Magical technology and the colonialism vanish trick
BLOG: Climate Confessions
“Funding clean technology is the way to avoid climate disaster”
— Bill Gates, October 2021 [emphasis added] [i]
As the dystopian consequences of climate change arrive on Europe’s shores, from storms and floods to droughts and forest fires, the political landscape seems increasingly defined by two extremes: in one corner stand those who deny the severity of unfolding events; in the other stand the self-proclaimed “Last Generation” fighting for political action. Amidst this noise from the margins, it is easy to miss the extremity of the centre.
Plenty of readers will take Bill Gates’ comments as so obvious as to be banal. “Okay, great” we sigh, and move on, in search of juicier news. But allow us, for a moment, to make the mundane strange.
Many have long marvelled at humans’ capacity for technological innovation. Especially now, amid cascading environmental crises, technology seems to take on a magical quality. It becomes the repository of people's last remaining hopes. Even for us, the authors, who advocate for societal change as much as technological innovation, we have strong sympathy with this position. It is hard not to hope that something will arrive at the last minute to save us when all else fails. We also acknowledge the many great things technological innovation has achieved. But in this piece, we want to click our fingers, break the spell, and alert people to what is being hidden by the magician's smoke. Holding faith with technological innovation alone is not only high risk: it ignores [ii] the exploitation of people and planet on which it depends.
The secret of magic
Magic is a difficult word to articulate. Widely used at the height of colonization to condescendingly characterize the beliefs of indigenous peoples, magic referred to the attempt to bring about change in the here and now through appeal to a higher power. Max Weber, who consolidated this understanding, nostalgically observed the loss of magic in modern societies, which had become "disenchanted". The veil had been lifted. What was beneath was deeply disappointing. But there was no going back.
Weber's characterisation of modernity stuck, and in contemporary parlance, magic is most often used as a rejoinder to the projects of political foes, and means something like "to believe in the power of things for which there is no evidence". But we want to challenge the use of magic as derogatory and as only applying to some times and people. [ii] We think of magic as "the feeling that an intense lifeforce or transformative power resides in an object, event, or technology against the odds, or without sufficient evidence". There are three qualities here:
- It’s a feeling rather than an articulated belief, so potentially anyone can be influenced by it, regardless of whether their rational self considers that feeling justifiable.
- It has a salvific quality, in that it convinces us another world, or the endless continuation of this world, is possible
- There is insufficient evidence and/or its “true” power exceeds the evidence.
This definition allows us to see that magical thinking does not increase or decrease but rather shifts according to time and culture, without assuming that everything is magic. For example, our definition is blurred enough to help us see that many people imbue money and fashion items with the magical quality of making them happy, but it is closed enough to exclude many children's obsession with marshmallows. As Walter Mischel [iii] demonstrated, a child can so deeply desire a marshmallow as to behave irrationally. Given the choice, many children will take one marshmallow immediately rather than receive two later. But their feeling is one of deep desire, rather than a faith that consuming that marshmallow might transform reality as they know it. Thinking of magic as nearly ubiquitous also allows us to take a critical step: the point is not to distinguish who is and is not thinking magically, but rather what is being imbued with magical qualities, and, crucially for this piece, what is being ignored as a result.
We want to argue that, like a smoke and mirrors trick, magic brings a sense of wonder and admiration but, in so doing, can also distract us from what is really happening. Imbuing certain technologies with magical qualities can prevent us from recognizing uncomfortable truths.
What if our investment in technological solutions to climate change amounts to magical thinking? What might this magic, the myths that underpin it, and the rituals we construct around it imply? What actions might they seemingly legitimize?
Technological innovations have long been assumed to be the driving force not only behind creating growth and prosperity but also in distinguishing the 'developed' from the 'developing' world. Western economies, in particular, have achieved remarkable economic growth through technological innovation, which has been associated with improved living conditions, extended life expectancies, and growing wealth. We have become captivated by, if fearful of, the transformative potential of technology. This ambivalence plays into the myths we share about how to navigate an increasingly complex world: from The Terminator and Her, to The Iron Giant and Wall-E.
Over the past 50 years, though, some scholars have demonstrated increasing concern with the focus on technological innovation alone. The most common criticism is that myopically focusing on tech is too high risk: what if the solutions we are seeking never arrive? [iv] While we share this unease, our point here is different: even if the innovations arrive on time, their development necessarily involves the continued exploitation of people and places and, ultimately, the loss of lives and livelihoods. We thus follow others in stressing that tech on its own is not enough. We also need to think about transformative social innovation. [v]
Notwithstanding the social awakening among academics, economic and political discussions often maintain the belief that technological innovation will rescue us. With this in mind, we'd like to invite you to embark on a thought experiment: What if our investment in technological solutions to climate change amounts to magical thinking? What might this magic, the myths that underpin it, and the rituals we construct around it imply? What actions might they seemingly legitimize?
It’s time to click our fingers. This intense, salvific investment is distracting us from real-world suffering.
Could it be magic? Emotions and salvation
If magic is a feeling, then we should expect certain emotions to be associated with it. While early theorists display colonial arrogance in their characterization of magic and its practitioners, we can nonetheless read around the edges of their arguments, to identify such emotions.
On the part of those enthralled by magic, the most commonly occurring emotions are hope and desperation. [vi] On the part of magical practitioners, we see extraordinary self-belief and pride. [vii] Precisely the same range of emotions are found among the supporters and developers of technological innovation respectively.
As we have seen, prominent advocates of clean technologies like Bill Gates see it as the key to averting climate catastrophe. They consider the focus on such technologies to be the crowning achievement of the Paris Climate Conference. Similarly, the clean tech investment surge brings with it a sense of hope, and investors express excitement, particularly regarding nuclear fusion as a "near-limitless, safe, clean, source of…energy". [viii] Such narratives of limitless green production and consumption, along with the associated emotions, are further fueled by visions of a bright and promising future. This sentiment is shared by US climate diplomat John Kerry, who proclaimed in a Financial Times interview that when considering climate tech innovation, "over the next 10 years, things are going to happen that may even change the whole game". [ix] As consumers and producers, we invest innovation with a transformative power. It fills us with hope, excitement, and perhaps even a touch of pride in the human ingenuity required to invent it.
The colonial vanishing trick
It is useful to briefly recall Marx's notion of commodity fetishism, which is described as "the mistaken view that the value of a commodity is intrinsic and the corresponding failure to appreciate the investment of labour that went into its production." [x] Our emotional investment in certain goods distracts us from the exploitation that goes into their production. Alongside others, [xi] we wish to incorporate this idea into our reading of magical technology, only elaborating beyond human labour to include the suffering of the more-than-human world. When it becomes fetishized, clean tech becomes shrouded in the magician's smoke. Through the haze, the exploitation required to sustain it is no longer seen.
Whereas some present clean tech as a source of salvation, not only for Europe but also for the Global South, in reality, we have seen the continuation of colonial, extractivist practices in our engagement with green tech. It has even been suggested, recalling how 19th-century powers carved up the continent, that we are witnessing a new “scramble for Africa” as China, the West, and non-state actors wrestle for control of land for mining and solar farms. [xii] Insecure, unsafe, and child labour abound. At what cost are we willing to maintain our way of life?
Beyond this surface of excitement lies a deeper hope and promise—a promise of salvation and healing. If we can discover, disseminate, implement, and increase acceptance of the right innovations, we can not only continue to live as we have in the past but also improve our living standards. The promise is that we don't have to relinquish our practices, structures, cultures, or individual advancement. We don't have to let go of increased consumption and comfort with each new generation. Basically: fossil freedom without the emissions. Innovation gives us the assurance that we can "innovate away" the need for behavioural changes, even defy the laws of nature by decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation.
What is more, clean tech is imbued with a healing quality as it allows us to undo past harms. Places and people previously exploited will now also be guaranteed the possibility of continuous economic growth, the guarantee of “catching up”, without the threat of planetary degradation.
It’s time to click our fingers. This intense, salvific investment is distracting us from real-world suffering.
Beyond this surface of excitement lies a deeper hope and promise—a promise of salvation and healing. If we can discover, disseminate, implement, and increase acceptance of the right innovations, we can not only continue to live as we have in the past but also improve our living standards.
From disenchantment to displaced enchantment
Franquesa, who has made a similar argument to ours, stresses that we must begin to disenchant clean technologies as a means of exposing the exploitation on which they depend. Let’s call this the disenchantment imperative. [xiii] The problem with the disenchantment imperative is that it erroneously assumes that "we" (usually, white, male, Western, well-educated) moderns can somehow rise above the fog of irrationality. [xiv] It demands that each time we spot new religion-like behaviours forming, our job is to expose them and restore rationality. Conversely, not only does this not work, but it also lulls us into a false sense of security, making us at least as vulnerable to magical thinking as those we criticise.
Against the demand to disenchant, we believe that we absolutely do require magical thinking to confront the challenges ahead. However, we must critically reflect on and assume responsibility for the types of magic and myths we embrace and share. So what might an alternative look like?
One phenomenon that is widely associated with magic but which eludes techno-optimists is the idea of a deeper sense of connectedness between humans and the more-than-human world. [xv] From this way of thinking, magic is not “discovered” in humans’ capacity to transcend the natural world and its unbearable limits, but rather emerges in our embrace of our manifold entanglements: with people living on the other side of the world; with other living and nonliving beings; with past and future generations. At a political level, embracing our entanglements would mean radically changing the way that we live to enable the flourishing of the many bodies and beings with which we’re interconnected. This would not mean renouncing technology, but rather dethroning it and placing it in the service of the future we are seeking. Making social and economic changes on the scale required to achieve a just transition indeed seems utterly magical. But for us at least, it is a magic with which we choose to hold faith.
[i] Bill Gates, “Bill Gates: Funding Clean Technology Is the Way to Avoid Climate Disaster | Free to Read,” Financial Times, October 31, 2021, sec. Innovation, https://www.ft.com/content/ea71f4f8-e5d8-4324-a42c-8fa09ccb1cc5.
[ii] Timothy Stacey, “7. Magical Feelings as the Source and Aim of Myths and Rituals,” in Saving Liberalism from Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation (Bristol University Press, 2022), 116–37, https://doi.org/10.46692/9781529215502.007.
[v] Bonno Pel et al., “Towards a Theory of Transformative Social Innovation: A Relational Framework and 12 Propositions,” Research Policy 49, no. 8 (October 1, 2020): 104080, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2020.104080.
[vi] Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic, 2nd edition (London ; New York: Routledge, 2001), 160; Randall G. Styers, Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2004), 98.
[viii] Dr. Robbie Scott in Nicola Davis, “Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion Could Mean ‘near-Limitless Energy,’” The Guardian, December 12, 2022, sec. Environment, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/dec/12/breakthrough-in-nuclear-fusion-could-mean-near-limitless-energy.
[ix] John Kerry in Myles McCormick, “Climate Tech Investment Boom Offers Hope,” Financial Times, March 19, 2022, sec. Renewable energy, https://www.ft.com/content/f65cf838-5adf-4720-92f2-e52abae74bc1.
[x] Ian Buchanan, “Commodity Fetishism,” in A Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford University Press, 2010), https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780199532919.001.0001/acref-9780199532919-e-131.
[xiv] see Jason Ananda Josephson Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago; London: Chicago University Press, 2017). Timothy Stacey, Saving Liberalism From Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation (Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2022), 7–8; 159–60, https://doi.org/10.46692/9781529215502.
[xv] This is an idea particularly championed by Simone Kotva at present. See Lori G. Beaman “Reclaiming Enchantment: The Transformational Possibilities of Immanence.” Secularism and Nonreligion 10, no. 1 (August 9, 2021): 8. https://doi.org/10.5334/snr.149. and Chris Gosden. The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present (London: Penguin, 2020).
Climate Confessions is a monthly blog series in which Timothy Stacey reveals the “religious repertoires” associated with sustainability in various sectors. From the myths of great floods that dominate in Dutch politics to the rituals of reconnecting with other humans and the other-than-human found among activists, each month, Tim invites you into the repertoires that lurk beneath the surface, shaping sustainability in an otherwise secular world. For more formal reflections, see Tim’s peer-reviewed research: www.uu.nl/staff/TJStacey/Publications. To discuss how repertoires might transform your practice, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org