Technology, progress and natural limits
Since the 18th century, Western societies have entered into modernity. Man has gradually freed himself from religious beliefs to base human progress on individual freedom, reason and science. Alongside this cultural transformation, the industrial revolutions in the 18th and late 19th centuries were marked by the radical advance of science and technology, from which the cycles of technological development drew economic, demographic and progress growth.
In many respects, these technical advances allowed man to free himself from the constraints of nature: by replacing animal and human energy, the domestication of coal and the steam engine (first industrial revolution) then oil and electricity (second industrial revolution) contributed to the increase in agricultural productivity. Agriculture has also benefited from progress in petrochemicals through the use of inputs (fertilizers and phytosanitary products) to fight against natural parasites. Similarly, advances in medicine have made it possible to reduce mortality and eradicate infectious diseases.
These considerable technical advances have resulted in an unprecedented expansion of the world’s population. Indeed, after a long period of slow growth, it has multiplied by twelve in three centuries, going from 600 million human beings in 1700 to nearly eight billion in 2019.
Since 1945, this technical and human development has been so rapid and widespread that it has been called a “great acceleration” (Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature?”, AMBIO: A journal of the human environment , vol. 36, no 8, December 2007). Over this period, the human population has tripled and energy consumption has increased sixfold (Hannah Richie and Max Roser, “Energy production and changing energy sources”, Our world in data , July 2018). The global gross domestic product (GDP), the usual indicator of the production of wealth, has meanwhile been multiplied by fifteen (Max Roser, “Economic growth”, Our world in data, 2019). The number of passenger cars in circulation has increased twenty-five times, from forty million in 1945 to one billion today (Statista, 2019). In 2018, barely ten years after Apple launched the first iPhone, 1.4 billion units were sold, and three billion people owned at least one smartphone worldwide (Statista, 2019). One of the major issues raised by smartphones, the production of which consumes a lot of natural mineral resources, concerns their short lifespan (less than two years on average for France, according to a study by Kantar Worldpanel, 2017).
The great acceleration, both human and technological, is such that it now raises the question of its own limits: for more than fifty years there have been increasing alarms about the unsustainable limits of human activities on the biosphere (Donella Meadow et al. , “The limits to growth” or “Meadows Report”, Club of Rome, 1972). In the early 2000s, Paul Crutzen, Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995, and Eugène Stoermer proposed the concept of the Anthropocene – literally “the era of man” – to qualify a new phase in which the human hold on the biological, chemical and geological environment is such that man becomes his own context. From now on, the future of Homo Sapiens depends on its ability to regulate its impacts on ecosystems.
However, nothing seems to indicate that this direction is taken. In 2019, the day of the overshoot – date of the year, calculated by the American non-governmental organization (NGO) Global Footprint Network, from which humanity is supposed to have consumed all the resources that the planet is capable of to regenerate in a year – took place on July 29. This day has continued to advance in recent years (in 2010, it was August 7 and in 2000 September 23 according to the site www.footprintnetwork.org). Changes in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere now suggest a warming of five degrees between the pre-industrial era and 2100 (“Climate change”, IPCC, 5th summary report, 2014). The latest projections even envisage increases of six or seven degrees (“Global warming will be stronger than expected, warn French scientists”, franceinfo , September 17, 2019).
In such scenarios, the conditions of human life are difficult to imagine: it must indeed be considered that the Holocene, the geological era which began 10,000 years ago, offered a particularly favorable context for human development through the stabilization of the climate and a temperature increase of four to five degrees compared to the last ice age. This change, marked in particular by the melting of the terrestrial ice, allowed the sedentarization of the populations, the development of agriculture and, ultimately, a demographic boom. In such a context, it is very difficult to predict or imagine what the biosphere or the place of man could be in a world at more than six degrees.
If technological innovation has been a central driver of human progress, can it today respond to the ecological crisis? The debate opposes two contradictory positions. On the one hand, technological optimism, which suggests that the limits of technology are exceeded by technology. On the other, a technological mistrust calling for a “detechnologisation” of the world.
Technology as a solution: ecological techno-optimism
For many economists, business leaders, engineers and political representatives, the ecological crisis will find its answer in technological innovation. This position, which can be described as “techno-optimistic”, is based on the principle that technology, which has constantly made it possible to push human limits, will also achieve this for ecological issues. Faced with climate change, it is then a question of promoting so-called “carbon neutral” or “green” technologies. For example, to limit the pressure of agricultural systems on ecosystems (water resources, deforestation, etc.), the idea would be to continue to optimize existing technologies to massively increase productivity and yields.
To clean up the oceans from the eight million tons of plastic waste dumped there every year, we need to improve recycling and develop “remedial technologies”, like the “Ocean CleanUp” project which tries to clean up the vortex. waste from the North Pacific. To manage an increasingly urban population, smart cities or “Smart Cities” – these urban areas that use new technologies to improve the quality of urban services – will resort to technology and make it possible to develop solutions for autonomy and optimization of energy, human, food flows, etc. In a more futuristic vision, to cope with rising waters, many urban planners are exploring concepts of floating cities. Borrowing from the imagination smart cities or “Smart Cities” – these urban areas that use new technologies to improve the quality of urban services – will use technology and make it possible to develop solutions for autonomy and optimization of energy, human and food flows , etc.
In a more futuristic vision, to cope with rising waters, many urban planners are exploring concepts of floating cities. Borrowing from the imagination smart cities or “Smart Cities” – these urban areas that use new technologies to improve the quality of urban services – will use technology and make it possible to develop solutions for autonomy and optimization of energy, human and food flows , etc. In a more futuristic vision, to cope with rising waters, many urban planners are exploring concepts of floating cities. Borrowing from the imagination to cope with rising waters, many urban planners are exploring concepts of floating cities. Borrowing from the imagination to cope with rising waters, many urban planners are exploring concepts of floating cities. Borrowing from the imaginationhigh- tech , they reflect on the design of satellite cities around modular structures, self-sufficient in energy, powered by solar energy, designed to withstand storms, collect rainwater and self-sufficient in their food production, to perhaps train the “gated communities” of tomorrow (Andrew Revkin, “Will floating cities be the solution to the global housing crisis?”, National Geographic, September 2019).
In this techno-optimistic reading, it is by putting innovation at the service of the common good and ecological issues that today’s societies will succeed in meeting the ecological challenge.
Thus, “Tech for good” (technologies serving the common good) are booming in France and around the world. Green finance is also called upon to finance the ecological transition. For the most optimistic, as the environmental crisis materializes, technology must make it possible to free oneself completely from natural constraints. It is then, as Hervé Juvin wrote, “to produce the world” by industrializing production, from oxygen to ecosystems, while being enthusiastic about the economic potential of these innovations (Producing the world: for ecological growth, Gallimard, March 2008).
In its extreme form, “producing the world” can lead to experiments in geoengineering, that is, large-scale deliberate action to modify the climate to correct the warming process. For its promoters, the deliberate transformation of the climate (for example through approaches to CO2 sequestration by carbon sinks, or by limiting solar radiation by increasing the quantity of aerosols in the atmosphere) would constitute the only solution for limit the warming effect in a world unable to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. These approaches remain particularly controversial for the risks of uncontrolled effects they entail. By introducing restorative, optimizing, even nature-producing technologies,
Technology as a problem: the call for “low tech”
At the exact opposite of this optimistic position, more and more voices blame technical innovation for having led to the current impasse. By accelerating product renewal cycles, the new “intensive innovation capitalism” contributes to planned obsolescence and places an unbearable burden on ecosystems. A simple observation shows that the largest part of current technological innovations is not oriented towards the resolution of ecological issues. Worse, they increase them.
Thus, despite repeated calls for “green capitalism”, it is clear that global energy consumption of carbon energy continues to grow, and that renewable energies represent only a small proportion of global energy.
The majority of innovations are still far from being oriented towards solving the ecological crisis. First example: the automobile. According to the director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Fatih Birol, SUVs (abbreviation of the English sport utility vehicle , that is to say vehicles combining the characteristics of a minivan and a 4×4) would be , after energy production, the second source of growth in emissions between 2010 and 2018. In 2018, more than 200 million SUVs were in circulation compared to 35 million eight years earlier (“SUVs are a major source of emissions of CO2 and global warming”, Le Monde with AFP, October 16, 2019). On its own, the rise of SUVs would therefore jeopardize the decarbonization efforts of the automotive sector, in particular linked to the development of electric motors.
What about the electric vehicle – which some call “clean” –? This raises many questions about its environmental impact. It illustrates how technological innovation doesn’t just solve problems: it displaces them. Indeed, if the electric vehicle can be described as “zero emissions” (CO2 or fine particles) in a situation of use, the issue of emissions is actually moved to the stage of electricity production. The benefits of the vehicle are all the lower as the electricity is produced by coal-fired power stations with high CO2 emissions. Similarly, the production of electric batteries raises the question of access to rare and non-renewable resources (such as lithium or cobalt), the extraction of which is very polluting and takes place under risky conditions for the workers. And the use of these resources for the production of electric batteries can compete with other technologies (photovoltaic energy, wind power, or digital technologies in particular). As Guillaume Pitron points out in his book “The War of Rare Metals” (Les Liens qui Libérant, 2018), more than a dematerialized solution to the environmental crisis, the rise of technologies mobilizing rare metals brings out new logics of dependence on natural resources, whose economic and geopolitical stakes remain vastly underestimated.
Another example: agro- or bio-fuels. These fuels made from organic materials were presented as an environmental solution a few years ago. They have been put forward in particular by manufacturers as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to fuels, the CO2 released during their use being compensated by the photosynthesis of plants during their growth. But as they have grown, agro and biofuels have faced severe criticism for their negative impact on biodiversity, deforestation and controversies over palm oil, among others. Second and third generation agro-fuels, based on algae or plant waste, but for which treatment processes are still under development, will be responsible for meeting this challenge. What about “Smart Cities” and the use of digital technology?
If their environmental benefits are theoretical, the growth of the energy impact of digital technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) is already visible and real. According to the organization Statista, the sector of connected objects is growing rapidly. Their number should increase from 20 billion in 2017 to more than 75 billion in 2025. The multiplication of these connected terminals, data but also digital uses in general – in particular the generalization of video on demand – are today exploding the traffic, storage needs and energy needs. According to a report by the Shift Project on the ecological impact of digital technology, energy consumption linked to digital technology is growing by 9% per year, and already represents nearly 4% of global CO2 emissions in 2018: according to this report,
Some adaptation efforts may even result in accelerating climate change. Faced with unbearable heat waves, Qatar is, for example, beginning to air-condition outdoor spaces – stadiums but also streets – at the cost of ever more intense carbon-based energy consumption (Steven Mufson, “Faced à une peau unbearable, le Qatar a commence to cool the outdoors,” The Washington Post, October 16, 2019). Thus, 60% of the country’s electricity consumption would be devoted to air conditioning. Consumption that should double by 2030.
For critical observers of the “all technological”, faith in technical innovation can be likened to a form of denial and headlong rush, clinging to the hope that technology will provide an answer to global issues without challenging causes our current lifestyles. On the contrary, it is towards societies of slowdown, sobriety and “low-tech” that we should go (Philippe Bihouix, “The age of low-tech: towards a technically sustainable civilization”, Anthropocène-Seuil,April 2014). In this perspective, the movement of “cities in transition” seeks to promote resilience, by setting up an “energy descent” combined with a relocation of economic activities, the economy and networks of solidarity via devices such as local currencies.
Rethinking technological innovation in an ecologically constrained world
The links between technological innovation and ecology are extraordinarily complex. The analysis of the previous examples makes it possible to identify several salient features of technological innovation in a world struggling with the limits of its natural ecosystems.
First, technological developments seem to go through cycles of desirability: after the initial phase of enthusiasm around environmental promises, cycles of awareness, even mistrust, follow as innovations spread. Indeed, when deployed on a large scale, technological innovation not only solves problems: it shifts issues and creates new ones. So, in an increasingly environmentally constrained world, there is no miracle technology that will solve all the problems. Any technological solution is ambivalent, and will generate externalities and dilemmas. The choices then become extraordinarily complex: Should action be taken to combat climate change if this involves new geopolitical risks, increased environmental deterioration in certain parts of the globe or a threat to biodiversity? Who operates these arbitrations and how are the decisions taken?
It is undoubtedly because of these dilemmas that innovation is more and more systematically adorned with a virtuous discourse on the common good. Thus, in a world increasingly constrained in resources, and in which innovation can be seen both as a solution or as a risk, we are witnessing a politicization of innovation. With great reinforcements of anglicisms, technologies multiply the promises: technologies for the common good (tech for good), investment with positive impact (impact investing and green bonds), smart cities (Smart Cities) whose goal is to optimize urban systems, “green by IT”that promise to reduce the ecological footprint of a service through digital technologies, or open artificial intelligence (open AI) officially promoting an artificial intelligence that benefits all of humanity. In a context of normative and technical uncertainty, companies that promote a technology seek to build the framework of legitimacy in which they wish to fit, by prioritizing the normative issues surrounding their innovations. Finally, “tech for good” or “good for tech”? That is the question.
Technological innovation polarizes particularly divided positions. If it is clear that it arouses controversy and risks multiplying the risks, can we envisage leaving contemporary technological societies and “detechnologizing” the world? Such a process remains unlikely and it is to be expected, on the contrary, that technological crutches will be increasingly essential in this context. It would still be necessary to be able to make the right choices, to limit the risks of a domino effect by seeking to de-complexify technologies, to prioritize the ecological issue and to banish innovations which accelerate environmental degradation.
Since innovation is becoming more and more political, the question arises in return of the possibility of democratic processes of technological choices, which make it possible to involve the different parts of society in order to weigh the advantages and risks, to analyze the impacts and the issues of access to innovation for populations. This is a gigantic project which shows, if necessary, that technology is never neutral and is much more than a purely technological affair. In the Anthropocene, technology is more than ever a matter of society: it cannot be thought of independently of a cultural, social, political and governance change, in order to project oneself into a hypothetical common and sustainable technological future.