Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Techno-Fixes Don't Work

The announcement by Richard Branson that he would award a $25-millon prize to the inventor of an effective carbon-sequestration technology solution to combat global warming looks--at first glance--like a terrific way to inspire innovation and tackle the climate change issue head on. At second glance, as Kelpie Wilson describes it in a Truthout article, Virgin, the Dynamo, and the Prize, it's just one more way to circumvent the root causes of the problem, as well as another example of a misguided reliance on technology to get us out of difficult jams.

From this article:

The truth is that we already have all the technology that we need to save ourselves. Most of the world does not drive cars, use air conditioning or fly in airplanes, let alone spaceships. Provide an African village with a few solar panels and they can have lights at night, and a refrigerator to store medicines. Add a satellite dish and a computer, and they have the world's knowledge and culture at their fingertips. If the environment around them is healthy, it can provide everything else they need for a good life - water, food, clothing, shelter, musical instruments and the enjoyment of nature.

The new, post-carbon civilization will require that we be open to radically new ways of living. At the same time that the industrialized world helps African villagers upgrade their lifestyles to include electric lights and computers, it needs to downgrade its own lifestyles to eliminate wasteful consumption and feel the Earth again.

But what will motivate the rich populations of the industrial world to do this? Conventional wisdom says that they will never give up their wasteful luxuries. They will embrace every techno-fix imaginable before making even the smallest sacrifices, because they feel that they have already won the prize. The prize, in fact, is their monopoly over fossil fuels and the concern is that someone - greens, Arabs, Venezuelans or Russians - will take it away. It's no accident that Daniel Yergin's definitive history of the oil industry is called The Prize.

The techno-fix solution has appeal, because it deludes us into thinking we are clever enough to control the mechanisms that make life on earth possible. A more humble approach would admit that we break more things on earth than we fix and arrogance is at the heart of our most threatening problems.