Technology won’t save us from climate change

If the Roman Republic understood the conditions that caused climate change, they could have easily put a stop to it. That’s because all you have to do to halt climate change is stop using fossil fuels and plant a huge number of trees. Together, these acts would reduce the surfeit of man-made carbon dioxide currently tainting the atmosphere and wreaking havoc on our planet.

That idea — that an ancient civilization with no electricity and no technological-industrial complex akin to Silicon Valley could solve climate change — might sound sacrosanct to the sophistic entrepreneurs and their journalistic lackeys who invest in these kinds of things. Indeed, for at least a decade, the media landscape has been littered with casuist puff-pieces with headlines like:

“This Machine Just Started Sucking CO2 Out Of The Air To Save Us From Climate Change” (Fast Company, May 2017)

“Start-Ups Hoping to Fight Climate Change Struggle as Other Tech Firms Cash In” (New York Times, May 2019)

“Sucking carbon from air, Swiss firm wins new funds for climate fix” (Reuters, August 2018)

“These companies are leading the fight against climate change” (CNN Business, October 2018)

“Why and how business must tackle climate change now” (Forbes, October 2018)

The unsaid message behind these stories? Climate change is the kind of monetizable “problem” that business can “solve” — as if it were akin to smoothing over a supply chain hiccup or a PR crisis.

But it isn’t. Climate change is a political problem with a political solution. The Roman Republic had, at its peak, a well-organized, representative government capable of large-scale public works project, like the Roman aqueducts or the vast Roman road system that stretched across North Africa and southern Europe. If the political will existed among the citizenry, the republic could certainly organize itself to solve the climate crisis.

With a reorganization of society and industry, we could easily do as the Romans. Yet our civilization has been collectively hypnotized by the tech industry into believing that everything can be solved by more gadgetry and more money thrown at the tech sector.

Because of the entrancing nature of Silicon Valley’s gadgetmakers, we often can’t see this when it’s happening in front of us. But you need only look to other industries that Silicon Valley has “innovated” in to see the results.

Take Juicero, for instance: a $400 juicer that squeezes proprietary packets that could easily be wrung with one’s hand, and offer no marked improvement over the millennia-old citrus squeezer “technology.” What the now-defunct Juicero did do, however, was make its users dependent on its absurd and wasteful juice packet subscriptions. Google invested hundreds of millions in Juicero before it went bankrupt. “Innovation,” indeed.

Or you might consider another Silicon Valley “innovation” like social media, an elaborate digital social system whose primary function seems to be getting us hooked on using it. It has demonstrably made humans more narcissistic and less happy. Now, the social media companies are doing a collective hand-wringing to come up with strategies to undo the damage.

This is how Silicon Valley fixes things, or rather, pretends do: first, by inventing problems in the first place, then issuing their own “solve.” It’s not a model I would apply to the thorny issue of the survival of all life on Earth.

But the more pressing concern here is that technology simply cannot solve the problems that it created. Never forget that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of all global emissions; or that tech giants are some of the worst offenders when it comes to producing disposable goods or being complicit in an endless cycle of planned obsolescence.

Recently, the consumer-facing tech industry has transformed to a rentier model. In this model, you don’t necessarily ever own gadgets, software or media; you merely rent them from a corporation forever. Businesses prefer this model, as rather than buying something once, you pay to rent it forever — and that means far more money for them in the long run.

I have no doubt that if we let techno-capitalists tackle climate change, we will end up with a similar situation: world governments will contract out carbon capture to a group of tech behemoths whom we will pay forever to rent their equipment and keep things in a stable state. If they fix the problem and remove all the excess carbon from the atmosphere, their services will become useless — and their shareholders and investors certainly wouldn’t like that. Better to keep the problem intact as long as possible to wring dry the public sector for all eternity — ironically, fixing the problems that technology, largely, created. It’s the perfect grift.

Unfortunately, Silicon Valley’s brand of magical thinking has so poisoned us that few are capable of seeing the notion of a technological fix for climate change as a farce. Capitalism treats the environment as an externality and insatiably creates waste and pollution. That’s a doctrine that is incompatible with the survival of life on Earth.