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.
You might ask why, in 2021, I would bother reviewing a book published ten years ago. Both for the prosaic reason that I have had this book for some years without reading it, and because I am working on a little something that I cannot divulge yet. Plus, as it turns out, because this book is still relevant despite having been published in 2011.
The Huesemanns, Michael a biotechnologist with an interest in sustainability, Joyce an academic and activist, pull no punches in Techno-Fix. 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 the generation of energy, the unknown effects of most synthetic chemicals, the pollution accompanying industrial activities, or the way the introduction of the car reshaped the world.
Even more outspoken is their statement 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 where your stuff comes from and who made it? Do you have a care for the planet your grandchildren will inherit? With the same fury that would later characterise Abundant Earth, the authors speak of the human domination of nature and the brainwashing by television and other mass media. The frequent references to TV might seem outdated given how online social media has ballooned in the last decade, but it has arguably not changed the beast much.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.
“”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 (e.g. dematerialisation) 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.
Since these drawbacks are known, why does the belief in technological progress persist? The authors draw parallels between religious faith and techno-optimism, with the latter rising as the former waned. 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, i.e. just a tool that can be used for good or evil.
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’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 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.
“To the Huesemanns, counter-technologies […] are like handing you another spade as you are digging your own grave – they come with their own unintended consequences.”
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 stepping off the Seneca Cliff into wholesale collapse, they envision a transition to a steady-state economy that acknowledges planetary boundaries (some Planetary Accounting might help) and practises long-term sustainability..
The latter would require three things. First, 100% renewable energy generation. This, they admit, brings its own share of problems, one of which they remarkably do not even mention: the need for a vast infrastructure constructed from non-renewable materials. Speaking of which, second, we need to use renewable resources exclusively and phase out non-renewable resources, or fully recycle them where this is not possible. Other than the difficulties – if not impossibility – of finding replacements for most non-renewable resources (including basic ones such as all metals), they pass over the fact that materials cannot be endlessly recycled, requiring a constant input of virgin material. Third, waste can only be discharged at rates than can be assimilated by ecosystems, and those that cannot be biodegraded (read: most synthetic chemicals) should be discontinued. They acknowledge that, clearly, this would require a sea change in our attitudes: a society that embraces self-limitation rather than unfettered abundance. All of this is necessary, I agree, but it also seems almost unimaginable. If the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed one thing, it is how willingly people will relinquish liberties and accept restrictions imposed upon them.
There were a further three issues raised here that I mildly to strongly disagree with. First, they are justifiedly very critical of the corruption of medicine by the so-called 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). Once they start talking of the power of placebo effects and the body’s innate ability to heal itself I become a bit uneasy. There is a kernel of truth in there but, in my opinion, you are at the top of the slide that reads “pseudoscience this way”. 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 (something of which I am sceptical). You cannot have it both ways, we scale up production processes for more than just profitability. Third, they surprisingly really have it in for genetic engineering. Other than completely ignoring the pervasiveness of horizontal gene transfer (one could say nature invented genetic modification billions of years before we did), they are unwilling to acknowledge it will be one of the necessary tools to keep feeding the world, deal with the impact of climate change on crops, or that we can take the best of both approaches.
“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.”
The Huesemann’s acknowledge human overpopulation at several points: “More people generally translate into more problems” (p. 44) and unless “the size of the human population [is] stabilized and reduced, and the materialistic consumer lifestyle largely abandoned, there is little chance that our environmental problems will be solved […]” (p. 83). This is more than most authors do. Shame, then, that they do not dedicate a chapter to the thorny questions of whether we should control world population, what population size is optimal for the planet, and how many children to have (if any).
Instead, their last chapter felt to me like barking up the wrong tree. It calls for “critical science” (sensu Ravetz), which would stand in opposition to current scientific practice. Scientists need to take responsibility for their work, refuse dubious research financed by corporations, and abandon the excuse that they are 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? Or the claim on page 329 that scientists and engineers do not really mind that problems are not solved as it guarantees their long-term employment? I normally hear a related version of that argument from climate-change deniers. I do not know what planet the authors live on, but my personal experience in academia showed me a world where you routinely work 60 to 80 hours a week on grant money or (if you are really lucky) a 40-hour contract while chasing short-term projects (known as PhD and postdoc positions) well into your forties before having a shot at a permanent position. When conditions are this exploitative it is 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. I applaud the authors for tabling controversial ideas and challenging readers with probing questions and assignments in an appendix. Furthermore, the book is thoroughly researched and annotated, very readable (including regular, useful summaries), and still relevant.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: