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Beyond Technical Fixes

By Dave Elliott

In their powerful 2011 book ‘Techno fix’, radical North American ‘greens’ Michael and Joyce Huesemann challenged what they saw as ‘a pervasive belief that technological innovation will enable us to continue our current lifestyle indefinitely and will prevent social, economic and environmental collapse’. They said that techno-optimism was completely unjustified. If driven by continued economic growth, technology did not promote sustainability but hastened collapse. Instead we needed radical social change: ‘as long as technology is used for control and exploitation, negative social and environmental effects are inherently unavoidable.’ So they looked to a future of less invasive, decentralized communities, based on ‘the values of social and environmental harmony, cooperation and mutual enhancement’, with participatory design to ensure greater democratic control of technology and harmony with nature.

Taking a more or less diametrically opposed view, Australian academic Barry Brook, along with Stewart Brand from the US, Mark Lynas from the UK and 15 others have recently produced an Ecomodernist Manifesto in which advanced technology is seen as the answer and growth as possible, indeed as desirable. While they ‘affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature’, they reject what they portray as the ‘deep green’ view ‘that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse’. They say ‘these two ideals can no longer be reconciled. Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind’s dependence upon them for sustenance and well-being’.

They claim that ‘intensifying many human activities – particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement – so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty’.                  

So they back ‘urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination’ as processes ‘with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species’. By contrast, ‘suburbanization, low-yield farming, and many forms of renewable energy production, generally require more land and resources and leave less room for nature’.

Their views are clearly at odds with much ‘deep green’ thinking. Thus they say that there are no real limits to growth: ‘To the degree to which there are fixed physical boundaries to human consumption, they are so theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant. The amount of solar radiation that hits the Earth, for instance, is ultimately finite but represents no meaningful constraint upon human endeavors. Human civilization can flourish for centuries and millennia on energy delivered from a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle, or from hydrogen-deuterium fusion. With proper management, humans are at no risk of lacking sufficient agricultural land for food. Given plentiful land and unlimited energy, substitutes for other material inputs to human well-being can easily be found if those inputs become scarce or expensive.’

In addition, there is no need for radical social change and reduced consumption since technology can resolve the problems: ‘Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge. […] Even dramatic limits to per capita global consumption would be insufficient to achieve significant climate mitigation. Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation. […] We are aware of no quantified climate mitigation scenario in which technological change is not responsible for the vast majority of emissions cuts’.

In terms of which technologies to use, while they admit views differ, they say ‘in the long run, next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion represent the most plausible pathways toward the joint goals of climate stabilization and radical decoupling of humans from nature’. The inclusion of advanced solar in the list is an exception to their general conclusion that ‘the scale of land use and other environmental impacts necessary to power the world on biofuels or many other renewables are such that we doubt they provide a sound pathway to a zero-carbon low-footprint future’.

However, they say ‘High-efficiency solar cells produced from earth-abundant materials are an exception and have the potential to provide many tens of terawatts on a few percent of the Earth’s surface. Present-day solar technologies will require substantial innovation to meet this standard and the development of cheap energy storage technologies that are capable of dealing with highly variable energy generation at large scales.’

Interestingly then, solar apart, they may have ended up making the same assessment of most renewables as some of the more radical greens, although perhaps for different reasons. While Brook et al reject most renewables since, apparently, they are not seen as effective technical fixes, some of the more radical greens see renewables as potentially part of a doomed technical fix – an attempt at solving the planetary eco-crisis in an unchanged growth-orientated society. Thus the Huesemanns say ‘all renewable energy technologies are expected to have significant environmental impacts, particularly if deployed on a scale large enough to supply most, if not all, energy for future industrial and economic activities’. Echoing the work of Australian academic Ted Trainer, they say: ‘It is unlikely that economic growth can continue at its previous pace, if at all, by solely relying on renewable solar energy whose potential is not only limited but which is also more expensive’. Similar views were reviewed in a ‘Critique of Techno-Optimism’ by Samuel Alexander, produced in 2014 for the Australian Post Carbon Pathways project:

That presumably does not mean that suitably chosen renewables could not help sustain a low-growth society, but the Huesemanns are more concerned for now to assert their core belief that ‘the causes of environmental problems are not only polluting technologies but, more fundamentally, human overpopulation and continued economic growth. Consequently, unless the relevant socio-cultural issues are addressed and the size of the human population stabilized and reduced, and the materialistic consumer lifestyle largely abandoned, there is little chance that our environmental problems will be solved or that we will achieve sustainability in the future’.

So do we have essentially a conflict of political views? One would assume few greens would like the eco-moderniser’s backing of nuclear and high technology, but the real difference, as far as they are concerned, may be in terms of goals. The Huesemanns say: ‘Science and technology will certainly be necessary but alone will be insufficient for bringing about sustainability…Without a significant change in society’s values, the current direction of progress in science and technology will only implement the existing values of growth, exploitation, and inequality, thereby accelerating us towards collapse. Consequently, the main challenge will be to change society’s goals from growth to material sufficiency and appropriate stable population size; from exploitation to just treatment of labour, future generations, and the environment; and from gross inequality to a more fair distribution of both income and wealth.’

For their part, however, the eco-modernisers are at pains to deny any association with reactionary goals: ‘Too often modernization is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power, and laissez-faire economic policies. We reject such reductions. What we refer to when we speak of modernization is the long-term evolution of social, economic, political, and technological arrangements in human societies toward vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom’.

The two visions, and associated prescriptions, do clearly differ (e.g. on growth), and some of the differences show up in the technologies selected, but in terms of renewables, oddly, the gap for now is not so big: for both, (most) renewables don’t help. Are either of them right on this? Are renewables fundamentally limited e.g. by land use constraints? As I argue in my latest book, this seems unlikely, certainly long-term, given the vast scope, for example, of offshore wind, wave and tidal projects and solar on roof tops and in deserts. In the final analysis, it seems as if both the eco-modernisers and this specific group of radical greens (others may differ), don’t want renewables to work on any significant scale, since they have other, albeit strongly differing, policy priorities.

*My new book ‘Green Energy Futures’ will be available from Palgrave shortly.

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One comment to Beyond Technical Fixes

  1. Alastair Bain McDonald

    “In the final analysis, it seems as if both the eco-modernisers and this specific group of radical greens (others may differ), don’t want renewables to work …”

    It is not a matter of not wanting them to work. It is that they cannot work, and any attempt to use them involves even more environmental destruction.

    It is imperative that we reduce fossil fuel consumption immediately, if not sooner, but so long as the scientific community preaches optimism then no action will be taken.

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