Meeting at the Intersection

Sharing resources to expose tech solutionism in climate narratives. By Katrin Fritsch and Sander van der Waal

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‘Tech won’t save us!’ is a foundational principle for digital rights communities around the world. It guides the work of the researchers and activists exposing the misleading narratives that are propagated by start-ups, big tech and governments – whether that be providing proof that the internet does not just promote freedom but can also harm and silence communities, or conducting extensive research on how the use of algorithms does not lead to collective liberation but actively reinforces systems of oppression.1

This crucial work by digital rights communities consistently shows how emerging technologies need to be assessed critically, because all too often these technologies do not solve social injustices, but rather reproduce and reinforce them. As Evgeny Morozov2 and others have pointed out, social and environmental problems cannot be solved through technology alone, and as the world wakes up to the climate crisis, a new wave of misleading narratives is building.

We already have the tools to expose the deceptive nature of claims made by start-ups and tech companies that they can ‘fix’ the climate with the help of ‘green’ or ‘smart’ technologies; now, we also need to expose how the harm inflicted by this ‘technological solutionism’ extends beyond these promised quick fixes, to obscure the very questions and issues at stake. The tools exist – now they need to be shared.

During several sessions at the Digital Futures Gathering, we worked on the intersection of digital rights (or digitalisation more broadly) and environmental justice. What surfaced throughout was the emergence of technological solutionism in narratives concerning the climate crisis – and the need to counter these narratives by dismantling their underlying assumptions.

One of the most prevalent narratives we identified follows the line that, since the ‘digital’ is not ‘material’, it is green by default. The assumption can be found in statements such as:

‘The internet is a cloud’, ‘The power of digitalisation lies in reducing material costs’, ‘The green transition is only possible with the help of digital technologies’, ‘Blockchain technologies can help track and measure carbon emissions’, ‘AI technologies are the solution to the climate crisis’.

But the internet is not a cloud. It relies on massive physical infrastructures that include deep sea cables, data centres and millions of pieces of consumer equipment. The internet is the world’s largest coal-powered machine, because most of its data centres still don’t run on renewables; electrification, a cornerstone of the green transition, relies on batteries – the lithium for which is mined from Indigenous lands in Latin America; and e-waste (such as smartphones, laptops and tablets) is currently the biggest wastestream in the world.

In ‘Bigger, more, better, faster,’ Paz Peña, who also attended the sessions, writes that ‘we must consider the material cost of the ethereal imaginary of digitisation.’ What we urgently need is a more holistic and so more complete understanding of the impact of digitisation on the environment – and for this to become the basis upon which decisions are made about the changes needed. Examples of how we can truly see the impact of the internet include work by Joana Varon, Ingrid Burrington, and Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler. Their works reveal the materiality of digital technologies as a strategy for countering technological solutionism in climate narratives. They also acknowledge the global interconnectedness of digital technologies across countries – and the local harms these connections can cause.

Debunking tech solutionism in climate debates is a necessary task that digital rights communities are well-placed to support. They already have at their disposal many methods, experiences and resources from the decades-long struggle for digital rights that also apply to the climate crisis – whether that be the ability to critically assess technologies, or knowledge of how to best dismantle powerful techno-solutionist narratives. This needs to sit alongside the acknowledgment from digital rights communities that they still have a lot to learn from other social movements about inclusion and cross-collaboration. An open offer by digital rights communities to share their tools and knowledge with climate justice communities will be the first important step towards this kind of honest collaboration and the just climate futures we all want to see.

This essay is not solely our own work, but emerged out of the many conversations we had at the Digital Futures Gathering. We want to say ‘thank you’ to all the groups and individuals involved. We are looking forward to continuing this journey at the intersection of climate justice and digital rights.

Katrin Fritsch works, writes and researches at the intersection of technology, feminism and the environment.
Sander van der Waal is Research Director at Waag Future Lab.

1: See, for example, the work of Ruha Benjamin or Joy Buolamwini
2: Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. New York: Public Affairs