Even though they might accept that the origins of man-made climate change lie in the over-industrialisation of the planet, many people’s first instinct when faced with the full implications of climate crisis is that perhaps the answer lies in more technology. A surprising number of people are ready to put their faith in a technological fix for our current environmental woes – the belief that somehow ‘tech will save us’. Take, for example, former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison outlining his government’s approach to tackling the climate crisis in response the damning 2021 IPCC report:
“World history teaches one thing. Technology changes everything! That is the game changer … I’ll tell you what makes the difference – technology changes on the ground”.
For sure, there are many emerging technologies that might go some way to mitigating the man-made industrial excesses that have jeopardised the planet in the first place. As such, there is growing support forfast-tracking innovations such as carbon capture and storage technology, nuclear-fusion-energy, lab-grown meat, wind farms and even solar geoengineering.
Yet, any substantial shift in the patterns of climate collapse that we are currently experiencing clearly depends upon the will of people around the world to radically alter their behaviours and mind-sets. Technology is not autonomous, and emerging technologies are not somehow going to do anything of their own accord. Now is not the time to be seeking refuge in a technologically determinist fantasy. From a social science point of view, if there is one thing that world history teaches us, it is that technology does not change everything.
So, assuming that ‘technology will save us’ is simply another form of climate change denial – accepting the problem but diverting attention away from the need to do anything substantive about it. This is what Robert Rosenberger calls ‘spectatorial utopianism’. As he puts it, “this kind of argument should be recognized for what it is: a call against active problem solving based on contentious assumptions about the nature of technology” (Rosenberger 2021).
These are criticisms that those of us working in the area of education and technology now need to be thinking about. Up until now, the Ed-Tech community has had shockingly little to say about its part in the climate crisis. At best, we hear vague claims around the environmental benefits of technology-based education, or the assumption that ‘green’ and ‘carbon neutral’ forms of device production, data storage and the like will be soon be developed.
For sure, there are some emerging technologies that might mitigate the carbon footprint associated with being a student or running a university campus. Yet, ‘smarter’ use of technology will not absolve education – or any other part of society – from its environmental responsibilities over the forthcoming decades. We need a radical cultural shift in how we go about our business, and how we live our lives. Education needs to be part of this society-wide shift … and education’s current excessive consumption of digital technology certainly cannot remain unchallenged in the hope that future forms of technology will somehow make everything good.
Rosenberger, R. (2022). Against spectatorial utopianism. AI & Society [forthcoming]