By Nayah Thu
Writing about divisions in climate discourse often means pitting environmental movements and opposing interest groups against each other. However, this rhetoric risks painting environmental movements as monolithic. Such simplification prevents the public from disentangling different perspectives, and leads to in-fighting as factions within the movement seek to distinguish themselves from each other through confrontation. One of the most salient divides is between the eco-pessimists and techno-optimists. Much literature on this topic delves into their relative scientific methods, which, though important, misses the true source of the division. Where the power of these discourses lies is in their conflicting narrative focuses, which need to be understood in order to bridge the gap between them, enabling them to work together effectively.
This cleavage between techno-optimism and eco-pessimism mirrors the distinction between what Patrick Bond termed “tree-shakers” and “jam-makers”. Bond drew a line between insiders and outsiders, those who put external pressure on the system to change, focusing on climate justice, and insiders who turn to ecological modernisation and positive creation within existing systems. These radicals and moderates should not have exactly the same ideas. Arguably, by separating themselves ideologically, they can reach a broader range of audiences to achieve better progress in more areas.
However, it is dangerous to look at radicals and moderates as merely a proxy for perspectives on technological solutions. For example, some radicals advocate large-scale geoengineering, while some moderates focus more on carbon taxes and other political aspects of change. And groups' relationships with technology inform both their policy prescriptions and funding division. It is important to distinguish the narratives that underlie each camp, to enable their respective messages to be clearly presented to the world, rather than getting lost in a moralising quagmire.
Eco-pessimism has a very clear narrative. Who is the poster child for technological pessimism? Despite her fiery rhetoric, it is not Greta Thunberg, reliant on broad-based appeal, who has appeared at various “insider” events. It is precisely her ability to unite different perspectives behind her to demand action that has made her so powerful. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a better candidate. The actively polarising group is criticised for its extreme 'fear-mongering' views, and distinguishes itself from less radical groups through both means and ends. XR aims to whip up activity-generating urgency, eschewing techno-optimism because it can serve as a source of apathetic comfort. Prior technological developments have been insufficient to alter the trajectory of society without systemic change. On its webpage, it maintains that: “Life on Earth is in crisis: scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.” Strikingly, this message focuses on both the past and the present, relying on the pattern-finding capacity of the human brain to take the story to its logical conclusion about the future: ecological collapse. Making the reader engage actively like that is a recipe for further action. But this narrative of fear is difficult to manage, and can easily tip over into hopelessness.
There are various responses to XR's approach: some argue that they are going too far, aiming to discredit XR, lest they be associated with them and the disruption they cause. Others adopt a tolerant attitude, applauding their role as a part of the discourse. XR’s uniqueness lies in their ability to exclude more moderate advocates, though they share many views and techniques for self-definition. For example, XR also sets itself up against big business. With the difficulty of finding a “villain” more specific than humanity to blame for climate change, “big business” gets the short end of the stick, portrayed as callous and heartless. Even cleantech solutions are criticised for overselling empty promises.
These allegations are not without merit, but they reflect a difference in narrative and audience, rather than a normative failing on the part of the corporations. Risky, investment-heavy technologies operate in an increasingly competitive market for funding. To access the money needed for development, 'cleantech' solutions need to oversell themselves. They must deal in possibilities and predictions. The media picks up on these grandiose claims, which slot nicely into a Western, teleological perspective on development, with its worrying implications of an inevitable miracle-fix.
This story is comforting. However, it is important to distinguish between those who are less invested in climate, and who take a techno-optimist position to excuse laziness and avoid responsibility, and its true proponents. The latter gain their strength from eco-modernisation’s ability to combine a future-focused rhetoric with the purported reliability that comes from hard-science, and tools that would work independent of the fickle nature of human society.
Most activists are somewhere on the continuum between eco-pessimists and techno-optimists, and they join different pressure groups based on their specific opinions and analysis. One could argue that these people become atomised, fragmenting the movement. But in the “market” for association, some equilibrium might feasibly be reached, where the number of groups reflects the number of fundamental differences of approach. However, in the political arena, the space occupied by environmental advocates is much smaller, often relegated to a single political party. Other parties have been pressured to include environmental considerations, but green parties, where they exist, are clearly the top choice for those who want to improve environmental policy. The catch-all nature of these parties can be dangerous. They can lack policy coherence as conflicting narratives play out internally, risking the destruction their reputation. Within the parties, techno-optimism vs eco-pessimism is positioned either normatively, or as a question of intellect, as opposed to their real difference: whether they base their ideology and views on technology on the future or the past.
This divide becomes ever more relevant as societies move towards consensus on needing to act on climate change. However, the majority of research on this distinction focuses on the content of each one. There remains an unfilled niche for a broad-based study of the prevalence of different views on technology. With this, we could more closely understand where and how these views slot into different narratives.
All opinions are based on my own analysis, and may not reflect the official discourse of the groups presented.
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