Innovation, be it social, economic, or technological, is often hailed as the panacea for all our troubles.
Arguably, the single greatest threat to our continued existence on this planet is climate change. And we would not be facing this threat were it not for human ingenuity. After a mere two centuries or so of industrialization, our innovative activity on this planet has produced such a quantity of greenhouse gases that we are perilously close to the tipping point when climate change will accelerate on its own power, and nothing we do anymore will be able to stop it. Provided, that is, we don’t have a global nuclear meltdown first.
So, it’s no exaggeration to say that human innovation could actually kill us. Were it not for all those technological innovations that brought us mass production and the modern capitalist economy, we would be not be in the unfortunate position we are in now. But now that we are here, what are we to do?
One obvious answer is that we need to innovate further, innovate faster, innovate smarter, innovate ourselves out of the climate crisis. We need to develop new and better technologies, rethink our outmoded infrastructures, and possibly radically alter our economic system. We need change and we need it fast. Innovations in solar and wind power are already becoming part of the solution, but we need more, more, more.
But if innovation is what got us into this mess in the first place, what makes us think it’s going to get us out of it?
Let me be clear. First, I acknowledge that the Industrial Revolution and all its technological innovations have brought us tremendous benefits, economically and materially speaking anyway. Were it not for industrialization, our modern, comfy existence would be totally unrecognizable. Second, I welcome the move away from fossil fuels towards more sustainable sources like wind and solar energy as part of the solution to our current climate crisis.
But we also have to recognize how short sighted we humans are. Did anyone in the nineteenth century have any clue that the shift from handmade to mass produced could ultimately change the climate to such a degree that it could threaten our very existence on this planet? It’s doubtful.
We can’t anticipate all the ways in which our innovations can go wrong, so blindly following the path of innovation strikes me as a dangerous proposition. We innovate to solve problems, but those innovations create new problems of their own, which requires more innovation, until we innovate ourselves into oblivion. Perhaps we need to take a step back, both in terms of taking a critical stance on innovation, and also in terms of returning to some older, traditional methods.
Now, I’m not saying we need to return to living in caves without running water or electricity. With the population of the Earth over seven billion already, this would not be feasible except for a few, and thus the impact on climate change would be negligible in the grand scheme of things. But there are ways to wind back the clock on innovation that might actually help us.
Take agriculture, for example. Granted, when innovative humans first started to cultivate crops and breed animals in the Neolithic Period, it was a major game-changer for humanity, resulting in longer life expectancy, larger populations, and the beginning of civilization. But look at where we are now. We’ve gone from small, organic farms to these huge industrialized facilities. Livestock are pumped with antibiotics because they’re kept in such cramped, filthy factory farms. And crops are sprayed with pesticides, which poison the soil and pollute the water. And what does all this industrialized food do to the people eating it? It seems to me, the way forward here is actually to take a step backwards and return to more small, organic farms, to do things more like our ancestors used to do it.
A common lament of our times is that “They don’t make things like they used to.” More than just an expression of nostalgia, this refrain captures a lot of what is wrong with the current obsession with innovation. It used to be that you could buy a machine or appliance of some sort and it would last for decades. Because it was built that way. That was its value. Now we have planned obsolescence. Products are made with cheap, shoddy materials so they will fall apart quickly, thus necessitating the purchase of more and more stuff. New, improved, updated products are always hitting the market with innovative new features the previous model was sorely lacking. And can you really live with yesterday’s product today?
Take that item, indispensible for life in the twenty-first century, the smart phone. They cost several hundred dollars to purchase new, then they’re discarded after a few years. And for what? So we can all spend more time staring at screens instead of directly interacting with friends and family? And when they become obsolete, which they do very quickly, they just add to the huge amount of junk piling up in our landfills. Thanks, innovation!
It might be starting to sound like my problem is not with innovation per se, but with consumer capitalism. But I don’t think the two pull apart so easily. In order to keep selling us stuff, the capitalists have to keep reinventing their products, marketing them as "new and improved." Consumer capitalism is both propelled by innovation and it provokes further innovation to sustain itself, so it's a vicious cycle. Of course, ultimately the entire endeavor is unsustainable. There cannot be infinite growth based on finite resources, and no amount of innovation is going to change that basic truth.
Perhaps the reason I’m so critical of innovation is that I've only focused on the material, on the technological. But there are other kinds of innovations, like social or cultural innovations. The two often go hand in, but we can think about them separately. Consider how attitudes towards women and minorities have changed in the last century or two. The idea of a human right was once innovative, even if it’s something we now take for granted in our cosmopolitan world. There’s a sense in which innovation and human progress go hand in hand, though sometimes changes are slow and incremental rather than fast and abrupt. So, not all human progress is a result of innovation.
But I’m not trying to argue that all innovation is bad either, or that we should, or even could, stop innovating. Innovating may very well be part of what it is to be human. And we genuinely have innovation to thank for a lot of our achievements. But innovation can have many unforeseen negative consequences, which we are learning, now that we're facing this global climate crisis. If we don’t take a critical stance on innovation, we may face many more grave dangers. We can acknowledge the ways in which innovation has benefitted us, but we must also recognize its dangers and its limitations.
I am reminded of that discerning insight the character of Galileo offers towards the end of Brecht’s play of the same name.
“I take it that the intent of science is to ease human existence. If you give way to coercion, science can be crippled, and your new machines may simply suggest new drudgeries. Should you, then, in time, discover all there is to be discovered, your progress must be a progress away from the bulk of humanity. The gulf might even grow so wide that the sound of your cheering at some new achievement would be echoed by a universal howl of horror.” – Bertolt Brecht, Galileo
With all the material prosperity we have achieved since the Industrial Revolution, we have not yet managed to solve global poverty or economic inequality. Indeed, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow at an alarming rate. And we’re only going to see more and more job losses as the innovations of robotics and artificial intelligence replace even more workers, making the income gap even bigger.
So, should we be looking toward innovation to solve all these global problems? Or will innovation ultimately kill us?