Academic journal article Environmental Values

The New Prometheans: Technological Optimism in Climate Change Mitigation Modelling

Academic journal article Environmental Values

The New Prometheans: Technological Optimism in Climate Change Mitigation Modelling

Article excerpt


Technological change modelling (TCM) is quietly transforming the landscape of environmental debate. It provides a powerful new basis for technological optimism, which has long been a key battleground. The technique is at the heart of mainstream climate change mitigation policies and greatly strengthens environmentalism over ecologism. It seems to show that technological change can solve the problem. I argue that the models employ a flawed understanding of technological change and that policies based on them are a major gamble. The article aims to begin a wider debate on TCM, offering a defence of ecologism rooted in the history of technology and SCOT literatures.


Technological optimism, sustainable development, ecologism, social construction of technological change, technological change modelling


The reified notion of 'technology' occupies two quite distinct roles in environmental debate. On one hand, it is the source of degradation and thus the root of all green thought. On the other, it is the arguable solution to the problems it has created. Those who believe the latter are referred to by greens as 'technological optimists', 'cornucopians', or 'prometheans' (Dobson 2007, Dryzek 2012). They have long been an object of critique in green thought. Technological optimism, often tied into the idea of progress, plays a powerful role in sustaining the prevalent mode of capitalist production in the face of its environmental consequences.

By 'green' I am referring to the 'ecologism' of Andrew Dobson (2007) and all who broadly identify with it. This ideology maintains that limits to economic growth must be respected if sustainability is to be achieved. It should be contrasted with 'environmentalism', a reformist approach to environmental degradation that appears in policy circles as 'sustainable development'. It is my contention that technological optimism makes sustainable development intellectually utterable. It was born from the belief that economic growth must be maintained and that some way must be found to reconcile it with environmental sustainability. This reconciliation takes the form of a deferral. The two ends may not meet now, but will do so in the future. The Brundtland Report (Brundtland 1987: 16) makes this clear:

[the] concept of sustainable development does imply limits--not
absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of
technology and social organization on environmental resources and by
the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities.
But technology and social organization can be both managed and improved
to make way for a new era of economic growth.

This statement, which is really a concise summary of environmentalism from the report that founded it, offers an important lesson: 'technology' is at its most powerful in environmental policy not when it harnesses what is, but when it harnesses what is possible.

Green thought defines itself against the idea that economic growth is limitless. However, technological optimism has moved beyond the simplistic promethean form that historically underpinned this view of growth. The intellectual justifications for growth-focused environmentalism have become much more sophisticated; a new prometheanism has emerged. Environmental modelling, powered by models of technological change, is now the most significant locus of technological optimism. It underpins the IPCC's emissions scenarios and most mainstream policy documents (Pulver and VanDeveer, 2009). Worryingly, green thought has not caught up. Outside of economics and the modelling community, discussions of technological optimism in sustainability literatures do not yet take account of these developments (see for instance Bluhdorn 2007, Illge and Schwarze 2009, Kallis 2011, Brand and Fischer 2013).

This article focuses on the IPCC because of the latter's key role in climate change mitigation policy-guidance throughout the world and because it represents the state-of-the-art in modelling research. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.