Paul van Gerven is an editor at Bits&Chips.

17 March 2020

Technology isn’t the silver bullet to combat global warming, argues Paul van Gerven. Our never-ending faith in it has actually made things worse.

I concluded my last opinion piece with an encouragement for public authorities to (among other things) start throwing money at green technology. I must have been in a bit of a philosophical mood the day I found the paper magazine with said article on my desk, because when I re-read my own work (yes, I am that vain), it occurred to me that it’s kind of funny that to solve the global warming crisis, we’re actually betting on the very thing that set it in motion in the first place.

The constantly expanding nature of technology renders this line of reasoning flawed, obviously, but it does expose a human instinct in modern times: that technology will come to the rescue. It’s not hard to see how such a belief has come to be. Looking back at how science and technology have transformed society and the world over the centuries, there’s something inevitable and unstoppable about them. Technological progress is a given so ingrained that it’s never challenged. So why would it fail us battling climate change?

Ironically, however, so far our faith in technological progress has only worked to make matters worse. As long as global warming has been on the agenda, political leaders have simply been putting off taking action, believing technology will pick up the slack eventually. Two decades of reports, summits and agreements have failed to produce results, while the problem grew ever larger. As climate researchers recently outlined in Nature, the result of this dilly-dallying in the past decade is that the world now must do four times the work, or do the same amount in one third of the time.

Of course, there have always been people who didn’t believe in the technological silver bullet. Though some consider things like solar panels and wind farms useful additions, many environmentalists point to human behavior as the primary problem. They argue that global warming is about ever-expanding demands of humankind on a planet with finite resources, which can only be halted by cutting consumption. It’s clear why most politicians haven’t embraced this school of thought. People generally don’t like to give up their comforts or sacrifice economic growth.

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The tech believers and the consumption cutters do have something in common. The former subscribe to hypothetical solutions in the future, the latter turn to lifestyle changes whose biggest effect is to make them feel better about themselves. Effectively, both groups don’t take any meaningful action. As TS Elliot said, humankind cannot bear very much reality.

So, that’s it then? Everyone sticks theirs heads in the sand and we’re getting nowhere? Well, yes and no. If you ask me, disruptive climate change is already inevitable. Whatever clever technology we’ll come up with or whatever systemic consumption-cutting measures we (somehow) manage to implement, they’ll only serve to prevent worse. But doing something still trumps doing nothing.

If the corona outbreak has done any good, it may be that it has shown us that technology alone cannot necessarily solve all problems. The best way forward, therefore, might be to merge the tech and behavior-oriented approaches: marry technological with social innovation. Forget politicians and their endless policy deliberations, always waiting for the slowest ones to catch up. Let science and society experiment bottom-up with whatever might help. Have scientists and society help each other, be it to make the most of green technology we already have or to find better ways to persuade the general public to adopt a lower-emission lifestyle. Keep what works, discard what fails. Piecemeal techno-socio engineering we might call it.