Paul van Gerven

21 March

It’s time for humanity to face up to the fact that technology alone won’t be enough to tackle climate change.

Technology as a panacea – it comes naturally to scientists and engineers. It solved so many problems before, why wouldn’t it fix the next one too? Is the accumulation of CO2 threatening to disrupt the world’s ecosystems? We’ll install windmills and solar panels. We’ll drive electric cars, fly in electric planes. Are our economies draining Earth’s natural resources? No problem, we’ll get serious about design for reuse and create circular economies.

For a long time, I trusted in technological progress to solve climate change (and other ecological threats) as well. When I was a teenager, and later a university student, I was convinced humanity was moving towards a Star Trek-like world, where energy is abundant, food is created from thin air and the weather is always great thanks to a globe-spanning control grid. Having eradicated disease, pollution, hunger, poverty and even money, humanity adopted a philosophy of self-betterment and turned its gaze toward the stars.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I always assumed that technological and social progress were inextricably linked. Freed from the need to labor the better part of a day to provide for one’s basic needs, people could leave their less desirable instincts behind and embrace values like compassion and tolerance. In my mind, technology would free humanity from its darker instincts.

This belief was the first to go. Certainly, not having to worry about one’s livelihood is conducive to peace and collaboration, but, as more recent Star Trek adaptations have explored, history isn’t a march from barbarity to civilization. Whenever societies make ‘moral progress,’ it can easily be reversed. Even in our very comfortable country, a sizable alt-right minority is laboring to make that happen.

Progress in science and technology, on the other hand, is undeniably cumulative and irreversible. Scientific paradigms may change, or a technology may fail to become mainstream, but, barring some planetary extinction event, our collective body of knowledge never shrinks.

While this characteristic seems to bode well for solving the climate crisis, I believe it may have done more harm than good. Trust in technology’s ever-increasing abilities has lulled us into a false sense of security. The Club of Rome warned us decades ago that there are limits to growth. Did we listen? No, we lived it up like we have a couple of planets in reserve. After all, technology would come to the rescue.

Fifty years later, we’re at least acknowledging that we need to reduce carbon emissions (and other pollutants), but we still believe technology will do all the work for us. We don’t have to change our lifestyles, we don’t have to limit economic growth. We’ll save the planet by erecting windmills and buying Teslas. And since that strategy is proving to fall short, we’ve once again started deferring to unproven future solutions such as net-zero strategies and negative emission technologies. Anything not to face up to the harsh truth.

I’ve let go of my unrelenting faith in technology. Of course, it has an essential role to play, but if we want to save our planet, we can’t avoid making painful and disruptive modifications to our behavior and economy. Renewables will never be able to meet the energy demand of Western industrialized economies as they are right now. Electric cars may be better than fossil-fuel-powered ones, but the real solution is driving much less. Buying green products is a step forward, buying a lot less has much more impact. I think you get my drift.

In Star Trek, it used to be the advanced technology that piqued my interest the most, but now I see that the self-betterment plot element is just as important.