Beyond technofix

| 9th June 2008
On 12 January, chief scientific adviser Sir David King told the Guardian, ‘any approach that does not focus on technological solutions to climate change – including nuclear power – is one of “utter hopelessness”.’

It is useful to have this view so succinctly stated, because it is nearly the reverse of the position I will be exploring in this column, which is that there is an overwhelming need for non-technological responses to our global environmental crisis.

In Dr King’s view, climate change is caused by technology and so must have a technical solution. To me this is a blindingly superficial framing of the situation. It’s not just climate change that threatens us, but depletion of resources including oil, fresh water and minerals (ranging from antimony to zinc, and including, significantly, uranium); as well as destruction of habitat and accelerating biodiversity loss, which is exacerbated by climate change, but also happens for other anthropogenic reasons. In essence, there are too many of us using too much too fast.

The problem is not merely technological; it is cultural in the deepest sense. Climate change is a side effect of fossil fuel consumption, and has emerged as the most critical symptom of a growth binge founded on a temporary subsidy of cheap hydrocarbon energy. But unless we address the core of the problem, other symptoms will soon overwhelm us.

Addressing the problem means letting go of growth and engaging in a period of controlled societal contraction. For anyone who understands the basics of ecology – the relationships between population, resources and carrying capacity – nothing could be clearer. But for those who see only technical problems with technical solutions, the forest remains lost behind a single tree.

To be sure: minimally polluting technologies must be part of our response to climate change, but just as important are changes in attitudes, habits and expectations. A fundamental reworking of economic institutions and policies is more essential still, so endless growth ceases to be seen as good or even possible.

Some say climate change is so serious we must use any means at our disposal – including nuclear power – to address it. But there is no way we can substitute alternative sources of energy – including nuclear – for fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions as much and as quickly as we must, unless we also reduce overall consumption. We have to downsize and re-localise our economies, and so culture change is indispensable.

King says environmentalists are keen to take society back to the 18th century. A fairer formulation of many views is this: unless we use technology within the context of a controlled, planned, sustained period of economic contraction, we will see a chaotic, depletion-led societal collapse that could make the 18th century look like Paradise.

Once one accepts this larger framing of the situation, a whole world of possibilities opens up, one that is far from hopeless and that engages human responsibility, creativity and community. It is characterised by cultural maturity, rather than the advertising-fuelled infantile attitude that assumes the world exists only to supply human wants. It is the world of post-carbon living toward which millions of citizens are beginning to transition.

Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and author of The Party’s Over, Powerdown, The Oil Depletion Protocol and Peak Everything

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2008

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