Green technocentrism and techno-optimism
Let’s start with a generally accepted fact – technological social impact does not exist. In other words, technology itself is socially neutral. Social influence arises, exclusively, when technology manifests itself in a social context and in accordance with certain interests, goals, and intentions. Let’s take the knife as an example of a universally used technological gadget. Sometimes knives are used to chop vegetables for soup, and sometimes they are used as cold weapons. In cases where knives are continuously used as cold weapons, technological innovations to prevent the consequences of said social practice will not have the intended impact. Clearly, some smart redesign of the blade to reduce its effectiveness in order to inhibit perpetrators from realizing their violent intentions will not make a difference. It is clear that the problem lies in social structures and relations, and that there will be no change in violent intentions without without changing them.
Why then do we see the absolute dominance of technological solutions when we open any portal that deals with “green topics” that is often embodied in revolutionary technological discoveries, futuristic engineering fantasies, and ingenious industrial innovations? Why is it that since the beginning of the second half of the previous century, when environmental topics went more mainstream, investment in technological solutions absolutely dominates?
ALTHOUGH THE ADVANCEMENT OF TECHNOLOGY IS A DESIRABLE, NECESSARY, AND IMMINENT ELEMENT OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT, IT IS NEITHER SUFFICIENT, NOR IS IT AT THE CORE OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS, NOR DOES ANY ADEQUATE TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTION CURRENTLY EXIST.
It is not rational to gamble with technological innovations and count on them as a potential magic wand that should allow us to maintain existing social structures and behavioral patterns, while at the same time remediating and, if possible, reversing undesirable ecological trends, such as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “Green technologies” represent reductionist solutions for complex, systemic problems, in the hope that by increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions, they will enable the unhindered reproduction of existing social structures, relations, and mechanisms of exploitation. Furthermore, there are a number of different forms of behavioral and social phenomena that nullify the positive effects of increased efficiency of a certain technology, such as the “Jevons paradox”, various forms of green consumerism, etc.
History shows us that the increase in the efficiency of a certain technology was usually offset by an increase in consumption. Even if technological innovations succeed in raising the limits of growth, we will reach them again through existing behavioral patterns. Therefore, technological solutions in this context directly delay dealing with the underlying problems and potential solutions.
EARTH WITH LIMITED RESOURCES CANNOT ENABLE UNLIMITED GROWTH.
The essential problems lie in the fact that technology, as such, is subordinated to the existing social structure, that is the goals of dominant, profit-oriented economic policies and the historical fetishism of economic growth per se. We have the fatal combination of rampant consumption growth with a growing human population on a planet that already exceeds 8 billion.
In this context, techno-optimism goes hand in hand with the maintenance of the neoliberal structure so that potential technological solutions that would enable unlimited economic growth are directly favored at the expense of social reforms, which could threaten liberal individualism and consumerism. Accordingly, we have terminology such as green growth, green transition, and energy transition.
After decades of various promises of technological solutions, we still have a social system in which, on the one hand, on August 2, we approximately used up the resources that the Earth can regenerate in a given year, and on the other hand, failed miserably in meeting even the basic needs of a huge part of the population. We have built unsustainable consumer habits that, most likely, do not make us too happy, but create a simulation of comfort and a “maze of pleasures” with continuous dopamine “injections”.
If we analyze the existing value chains for a moment, we quickly see a number of contested systemic elements. Let’s take solar panels as an example and we immediately come to the exploitation of lithium, which is needed for the production of batteries to store the obtained energy. In Serbia, we have a consensus of a significant part of society regarding the exploitation of jadarite (from which lithium is obtained), that is, that we do not want such an environmental risk in our backyard. Ores for “green” and any other technologies have to be “mined” somewhere, transported, processed, etc. We are currently unable to organize existing value chains in a way that circumvents slavery, child labor, work-related poisoning, devastation of local ecosystems, extreme poverty, and various other forms of human suffering.
DECADES OF RELIANCE ON PROMISES AND ANTICIPATION OF TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTIONS REPRESENT UNBASED TECHNO-OPTIMISM, WHICH DIRECTLY CONTRIBUTES TO DELAYING THE IMPLEMENTATION OF OTHER FORMS OF EFFECTIVE SOLUTIONS, REDUCING THE SENSE OF URGENCY AND POSTPONING POLITICAL DEADLINES FOR CLIMATE ACTION.
Media articles are full of new, exciting, and revolutionary technological breakthroughs as “red lines” are being moved up. In the political sphere, basing international conferences, plans, and policy proposals on assumptions related to technological solutions, hinders even a meaningful discussion about real and feasible systemic solutions. A man who smokes three packs of cigarettes a day would probably not be advised to continue with his established habit or possibly cut down to a pack and a half because he can rely on experimental therapies for lung cancer that could be available in the future. Probably, the basic advice of a doctor would be related to certain lifestyle changes. For years, techno-optimism has been “implanted” in various plans and policy proposals despite the absence of results, thereby continuously justifying modest climate actions, reducing pressure on the most powerful social actors, diminishing the urgency of dominant environmental problems, and postponing social reforms.
Electric cars are an example of a typical technological quasi-solution. Although they are definitely a part of the future and a better alternative, they themselves are perhaps only a lesser evil than fossil fuel cars in terms of mobility and as a response to the environmental crisis. Here we also encounter the problem of scalability. Technological innovations in this context simply cannot be multiplied, expanded, and implemented quickly enough, without at the same time spending, according to some estimates, up to half of the CO2 budget by 2050, by using the energy from fossil sources necessary for their materialization.
The key is again at the same place where the problem is, in reforming social organization, improving and equalizing mobility mechanisms, and not in “greening” inadequate and unsustainable solutions. We need a systemic approach to recognizing the essence of problems, which are always behavioral in nature, and to exploring social mechanisms, which in practice, so far, have yielded results. Solutions must tackle the complexity of social relations that reproduce existing social structures, and they are more difficult to change than – cars, windows, and fireplaces. Environmental challenges require a completely different approach to innovation because investment in the development of new technologies must be accompanied by investment in new ways of organizing society.
Author: Siniša Borota, sociologist