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Boris the Wizard: Techno-Optimism in the Quest for Net Zero

Technology, Media & Telecomms
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)

By Will McMyn

It has been announced that Boris Johnson will chair a new National Science and Technology Council and he was quoted as saying: “With the right direction, pace and backing, we can breathe life into many more scientific and technological breakthroughs that transform the lives of people across the UK and the world”. 

The Prime Minister certainly seems excited by the power of human ingenuity and the promise of technical innovation. The government is upping total research funding from about £15bn a year to £22bn by 2025 and, to underpin its net zero ambitions, is ploughing hundreds of millions into R&D in areas such as advanced modular reactors, carbon capture, electrolysis of hydrogen, and alternative aviation fuels. 

Andrew Griffith MP, the UK’s ‘Net Zero Business Champion’, has written in The Times today about the role of technology in meeting the challenge of climate change. He wrote: “make no mistake… it is technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and the seeking of risk and reward that is going to save us.”

The government’s apparent faith in future technologies has provoked concern and criticism from some quarters, including a group of academics who argued in a report earlier this year that, given the urgency of the climate crisis, we cannot afford to wait around for breakthrough technologies. Instead, they argued, we should plan on the basis of some incremental improvements to existing, proven technologies; and we should have a frank public debate about necessary changes to our collective lifestyles – particularly our diets and the frequency with which we travel by plane.  

When John Kerry, the US Climate Special Envoy, recently downplayed the lifestyle and behavioural changes that Americans will need to make, and talked up the potential of future technologies, he was sharply criticised by academics and environmental groups. 

Two stories in the news last week confirmed to me that Boris Johnson and his government are Wizards, not Prophets. Bear with me and I will explain.

The first story was about a new report from the Committee on Climate Change which warned that the government is making poor progress on preparing the UK for increasingly likely and more severe floods, heatwaves and droughts. The report warned that homes and buildings, business supply chains, farms and food supplies, national infrastructure, and public services all need to be made much more resilient.

The second story was about a new nuclear fusion plant that will be built in Oxfordshire. Nuclear fusion offers a tantalising promise of limitless power that is clean and safe. But despite several decades of research, the technology remains elusive and the new plant (at a cost of some US$400m) will not actually generate any power: it will be for demonstration and academic purposes only.  

In my mind, the two stories are connected. Could it be that ministers have not focused on shoring up our national resilience to climate risks because they are confident that breakthrough technologies will ride to the rescue and stop climate change in its tracks before any of the Committee on Climate Change’s nightmarish scenarios come to pass? 

In his fascinating 2019 book The Wizard and The Prophet, Charles C. Mann proposed that people fall into two broad categories when they think about humans’ place in the world. Wizards are techno-optimists, firm believers in economic growth as the key to our collective wellbeing, and have faith that human ingenuity can allow us to transcend the natural boundaries that constrain other species. 

Prophets, on the other hand, are sceptical about the ability of technology to preserve a habitable planet, see GDP as the wrong measure of human success, and believe that humans can only thrive by living within nature’s boundaries and cutting back consumption that is devouring finite resources. 

Of course, whether you are a Wizard or a Prophet will be bound up with your personal, political, and moral standpoint. Unsurprisingly the two camps view each other with deep suspicion. Wizards, while pointing out that capitalism has lifted billions of people out of poverty, think that Prophets are tree-huggers that would rather we had never evolved beyond being hunter-gatherers. 

For their part, Prophets view Wizards as apologists for an economic model that is at odds with sustaining life on earth; irresponsible in their reluctance to take tough decisions now in their misguided belief that future technology will save us; and arrogant in their view that humans can ride roughshod over the delicate ecosystems upon which all life depends. 

It is convenient for the Prime Minister that his Wizardly instincts also allow him to take the easier political path. 

Boris Johnson will have been out of office for a decade or two by the time we know whether nuclear fusion (arguably the ultimate embodiment of Wizardly techno-optimism) will succeed in time to make a difference to our efforts to tackle climate change. In the meantime, throwing millions at R&D is much safer political ground than telling voters they need to eat less beef or that they can no longer jet off abroad for their holidays.