The Technological Fix

November 15, 2007

Cross-posted from my early days and feeble false-starts blogging on Prometheus

On Monday we had Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus kindly give a lecture on their new book Break Through. It was great to have them stop by, and nice to have an opportunity to get answers to questions about their book. Turnout was in the 100 range, judging by the size of the room. If you haven’t read the book yet, you can either buy it, camp out in Borders with a cup of joe, or check out a three minute overview given by Geoff McGhee and Andrew Revkin of the NY Times covering the “New Environmental Centrists.”

I want to respond to at least one of their claims, as well as a claim that appears to be circulating in the blogo-ether as what Revkin is calling the “Centrist” position, regarding the thought that we should encourage technological fixes to our problems. The reason I want to respond to this claim is both because I think it’s right; and because I think it’s, well, not right.

So let’s talk about technological fixes.

I’m something of a technology buff. I like gadgets. I like science. And I like what technology does for me and the world. I also like what came about as a result of the ramped up R&D funds during the nineties. Moreover, I’ve never been totally enthusiastic about some of the neo-luddite language that once passed as environmentalist, so I agree with Shellenberger and Nordhaus (S&N) that we should all be encouraging, funding, supporting, and promoting technologies that help our civilization and our country advance. In fact, I also agree that environmentalists should be considerably more aspirational than desperational.

S&N argue persuasively that the “politics of limits” — which is, roughly, the idea that regulation can serve as a cure-all to the world’s environmental problems — ought to be replaced with a “politics of possibility” — which is kind of hopeful thinking about new possible worlds. Their argument runs primarily along political strategy lines and is buttressed by many studies that show that Americans don’t respond well to the pessimism and “scare tactics” of environmentalism. The book’s central idea should be familiar to anyone who has read their earlier work, Death of Environmentalism. In the end, it hangs on this dichotomy of political orientations: limits versus possibility.

And in this dichotomy lies the problem. It’s a false concretism, supported mainly by S&N’s choices of what counts as an environmental issue. Much of their book is geared to address concerns that relate to climate change. That’s fine and well, of course, because climate change is one of the major hurdles that has been motivating the environmental movement for the past ten years or so. But it is also true that environmentalists have been dealing with many more problems than climate change for quite some time now. To declare the death of environmentalism, or to suggest that the positive panacea to the chicken-little environmental frame of mind is through technological and economic fixes, and that these fixes run contrary to the politics of limits, is to undermine a critical ethical thread that runs through environmental thinking altogether.

The greatest real-world instance of this thread is the relatively wide range of environmental issues that don’t fall under the category of climate change; that were, prior to Al Gore and the Prius, central environmental issues. Here I’m thinking of issues like deforestation, desertification, extinction, habitat encroachment, water depletion, and so on. Environmental issues span the gamut, and many of them deal with human activities in and around nature. These issues can never be handled by technological or economic fixes, precisely because they are not problems of technical or economic failure. Some issues, for instance, relate to the problem of urban sprawl or to overconsumption, which cannot possibly be solved by appeal to technological or economic fixes. The “over” in ‘overconsumption’ isn’t determined by what other people don’t have (though that, surely, is part of it); it’s determined by how much a person isentitled to and how much a person can reasonably use. Even Locke recognizes prohibitions against spoilage. These are primarily ethical and philosophical notions.

A second problem is that many of the classic environmental issues, among which climate change is only one, are best characterized as conflicts of interest, not just between two actors, but also between one actor and the environment. I want a cherry dining set, you want a cherry dining set, and there ain’t enough cherry growing fast enough to give us both what we want. Moreover, when I take that cherry for my cherry dining set, I deprive the world of that cherry tree. In this case, it’s not just any cherry tree; it’s that cherry tree; that cherry tree under which Harold kissed Maude, under which Abe told his truth, under which Erma held her bowl. So too for many environmental problems: I want a ski slope, so I take that mountain. I want a fountain, so I take that reservoir. I want a McMansion development, so I take that open space. Taking specific features of nature yields particularized conflicts of interest; but even more than this, particularized clashes over what is and what is not permissible. Again, permissibility is an ethical issue, only loosely and tangentially related to the so-called “politics of limits.”

What I’m expressing here isn’t at all pessimism about technology. Far from it. As I’ve said, I like and support technological innovation. I’d even root for a budget that included a lot of it. I’m hoping to point out that S&N’s “politics of limits vs politics of possibility” dichotomy has many rough edges; inattention to which heralds a premature call for the death of environmentalism.

For more on this, my colleague Michael Zimmerman, Professor in the Philosophy Department and the Environmental Studies Program, as well as an outspoken advocate of an expansively multidisciplinary approach to environmental issues, Integral Ecology, has his own new blog and has further comments on S&N here:http://integralecology-michaelz.blogspot.com/


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