Will technology save us?

Fountain with stones and wooden edge

All sensible commentators acknowledge that asking people to make big voluntary sacrifices to fight climate change is a strategy unlikely to succeed. People will fight to keep the benefits they have acquired, as well as their capacity to acquire yet more in the future. They will turf out or overthrow leaders who demand heavy sacrifices from them – especially if people in other places are not making the same ones.

If we accept that contention, we are left with a number of possible outcomes:

  1. Painless technological triumph: technological advances allow us to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations without big sacrifices in current or future standard of living.
  2. Disaster provoked changed priorities: a big and undeniably climate related cataclysm convinces people to buckle down for the sake of their own safety.
  3. Inaction with fairly benign climate change: people do little or nothing, and it turns out that climate change is not as harmful as predicted.
  4. Unmitigated disaster: people do nothing or act too late and slowly, causing global disaster.

Intermediate outcomes are clearly also possible. The differences between several of these have to do with unknown facts about the climate system. Will it throw up a few big and undeniable disasters before a slippery slope is reached? What is the actual sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gas concentration increases, once feedback and adaptive effects are included?

The first option is certainly the one most popular among politicians. Virtually everyone likes technology and progress: it creates jobs and economic growth while increasing the welfare of those already alive. What big technologies are people hoping might make the difference?

  1. Renewables: sound in theory and partially demonstrated in practice. New transmission capacity and incremental improvements in efficiency required. Potentially high land use.
  2. Biofuels: politically popular but increasingly scientifically discredited. There may be hope for cellulosic fuels.
  3. Nuclear fission: works in practice, with big non-climatic risks.
  4. Nuclear fusion: promising in theory, but nobody has made it work.
  5. More efficient machines: highly likely to occur, unlikely to be sufficient, may not cut total energy use.
  6. Carbon capture and storage: theoretically viable, undemonstrated in practice. May divert attention from technologies with longer-term potential.
  7. Geoengineering: desperate last ditch option, unlikely to work as predicted.

The question of whether climate change can be tackled without a substantial reduction in standard of living remains open. So does the question of whether climate change mitigation can be compatible with the elevation of billions in the developing world to a higher level of affluence. Given the above-stated unwillingness of anyone to undergo avoidable sacrifice, we should be hoping that technology does a lot better than expected, or some potent force changes the balance of risks and opportunities in the perception of most people.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Will technology save us?”

  1. I recently read “The Geography of Hope”, which was relentless in trying to convince the reader that “painless technological triumph” version of beating climate change, and while it did have interesting examples, overall I found it pretty annoying. I suppose I am one of the pessimistic environmentalists the book is critiquing, so that’s to be expected. (And of course, even such an optimistic tome as this one didn’t mention air travel!)

  2. Macbooks cost between five and seven times the cost of the cloudbook, and do not serve the same function. The cloudbook is lighter, more stylish, and runs a version of Ubuntu linux.

    The cloudbook has approximately the same performance as my ibook, costs 1/4 the original price, and is much smaller. Certainly it is evidence of “faster better cheaper smaller”.

  3. I’m pretty sceptical about 1 (and, indeed, 2) which presumably makes me a pessimistic environmentalist. Thusfar it seems technology is not providing the answers, both because improvements are necessary and because people are not being sensible about the using the existing technology – for instance the installation of ludicrously ineffectual micro wind generators across non-windy bits of England rather than making needed investments in infrastructure linking good offshore and onshore sites with the areas of electricity demand.
    For many people, scenaro 1 seems to be an item of faith rather than a belief founded on reasoned analysis, and this seems likely to produce substantial misjudgements.

  4. I accept the contention by the way – and it takes me back to my critique of democracy as unable to pursue the universal interest inasmuch as it diverges from the perceived interests of the masses. Because of this, China has a much better chance of becoming Carbon responsible than us.

    However, believing that technology saving us is somehow distinct from sacrifice is a mistake, it’s no better than believing in Jesus. For example, the USA goes to war to secure its oil interests, to keep oil cheap. It could choose to not pursue this kind of foreign policy, and the result would be it would have more difficulty procuring oil, the price of oil would go up, and other non oil based technologies would flourish. But this would be a sacrifice, citizens of the USA have become used to having cheap oil because of alliances as part of an interventionist foreign policy.

    My point is not the USA should have foreign policy X or Y, my point is there is no such thing as technological development as distinct from sacrifice, because subsidy already exists on the non-technological side. If we choose to divert subsidies from oil companies to non-oil companies, which is probably required for the sake of developing the technologies fast enough, this will be the kind of sacrifice that if strong enough, could get leaders turfed out.

  5. For many people, scenaro 1 seems to be an item of faith rather than a belief founded on reasoned analysis, and this seems likely to produce substantial misjudgements.

    I agree. People commonly argue that humanity has overcome all previous challenges, so all bets are that we will manage this one. The trouble is, virtually all previous problems could be addressed through affluence. More overall wealth let us live much longer and healthier lives. Climate change requires either austerity or very effective decarbonization of technology. As such, it is quite a different beast from the troubles that have presented themselves to humanity in the past.


    I agree that there will always be winners and losers from technological shifts. The issue is less whether one company or industry benefits or suffers, and more whether the overall quality of life of the population improves or worsens. In a democratic state, politicians can survive industrial reorganization, they cannot survive deep-seated public displeasure.

  6. Milan,

    Your argument is very problematically based on the notion that the interests that count in our democracy are the interests of the population overall, and not the interests of the elite, special interests, industry, etc… This is normal, the worry is that the interest of the elite might not coincide with the public interest (it certainly may – and in this case it will look as if it is the public interest which counts). This would be most fortunate.

    It is a very normal aspect of democracy that the public interest doesn’t count.

  7. On a smaller scale, there are plenty of civilizations that have already failed, at least partly because their climate changed more than they could handle. In terms of survival, it doesn’t really matter whether they did anything to cause the changes or not.

    The Easter Islanders are a clear case. The same may be true of the Maya. The same will soon be true of the Inuit.

  8. If you haven’t already done so, consider reading Jared Diamond’s “Collapse.”

  9. People commonly argue that humanity has overcome all previous challenges, so all bets are that we will manage this one. The trouble is, virtually all previous problems could be addressed through affluence.

    I give even less credence to the ‘all previous challenges’ argument which strikes me as basically identical to saying ‘all my ancestors survived to reproduce’ – it adds no information at all, because our presence evidences the survival of previous humans. Further, the successful reproduction of my ancestors doesn’t imply that I will survive to reproduce, given that lots of other people fail to do so (just as other species have gone extinct, and past civilizations have disappeared).

  10. “The extreme case [of a society experiencing technological regression], Diamond points out, is Tasmania. The Tasmanians, who were nearly exterminated by Europeans in the nineteenth century, were the most technologically primitive people in recorded history. Unlike the Aborigines on the Australian mainland, the Tasmanians had no way of making fire, no boomerangs or spear throwers, no specialized stone tools, no axes with handles, no canoes, no sewing needles, and no ability to fish. Amazingly, the archaeological record shows that their ancestors from the Australian mainland had arrived with these technologies ten thousand years before. But then the land bridge connecting Tasmania to the mainland was submerged and the island was cut off from the rest of the world. Diamond speculates that any technology can be lost from a culture a some point in its history. Perhaps a raw material came to be in short supply and people stopped making the products that depended on it. Perhaps all the skilled artisans in a generation were killed by a freak storm. Perhaps some prehistoric Luddite or ayatollah imposed a taboo on the practice for one inane reason or another. Whenever this happens in a culture that rubs up against other ones, the lost technology can eventually be reacquired as the people clamor for the higher standard of living enjoyed by their neighbours. But in lonely Tasmania, people would have had to reinvent the proverbial wheel every time it was lost, and so their standard of living ratcheted downward.”

    Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. p.69 (paperback)

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