TOPIC GUIDE: Technology and the environment

"Technological progress will not solve society’s environmental issues"

PUBLISHED: 10 Jun 2016

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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Arguably, climate change, and the environmental problems that will occur as a result, are the most pressing issues that mankind faces. The Paris climate change summit last year was hailed as a momentous deal, in which countries pledged, among other things, to cap emissions, and seek to limit temperature rises to 1.5C – below the 2C which most accept would be disastrous for the planet [Ref: Guardian]. However despite this, debate still rages about whether this is enough to combat climate change, and if, reductions, caps and restrictions are the path that we should be following at all. Indeed, there are some that argue that we need far more radical thinking, and that even if, “we had found cheap renewable energy technologies that could gradually replace all of the world’s coal plants…it still wouldn’t have solved climate change.” [Ref: Spectrum] As such, they argue that radical new technological means of producing and storing energy, as well as carbon capture and storage for example – disruptive technologies which change the energy and environmental landscape totally, are what is needed. For these advocates of technological innovation, cutting emissions, and changing our lifestyles is not the answer. That said, others are not convinced. Instead, they are critical of those who put their faith in technology and innovation as the answer to our environmental problems, with one commentator noting that this amounts to, “an alibi for excess”, going on to state that: “We have placed our faith in something called progress, in the untestable belief that things will always get better.” [Ref: Guardian] So, should we embrace the promise of technological innovation to solve society’s environmental issues? Or in doing so, do we ignore the fact that we are responsible for the behaviour change that society needs to tackle climate change?

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Technology and the environment DEBATE IN CONTEXT

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The climate change conundrum
Central to the debate about climate change, is the discussion about how best to reduce it, or halt its progress altogether; through reductions and behaviour change, or through technology and innovation. Many now suggest that despite attempts at finding political solutions through international agreements, it is highly unlikely that these methods will reap meaningful rewards going forward. For instance, economist and commentator Will Hutton observes that in the midst of the discussion on climate change, rapidly developing countries such as India want the same opportunities to grow their economies as Western countries did during industrialisation, and will continue to burn coal unless there are alternatives that are as cost effective [Ref: Guardian]. As such, he adds that: “Prime Minister Modi is clear: if the choice is between poverty and climate change, India will choose the latter”, and so it is obvious that: “It will be innovation that will save the planet. This is the blistering truth that should be written in neon in the skies” [Ref: Guardian]. However, others are critical of this approach, and accuse its proponents of attempting to have their cake and eat it. They argue that we cannot continue to live the way that we do, and that it is our attitude towards growth and progress, and its impact on the environment that needs to change, as environmentalist George Monbiot suggests: “We seem unable to face the fact that our utopia is also our dystopia; that production appears to be indistinguishable from destruction.” [Ref: Guardian]

Is technological progress the answer?
For advocates: “It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems with technology; we can. We must.” [Ref: Technology Review] And outlining the technological argument, science writer Leigh Phillips notes that: “Through technological advance, we can use less of something to produce the same amount, or replace one raw material with another. We didn’t ‘run out’ of whale blubber. We replaced it with kerosene.” [Ref: Guardian] Moreover, in light of the fact that 2015 is likely to have gone down as the hottest year since 1880, and with the attempts to move to renewable energy barely reducing carbon dioxide emissions [Ref: Economist], supporters of technology and innovation claim that global warming cannot be dealt with using todays tools and mindset, and suggest that we need to create some new ones. From this perspective, humans have the potential to solve climate and environmental problems through technology and progress, as an Economist editorial argues: “The climate is changing because of extraordinary inventions like the steam turbine and internal combustion engine. The best way to cope is to keep inventing.” [Ref: Economist] In this way, they dismiss environmentalist arguments, which suggest, “that the best way to save the planet is to curtail human activity, whether in the form of breeding, building, burning or business” [Ref: Telegraph], and instead posit the idea that the answer is not retreat and de-modernisation, but innovation and radical solutions. Ideas such as geoengineering [Ref: BBC News], which involves modifying the Earth’s environment, are being researched – with Dubai currently looking to build an artificial mountain to increase rainfall to combat drought [Ref: New Scientist]. Others suggest that: “Our society needs to fund scientists and engineers to propose new ideas, fail quickly, and share what they learn” [Ref: Spectrum], and argue that R&D needs to be properly financed, with more onus placed on funding radical ‘disruptive’ [Ref: Wikipedia] projects which may have the potential to solve our environmental problems. This is because: “There are, no doubt, all manner of unpredictable inventions that are possible…if imagination, science, and engineering run wild.” [Ref: Spectrum]

Less is more? The environmental case
Professor Clive Hamilton laments the notion that technological fixes can solve environmental problems, and suggests that the real reason why some are wedded to them, is because it allows us to believe that nothing needs to change. He says that: “Technofixes – technical solutions to social problems – are appealing when we are unwilling to change ourselves and our social institutions” [Ref: Scientific American], and argues that it is profound behavioural change that is needed instead of the, “unbridled techno-industrialism”, which illustrates “our unwillingness to change the way we live.” [Ref: Scientific American] Furthermore, critics of technological fixes are suspicious of the idea posited by some Ecomodernists [Ref: Wikipedia] – that our actions, and modernity per se, are not the problem, and claim that these assertions represent, “an illusion, created by the irrational accounting of our environmental impacts.” [Ref: Guardian] A key argument for opponents of technological answers to climate change, is that we need to be realistic about what we can hope to do, because innovations that are put forward are often, “emerging technologies, that are barely proven, yet to be successfully commercialised, or downright illusory.” [Ref: MIT Technology Review] In a similar vein, further interrogating the argument that technology holds all of the answers, one writer opines that: “Climate change is an energy problem. Burning fossil fuels to produce electricity or heat is responsible for roughly half of global warming pollution…Changes are required not just in technology, but also in people’s behaviour.” [Ref: Scientific American] Opponents also note that in this debate, technology is often used as a smokescreen for politicians to hide behind, allowing them to postpone making unpopular decisions that will actually help lower CO2 emissions. As George Monbiot argues: “Governments urge us to both consume more and to preserve more. We must extract more fossil fuel from the ground, but burn less of it…These policies are irreconcilable.” [Ref: Guardian] With these arguments in mind, where does the balance lie? Are critics right that the key to combatting environmental issues is behaviour change on a global scale, which may mean that aspects of life in industrial countries may have to change? Or should we put our faith in radical, new technologies, and innovation, because: “The end is not nigh, and we do not need to rein in industrial society. If anything, we must accelerate our modernity.” [Ref: Guardian]


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Magical thinking about progress won’t save planet Earth

Giles Fraser Guardian 17 December 2015

Consume more, conserve more: sorry, but we just can’t do both

George Monbiot Guardian 24 November 2015

Geoengineering is not a solution to climate change

Clive Hamilton Scientific American 10 March 2015

How to solve global warming: It’s the energy supply

David Biello Scientific American 13 April 2014


Clear thinking needed

Economist 28 November 2015

Why eco-austerity won’t save us from climate change

Leigh Phillips Guardian 4 November 2015

What it would really take to reverse climate change

Ross Koningstein & David Fork Spectrum 14 November 2014


Why we can’t solve big problems: Has technology failed us?

Jason Pontin MIT Technology Review 24 October 2012


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Fake mountains to make it rain? Its last gasp geoengineering

Jamais Cascio New Scientist 13 May 2016

Trying to save the planet one light bulb at a time

Mark Gilbert Japan Times 3 May 2016

Meet the Google Exec trying to save the planet

Lisa Eadicicco Time Magazine 15 April 2016

Paris climate agreement rests on shaky technological foundations

Richard Martin MIT Technology Review 15 December 2015

Can new energy technology save the planet?

Eric Niller Discovery 1 December 2015

Economic growth is the key to saving the planet

Owen Paterson Telegraph 20 September 2015

Dark thoughts on Eco-modernism

Chris Smaje Dark Mountain 12 August 2015

Can technology save the world? Experts disagree

Claire Cain Miller New York Times 2 May 2014

The overpopulation myth

Fred Pearce Prospect Magazine March 2010

Climate technologies: a leap into the unknown

Oscar Reyes Red Pepper December 2009

Engineering our climate

Royal Geographic Society

An ecomodernist manifesto


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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