Role of Technology in Current Ecological Problems

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Alf Hornborg interviewed by Adam Robbert & JP Hayes.


"Alf Hornborg, professor in the department of Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden has long been untangling the tightly fused networks that merge the material dimensions of the environment with the cultural processes of society. “Machine Fetishism” Hornborg’s term for the way in which we have been mystified by technology highlights the links between technology and asymmetries in global exchange and uncovers the relationship between ecology and power. As technological devices multiply exponentially in a vain attempt to make our lives “efficient,” “luxurious” and “productive,” Hornborg, restless in his critique of technocapitalism, reminds us that on planet earth everything is a zero-sum game- one person’s gain is always another’s loss. Last January we caught up with Professor Hornborg to see where his latest thinking on machines, money and climate change stand and how we, as the concerned and informed, can intervene to make a difference.

Q: You have suggested that the difficulties in understanding the relationship between the environment, the economy and technology arise partly out of the separation between the social and natural sciences within the university. Bringing the natural and social sciences together implies entangling material dimensions of the environment with the cultural processes of society. How has this split mystified our understanding of the relationships between ecology and economics, and how is this affecting our ability to respond to major events such as the mass extinction of species, climate change and global inequality?

It is becoming increasingly obvious that material processes in the biosphere are very much intertwined with cultural aspects such as our ways of thinking and our consumption patterns. The most obvious example is perhaps climate change, which we know is largely driven by our patterns of consumption. If ecologists look at the biosphere as if there were no human societies in it, and economists look at societies as if they didn’t depend on the biosphere, none of them will know how to handle things like climate change. As long as economists continue to think that the only relevant metric for measuring global trade is money, they will not see the asymmetric net transfers of real resources such as energy and matter that make technological expansion possible within some areas of the world.

Q: Your analysis of technology as a globally situated event that requires the establishment of multiple asymmetric economic linkages to be in place raises questions about the role of technology in current ecological problems. If technology, and in particular machine technology, requires inequalities in the terms of global trade, how are we to assess the appropriate use and level of technology employed in solving ecological problems?

I don’t think modern technology will be of much use in solving ecological problems, because modern technology is basically a way of shuffling around resources and problems between different social groups. For example, by shifting to ethanol European car drivers may think they are becoming sustainable, but Brazilians engaged in growing sugar cane may be growing less sustainable as a result. Solving ecological problems should not be about finding new technological solutions, which generally means shifting the problems onto someone else, but about developing new economies and lifestyles which reduce environmental degradation.


Q: In your analysis of the industrial revolution you suggest that the “technomass” of industrial civilization is now competing with the “biomass” for living space on planet earth. How are we to approach the reality that we are already thoroughly enmeshed within a technosphere that now seems to require our continued maintenance (so as not to leak the wrong toxic substances into the wrong environments) and the fact the we need to be equally attentive to the livelihood of the biosphere which we depend upon for life?

The sooner we stop prioritizing the metabolic needs of our “technomass”, at the expense of human and other biomass, the better. Our technological fixes are no less absurd than the fetishism that brought earlier civilizations to collapse, whether through overinvestment in armies (Rome), temples (Maya), or megalithic statues (Easter Island)." (

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See also Alf Hornborg on: Do We Need Two Currencies?