Techno-fantasies and eco-realities

| 9th January 2019
Pixabay
What role does technology play in our ecologically sustainable future, and how do we get there?

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The potential for technological development to play a positive role in future societies has been enjoying a revival in alternative political discussions of late.

Optimistic, imaginative conceptions of the future are important, and provide a much needed source of hope and inspiration in the context of impending environmental catastrophe and the continued dominance of capitalism. They’re a welcome change from ecological perspectives that suffer from a somewhat dim view of technology and the future in general.

But these new visions can too easily mistake technology as the solution to ecological problems, rather than accompanying and supporting  broader social and political approaches.

Capitalist realism

So how can we free our imaginations from the grip of capitalist realism - the idea that capitalism is the only viable option for organising society?

How can we picture possible future worlds and the role that technology will play in them, while keeping our imagined worlds grounded in social and ecological realities?

For example, not forgetting that we are living on a planet with limited natural resources or that we have to consider how to make these imagined futures real.

Three recently written pieces explore some of these themes: “Fully Automated Green Communism” by Aaron Bastani,“Accelerationism... and Degrowth? The Left’s Strange Bedfellows” by Aaron Vansintjan and “Pulling the Magic Lever”, by Rut Elliot Blomqvist.

Initially a tongue in cheek provocation, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) has morphed into a serious proposition about how technology and automation could be used to provide for everyone’s needs and free people from the drudgery of wage labour.

Bastani’s piece attempts to counter some of the ecological critiques of the idea, arguing that FALC can be green. Instead of trying to halt the progress of technological development and reduce energy consumption, Aaron argues that we should ride the technological horse to move beyond scarcity, proposing a kind of accelerationism where technology is rapidly advanced in order to bring about radical social change.

Shared ideas

In “Accelerationism... and Degrowth? The Left’s Strange Bedfellows”, Aaron Vansintjan looks at accelerationist ideas like FALC and compares them to ‘degrowth’, evaluating the similarities and differences between the two frameworks.

Degrowth is a movement that has emerged from environmentalism and alternative economics and is focused on theorising and creating non-growth based economies and societies.

Although accelerationism and degrowth are apparently opposed, Vansinjtan finds some shared ideas, including their recognition of the need for deep, systemic change, their calls for democratisation of technology and their rejection of ‘work’ (or at least the idea that work is inherently good).

The key differences centre around accelerationism’s focus on reappropriating technology to achieve a resource-unlimited society, versus degrowth’s aim of limiting the development of certain forms of technology and staying within resource constraints.

Degrowth also seeks to slow the metabolism of society, whereas accelerationism aims to increase the pace of social change. Ultimately, while supportive of accelerationism’s inspiring vision, Vansinjtan finds it seriously lacking in dealing with ecological critiques.

Design fiction

Rut Elliot Blomqvist examines three different visions of possible future worlds and the role that technology plays in them. ‘Pulling the Magic Lever’ is a reference to how technology is used to answer social or ecological problems without explaining how it will do so: you simply ‘pull the magic lever’ of technology and hey presto, it’s all solved. It’s a running theme in all three of the imagined futures Blomqvist chooses to analyse.

The first is in The World We Made, a novel by environmentalist Jonathon Porrit, then The Venus Project, a technology based political proposition, and finally Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In their analysis, Blomqvist uses a World Systems Theory approach to evaluate the ideas, critiquing the story of modernisation by framing it around colonialism.

The World We Made is based on Design Fiction, where fiction inspires possibilities of new designs. It sees the human species in general as the villain responsible for destroying the environment. In the novel’s fantasy scenario, however, humans manage to turn things around and start to use technology and various existing world institutions for the common good.

As Elliot points out, this book flags up an important discussion around the idea of the ‘anthropocene’ (a proposed name for a new human-affected geological epoch), which may support the view that the human species in general is the problem, rather than certain humans or, say, a capitalist growth-based economy. They also describe the book’s tendency towards technological optimism: it presents technology as providing the answers, without explaining how, and ignores the socio-cultural-political reasons for current ecological destruction.

The Venus Project is found to be even further along the techno-optimist spectrum and again ignores how its proposed technological utopia might be brought into existence. As well as highlighting its fetishisation of the scientific process, Elliot explains how The Venus Project often engenders conspiracy theories, a number of which are dangerously close to anti-Semitism.

Non-capitalist automation 

Continuing the trend, FALC is found to involve similar techno-utopianism, where the working classes seize the means of production and use automation to create a world of plenty.

Elliot points to a blind spot, as FALC doesn’t consider the limits of post-industrialism beyond the western world. Elliot describes how all three rely heavily on ‘pulling the magic lever’, and while they show imagination, they are also limited by the fossil-fuelled mentality they seek to criticise.

To finish, here are a few general questions reflecting on these discussions around technology and the role it might play in future ecologically sustainable societies.

The role of human agency is often missing in visions of techno utopias, so how can control of and production of technology be changed, how will these imagined futures be made real? How can technology’s potential within the ecological and degrowth movements be highlighted and developed, promoting positive future visions and countering environmentalism’s ‘hair shirt’ image?

Should it be assumed that technologies will inevitably be developed, or should certain developments be hindered or prevented, and if so, how? For example, can we change the basis on which automation takes places and is implemented? Is non-capitalist automation possible, and if so, do we want it? How could it be made non-capitalist?

Finally, instead of being seen as competing positions, how can ecological and technologically based visions of the future back together?

This Author 

Corporate Watch is a not-for-profit co-operative providing critical information on the social and environmental impacts of corporations and capitalism. Since 1996 our research, journalism, analysis and training have supported people affected by corporations and those taking action for radical social change.

Corporate Watch is currently working on a technology project, if you are interested in knowing more or collaborating on future work, please email contact@corporatewatch.org.

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