Imagine a future where clean energy is abundant and widely accessible, healthy food is available to anyone who needs it and anything can be manufactured at will with minimal environmental impact. Reaching this utopia might take time, but we will get there as long as we keep innovating and our technologies keep improving. This is what techno-optimists will say to you. They will claim that the impacts of technology on society are overwhelmingly positive, and that innovation allows mankind to make unthinkable economic, political, social and cultural progress. But who are these techno-optimists? Are the implications of innovation always so black-and-white? And most importantly, will technology and techno-optimism alone be enough to save us?
Climate change and environmental degradation, like all existential crises, present challenges that require innovation to resolve. We need to come up with the technology that can replace fossil fuels with clean energy sources, that can make methods of food production more efficient and that can move us and our commodities around the world without burning petroleum or coal. We need solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, biofuels and plant-based meat substitutes. This much, at least, is clear.
But how do we get to a point where better technology could improve all of our lives? Of course, the costs of renewables are falling fast, modern-day battery storage capacity is growing tremendously and artificial intelligence and machine learning will improve the efficiency of our systems and economies in ways that border on science fiction. Implementing these technologies on a mass scale, however, takes time, and not everyone is assured a seat at the newly set table when innovation reshapes global economies and culture.
But in the techno-optimist view, new technologies are always tantalisingly close and their benefits will far outweigh the costs. All that remains to do is for governments to embrace progress and implement at scale. For the techno-optimist, only innovation can help solve the problems and inevitable consequences of human advancement.
But here is where the ethics of innovation are called into question, especially where climate change solutions are concerned. Climate change emboldens techno-optimism, because what rational person would be opposed to innovation in times of such an urgent crisis? But technology is only a part of the puzzle, and can at best present a simple stopgap measure if we are unable to change our lifestyles to live more sustainably.
New technologies can help in this regard, as they have the potential to transform economies and lifestyles, but considering the profiles of these modern techno-optimists, will this transformation be equitable? The modern champions of technology and innovation are mostly wealthy techno-enthusiasts and self-proclaimed philanthropists. These individuals already direct most of our societies and economies through their multinationals and political influence, and are expected to use this influence to exert their techno-optimistic vision on the world’s response climate change. But is granting so much power to such a small group of individuals really advisable?
Techno-Optimism: Technology & Disruption
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schnellinger are co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research group advocating for technological solutions to climate change, and explain their self-described ecomodernist view as follows:
“The solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and has always been, more modernity– just as the solution to the unintended consequences of our technologies has always been more technology.”
But how realistic is it to actually implement these seemingly wondrous inventions, and how many people could be left behind? New technologies are often accompanied by a wave of unequally distributed economic turmoil that can be widely disruptive. Innovation can radically transform the ways people live their lives, but history tells us that this change is not always for the better.
The advent of internal combustion engines and mass-produced, affordable automobiles at the turn of the 19th century is a popular example of this, as these innovations disrupted and largely replaced what had been the primary mode of transportation for humans for all of recorded history: the horse.
Cars that were affordable to the general public radically transformed the ways that we live our lives. We are now able to move around with an ease that would have been inconceivable 150 years ago. The ability to commute further away means we have more options of where to live, where to work and what to buy. These are undeniably positive outcomes from a technologically-induced economic disruption.
But automobiles didn’t only replace horses- they heralded the end of an entire peripheral economy that only existed because pretty much everyone had a horse at home to take care of. Carriage manufacturers, groomers, coachmen, feed salesmen, stable keepers, horse breeders, street cleaners and farmers who grew grain and hay are just some former professions that were mostly discontinued when a disruptive new technology came along.
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Image 1: Photograph of horse-drawn streetcars and carriages in downtown Manhattan, New York City in 1888.
When automobiles became widespread, many people lost their jobs, and many more struggled to get by. The wave of economic disruption currently sweeping the globe promises to be much of the same. The innovations that techno-optimists claim can save us from the climate crisis- clean energy, artificial intelligence and automation to name a few- may prove to be the biggest disruptors in human history, and will radically change our way of life.
There is no reason to believe that things will be worse on the other side, but some people will fare much worse than others for the sake of advancement. Techno-optimists find it easy to discount the ethics of innovation, citing the existential nature of climate change and the urgent need for solutions, but when we see who these techno-optimists of today really are, it becomes abundantly clear that they are not the ones who will have to pay a price.
The Philanthropic Techno-Optimist
Today’s climate change techno-optimists are easy to identify, given how unreserved they are in publicly professing their beliefs. But the modern brand of believers in technology are not only advocates, they are shareholders. This ultra-wealthy band of futurist thinkers and investors is seemingly growing by the day, as more and more billionaires see a philanthropic plan to counter climate change as a must-have for their portfolios.
Think of figures like Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. Insanely wealthy, powerful and influential individuals who have built their careers on technology, and now see climate change as the next crisis to be resolved by innovation. The techno-optimists of today paint themselves as philanthropic figures, coated in altruism, foresight and, for some, a deep saviourism complex.
These individuals, and others like them, are arguably among the most powerful people on the planet. Their ideas on how they think the world should work are deeply influential, and most of these ultra-billionaires have expressed a dedication to employ their vast wealth to contribute to the fight against climate change.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, created a fund worth USD$10 billion in 2020 that supports both for-profit and not-for-profit organisations in their efforts to uncover novel climate change solutions. Elon Musk, CEO of electric vehicle giant Tesla and several other tech companies, donated a total $100 million in prize money to the XPrize tech competition in 2021, which is intended to encourage innovations in carbon removal technology. Bill Gates, founder and CEO of Microsoft and one of the first modern techno-optimists, created a climate venture fund that invests in fringe clean energy technologies, which raised a total $2 billion as of 2021 across multiple rounds of funding.
The techno-optimist billionaires almost seem to be competing with each other on who can donate the most money towards innovations that can counter climate change. But even a passing glance at these individuals’ net worths reveals that their philanthropy is not as generous as advertised.
As of May 2021, Elon Musk’s net worth was $165.7 billion, so his $100 million contribution to the XPrize fund accounted for only 0.06% of his wealth. Jeff Bezos’ net worth surpassed $200 billion in 2020, although his climate fund is estimated to account for less than 8% of his personal wealth. Bezos’ purported philanthropy has also come under fire after his wealth increased by $86 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic, a period during which he cut the health benefits of nearly 2 000 workers to save what he would make in around six hours.
Climate philanthropy is controversial for a number of reasons. Billionaires, who overwhelmingly lead the world in per capita emissions, may donate to greenwash themselves or their company’s image. Amazon, for instance, emitted 51.17 million metric tonnes of CO2 in 2020, a 15% increase from 2018 levels and the equivalent of running 13 coal burning power plants in a year, but stock value rose nonetheless when the company announced a net-zero pledge in 2021.
Figure 1: Carbon emissions growth 1990-2015 by population income group; Oxfam; 2020.
Wealthy individuals also often receive generous tax breaks as a result of their philanthropy, robbing governments of funds to implement climate change programmes themselves. This is problematic because it leads to a more undemocratic approach to combating climate change, one which is led by wealthy individuals who cannot be held accountable instead of democratically elected governments.
And this brings us to what is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of modern climate philanthropy- we are handing over a tremendous amount of agency to billionaires, who are motivated purely by their own self-interest and are increasingly able to impose their techno-optimist view upon the world.
Philanthropy has clearly brought huge benefits for humankind. Thanks in part to Bill Gates and his foundation, 2.5 billion children were able to receive vaccines against polio, leading to cases falling by 99.9% between 1988 and 2017. But, having a single powerful individual deciding where to allocate funds can lead to less-than-ideal outcomes when the financier focuses on issues that local groups may not consider priorities. Gates’ failed educational philanthropy in the early 2010s is a clear example of this, as his fixation on blanket targets concerning class size diverted public spending away from the actual priorities of local communities.
The degree of influence that billionaire philanthropists have in the world today is frankly unsettling, as their interests and beliefs have a direct impact on people’s lives. Throughout most of 2021, the major global news story has been how to get COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of people in poor countries that cannot afford to stockpile jabs. While there are many logistical and manufacturing challenges to inoculating people in the developing world, a major roadblock has been a refusal by medicinal monopolists to waive intellectual property rights for control over vaccines, their manufacturing and their potential markets, an effort that has been spearheaded by none other than Bill Gates.
Why does Bill Gates get to decide on everything related to global health? Why does Elon Musk get to decide on everything related to electric cars and space travel? As a society, it appears that we have accepted ceding control to an ultra-wealthy and exclusive class of unelected individuals, who are normally motivated by capitalist and pro-market interests.
Philanthropic behaviour from billionaires sounds like a good thing, but it is increasingly clear that it is just another arm of influence being extended by individuals who are already the most powerful people in the world. And when it comes to climate change, it should be expected that these individuals will push through the most capitalist solution available: incentivising private firms to compete with each other over monopolising new technologies, regardless of whether or not those technologies are actually necessary.
A Techno-Optimist World
If the techno-optimists were to have their way, what would the world look like, and what would the proposed climate change solutions be?
Here, it is perhaps best to understand the policies advocated for by the aforementioned Breakthrough Institute, possibly the most well known environmental think tank that promotes technological solutions to environmental problems. The institute has in the past touted some controversial solutions to climate change, all of which are rooted in technology and the potential of innovation, including advanced nuclear, natural gas and geoengineering.
None of the work that the BTI is doing is necessarily in bad faith, but promoting technological solutions to problems that require a concerted shift in how societies and economies are organised is a slippery slope. The appeal of innovation’s potential can make it easy for wealthy groups and financiers to put money into fringe and unproven technological ‘fixes’.
Many tech-enthusiast billionaires are enamoured with carbon capture technologies, a stopgap measure at best. Just as many finance new and expensive nuclear energy projects. Jeff Bezos created an energy startup to hopefully demonstrate the commercial viability of semi-mythical nuclear fusion energy. Bill Gates has publicly backed unproven cloud seeding and solar geoengineering experiments. And with perhaps the most over-the-top technological fix of all, Elon Musk wants to place a permanent colony of 1 million people on Mars by 2050 so that humanity can survive future inescapable threats, such as climate change.
Most of these technological fixes are not necessarily undesirable. If we could crack the code of nuclear fusion, for instance, we would have the literal power of stars in our hands, and be able to generate enough clean energy to supply all of humanity’s needs and more for generations to come. Unfortunately, commercially viable fusion technology is still decades away at least, and that is if it’s even achievable in the first place. Other technologies such as carbon capture and geoengineering also deserve to be researched and understood, but they should not be implemented at scale while so much uncertainty remains over their potentially disastrous consequences.
Even Elon Musk’s dreams of colonising the Red Planet should not be discarded. Overcoming the hurdles to becoming an interplanetary species would be a defining moment and achievement not only for science, but for humanity as a whole. But Musk’s desire to go to Mars does not come from a place of earnest curiosity for humanity to explore the solar system, or because the expedition could yield scientific discoveries that would hugely benefit our entire species. Musk wants to go to Mars simply because he believes he can, and because he believes that he has the right to do so. The fact that his reasoning is rooted in a belief that the Earth is inevitably doomed is quite telling.
Focusing on these fixes would be only marginally concerning, even harmless, if the individuals purveying them did not wield such influence in global affairs. They detract resources from both the public and private sector that could be directed towards implementing technologies that exist and have already been proven to work at scale, such as renewable energy and battery storage. And given that billionaire philanthropy is the main financing mechanism for the NGOs and startups that are actually getting the work done on the ground, those who rely on their funding are reluctant to criticise or push back against the billionaires’ techno-optimist worldview.
More importantly, the idolatry that has been granted to futurist thinkers like Gates and Musk means that they have substantial sway over public opinion. The techno-optimist views espoused by these individuals feed public support for technologies and solutions that, frankly, we don’t need and represent a waste of time and money. The result is a stymying of the political willpower needed to enact the policies that would create real changes. Throwing money at hopeful innovations to maintain our current standards of living gets us nowhere; we need to adjust our economies to have them function more efficiently, and each human being needs to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.
An inescapable quirk of technological fixes is the implication that adopting them will allow us to retain our lifestyles without having to sacrifice unsustainable behaviours. This is a big reason as to why the billionaire class is overwhelmingly techno-optimist, as they are the ones who benefit the most from maintaining the status quo. But climate change will not be resolved by quick fixes. Billionaire philanthropy and a reliance on innovation comes at the expense of a democratic social transformation towards efficiency and sustainability that is needed to adequately address climate change and the ecological crisis.
True climate action will not be funded by billionaires and their technological fixes, because the world they live in that allows them to accrue such wealth is the very one that is playing a disproportionate role in causing the climate crisis. New technologies might be flashier and easier for the public to get excited about, but real change will only come when people collectively realise the urgency of the crisis, and decide to face it as a unified movement.
Policies, including regulation and taxation of the ultra-wealthy, are necessary. Research suggests that the more unequal a society, the greater its ecological footprint, mainly because lower-income groups feel pressured to consume and accrue more in order to catch up. The ultra-billionaires of today embody this inequality, and new technology and philanthropy are measurably less effective measures to lower emissions than progressive tax schemes on the wealthy and reducing inequality are. Reducing socioeconomic inequality and engaging citizens in a coordinated effort is what has to be done if we want to democratise our response to climate change, and achieve the transformational change we need.
Featured image by: Flickr