Technology will not save us from climate change – but imagining new forms of society will

(The Conversation, 28 Oct 2019) Citizen action on climate change has reached a new intensity: school children by the thousands regularly skip school to protest and Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience recently caused widespread disruption in cities around the world.

Challenge and disruption is important in prompting change. But it’s also key that we consider – and show – how a zero carbon future could work in practice. This is where the field of social innovation – the development of new ideas that meet social needs – is coming of age.

When climate change was last so prominent, at the time of Kyoto, 1997, and again in the mid-2000s, most of the emphasis was on targets and treaties on the one hand, and big R&D budgets for clean tech on the other. Now there is a much better understanding that if these aren’t combined with social innovation from the bottom up, they’re unlikely to stick.

One reason for this is that cutting carbon use depends on changing social norms and behaviour as much as technology – whether local food sourcing or reducing fast fashion. Another reason is the urgent need to show the sceptics that they won’t necessarily be harmed by things like higher petrol prices or shrinking traditional industries like coal mining. A low carbon economy can mean many more jobs, for example in refurbishment or recycling e-waste.

But this requires a very different approach to innovation, in which investment in new technology is matched by investment in new ways of organising society. And investment in technology alone has dominated the last century.

Investing in hardware

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a huge shift occurred in support of institutionalised science, which moved from being primarily a military concern (better warships or rifles) or a matter for enthusiastic amateurs, to becoming much more systematic.

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The Conversation, 28 Oct 2019: Technology will not save us from climate change – but imagining new forms of society will