The fatal attraction of technocratic solutions and techno-fixes

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.

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7 thoughts on “The fatal attraction of technocratic solutions and techno-fixes

  1. Thanks Joern for posting this right on time and you are right that it sees some kind of upsurge recently.
    Just the other week we had a heated discussion about the new Ecomodernist manifesto (http://www.ecomodernism.org/manifesto-english/), which at least in the UK has been promoted quite a lot. Our reading group was largely in disfavour of the so-called “manifesto” refering to it as “old whine in new bottles” and that it seems as if the text “ignores political and social interdependencies between humans and nature all together”.
    In a world of technocratic solutions one might indeed ask what happens to those that can (a) neither afford techno-fixes (something we see already with small-scale farmers and GMO crops in many countries) or don’t want or can’t accept the consequences of technocratic solutions (intensifcation of most of the used land) (b) if those fixes ultimately lead to a reduced pressure on nature and to a “decoupling” from natural resources. Recent studies suggest otherwise and that natural resource extraction is intrinsically linked to economic growth (Wiedmann et al. 2013 – http://www.pnas.org/content/112/20/6271.abstract ), which reflects my personal opinion that ultimately all those techno-fixes will fail in conserving nature as any kind of new technology adaption is usually followed if not dependent on ever more increasing resource extraction putting more pressure on remaining more natural parts of this planet.

    • Hi Martin, thanks for your comment. I agree and fully share your concern. I have — so far — refused to even engage with the ecomodernist manifesto because I don’t think it even deserves discussion. It is ideological, but not even overtly so — it is not science, nor does it use science properly to back up its points. In my view, it is one of the most dangerous developments out there at the moment. I suggest ignoring it whenever possible, and de-bunking it whenever ignoring it is not possible. There have been many good critiques of it in various places: do a search for “response to ecomodernist manifesto”, for example. Cheers — Joern

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  3. Well written, Joern! I wish I had formulated it as eloquently myself.
    However, I think that a main problem is that it is not easy to pursue and argue for the view you envision, because it is – in essence – unknown, a vision of a more equitable and just world as transformed into scientific work. It is easier to criticise techno-fixes (agrobusiness GMO or biotech, for instance) than finding alternatives (and means for testing them) that are not either thought of as linking up with a problematic anti-techno view (which I often easily slip into) or being put into the “organic (or even biodynamic) farming” camp.
    I think it would be useful to deconstruct the techno-fix views, in an elaborate and scientific way, into what is probably (or possibly) achievable AND potentially sustainable, and what is just Harry Potter magic (in a way that Ford Denison has started to some extent – check out the writings on Darwinian agriculture, very thought-provoking even when it’s probably wrong). This may open up for thinking about alternatives, like strong sustainable IPM, or novel production systems that we cannot imagine at the moment, and which have some place for using technology they way you suggest. In fact, we may need to re-formulate the definitions of “technology” and “innovation” to incorporate (or even be mainly defined as) “sustainable production systems” (whatever sustainable means), rather than the narrow engineering technology view that is prevalent in society at the moment. It is about developing technology in the context and constraints of farming systems, rather than farming systems subsuming to technology.
    The post will be useful as a starting point for a discussion or case study on a course in Sustainable development/Man society & environment that I’m just about to start teaching. You’re on to something very interesting and important here! Thanks!

    • Thanks Janne! One thing I like about blogging is that it creates “random” connections between people and ideas that just weren’t there before. As a big fan of your 2003 paper on dynamic reserves, I’m very happy to see you engage with this blog! I think there are problems at two levels: the technological itself (which you emphasise in your response), as well as the technocratic, top-down implementation that is assumed to be “best” by many scientists. Those two somehow go hand in hand to create a false sense of “elegance” about solving complex problems that is just misleading (and oversimplified). Good luck with your course! — J.

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