Friday, September 28, 2012

“Why Solar Panels Don’t Grow on Trees: Technological Utopianism and the Uneasy Relation between Ecomarxism and Ecological Economics”

Abstract of paper by Alf Hornborg for the panel, “Life in a zero-sum world: capitalism, socio-ecological crisis and alternatives” 17th World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Manchester U.K. August 5 -10, 2013:
Ever since the Industrial Revolution saved Britain from ecological crisis in the early nineteenth century, visions of miraculous new technologies have alleviated Euro-American anxieties about the impending doom of the fossil-fuelled capitalism that it inaugurated. Although Malthus’s worries about land shortages were transcended by world-historical events as well as by Ricardo’s and Marx’s different versions of technological optimism, they were soon reincarnated in Jevons’s warnings about the depletion of coal. Today economists generally dismiss the pessimism not only of Malthus and Jevons, but also of current concerns over peak oil, by expressing faith in human ingenuity. To retrospectively ridicule pessimists by referring to technological progress that they did not anticipate has become an established pattern of mainstream thought. Almost regardless of ideological persuasion, the seemingly self-evident concept of “technological progress” inherited from early industrialism has been resorted to as an article of faith serving to dispel the specter of truncated growth. The increasingly acknowledged threats of peak oil and global warming are thus generally countered with visions of a future civilization based on solar power. In this paper I discuss this technological scenario as a utopia that raises serious doubts about mainstream understandings of what “technology” really is, and what it means to say that something is “technologically” feasible. The technological utopianism professed, for instance, by ecomarxists raises difficult but fundamental analytical questions about the relation between thermodynamics and theories of economic value.

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