Last week, I was surprised by a column by Bob van Vliet that asked the honest question of why so few TU Delft students are activists. As someone who has glued themselves to objects to protest for a stronger climate policy, I have often asked my peers the same thing. They give two kinds of answers. The first is that it seems that people feel overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the crisis. They find it hard to believe that the actions of a single person can have an impact. The second answer lies in the strong belief that we can technologically innovate ourselves out of the crisis. The latter is false.
I think this belief is founded on the idea that innovation can optimise our emissions to necessary levels. This belief is an easy way out, as it implies that we don’t need to change our behaviour. Instead, more investment in technology will save us. I will not deny the merits of technological developments, but I do think this is too limited a view of the climate crisis.
Is technology stopping the climate crisis right now?
Let us first look at how well technology is doing right now. In recent years, we have seen an increase in the use of renewable energy and electric vehicles, making green consumer choices like renewables and vegan food (in Dutch) more affordable. So it definitely seems like technological innovation is doing its part in minimising ecological exploitation. However, we are far away from our climate goals. Even worse, right now an increase in global emissions in 2030 is expected. With carbon capture not being a viable option for a long time to come, we need to look to solutions outside of technology.
So is there more at play here?
This is nothing new for activists. They have been trying to focus the conversation on changing the economic system that rewards the exploitation of the planet and increases inequality. For this, we need strong government policies and enforcement. For people who work in tech and for students like me, this means we need to leave our comfortable belief in technology, become aware of its limitations and look for other ways to deal with the climate crisis.
Let us try to influence society and politics
At the moment, we are concentrating on carbon emissions (carbon tunnel vision). We are largely ignoring problems like overconsumption, biodiversity loss, physical and mental health impacts, and inequality. These are but few of the many sides of the climate crisis that can’t be solved through innovation. They require more political action or even a change in the foundation of our economy and our relationship to nature.
What should we do next?
I hold the belief that societal change at this scale is achieved in three ways: with innovation, at a personal level, and through politics. Technical students are obviously working on the first. Why stop there? Meaningful change also happens while minimising the use of animal products, replacing short distance flights by travelling by train, and, especially, inspiring our friends to do the same.
But meaningful change goes further than the individual, especially in the case of the climate crisis, so let us also try to influence society and politics. This can be done by joining a political party or NGOs, or going into activism. There is enough yet to be done. Right now, making green choices is an option most people don’t have, especially those who don’t have the finances for it. We should shape society in such a way that everyone can make ethical choices. Companies are often free to keep their destructive practices unchanged without any accountability. Furthermore, poor countries are hit unequally by the climate crisis, and they need all the help they can get to survive. The fact that climate reparations were discussed is good news, but overall COP27 has been a disappointment devoid of any strong resolutions. Let’s keep pressuring our governments to take meaningful action!
Mels Habold is a masterstudent in applied physics.