Technópolis – the promise of eternal bliss

For the longest time in our history, we Europeans believed that the devil would only grant us a miserable existence in this vale of tears. Real happiness for man only existed in a paradise up somewhere in heaven. In the seventeenth century, however, the Enlightenment set in. It taught us that we only had to become reasonable, then nothing would prevent us from realizing paradise here and now.

In the meantime, we have been living in the age of reason for three entire centuries, but the age-old schism of hell and paradise has not been resolved. There are those optimists, whom we can call naïve, because they promise us eternal happiness with shining eyes. They promise it now for this world of ours, not merely for the hereafter. And just like before the age of reason, they are back again: those inveterate pessimists who prophesy the imminent downfall of our world and civilization. I will call them doomsayers. As to my own choice, I readily admit that I prefer the first, the idealists, because their cause is the spreading of hope; the pessimists only spoil our mood. Politicians, of course, only listen to the idealists, because their job is to promise improvement and hope even in hopeless situations. But a third party remains. It is made up of all those who care about truth. They listen to both sides, the doomsayers as well as the optimists.

What do they tell us?

The blue-eyed optimists are not discouraged by any crisis. They go into raptures, for example, when telling us about the promise of renewables. How easy it would be to cover the entire world energy demand with solar panels in the Sahara!

Sahara area = approx. 9.2 million km2 (NASA estimate), a little less than a third of the entire African continent.

Total primary energy consumption 2019 according to IEA = 168 000 terawatt hours.

At current panel power, the area required in the Sahara is estimated to be somewhere between 0.5 to 1.3 million km2, depending on basic assumptions about panel efficacy and average solar radiation. This corresponds to one eighteenth to one seventh of total Sahara surface.

The consumption of 168 000 TWh currently takes place in only one fifth of humanity, i.e. the twenty percent of highly developed industrial nations. The remaining eighty percent would, of course, like to enjoy the same standard of living today rather than tomorrow. The energy demand for these remaining eighty per cent would thus amount to four times 168,000 = 672,000 TWh in the worst case. Thus, we have to add another four seventh to the original one seventh of the Sahara’s area. With five sevenths, we would still not have used up the entire desert area of the Sahara if we want to generate enough energy for the entire world with a standard of living like that of present-day Germany. The situation does, of course, look even more favorable once we take into account that there are still a number of other deserts on our planet. After this demonstration, the blue-eyed optimist looks at us in a rather challenging way. So, what’s the problem, he says?

The inveterate pessimist shakes his head. Cheap energy, he objects, would present us with an even bigger problem. Today it is no longer an unrealistic assumption that one day we will succeed in making nuclear fusion work. Then we would obtain energy almost free of charge, in unlimited quantities and, in the best case, without any radiating residues. But, please, what would we have to expect from such a breakthrough? With zero-cost energy supply, our assault on nature would become murderous – even more excessive than it already is. There would be no more inhibition to exploit all other scarce materials, i.e. all ores and minerals, at a much faster rate and to a much greater extent. Free energy, that would be the worst thing that could happen to humanity. We would dig up, plough up and ransack the last corners of the earth on the continents as well as in the world’s oceans. Humanity’s run on the last (non-energy) resources would be unleashed at the very moment we have opened the pandora box of nuclear fusion.

The blue-eyed idealist does not retreat. He easily rebuffs the naysayer’s argument. On the contrary, he says, any cheapening of energy will help humanity make greater leaps forward. The systematic recovery, the recycling of raw materials, has so far only failed because of the staggering costs. At present, many recycling processes consume so much energy that mining is still the cheaper alternative. If, on the other hand, the price of energy were to drop towards zero, we would be faced with a fundamentally different situation. For the first time in history, we could realize an economic system that allows unlimited sustainability. We would then be able to recover all raw materials from our products at minimal cost. Only the inevitable loss, the unfortunate fact that even with the best recycling we will never be able to recover one hundred per cent of the raw materials we originally used, would set limits to eternal sustainability. But these are a long way off. In any case, we gain a breathing space of a few thousand years. Again, the blue-eyed optimist looks at us with shining eyes. What’s the problem? We can definitely do it!

For his part, the naysayer meets this objection with a superior smile. Some might even call this smile sardonic. The man seems to be pleased that he can refute the idealist and portray his vision as naïve. The latter is not wrong in itself, he concedes. Logically, he says, it is hard to contest and technically, it is undoubtedly feasible. But logical correctness and technical feasibility has never been a sufficient cause for attaining human happiness. It is and it will remain a fact that no nation is ready to embark on the path just outlined by the optimist – and for an obvious reason. If it did, it would immediately incur the most severe disadvantages. That this is not a mere assertion but a fact can easily be illustrated by military competition. If we were as reasonable as the Enlightenment would have us believe, then all nations, at least those equally well armed, would agree to permanently freeze all further arms race. Even in a highly militarized world, eternal peace could be guaranteed if they were to take this logical step, which is, of course, both logically possible and poses no technical challenge. Why do nations nevertheless refrain from taking this obvious step (though they do not lack good will as shown by the fact that occasionally they do make such treaties)? The reason is easily understood. Good will is hampered by technological “progress”. What cannot be prevented under any circumstances in today’s world is constant technological innovation. It shifts the military balance at any moment in unpredictable ways in favor of one nation and thus to the disadvantage of others. For fear of no longer being able to withstand an empowered  rival, technical „progress“ keeps the general arms race going and thus ensures that reason is unable to do anything against the obvious madness.

It is the same with our current economic system. Those who have access to all forms of energy, including fossil fuels, gain a huge advantage. They can make maximum use of all existing production facilities and thus gain an advantage over any competitor who is rapidly scrapping existing facilities in order to run new production plants, means of transport or heat houses exclusively with green energy. Countries like China are massively expanding the green sector, but they are wary of reducing nuclear or fossil energy to any extent if they risk disadvantages in international competition. After all, the evils of climate change affect everybody – the biggest polluters as well as climate-neutral pioneers. So unfortunately, this is common logic too: In international competition, it is not the blue-eyed idealist who wins in this race of humanity against itself, but the one who, with the greatest ruthlessness, puts his own interests ahead of the common good.

At this point at the latest, the blue-eyed optimist must admit his own impotence. He must finally face the fact that in the history of our species, every technical innovation has never been used in the way hoped for and described by idealism. The production of bronze and iron after the Neolithic Revolution offered mankind the possibility of using ploughs to loosen the soil and produce food on an increasing scale. But from the very beginning, this technical achievement was equally used to produce swords to kill other people. The large-scale use of coal put an end to forest dieback in Europe, but it did not take two centuries for fossil energies, supplemented by oil and gas, to become an acute threat: a threat to the world’s climate. And nuclear fission? It was supposed to provide the world with cheap energy, but meanwhile it threatens humanity with nuclear self-extinction. Social media was supposed to bring democracy to every corner of the earth and every individual because they can put forward their opinions on an equal footing. In fact, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are threatening to become instruments of manipulation that are insidiously corroding democracy. And this is the situation in all fields of our so-called „progress“. While one half of humanity is obsessed with opening up ever new areas of application for technical knowledge and technical gadgets, another part of humanity has set out with equal obsession to develop all conceivable harmful programs, harmful substances, harmful processes, harmful weapons, in order to create disadvantages for its respective opponents. Our technical „progress“ has equipped us for the first time with the means to exterminate all life on earth and to even exterminate ourselves. This obsession of our species to use all the achievements of reason for good or evil is not mentioned by the blue-eyed idealists and optimists. They simply sweep this whole half of our Conditio Humana under the carpet, as if it did not exist. Yes, they are right that logically there is nothing to prevent us from improving our world in thousand different ways. We must also agree with them when they say that the technical means are there to achieve this goal. They simply overlook the most pivotal fact. Human nature, as it has existed for more than a million years, reliably prevents us from actually realizing what is logically possible and technically feasible in beneficial ways only. As in all our history so far, we will use our reason and the technical means at our disposal with equal zeal to harm ourselves and nature, and perhaps even to destroy both altogether. Reason, enlightenment, technology and science have promised us eternal happiness. We should have known that this could also lead to eternal calamity.

In view of this never-ending contradiction between a beneficial use of technology for the good of man and an evil one that harms the common good; in view furthermore of our awareness that the effects of technological progress cannot raise our happiness beyond a certain maximum, while its evil impacts threaten us with nothing less than extinction, it seems no longer certain that we should really give preference to the hope-spreading optimists over the doomsayers when the first want to combat the present technology-induced crises with more and more technology. Doomsayers are unsympathetic people, I readily grant this point. The are abhorred by politicians as they are the declared enemies of all ready-made populist approaches to our present-day problems. But doomsayers are harmless compared to the blue-eyed idealist. For these are dangerous pied pipers because their solutions are so seductively simple. They declare the core of the problem, technical progress, to be its solution.

This said, we certainly do not fall in love with the doomsayer. He may be right when insisting that in the past history of our species there has never been a lasting equilibrium between neighboring powers that did not eventually turn into war. But when he then tries to convince us that there will be no permanent balance of power between Russia, China and the US, most of us stop listening. Or when, with a view to modern competitive economy, he demonstrates that states will never voluntarily renounce growth. Any state, he says, that would be the first to take this step acts in exactly the same way as a nation that unilaterally disarms while none follows suit. Perhaps the doomsayer is right, so most of us will say, but what use can there be of a statement showing the road to the abyss – the end of all hope?

There is, however, in the midst between idealism and pessimism, a third and independent position. As far as I am concerned, I would like to take this stance and call it the position of moderate reason, which neither falls prey to naïve wishful thinking nor capitulates to pessimism. In her recent book The End of Capitalism, Ulrike Herrmann gave a hopeful example of such a middle course. During the war against Hitler, the British had imposed a private, but state-supervised planned economy. People were forced to give up their previous level of consumption, which was now strictly rationed. In retrospect, it must seem a miracle that the British not only endured such renunciation but even adopted and approved of it with astonishing willingness. On the one hand, it had created an unusual degree of solidarity, for the rich were not allotted more than the poor. Solidarity in the face of hardship, such a demand was very convincing. On the other hand, the British were faced with an existential threat. Renunciation appeared to be the most efficient solution.

The example is still convincing today. I agree with Ulrike Herrmann’s judgement. I, too, cannot think of a better solution to overcome today’s crises than through renunciation. As far as technology is concerned, reason would force us to keep a sense of moderation. Without technology, the survival of eight billion people can no longer be ensured, but its continued unlimited and uncontrolled „progress“ presents us with the greatest threat imaginable.

The example of the British feeds optimism, gives hope but getting there is the biggest and real problem. The necessity of renunciation is completely incomprehensible to the people of poor states, i.e. the majority of today’s humanity, but it is just as incomprehensible to spoiled citizens of affluent nations who generally prefer to overlook the crises. Obviously, the British were faced with a different situation. For them, the crisis did not come insidiously and did not have to be circumstantially conjured up by experts with tables of abstract figures. The British saw and heard the German bombers in the sky and experienced the destruction they caused on a daily basis. In contrast, our planet is not threatened by any external hostile power that can daily be seen and heard by its inhabitants. Even the full extent of the mutual military threat of the rivaling superpowers is evident only to the initiated. And only they understand that economic competition is much more elementary, much more far-reaching, much more threatening to all life on the planet than the conquest of a country like England was more than half a century ago. For most people this is an entirely abstract realization. If they close their ears to such Cassandra calls, they are more likely to be content to live much better today than any generation before them. The threat we are facing is not a sudden hostile assault as happened to the United Kingdom. Our present-day crises come insidiously and occur in isolated places at a time. That makes them infinitely more difficult to avert.

Unfortunately, we cannot do without a dash of pessimism at this point. If renunciation still seems absurd not only to the blue-eyed optimists and, of course, to politicians, but above all to the majority of all people on our planet then we have to admit with the historian Arnold Toynbee that only a truly startling event will shake us out of our slumber – an event of the kind that Hitler’s invasion of their country represented for the British. Arnold Toynbee spoke of a minor catastrophe. We can only hope that it really will indeed remain a minor one.