By Joern Fischer
In the 1980s, Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich famously had a bet about whether resource scarcity would lead to the demise of humanity. In that debate, Julian Simon embodied technological optimism, essentially negating planetary boundaries, and firmly believing that humanity would solve whichever problems emerge through new solutions and technologies. Since then, technological optimism subsided for a while – but a slightly different flavor of it appears to be re-emerging at the moment.
Scientific culture has changed, to the point that especially the supposedly “high end” of science is now fatally attracted to technocratic solutions and techno-fixes. Some of the prominent ideas currently suggesting that more at no cost is both feasible and desirable include sustainable intensification, decoupling of growth from environmental impact, and an “ecomodernist” vision for the world. These ideas are not new, but currently re-surging in popularity, it seems to me.
All of these strategies have in common that they neglect issues of power, politics, and justice. Who uses technology, who benefits from it, and who perhaps doesn’t, is usually ignored in these framings. Moreover, technocratic solutions and techno-fixes all tell the comforting story of “no change is needed”. In a world where policy-relevance, media coverage, and publications in Science and Nature are what makes you a “successful scientist”, technocratic solutions and techno-fixes thus are fatally attractive to scientists.
From a leverage points perspective, these framings argue that major changes in outcomes are possible without changes to the intent assigned to our systems. We can continue to design our systems around endless material growth, and yet achieve happiness and justice for all beings.
This new wave of technically strong, but philosophically weak, science is dangerous because it distracts us from the biggest challenge we face this century – turning around the various unsustainable trends that characterize the Great Acceleration.
There is no need to choose between living back in the trees versus joining the cult of technological optimism. As in so many of these situations, we can pursue technical solutions where possible, just and meaningful, but in addition to working on other challenges – not instead. So far, few scientists have argued that their technological solutions ought to be pursued instead of other changes (e.g. in values or dominant economic systems) – but more recently, some have actually gone that far.
We’re thus on a slippery slope from neat science to careless technological optimism. Many concepts can take us either way, and it’s up to us to use them wisely: Sustainable intensification can be about justice and about nourishing the poor; or it can be about satisfying humanity’s growing hunger for meat. Ecosystem services can be a means of finding out about people’s connectedness with nature, or it can be a tool to commodify life on Earth. De-coupling of economic growth and environmental destruction would be great, but is rare in practice. Economic activity is likely to contribute to human well-being in poor countries, but as a goal above others, has become far less meaningful in wealthy settings.
Framings that tell us it’s all one, and none of the other, usually lack nuance. With that in mind, we can find a place to build technological improvements into a vision for a sustainable future – but not instead of tackling the root causes of un-sustainability, but in addition to it. Without an inherently stable foundation – reflected in our value, social and economic systems – technocratic thinking and techno-fixes may buy us time, but not sustainability.