I suppose this is going over old ground, but I’ve been struck anew recently through various readings and conversations about the nature of techno-utopianism, and the difficulty we seem to have nowadays in breaking out of a boomer-doomer dualism – that is, either the (rather unhistorical) ‘boomer’ notion that human rationality, optimism and ingenuity always overcomes the social, economic and biophysical problems societies face, or the (boldly predictive, and therefore also unhistorical) ‘doomer’ notion that these problems are sure to overwhelm us and destroy civilisation altogether.
One such reading is David Rieff’s recent book The Reproach of Hunger1. There are interesting commonalities between his critique of the now dominant aid/development paradigm, and my own critique of ecomodernism within environmentalist thought. Given the different (if overlapping) focus and personnel involved, perhaps this suggests quite a generic ideology of techno-utopianism (TU) within contemporary thinking. Rieff’s book has helped me see its outlines more clearly, so with his help here I’d like to describe briefly some of its key elements. Rieff also has some interesting, if frustratingly vague, thoughts on the possibilities for a peasant-focused development paradigm, but more on that another time.
So here, for your consideration, are seven elements of TU ideology, lightly tossed with a few counter-thoughts of my own:
- Ideology: our first characteristic of TU ideology is that it considers itself to have no ideology, but instead merely a pragmatic focus on solving practical problems (such as climate change or extreme poverty) by using whatever methods demonstrably work. Its critics have ideology – they are ideologues, partisans, spoilers, whose critiques reflect their own narrow political agendas – but TU rises serenely above all that. It is, as Rieff puts it, an antipolitics, a political argument for the irrelevance of politics (and particularly for the irrelevance of changing the political status quo) in solving global problems: “Perhaps twenty-first century liberal capitalism’s greatest trick has been convincing the world that it is not an ideology, and as it did so, convincing itself as well”2.
- Engineering and medical metaphors: global problems (climate change, extreme poverty etc.) are conceived as dysfunction in complex systems, after the model of a mechanism (a broken machine requiring an engineer to fix it) or an organism (a sick body requiring a doctor to fix it – as in the pervasive metaphor of poverty as a ‘disease’). These metaphors lack a sense of intentionality. Global problems are also the result of people’s deliberate actions.
- Science: TU accords a premier role to science in ‘fixing’ global problems – surely no surprise in view of the preceding points, since scientific enquiry is modern humanity’s most successful example of transcending ideology using non-intentional (mechanical and medical/biological) models. To this way of thinking, global problems arise through technique rather than social power: for example, the contemporary poverty of small-scale farmers is seen as resulting from lack of access to agricultural technologies that increase their crop yields (such as GM crops, denied them by ideologues from wealthy countries) and not from the abolition of marketing boards or import tariffs under global free trade rules. As Rieff points out (and as I know all too well myself from my engagements with the ecomodernists) TU’s favourite kind of science is the “inventions, technological breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries not yet in existence [that] are so certain to occur…they can be counted on to address the world’s problems”3.
- Optimism: but paradoxically, TU ideology sets itself against pessimism, cynicism and naysaying. Development guru Jeffrey Sachs, for example, has tweeted “Cynicism is biggest obstacle to challenges such as ending poverty and fighting climate change”4. I’d have plumped for issues like war, skewed economic relations, runaway consumerism or the over-reliance on fossil fuels. But no – the real problem, apparently, is cynicism. In many ways, Rieff’s book is an extended diatribe against the rise of a kneejerk ‘optimism’ of this kind which thinks that problems such as hunger and extreme poverty are easily solved through positive thought. Despite the fact that nowadays, in his words, “hope and optimism are often presented as the only morally licit stance for any person of conscience and goodwill to take”, nevertheless “hope can also be a denial of reality and “solutionism” a form of moral and ideological vanity”5. Quite so. The reason I called this optimism ‘paradoxical’ is because it sits ill with the TU emphasis on science. TU cleaves towards science because science has been vastly more successful at comprehending physical and biological relationships (though not ethical ones – that intentionality issue again) than any other form of human knowledge. And it’s achieved this precisely because it doesn’t delude itself with ‘optimism’. Scientists are professional naysayers, rigorously trained in the art of disputing the grounds for all assertions. They don’t talk about the null hypothesis for nothing. And yet when science is transplanted to the ideological plane of solving human social problems, its proponents suddenly want to banish scepticism and enforce a one dimensional ‘optimism’. Pace Sachs, I’m tempted to say that the biggest obstacle to ending poverty or fighting climate change might be what Rieff calls “the bad habit of mistaking the nobility of [our] intentions for the feasibility of [our] goals”6. And the biggest asset is scientific realism, the ability to probe disinterestedly at the drawbacks of any suggested program. Unfortunately, the narrow ‘optimism’ of TU ideology enforces a highly partisan consensus of which programs are ‘realistic’. Thus, carbon pricing is not realistic whereas a worldwide switch to nuclear power apparently is; price floors for commodity crops grown by poor small-scale farmers are not realistic, whereas vertical integration into the value chains of corporate agribusiness is.
- Millenarianism: the optimism tic of TU ideology suggests that science isn’t ultimately what it’s about. Indeed, TU seems more redolent of millenarian religion than of science. ‘Science’ is merely the vehicle in TU’s secularized form of millennialism (as trumpet-wielding angels have been in other versions) to bringing about human perfection on earth. Like many millenarian sects, TUs believe redemption is close – Sachs, for example, has spoken of the present generation’s opportunity to end hunger for good and its duty to “heal the world”7. Though TU’s proponents are usually careful to avoid teleology (ie. the notion that future salvation is inevitably destined to happen – see here for example), this usually comes in the form of a weak caveat (‘there are no guarantees’) than any kind of serious countenancing of negative outcomes. I can (and have) offered various speculations concerning the cause of this irrational millennialism in the TU worldview. One of them is that people are deeply imbued with the capacity to wonder and to worship, but in modern times characterised by what sociologist Max Weber called the ‘disenchantment of the world’ there’s little left for us to worship or feel wondrous about but our own achievements – the problem of “humanism worshipping itself”8. A religious commitment to redemption dies hard, even within entirely secular thought, which is quite capable of coopting science within a millenarian purview.
- The power of the individual: perhaps this is a stronger feature of TU ideology in the development/hunger field than in ecomodernist environmentalism. It invests the idea that by being optimistic, by giving money to the right charities, by making the right consumption decisions and by supporting big campaigns like Make Poverty History, the wealthy western consumer is individually empowered to help the poor. Rieff calls this thinking “at best a consoling farce”9 in a world where persistent, structural causes are compounding poverty and inequality. Another dimension of it he touches on is the conviction that the power of individuals to change things is always positive, and always makes the world a better place. But as the contributors to another interesting recent book, Warlords, Inc.10, make clear, this isn’t necessarily so. Economic globalization and climate change, to name but two contemporary forces, are having the effect of weakening many sovereign, national governments in the global south. Into this confusion step warlords, para-states, criminal entrepreneurs, violent fundamentalists and a panoply of other agents whose goals could scarcely be more different from those of democrats, rationalists and egalitarians – and with the considerable advantage that they’re not saddled with any lofty (and costly) ambitions of making the world a better place. If individuals do have the power to remake the world, that in itself isn’t necessarily a good thing.
- The failure of government: Rieff deftly charts the shift in the development paradigm, which until the 1970s considered the structuring of the global economy in favour of corporate private enterprise to be part of the problem, but since the 1980s has increasingly seen it as part of the solution. For their part, although the ecomodernists sometimes offer weak support for government as a bulwark against the excesses of the private sector, the structuring of the global economy in favour of private corporate interests is rarely challenged. Indeed, the ecomodernists reimagine corporate agribusiness as a benevolent agent successfully uplifting the poor11, just as Silicon Valley ‘philanthrocapitalists’ like Bill Gates reimagine private philanthropy as a privileged vehicle for ending poverty, without acknowledging the role played by monopolistic rent-extraction of the kind that endows the philanthropy in reproducing poverty and inequality. I find Rieff’s claim plausible that corporate agribusiness is not deliberately malevolent, and is sometimes capable of delivering worthwhile pro-poor innovations. But I also find plausible his critique of the notion that “private business – the most politically influential, the most undertaxed and least regulated, and…the least democratically accountable sector among those groups that dispose of real power and wealth in the world – is best suited to be entrusted with the welfare and the fate of the powerless and the hungry” and I agree with his rueful conclusion that “No revolution could be more radical, no expectation…could be more counterintuitive, more antihistorical, or require a greater leap of faith”12.
So much for TU ideology and its ‘optimism’. What’s the alternative? Not, surely, hopelessness or despair. I think rather just an openness to the idea that some of the problems we currently face (like hunger, and climate change) may not be solvable within the parameters of our current political and economic systems, or indeed may not be solvable at all. Perhaps satisfying technological solutions to such problems will appear without the need for major systemic change. But perhaps they won’t. Let us think freely about all possible eventualities, rather than clinging determinedly to a redemptive narrative of business-as-usual solutionism that aggressively silences dissenters. Nobody can tell what the future holds, but there are good reasons for apprehension. As Rieff puts it, if even some of these apprehensions prove warranted, then the grandiose promises of the development elite (and, I’d argue, of the ecomodernists and techno-utopians more generally) “do not embody hope; they make a mockery of hope”13.
There’s a conservative politics implicit in TU ideology, which is quite comforting to those of us living in wealthy countries where few go truly hungry and where our use of non-renewable resources is out of all proportion to our numbers. This holds that there’s no viable alternative to existing economic and political arrangements, the challenge then being the essentially technical one of raising the rest of the world up to our level of resource use, while making it sustainable at the same time. But it seems to me that that challenge is most likely insurmountable. And in any case there are more satisfying alternatives.
As well as an implicit politics, there’s also an implicit psychology – the idea that people are more appropriately motivated by positive stories about how things will be better in the future if they do x than by negative stories about how things will be worse in the future if they don’t do y. I think this is true and, if I understand the work of social psychologists like Daniel Kahneman14 correctly, it’s pretty hard-wired into the human psyche. Still, Kahneman does imply that our predilection for triumph-against-the-odds narratives has been augmented in capitalist societies, and perhaps – following Rieff – more now than ever.
Both in personal life and in political life I think it’s good to have some optimism, a feeling that problems can be tackled and that things may turn out well. I also think it’s good to have some pessimism, a sober reckoning of the obstacles before us and the possibilities that things may not turn out as well as we’d like. Put the two together and you get the chance of realistic solutions. Either one on their own is less promising. So the ubiquitous notion that we just need optimism, positive stories, baffles me. It seems juvenile. As kids, we love to hear fairy stories and get scared by the awful and apparently inescapable fate the hero/ine faces at the hands of the baddies. But we know that there will be a satisfying redemption in which good will somehow miraculously prevail. Then we grow up and realise that in real life those redemptions don’t always occur. But when it comes to debating future sustainability and social justice, we seem to have entangled ourselves in a fairy tale narrative about optimism, the power of the individual and the redeeming character of science.
I can see plenty of reasons to take a pessimistic view that problems like war, hunger and climate change, independently and additively, will result in a lot of misery in the years to come. I can also see reasons to think optimistically that they can be overcome, or at least tolerably mitigated. But it seems to me that the most promising way of overcoming them is to ditch the techno-utopianism and business-as-usual economics currently dominating mainstream policy. And I’m not very optimistic that that will happen nearly soon enough. Still, life never was a fairy story, huh?
Postscript: though I’ve only just re-emerged from a break in blogging, I shall be silent again for a couple of weeks because…well, let’s just say I’m going on a spirit quest. A commenter at Resilience.org accused me of possessing a ‘deadened spirit’ and to tell the truth I am feeling a little stale, so I’m heading off for a week on a spirit-journey to see if I can catch me a live one…
- Rieff, D. 2016. The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21st Century. London: Verso.
- Ibid. p.208.
- Ibid. pp.110-1.
- Ibid. p.215.
- Ibid. p.10.
- Ibid. p.34.
- Ibid. p.73.
- Ibid. p.29.
- Ibid. p.280.
- Raford, N. and Trabulsi, A. 2015. Warlords, Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States, and the rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
- For example, Mark Lynas’s oft-quoted comment that Monsanto has done more than the entire organic movement to reduce insecticide use.
- Rieff op cit. p.229.
- Ibid. p.47.
- Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.