Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More on breakthrough technologies

This summer in Oxford, I was asked what more specifically I mean when talking about “breakthrough technologies” in relation to climate change. Given the almost magic role that such technologies tend to play in my thinking about the future, it was definitely an appropriate question. My short answer was “technologies that we cannot even imagine today”. To my friend, I guess this was just further proof of how hopelessly utopian I have become. While she has also written a lot on intergenerational justice, climate change and the future, it was clear to me that she found it illusionary to tie our hopes of climate stabilisation to the emergence of such exotic far-future technologies.

Yet, if you would ask someone living in the late 19th century what kind of technologies that would be required to transport the close to three billion people who were carried by the world’s airlines last year, it would probably have been fair to answer just that, “I do not know”. The number of necessary innovations is simply too big and too remote from everyday life in the 1890’s.

While I would say that nuclear fusion is probably the closest real-world approximation of what I have in mind, it is far from certain that ITER and other related projects will bear fruit. Consequently, there is a need to develop a whole host of alternative blue-skies research projects that collectively will push the boundaries of human understanding. The problem with this is that any such research effort will require not only massive funding but also a vast number of highly qualified people. This in turns brings us back to the need for broad social investments and an accelerated rate of global economic integration. Only through such measures can we free up the necessary capital and labour to make breakthrough innovation possible.

Unfortunately, we are currently doing pretty much the opposite, as in cutting down on our social ambitions while frustrating the rise of the poor by maintaining agricultural subsidies and other protectionist policies. Even in these financially desperate times, it is worth noting that the European Union is planning to spend close to 40% of its budget (or €50 billion) on agricultural subsidies in 2013, money that clearly could have made an enormous long-term difference if it was instead invested in early childhood education or the expansion of public daycare in Southern Europe. But given the almost complete lack of political imagination, we should not be surprised that this is not happening. Instead of actively engaging with our planetary future, academics alike tend to remain hostage to romantic notions of “local community” and unable to translate their cosmopolitan intuitions into meaningful policy recommendations for the world as whole. Nothing of this is new. But as the long-term costs of this kind of procrastination are becoming increasingly obvious, and brute-force mitigation remains as politically impossible as ever, we are faced with an ever starker choice about the future, a choice that might just call for a dose of utopianism.



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