The Dangers of Decoupling: Earth System Crisis and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’

The Dangers of Decoupling: Earth System Crisis and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’

The question of whether global capitalism can resolve the earth system crisis rests on the (im)possibility of ‘absolute decoupling’: whether or not economic growth can continue indefinitely as total environmental impacts shrink. Ecomodernists and other techno‐optimists argue for the feasibility of absolute decoupling, whereas degrowth advocates show that it is likely to be neither feasible in principle nor in the timeframe needed to ward off ecological tipping points. While primarily supporting the degrowth perspective, I will suggest that the ecomodernists have a wildcard in their pocket that hasn’t been systematically addressed by degrowth advocates. This is the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, which refers to convergent innovations in biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and other developments. However, I will argue that while these innovations may enable some degree of absolute decoupling, they will also intensify emerging risks in the domains of biosecurity, cybersecurity, and state securitization. Overall, these technologies will not only place unprecedented destructive power in the hands of non‐state actors but will also empower and incentivize states to create a global security regime with unprecedented surveillance and force mobilization capacities. This reinforces the conclusion that mainstream environmental policies based on decoupling should be reconsidered and supplanted by alternative policy trajectories based on material‐energetic degrowth, redistribution, and technological deceleration.

Policy Implications

  • Policy makers should explore the evidence challenging mainstream assumptions about ‘green growth’ and consider the possibilities for a ‘post‐growth’ transition.
  • Policy makers should recognize the potentially catastrophic risks posed by Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, which will increase in severity if they are relied upon to decouple economic growth from growing resource consumption.
  • To manage the risks posed by Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, citizens assemblies should be empowered to shape the pace and direction of innovation and deployment, rather than relying solely on traditional arms control and private sector initiatives.

 

 

Image: Pixabay via Pexels