Technology can't fix everything: the misconceptions of ‘techno-optimism
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
It's a trap that many people have fallen into in recent years. With climate change continuing to worsen, our situation is beginning to feel increasingly dire. The modern world’s simple solution: technology.
New technology to flatten our emission curve, run our green cars and save the world, right? Maybe not. Techno-optimism is one of the greatest misconceptions when it comes to solutions to ensure our future. In reality the problems we face, such climate change, scarcity and poverty, are far more complex than just inventing a new gadget to make it all go away.
Techno-optimism can be defined as a belief which centers around the assumption that future technologies will solve all of our current problems. This definition reinforces the idea that there's no reason to panic or change our current energy-intensive lifestyle, all society needs to do is look to green technology to work its magic. Unfortunately, this is an incredibly dangerous stance to take. An in-depth 2018 paper that closely examined the relation between techno-optimism and US farmer’s attitudes towards climate change adaptation found that techno-optimism can reduce farmers’ support for climate change adaptation as well as increase their preference for delaying adaptation actions. If someone believes that we simply need a carbon dioxide vacuum to reduce our emissions, why would they be willing to give up any part of their unsustainable lifestyle?
One of the best examples of this optimistic misconception is the electric car. Despite being highly regarded as an eco-friendly way to get around, and promoted heavily by big companies like Tesla, electric cars are not the end-all be-all for the future of transport. Each battery in an electric car uses cobalt mined from the earth in areas lacking in labor laws. Electric vehicle batteries also need around 9 pounds of lithium which we could be seeing a shortage of by the mid century. While electric vehicle emissions are minuscule compared to gasoline vehicles, they are actually more energy intensive to manufacture. Techno-optimism has led many to believe that if everyone just switched to driving electric vehicles, we would be making incredible strides towards sustainability. However, the harsh reality is that the amount of resources and energy needed to manufacture enough electric vehicles for everyone is not even remotely sustainable. So where should we look for answers instead? Investing in public transportation and moving away from individually owned vehicles. Manufacturing less cars, not more. Improving recycling practices of old batteries in order to reduce the resources needed for new ones. The solutions we seek should not be rooted in new technology, it should be about changing the way our society functions.
Techno-optimism puts too much emphasis on the future and not enough on what we can do right this minute. Our modern world has already created much of the technology we need in order to become a more sustainable planet. Unfortunately, people seem to like the picture that techno-optimism paints; we can continue to go about life as long as we install solar panels, buy a Tesla and wait for the technology to start sucking our emissions up. The truth is, we need a widespread change in our lifestyles. In the Western world, studies show our rates of consumption require more resources than the Earth can even supply. We need to face the reality that despite any technology, we as a planet are not living sustainably. Although technological advances are not inherently bad, it is important to understand that the problem begins when we see those technologies as a way to make our current lifestyles eco-friendly. Until we are ready to face the need for a less complex life, we cannot make true progress towards sustainability.