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Can Technology solve the world's problems?

Modern societies are struggling how to cope with an ever faster succession of innovations as well as major challenges such as climate change. In an increasingly polarized world, the two groups that are at the outer ends of the ideological spectrum on how to give shape to this process, are becoming ever more vocal.

On the one side, there are those who have an unwavering trust in rationality, emphasize the positive aspects of modernity, and expect that technology will come up with an answer to problems that now seem insurmountable. In the climate change debate this kind of techno-optimism is represented by ecomodernists. Introducing the concept of ecomodernist citizenship, Jonathan Symons and Rasmus Karlsson have argued that this concept is relevant as it emphasises citizens’ rights to a habitable environment. An important element in their work, however, is their plea for radically improved technologies to maintain our current levels of mobility and consumption without irredeemably damaging the environment. Although ecomodernism “ascribes a central role to publicly funded innovation in steering technological change towards socially desirable objectives” and is therefore not a necessarily a free market ideology, it still relies on the assumption that individuals will not have to change their individual behaviour and that technological innovations will allow us to maintain our consumption patterns while at the same time prevent an ecological disaster from taking place.

This position, which often but not necessarily overlaps with neoliberal thinking, contrasts sharply with those on the other side of the spectrum, namely those who claim that “growth can’t be green”. This phrase is by anthropologist Jason Hickel, a key critic of the idea that modernity and globalization have led to more equality and less poverty, among many other benefits associated with neoliberalism. As wealth in our era is only measured in financial terms, in other words as a result of market transactions in the formal economy, Hickel argues that current calculations lead to a serious underestimation of wealth in premodern times, when people inhabited a world of closer family ties, lower levels of uprootedness and subsistence farming in an informal economy. In a long rebuttal of claims made by Steven Pinker and Bill Gates that neoliberal capitalism is responsible for driving the most substantial gains against global poverty, Hickel shows that “the imposition of neoliberal capitalism from 1980 to 2000 made the poverty rate worse, not better”. As he also claims that our capacity to end poverty has increased many times faster than the proportional poverty rate has decreased, we are in fact doing worse than ever before and are consequently regressing as a civilization. Hickel essentially comes to same conclusion as regards our ecological system: soil depletion, deforestation, the collapse of fish stocks and insect populations will not come to a halt by the “green growth” advocated by neoliberal capitalism, only by less consumption.

In short, while Hickel’s position is of an ethical and political nature (asking the “why” question), techno-optimists and ecomodernists seem to remain stuck in the “what” and “how” question and also neglect that while scientific insights may be cumulative and irreversible, the domain of ethics and politics is not. If our civilization is indeed regressing in certain domains, Hickel’s work is an urgent reminder that more may be needed than a technical approach to overcome the challenges of today.

Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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