The magic of money and the illusion of biofuels: toward an interdisciplinary understanding of technology

  • Alf HornborgEmail author
Open Access
Regular Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Focus Point on Plants for food, energy and sustainability


For several centuries, the dominant worldview in industrial societies has held that various problems --such as those recently identified as relating to sustainability-- can be solved through technological progress. Technological progress has been conceived as the fruits of engineering science, new knowledge, and innovation. While knowledge of the principles of physics is certainly a necessary condition for technological development, it is not a sufficient condition. Technology is not only a product of engineering, but, ultimately, also of asymmetric transfers of biophysical resources. In other words, the feasibility of technological progress is contingent on world market prices. The history of technology has been written from the perspective of advancing ingenuity, rather than that of unequal global exchange. The implicit world view underlying dominant historiography and economic science ignores the deepening global inequalities which are prerequisite to what some sectors of world society can celebrate as technological progress, including visions of replacing fossil fuels with biofuels and other renewable energy sources. This observation should prompt us to conceptualize technological progress as an inherently unequal capacity to locally save time and space at the expense of human time and natural space lost elsewhere. It implies that the physical agency of technology ultimately rests on prices, i.e. subjective human conceptions about the value of market commodities, and thus finally on the magical artifact we know as money. The purpose of this article is to show how current deliberations on biofuels illustrate the insufficiencies of mainstream understandings of the phenomenon of technology, and to indicate why an adequate understanding of technology must be interdisciplinary, combining insights on both Nature and Society.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Human Ecology DivisionLund UniversityLundSweden

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