New World Same Humans #60

Is more technology really the answer to the climate crisis?

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This week, I go deep on an intriguing experiment that never was. And what it tells us about the relationship between technology, climate change, and politics in the 2020s.

Let’s go!


Last week I wrote about a remarkable experiment set to take place high above the small town of Kiruna in northern Sweden.

Harvard University scientists, working in partnership with the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), were to send a balloon 20 kilometres above the town. Once there, it would spray a cloud of particulate calcium carbonate – or chalk dust – into the atmosphere. Chalk, as we all know, is white, and that means it’s highly reflective. It’s this property that the scientists wanted to test. They’re working on a bold hypothesis: that we can slow climate change by using atmospheric chalk dust to reflect incoming sunlight back into space.

A few days ago the experiment was cancelled. The SSC gave way, in the end, to opposition from local people and the national green movement. Leaders of northern Sweden’s indigenous Sámi people, many of whom are semi-nomadic reindeer herders, opposed the test. And the president of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation warned against the Harvard work and its underlying method, known as solar bioengineering. The technology was, she said, ‘a false solution that dilutes focus from the necessary actions to reduce emissions.’

Bill Gates is helping to fund the team behind the aborted Kiruna test. The scientists are clear that solar bioengineering is not intended to replace a transition to clean energy; their aim is to buy us more time to effect that transition. The team admit that this cancellation is ‘a setback’. But they say they’ll try to win over their critics in the coming months.

It’s a fascinating tale about a small band of creative scientists, and the legitimate concerns of the wider public. And, as such, it taps into a far broader picture on the relationship between science, climate, and politics in the 2020s.

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Safety concerns were primary when it came to the cancellation of the experiment at Kiruna. But criticisms of the Harvard researchers, and of solar bioengineering generally, go far deeper.

At heart, they revolve around the belief that these kinds of interventions are a distraction. Critics say the idea that we can undo warming that’s already happened will only encourage us to delay hard but necessary choices. Projects in climate tinkering, they maintain, probably won’t work, and may cause vast unintended harm. What we need to focus on is our addiction to fossil fuels, and an outdated belief in the possibility of infinite growth.

In this way, projects in solar bioengineering are facing one form of a criticism that’s become popular in recent years. They are being called versions of technological solutionism. The phrase was coined by the technology thinker Evgeny Morozov, who used it to describe a worldview – common, he said, in Silicon Valley – in which the conditions of human life, including our greatest individual and collective challenges, are seen as only a set of technical problems to be engineered away. The world, said Morozov, doesn’t work like that. We need to unlearn the lesson that technology can always solve our problems.

It’s hard to deny that Morozov identified a real tendency. These days, technology is offered as a solution to all kinds of problems that would be better solved in another way. Lonely old people? Give them a robot. Pandemic has caused a mental health crisis? Here’s an AI-fuelled counsellor.

But climate is our apex predator problem right now. It’s on climate, then, where the battle between technological solutionists and their critics is at its fiercest. And the pandemic has only heightened that tension. The stasis of lockdown meant a unique chance to question the tech-fuelled, market-driven future we’re hurtling towards. On the other hand, science and technology – in the form of the vaccines – are now saving us from the virus.

The pandemic has thrown a question into sharp relief: is more technology the answer, or the problem? Should we forge ahead with the version of modernity we’re building? Or should we pull the brakes, and find an entirely new route towards the future?

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That tension is visible in the debate between the Harvard scientists and those whose concerns stopped the Kiruna test. But the broader debate on how to respond to global heating can also be characterised as one between technological solutionists and their critics.

On one side are those who say we should keep pushing in our current direction and apply technological solutions – primarily solar and wind energy – to the climate problem. On the other are those who argue that if we’re to ameliorate warming we must find a new path towards the future: one not predicated on endless economic growth and hyperconsumption.

That debate came to fierce life this week via a Twitter thread from Oxford academic Max Roser, the economist behind the brilliant Our World in Data.

Roser believes that economic growth is a moral imperative. Without it, he says, billions in the world’s poorest countries will remain in poverty. So we must decouple economic growth and carbon emissions – and that means clean energy technologies. The Twitter thread sparked a fierce argument.

One of Roser’s most prominent critics is the British economist Jason Hickel, an academic at the London School of Economics and author of the 2020 book Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. Hickel and other degrowthers argue that, on our current path, it’s near impossible to transition away from fossil fuels fast enough to avoid catastrophic warming. And besides, they continue, if we transition to clean energy without fundamentally changing the nature and size of our economies, then we’ll only use all that energy to destroy more forests, raise more methane-producing livestock, throw away more plastic, and so further wreck the planet.

According to Hickel, then, a technology-fuelled shift to clean energy isn’t the answer. Instead, we need a system-wide course correction. The industrialised nations of the Global North should embrace degrowth, which means intentionally scaling back the size of our economies and the scope of our consumption. It’s the only way to stop catastrophic climate change.

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So who is right?

Technological solutions and planned degrowth are both sincere, coherent responses to the existential challenge posed by global heating. The economic arguments are highly contested.

But here’s the crucial point that is so often overlooked. When it comes to this debate, both sides tend to avoid the central question. That question is one of politics.

Tech solutionists often talk as though the path they outline has no alternative. As though our ongoing march towards ever-greater, technology-fuelled economic growth and consumption is inevitable.

Meanwhile, degrowthers are often guilty of the kind of technocratic mindset they pin on the opposite side. Many of them advance a far-reaching programme – banning advertising, a shorter working week, UBI – while saying little about the political challenge associated with such a course of action. Without addressing, in short, the human story: how do we get people to consent to those kinds of changes? The result is, paradoxically, something close to a form of solutionism, which treats global heating as a problem that can be solved by the implementation of a technocratic management programme known as ‘degrowth’.

Life, as Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, doesn’t work like that.

If we are to mount a meaningful response to our biggest shared challenge, we must come together to act. That is, above all, a political challenge. Conversations about technological solutions vs degrowth are necessary. But we must couple them with an equally big push to ignite a proper, adult, realistic conversation about the choices we face, and the sacrifices we may need to make.

Those on the technological solutions side could start by admitting that endless economic growth is not a law of nature; other paths are possible. Meanwhile, degrowthers should be transparent with citizens of the Global North about the lifestyle changes, and risks, associated with their plan.

The global climate is a physical system that obeys scientific laws. The truths of climate change are what they are, regardless of what we believe about them. But our societies are not like that. They are comprised of people. People who must be listened to, convinced, cajoled, and inspired to act.

The political challenge is huge; right now the public conversation is feeble. Any programme intended to deal with the hard truths of the climate crisis – whether it’s one of technological innovation or planned degrowth – must address that reality, too.

One way to take a step forward? Let’s run some big, bold experiments designed to spark a proper debate about climate change. Let’s ask how we redesign our democracies in order to encourage longer-term thinking, instead of an obsession with the next election cycle.

In the 2020s, we need to redesign our public conversation around the greatest shared challenge we’ve ever faced. Billionaires: get out your cheque books.


Growth Mindset

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I’ll be back on Wednesday with New Week Same Humans. Until then, be well,

David.


David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.