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Technology to the Rescue?

Bright lights
Everyone has heard the story about the climate delegate walking home from a conference, searching desperately under the streetlight for his lost keys. A passerby joins in the search, then another, and another. Finally one of them asks the man where he lost them. Tired and frustrated, he points down the road. “Then why are you looking here?” she asks. “Because this is where the light is,” he answers with confidence. Well, never mind that the story takes place in Tromsø, Norway in mid-June, when there are 24 hours of daylight.

Like the climate delegate, society at large is drawn to the bright lights of technology for solutions to its problems, even when the alternatives are clear as daylight. Technology has been the great success story of the last century, providing endless innovations and opportunities, whether in relation to food, water, health, energy or communication technologies. The problem of climate change too will be solved through technology, we reassure ourselves, either in the form of energy- and resource-efficient innovations, or through new forms of carbon capture and storage, solar radiation management or other types of geoengineering. One report after another confirms the message that technology will come to the rescue, leaving us with feelings ranging from complacency to euphoria. Huddled under this bright light, we focus our attention on the glow of technology and ignore the areas where the real keys can be found.

Why bother with alternatives?
The first question that many people ask is “why bother looking for alternatives when technology is the answer?” Without a doubt, humans are capable of innovating towards smarter, cleaner, safer, and greener solutions to most problems, including climate change. We are an incredibly creative species. At a recent meeting, I watched as one participant sat at his computer while his “double,” in the form of a robot wearing a bow tie, rolled around the room and greeted the other participants. Perhaps one day we will all send our doubles to meetings, operating them from the comfort of our homes. Unfortunately, such innovations usually come at a price.

The price is often both social and environmental. Production of even the most promising technologies requires energy and resources that come from somewhere and at the expense of someone. Some will immediately point out that the deep mining of oceans offers the potential for new resources, but this also comes at a cost. What cost? According to  UNEP, we don’t really know. Although the deep ocean may hold large quantities of untapped energy resources, precious metals and minerals, there is a surprising lack of knowledge about complexity of deep sea ecosystems, their biodiversity, and the extent of potential environmental and social impacts of mining operations.

It’s about connections
Ah, but in the cleaner, greener world, all resource extraction will be socially and environmentally friendly, or so the argument goes. Unfortunately, the cleaner, greener world is likely to work for some while being a disaster for others. That is, unless the underlying causes of risk and vulnerability are addressed at the same time. In other words, unless the very acts that dispossess people of their land and resources, deprive them of their voice and agency, and render them invisible and expendable can be transformed through acts of solidarity. This is about social and environmental policies and practices, not just technology. And here lies the key: seeing and sensing the connections.

Seeing and sensing the visible and invisible connections means looking at both the light and the shadows, paying attention to possibilities and consequences. It often means looking at things in new ways, i.e. from different perspectives.  Whereas the lure of technology tends to favor sub-systems, seeing the connections involves looking at the larger whole. This means, for example, considering the consequences of new technologies for communities, watersheds, pollinators, and future generations. ‘Technology to the rescue’ often distracts us from the messy, difficult and challenging human and social relationships, which are often tied to the lines we draw between “us” and “others,” including nature.

In short, the technology is the easy part. Humans are good at creating, innovating, and finding solutions. The hard part is to make “others” matter, to see beyond our own goals and interests, and to recognize that everything that is possible is not necessary or desirable. The hard part is personal and political, which unfortunately does not have the shining appeal of technology.

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