: what do you do in your own lives with respect to either?

I’m curious if anyone will respond … I know we have quite a few readers, so I hope we get a few opinions here! Controversy is welcome!



8 thoughts on “Evolution or revolution? Solar panels or a new world religion?

  1. Hi Joern – thanks for this post. These questions are really hard, I know, but will try an answer (and in short:) ).

    I feel that technology is important. Good to create less polluting technologies. Also, we need to build adaptability in our technology, as the motto of our times is: ‘change’.

    Howeer, I also feel that the major barrier for sustainability today is not technology but an institutional one (including culture, traditions…till some extent…). In all possible levels and senses. Institutional barrirers everywhere. We two (you & me) also talked in the summer of this year, how big difference would be if peoples attitude would change.

    Technological developement also is under the constrain of institutions i my view.

    To me things are simple: we, people, collectively, wish to have a sustainable planet and a future on it or not. If we say a honest ‘yes’, this can start a series of cascade effects leading e.g. to a better tech and better teaching system etc.

  2. Heja Jörn,
    Interesting question but I don’t see 3 different answers but only one you proposed: Yes, in any way it helps. Either just a bit or a lot (your question 1: “Sometimes”, 2: “will help us”, 3: “might help us at times”). I hope I’m not wrong with that, so my logical question to make it clearer for me as one of your readers (thanks to Jan’s advertisement skills), why shouldn’t help us technology based/working with/on a more sustainable use of energy ressources? Why shouldn’t help us every (even very small – because they are just sold few times) step into the right direction? Well. it takes time and sometimes a cloud/focal point but it helps.
    Hence, my very naive short answer: 2
    I don’t believe that the situation at the moment changes the whole community but e.g. Fukushima made some people think about very long known & common facts, which they never thought to be affected by…May be they’re still not…
    Am I in any way clear here? :O)

    • Thanks Marten! What about the possibility that faith in technology may cloud our judgment: that in fact, most of the time, technology will not help. But because every now and then it does (or looks like it will), we end up focusing on technology, when in fact, we ought to create a revolution …? I’d say 80 % revolution, 20% technology … 🙂

  3. Joern — a key part of the controversy, I think, lies in the true prevalence, and avoidability, of Jevons’ Paradoxes. That is–increases in efficiency encouraging increased use, and therefore increasing overall consumption. I know I’ve at least heard that this effect has been seen in Priuses, and it is also blamed for why our energy use has outpaced our increases in energy efficiency.

    Pelletier has a nice bit on the problems of technological optimism in one of his papers (Pelletier, N. 2010. Of laws and limits: An ecological economic perspective on redressing the failure of contemporary global environmental governance. Global Environmental Change 20: 220-228), but I agree with you that, in arbitrarily exact terms 🙂 it’s about 80-20 revolution/technology. Especially considering that those of us with the most technology are almost inarguably causing the most harm–we wouldn’t want to de-intensify to match the desperate situations of those who don’t have/use *enough* resources for a high quality of life, but we deceive ourselves if we think we can invent our way into universal input-substitution. It will not, and thermodynamically cannot, be as simple as, say, switching from gasoline to “liquid, renewable sunshine.” (This bit, on “Economic gain in biosocial systems”, is relevant.)

    Hence the bottom line I stated on my blog regarding the land-sparing/sharing debate: no matter what the technical possibilities are with regards to the production-possibility frontier of food and biodiversity, the fact remains that practically speaking, how much agriculture expands, and how much land is conserved, in a given region are both far more dependent on exogenous political factors than they are on each other. And they arguably should be–how we produce food and how much of it is as much an ethico-moral question as a technical one, and the same can be said of conservation. Linking them together implies we can avoid the necessity to debate, compromise, and partner in discovery and decisions. We quite simply can’t.

  4. Hi Joern,

    maybe I am just such a pessimist I cannot see the the wonderful virtues of technology – I honestly feel we are kidding ourselves to think technology is making any difference whatsoever….we are still going to hell in a handbasket, but the handbasket is no longer made of woven grass and animal gut and now comes with drinkholders to hold our free trade take-away coffee, solar panels to charge our iphone and we can feel great about the whole experience…..

    100% revolution!!!!!!

  5. Interesting, overall… the general vibe is that a substantial amount of our effort ought to go into our underlying values and so on. I don’t see that reflected in research efforts in sustainability, however, nor in societal or political efforts. This paradox then, apparently, ought to be dealt with, somehow…

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