Techno-Utopian Visions Will Not Save Us

This is the fourth part in the series. In the previous essays, we have explored the need for a collapse, the relationship between a Dyson sphere and overcomsumption, and our blind pursuit for ‘progress.’ In this piece, Elisabeth describes how the Dyson sphere is an extension of the drive for so-called “green energy.”

By Elisabeth Robson

Techno-utopians imagine the human population on Earth can be saved from collapse using energy collected with a Dyson Sphere–a vast solar array surrounding the sun and funneling energy back to Earth–to build and power space ships. In these ships, we’ll leave the polluted and devastated Earth behind to venture into space and populate the solar system. Such a fantasy is outlined in Deforestation and world population sustainability: a quantitative analysis” and is a story worthy of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. It says, in so many words: we’ve trashed this planet, so let’s go find another one.

In their report, Mauro Bologna and Gerardo Aquino present a model that shows, with continued population growth and deforestation at current rates, we have a less than 10% chance of avoiding catastrophic collapse of civilization within the next few decades. Some argue that a deliberate and well-managed collapse would be better than the alternatives. Bologna and Aquino present two potential solutions to this situation. One is to develop the Dyson Sphere technology we can use to escape the bonds of our home planet and populate the solar system. The other is to change the way we (that is, those of us living in industrial and consumer society) live on this planet into a ‘cultural society’, one not driven primarily by economy and consumption, in order to sustain the population here on Earth.

The authors acknowledge that the idea of using a Dyson Sphere to provide all the energy we need to populate the solar system is unrealistic, especially in the timeframe to avoid collapse that’s demonstrated by their own work. They suggest that any attempt to develop such technology, whether to “live in extraterrestrial space or develop any other way to sustain population of the planet” will take too long given current rates of deforestation. As Salonika describes in an earlier article in this series, A Dyson Sphere will not stop collapse“, any attempt to create such a fantastical technology would only increase the exploitation of the environment.

Technology makes things worse

The authors rightly acknowledge this point, noting that “higher technological level leads to growing population and higher forest consumption.” Attempts to develop the more advanced technology humanity believes is required to prevent collapse will simply speed up the timeframe to collapse. However, the authors then contradict themselves and veer back into fantasy land when they suggest that higher technological levels can enable “more effective use of resources” and can therefore lead, in principle, to “technological solutions to prevent the ecological collapse of the planet.”

Techno-utopians often fail to notice that we have the population we do on Earth precisely because we have used technology to increase the effectiveness (and efficiency) of fossil fuels and other resources* (forests, metals, minerals, water, land, fish, etc.). Each time we increase ‘effective use’ of these resources by developing new technology, the result is an increase in resource use that drives an increase in population and development, along with the pollution and ecocide that accompanies that development. The agricultural ‘green revolution’ is a perfect example of this: advances in technology enabled new high-yield cereals as well as new fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, and mechanization, all of which prevented widespread famine, but also contributed to an ongoing explosion in population, development, chemical use, deforestation, land degradation and salinization, water pollution, top soil loss, and biodiversity loss around the world.

As economist William Stanley Jevons predicted in 1865, increasing energy efficiency with advances in technology leads to more energy use. Extrapolating from his well-proved prediction, it should be obvious that new technology will not prevent ecological collapse; in fact, such technology is much more likely to exacerbate it.

This mistaken belief that new technology can save us from collapse pervades the policies and projects of governments around the world.

Projects like the Green New Deal, the Democrat Party’s recently published climate plan, and the UN’s sustainable development goals and IPCC recommendations. All these projects advocate for global development and adoption of ‘clean technology’ and ‘clean industry’ (I’m not sure what those terms mean, myself); ’emissions-free’ energy technologies like solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower; and climate change mitigation technologies like carbon capture and storage, smart grids, artificial intelligence, and geo-engineering. They tout massive growth in renewable energy production from wind and solar, and boast about how efficient and inexpensive these technologies have become, implying that all will be well if we just keep innovating new technologies on our well worn path of progress.

Miles and miles of solar panels, twinkling like artificial lakes in the middle of deserts and fields; row upon row of wind turbines, huge white metal beasts turning wind into electricity, and mountain tops and prairies into wasteland; massive concrete dams choking rivers to death to store what we used to call water, now mere embodied energy stored to create electrons when we need them–the techno-utopians claim these so-called clean’ technologies can replace the black gold of our present fantasies–fossil fuels–and save us from ourselves with futuristic electric fantasies instead.

All these visions are equally implausible in their capacity to save us from collapse.

And while solar panels, wind turbines, and dams are real, in the sense that they exist–unlike the Dyson Sphere–all equally embody the utter failure of imagination we humans seem unable to transcend. Some will scoff at my dismissal of these electric visions, and say that imagining and inventing new technologies is the pinnacle of human achievement. With such framing, the techno-utopians have convinced themselves that creating new technologies to solve the problems of old technologies is progress. This time it will be different, they promise.

And yet if you look at the graph of global primary energy consumption:

it should be obvious to any sensible person that new, so-called ‘clean’ energy-producing technologies are only adding to that upward curve of the graph, and are not replacing fossil fuels in any meaningful way. Previous research has shown that “total national [US] energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-quarter of a unit of fossil-fuel energy use and, focussing specifically on electricity, each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.”

In part, this is due to the fossil fuel energy required to mine, refine, manufacture, install, maintain, and properly dispose of materials used to make renewable and climate mitigation technologies. Mining is the most destructive human activity on the planet, and a recent University of Queensland study found that mining the minerals and metals required for renewable energy technology could threaten biodiversity more than climate change. However, those who use the word “clean” to describe these technologies conveniently forget to mention these problems.

Wind turbines and solar arrays are getting so cheap; they are being built to reduce the cost of the energy required to frack gas: thus, the black snake eats its own tail. “Solar panels are starting to die, leaving behind toxic trash”, a recent headline blares, above an article that makes no suggestion that perhaps it’s time to cut back a little on energy use. Because they cannot be recycled, most wind turbine blades end up in landfill, where they will contaminate the soil and ground water long after humanity is a distant memory. Forests in the southeast and northwest of the United States are being decimated for high-tech biomass production because of a loophole in EU carbon budget policy that counts biomass as renewable and emissions free. Dams have killed the rivers in the US Pacific Northwest, and salmon populations are collapsing as a result. I could go on.

The lies we tell ourselves

Just like the Dyson Sphere, these and other technologies we fantasize will save our way of life from collapse are delusions on a grand scale. The governor of my own US state of Washington boasts about how this state’s abundant “clean” hydropower energy will help us create a “clean” economy, while at the same time he fusses about the imminent extinction of the salmon-dependent Southern Resident Orca whales. I wonder: does he not see the contradiction, or is he willfully blind to his own hypocrisy?

The face of the Earth is a record of human sins (1), a ledger written in concrete and steel; the Earth twisted into skyscrapers and bridges, plows and combines, solar panels and wind turbines, mines and missing mountains; with ink made from chemical waste and nuclear contamination, plastic and the dead bodies of trees. The skies, too, tell our most recent story. Once source of inspiration and mythic tales, in the skies we now see airplanes and contrails, space junk and satellites we might once have mistaken for shooting stars, but can no longer because there are so many; with vision obscured by layers of too much PM2.5 and CO2 and NOx and SO2 and ozone and benzene. In the dreams of techno-utopians, we see space ships leaving a rotting, smoking Earth behind.

One of many tales of our Earthly sins is deforestation.

As the saying goes, forests precede us, and deserts follow; Mauro Bologna and Gerardo Aquino chose a good metric for understanding and measuring our time left on Earth. Without forests, there is no rain and the middles of continents become deserts. It is said the Middle East, a vast area we now think of as primarily desert, used to be covered in forests so thick and vast the sunlight never touched the ground (2). Without forests, there is no home for species we’ve long since forgotten we are connected to in that web of life we imagine ourselves separate from, looking down from above as techno-gods on that dirty, inconvenient thing we call nature, protected by our bubble of plastic and steel. Without forests, there is no life.

One part of one sentence in the middle of the report gives away man’s original sin: it is when the authors write, “our model does not specify the technological mechanism by which the successful trajectories are able to find an alternative to forests and avoid collapse“. Do they fail to understand that there is no alternative to forests? That no amount of technology, no matter how advanced–no Dyson Sphere; no deserts full of solar panels; no denuded mountain ridges lined with wind turbines; no dam, no matter how wide or high; no amount of chemicals injected into the atmosphere to reflect the sun–will ever serve as an “alternative to forests”? Or are they willfully blind to this fundamental fact of this once fecund and now dying planet that is our only home?

A different vision

I’d like to give the authors the benefit of the doubt, as they end their report with a tantalizing reference to another way of being for humans, when they write, “we suggest that only civilisations capable of a switch from an economical society to a sort of ‘cultural’ society in a timely manner, may survive.” They do not expand on this idea at all. As physicists, perhaps the authors didn’t feel like they had the freedom to do so in a prestigious journal like Nature, where, one presumes, scientists are expected to stay firmly in their own lanes.

Having clearly made their case that civilized humanity can expect a change of life circumstance fairly soon, perhaps they felt it best to leave to others the responsibility and imagination for this vision. Such a vision will require not just remembering who we are: bi-pedal apes utterly dependent on the natural world for our existence. It will require a deep listening to the forests, the rivers, the sky, the rain, the salmon, the frogs, the birds… in short, to all the pulsing, breathing, flowing, speaking communities we live among but ignore in our rush to cover the world with our innovations in new technology.

Paul Kingsnorth wrote: “Spiritual teachers throughout history have all taught that the divine is reached through simplicity, humility, and self-denial: through the negation of the ego and respect for life. To put it mildly, these are not qualities that our culture encourages. But that doesn’t mean they are antiquated; only that we have forgotten why they matter.”

New technologies, real or imagined, and the profits they bring is what our culture reveres.

Building dams, solar arrays, and wind turbines; experimenting with machines to capture CO2 from the air and inject SO2 into the troposphere to reflect the sun; imagining Dyson Spheres powering spaceships carrying humanity to new frontiers–these efforts are all exciting; they appeal to our sense of adventure, and align perfectly with a culture of progress that demands always more. But such pursuits destroy our souls along with the living Earth just a little bit more with each new technology we invent.

This constant push for progress through the development of new technologies and new ways of generating energy is the opposite of simplicity, humility, and self-denial. So, the question becomes: how can we remember the pleasures of a simple, humble, spare life? How can we rewrite our stories to create a cultural society based on those values instead? We have little time left to find an answer.

* I dislike the word resources to refer to the natural world; I’m using it here because it’s a handy word, and it’s how most techno-utopians refer to mountains, rivers, rocks, forests, and life in general.

(1) Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature
(2) Derrick Jensen, Deep Green Resistance

In the final part of this series, we will discuss what the cultural shift (as described by the authors) would look like.

Featured image: e-waste in Bangalore, India at a “recycling” facility. Photo by Victor Grigas, CC BY SA 3.0.

One thought on “Techno-Utopian Visions Will Not Save Us”

  1. Given that terms like “Dyson sphere” and the rest of the above never appear in mainatream news or discussion, I’m tempted to believe it’s all a sci-fi parody of slightly less fantastic techno-gibberish, such as “blue” or “green” gas (pseudo-green fuels for hydrogen cell power), or nanotech lithium batteries, which promise to power an electric car for a year on one charge, or produce the power to run a city from a desktop device that virtually runs forever on a handful of lithium. As Paul Ehrlich wrote, clean and abundant energy is like giving an idiot child a machiine gun.

    If we lived in a sane world, the talk would be about the necessity of transforming human economics and psychology from always wanting and produce more, to a system that values needing and using less.

    In other words, if techno-junkies could forget their advanced math for a moment and return to simple arithmetic, they’d realize that perpetual growth on a finite planet is suicidal; and that it would be infinitely easier to save the Earth we were born on than to colonize and destroy new worlds, on cold and lifeless planets with toxic or nonexistent atmospheres.

    The insanity of technology saving us from technology is driven by the simple inability to admit that industrial civilization is a pyramid scheme on the verge of collapse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *