Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor)
10 Jan 2021
Written for Paperback
The best way to introduce this book is to quote the first sentence of the blurb: "Techno-Fix
challenges the pervasive belief that technological innovation will save us from the dire consequences of the 300-year fossil-fuelled binge known as modern industrial civilization". Stinging, provocative, and radical, Techno-Fix
puts its fingers on many a sore spot with its searing critique.
Our technology has brought us tremendous affluence and a world population growth spurt, but it also has unintended consequences that are both unavoidable and unpredictable. Some examples discussed here are climate change resulting from energy generation, the unknown effects of most synthetic chemicals, or the way the car reshaped the world.
The Huesemanns pull no punches in Techno-Fix
and argue that most technology is exploitative, abusing ecosystems, animals, and other humans. The industrial and globalised nature of much technology blunts us to this by creating distance in either space or time between exploiter and exploited. Do you know who made your stuff? Do you have a care for the planet your grandchildren will inherit? The authors speak of the human domination of nature and the brainwashing by mass media. The frequent references to TV might seem outdated given how social media has ballooned in the last decade, but it has arguably not changed the beast much. And where free-market trade does not get us the needed resources, "high-tech military technology plays a key role in ensuring the continued exploitation and control of natural resources that are essential to maintaining the materialistic consumer lifestyle" (p. 68). Theirs is a bleak outlook on our modern society indeed.
Surely, new technology can fix the problems old technology created? To the Huesemanns, counter-technologies such as geo-engineering schemes are like handing you another spade as you are digging your own grave – they come with their own unintended consequences. Furthermore, they write, efficiency gains have their limits and are often followed by increased consumption, a phenomenon known as the Jevons paradox. Ironically, despite increased affluence in the developed world, psychological research shows that happiness and wellbeing have not increased. Instead, we are stuck on a hedonic treadmill, furiously desiring ever more. The profit motive behind most technological developments results in solutions that benefit corporations and their shareholders, not the public at large.
So why does the belief in technological progress persist? The authors draw parallels between religious faith and techno-optimism. Furthermore, seemingly objective practices such as risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses are skewed towards continued technological development, downplaying or neglecting externalized costs. Finally, they take serious issue with the uncritical acceptance of new technologies due to the widespread belief that progress is inevitable and that technology is value-neutral.
Up to this point, much of what they write resonates with me, but I found their proposed solutions a mixed bag, strongly disagreeing with some of it. Since we cannot hex our way out of our problems with more technology, we need, I agree, a paradigm shift. They draw an interesting parallel with Kuhn: just as scientific dogmas disappear not because minds are changed but because the old guard dies, future generations will change the way we live. Current generations will, by and large, be too set in their ways, too unwilling to give up their affluence. Plus, expect pushback from industries and corporations that stand to lose the most.
I think it should be stressed at this point that the Huesemanns are not technophobes advocating a return to the caves (although some of what they say is not far off). Technology has a role to play if it is employed more responsibly. To avoid collapse, they envision a transition to a steady-state economy that acknowledges planetary boundaries and practises long-term sustainability. The latter would require 100% renewable energy generation; the need to use renewable resources exclusively and phase out non-renewable resources, or fully recycle them where this is not possible; and the discharge of waste at rates than can be assimilated by ecosystems. This is a tall order that comes with its own problems and limits, some of which are acknowledged here. As they write, it would require a sea change in our attitudes: a society that embraces self-limitation rather than unfettered abundance.
There were a further four issues raised here that I mildly to strongly disagree with. First, they are justifiedly very critical of the medico-industrial complex, specifically pharmaceutical companies. Rather, we should focus on prevention and lifestyle changes (sure), accept the inevitability of death (agreed), and embrace holistic medicine (hmmm). Second, they appear to contradict themselves by stressing the importance of efficiency in saving precious resources but also wanting things to go small-scale and local again, holding up organic agriculture as a shining example. You cannot have it both ways, we scale up production processes for more than just profitability. Third, they surprisingly have it in for genetic engineering. Other than ignoring the pervasiveness of horizontal gene transfer, they are unwilling to acknowledge it will be one of the necessary tools to keep feeding the world and deal with the impact of climate change on crops. Fourth, they acknowledge human overpopulation at several points, which is more than most authors do. Shame, then, that they do not dedicate a chapter to this thorny topic.
Instead, their last chapter felt to me like barking up the wrong tree. It calls for "critical science": scientists need to take responsibility for their work, refuse dubious research financed by corporations, and abandon the excuse that they are re not responsible for the end-uses. These are some really good points, but to put the onus almost completely on scientists struck me as, frankly, ridiculous. Some of their claims here really irked me. People choose this profession because of the relatively good income? The academia I experienced was borderline exploitative, so no wonder many choose the job security and decent income offered by companies. If you want to keep scientists out of the clutches of well-paid corporate jobs and have them act as whistle-blowers you will have to properly reward and protect them, something only briefly acknowledged here.
In light of my criticism, would I recommend Techno-Fix
? Yes! There is much I thoroughly agree with here and I applaud the authors for tabling controversial ideas. Furthermore, the book is thoroughly researched and annotated, very readable (including regular, useful summaries), and still relevant.