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Technology: A False Messiah

"One of the reasons sometimes given for not being too alarmed by predictions of ecological disaster is that we are underrating the possibilities that will be offered by new technologies.  Thus the American economist Nancy Stokey, responding to a very detailed discussion by another American economist, William R. Cline, of the impact of climate change and the measures necessary to control it, describes Cline’s picture as "alarmist": "he makes no allowance for technical change in the next 300 years that will allow the world to cope more effectively with CO2 emissions and their climatic effects" (Lomborg 2004).

"Apart from the assumption that we have time to spare in this matter, what is startling is the appeal to ‘technical change’ in these general terms as a messianic resource. Jared Diamond (2005) notes that technical changes introduced to solve environmental problems have a spectacular record of generating fresh problems (he instances the motor car and the development of CFC gases as safe refrigerating agents).

If we simply do not know what ‘technical change’ might lie ahead and if the history of technological ‘fixes’ is so unpromising, it takes a great deal of blind faith to think that we can soften the projections of danger in this way. And if this is so, one of the areas in which we have to challenge assumptions is in this matter of reliance on technology to solve problems that are actually about human choices.

"To appeal to a technical future is to say that our most fundamental right as humans is unrestricted consumer choice. In order to defend that, we must mobilise all our resources of skill and ingenuity, diverting resource from other areas so that we can solve problems created by our own addictive behaviours. The question is whether, even if this were clearly possible (which is anything but clear; you can’t solve a challenge like this with the mere confidence that something will turn up), it would be a sane or desirable way of envisaging the human future.

"There would always be a case for putting the technical response to new crises ahead of other human needs – since we should always have to ensure we had an environment at all. But this sounds suspiciously like a recipe for perpetuating anxiety and even injustice; we ought not, surely, to be taking for granted that it is a future to be aimed at. It has been said more than once that a future of tighter technical control is also likely to be one of tighter human control. It is not as if we could simply contemplate a libertarian paradise."

- Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury

Condensed from his lecture: Ecology and Economy
University of Kent, Canterbury, 8 March 2005
© Rowan Williams 2005


Editor's Note

No discussion on this subject would be complete without mentioning the case of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), who saw his armies defeated on all fronts, yet refused to reform his morally bankrupt Third Reich because he naively believed that new "miracle" technologies such as the jet bomber, tiger tank and V-2 missile would save his fascist empire from disaster. The above photo of a V-2 missile was taken at the Imperial War Museum by Matthew L. Smith (UK).

See Diamond (2005) for additional arguments against the idea that technology alone can solve our problems.


References

Diamond J  (2005)  Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. Viking Press, USA, pages 504-506

Lomborg B  (2004)  Global crises, global solutions. Cambridge University Press, UK,  page 642

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