Technofix vs Behavior Change - the Moral Highground Isn't Always Best


Image credit: Wayne National Forest, used under Creative Commons license.

From plug-in hybrids to gigantic concentrated solar installations, there's plenty of high-tech wizardry out there that has the potential to cut carbon emissions and reduce pollution. So I have long wondered why so many greens seem ambiguous, sometimes even hostile, to the green "technofix". I think I may have finally realized why. From friends' of mine insisting that solar panels represent more embodied energy than they'll ever create, to activist acquaintances arguing that the batteries in electric cars make them more polluting than their petrol-burning counterparts—I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the more dark green of my friends dismissing this or that technology—often based on some pretty selective reading of the data that is out there. It often seems like they don't just not believe that technology can help save us—but rather they don't want to believe it.

Many of the most committed environmentalists out there see the sustainability question not just as a logistical or political challenge, but as a moral crisis or turning point for humanity. And in many ways they are right. After all, what could be a larger moral question than how we treat the natural world that we all rely on for survival?

So when scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs offer up yet another "get out of jail free" card in the form of a cleaner car, or a more sustainable energy source, it's only natural for these environmentalists to feel like they are missing the point—if we just figure out a way to keep consuming as we always have done, just in a greener manner, don't we risk missing the larger lessons of this crisis? Or, as my old permaculture teacher put it, discovering a limitless source of pollution-free energy would be the worst thing that could ever happen to us—we'd just use it to wreck the planet in some other way.

Yet the perceived moral neutrality of the technological approach to sustainability is perhaps also it's greatest strength. Because while environmentalists may love to appeal to folks' better nature—asking them to reuse, reduce, recycle; to turn off the lights; or walk or bike more;these appeals have so far managed to reach only a limited audience. And even when appeals for behavior change are successful, they are sadly also all too easily reversible.

At the height of the popularity of An Inconvenient Truth, I'd be willing to bet there were plenty of people just beginning to take baby steps to turn off the lights, recycle more, or walk to work when they could. Yet with the onset of the recession, the ridiculous controversy surrounding "climate gate", and the inevitable shift in media attention to the next big issue, I'm sure there's been a whole lot of backsliding going on among even the most committed of new recruits.

Yet many of these same people will also have bought low energy light bulbs, energy star appliances, or maybe even hybrid cars, bikes, or joined a car club. They may have since moved on to worry about a new pet cause—yet the technological, or infrastructural, changes they made in their lives live on.

Maybe the technofix can occupy the moral high ground after all.

More on Sustainability, Strategy and Morality
Solar Panels vs Caulk: When Does the Technofix Make Sense?
Does Morality Matter in Saving the Planet?
Sustainability is Not Black or White: 'More Sustainable' is Possible

Tags: Global Warming Solutions | Renewable Energy | Solar Power | United States

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