Advertisement

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

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

Abstract.

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.

References

  1. 1.
    A. Hornborg, The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (AltaMira, Walnut Creek, 2001)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    A. Hornborg, Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World, revised paperback edition (Routledge, London, 2013)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    A. Hornborg, Global Magic: Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street, Palgrave Studies in Anthropology of Sustainability (Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, 2016)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    J.E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study of International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    S. Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Vintage Books, New York, 2014)Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    A. Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity (Basic Books, New York, 1990)Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    A. Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude (Greystone Books, Vancouver, 2012)Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    K. Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000)Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    C.A.S. Hall, K.A. Klitgaard, Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy (Springer, New York, 2012)Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    D. Pimentel, T. Patzek, G. Cecil, Rev. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 189, 25 (2007)Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    P.A. Prieto, C.A.S. Hall, Spain's Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Investment (Springer, New York, 2013)Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    J.A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989)Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    J.P.W. Scharlemann, W.F. Laurance, Science 319, 43 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    P. Williamsson, Nature 530, 153 (2016)ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    C. Dorninger, A. Hornborg, Ecol. Econ. 119, 414 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    N. Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971)Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    J. Martinez-Alier, Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment and Society (Blackwell, Oxford, 1987)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), 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

Personalised recommendations