The present is lavish with superlatives. That holds true not only for prestigious technological products and architectural constructions, but also for strategic political and commercial ambitions. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (or the correct translation: ‘One Belt, One Road’), more commonly known as The New Silk Road, is one; ‘Make America great again’, less subtle and with an entirely different approach, is another.
Such endeavours and political programmes show mainly that there is a major global power shift going on and that each region feels the need to stake a claim. This is the backdrop against which the question of how Europe should play a leading role in the technological strive for sustainability must be discussed.

A central question here is how well equipped we are to protect our European interests. But we also need to determine how Europe can contribute to a sustainable world in which a major shift of power towards the Asia-Pacific region has taken place. We also see a lot of activist groups throughout Europe that are essentially anti-technological.

Can their ideas really be an alternative? And if not, why are they heading down a wrong path? This point will also make it clear why it is desirable that Europe leads not merely the change for a sustainable world, but the technological change for a sustainable world.

Global power shifts and the European Union

For the longest time, European countries have ignored China as a global force by means of a blindfolding cultural narrative that self-confirms European and Western superiority. Not much seemed to change at first after the Belt and Road Initiative was launched in 2013. The tone, however, has shifted dramatically in recent years. China is now ‒ mainly alongside Russia ‒ increasingly being perceived as a threat, as, for example, the critical reactions to Xi Jinping’s address at the World Economic Forum in Davos showed.

However, while a general awareness of the relevance as a global power has risen in Europe and the West, this has led to more fears than partnership. As Peter Frankopan (2019), a British historian, noted in his book The New Silk Roads, ‘Conspicuously absent from the list of those forming a comprehensive plan for the future is the European Union. To some, this is not only positive, but deliberate. The European Union, declared an official who is responsible for the EU’s relations with the Asia-Pacific region, “does not do geopolitics”’.

This attitude, one might argue, does not serve the interests of Europe or the world, well. After all, China is also a powerful partner from which we can benefit greatly. As are, by the way, all other nations ‒ because it is through dialogue among equals and partnerships that we can and must tackle global issues such as climate change.

Also, this global cooperation is the foundation on which Europe, with its vibrant technological sector, can contribute to fostering innovative, sustainable technology within Europe and beyond ‒ in the Third World nations, while strengthening and advocating for ideas such as gender equality and data privacy on a global level. As long as these multilateral cooperations are not supported sufficiently on a political level in the EU, the task of fostering initiatives in that direction will lie mostly in the hands of initiatives and networks, such as EUTECH.

Doctrine vs technology: How to achieve a sustainable future

It is not only the current geopolitical situation that we need to take into account when we discuss the role of Europe in reaching a sustainable future, as the ideological ideals are also starting to dominate the discussion of sustainability inside Europe and in the West in general. These ideals are at the core of antitechnology.

The most radical expressions of these ideals can be found among the members or followers of Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, and some other radical groups. The aims of these groups are to foster sustainability, reduce CO2 emissions and reduce the harm we, as humans, do to the environment overall. But they aim to do so less by means of technological innovation and more so by legal prohibitions and bans. The activist movement System Change not Climate Change, to name just one example, explicitly strives to overcome capitalism as an essential basis for reaching a sustainable future.

This is nothing if not a blatant call for a revolution. But what is even more telling than such openly antidemocratic calls for systemic change is the list of measures proposed by such groups to fight climate change. These proposed actions are mainly a long list of prohibitions, including such far-reaching things as limiting the size of apartments and reducing or banning meat consumption and, of course, making travel by air and car (at least if that car has a combustion engine) as unattractive as possible.

Thus, we see that the main means of achieving sustainability are not seen in technological advances, in Europe or elsewhere, but primarily in overcoming capitalism, limiting freedom and reducing the lifestyle of the people. Why is that not a good idea?

First, examples from not so ancient history show that mankind is not exactly very good at limiting its aims and lifestyle. Whether we like it or not, what these activists decry as ‘capitalist’ is essentially a very basic drive for people to shape their lives. Second, these ideas overlook the string of inequalities attached to this. Ideas like these are often developed by privileged activists living in urban environments. A quick ban of cars with combustion engines and raising the prices of meat might cause severe inequality and imbalance between the urban upper and middle classes and those living in precarious situations and/or rural areas.

Also, there are countries in the Third World that are very eager to achieve a higher living standard. And how, exactly, are we going to convince those nations and their inhabitants that they have to renounce the standard of living that we have in Europe for the better of the planet while we have enjoyed it for centuries? That would be sheer mockery.

Such a ‘new system’ could only exist based on two factors: belief among those who propagate it and the coercion of all others. In fact, the German philosopher and media theorist Norbert Bolz has quite convincingly argued that the beliefs and goals of these radical groups have the form of a quasi-religious system. But are those groups not extremists or radicals that will eventually lose traction in society?

Maybe. But the fact is that ideas derivative of those of Fridays For Future, Extinction Rebellion and so forth have already found their way into mainstream political parties left of centre in some European countries. The path of achieving SDG goals (primarily) by prohibition instead of technological innovation is already an, albeit still limited, political reality.

Why technology is the better way

As already pointed out, bans and prohibitions are not at people’s hearts. Ultimately, the vast majority do not want to give up the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. And if we force them to, we willingly give up what is one of the core values Europe stands for: freedom. Technological innovation is a much better way, and it is, one might say, a basic anthropological constant. Compared to the animal world, humans compensate for their poor physical equipment by using technology; this started with making fire and using a bow and arrow. This theory can be found in Arnold Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology and his concept of the Mängelwesen, i.e. ‘deficient being’. Clearly, technology also creates problems. It always has. When people used horse-drawn coaches, the streets were filthy and full of horse manure.

Then, combustion engines were invented and quickly helped clean up the streets of manure; however, as we all know, they brought other problems with them that we are trying to solve right now. However, every technological advancement brings new problems that will be solved by other inventions and innovations. It is how we progress. It is, anthropologically speaking, quite reasonable to say that technological innovation is the natural way of solving the problems we have right now ‒ as it was the natural way to solve all other pressing issues over the course of human history. The quest for new solutions and improvements is in our nature. The desire to give up what we already have is not.

How Europe should lead the technological chance for a sustainable world

The first part of this article argues that Europe has come late to the table regarding forging alliances in times of shifting global powers and that Europe seems quite unwilling to do any more than is absolutely necessary. It was also argued that it is beneficial, not only for ourselves, but for the globalized world, for Europe to stay competitive in the technological field and to be a reliable international partner, bringing our technological know-how, as well as our cultural values and perspectives into an international, intercultural exchange.

The second part argued that the fostering of innovative technologies as a means to tackle pressing global issues is not uncontested, even inside Europe. It was then shown why technological progress is a more promising option for a sustainable future.

Therefore, the main question that remains is how to make this happen. How can we lead the technological change for a sustainable future? It is clear that intercultural dialogue and networking are key. If so, we have to give our input, as Europeans, to foster values that are dear to us and that we believe should be a part of our global future. It also means that we need to keep an open mind to the ideas of others and their values. Only a constant flow of ideas between open minds can ultimately lead to those innovations that we so desperately need to reach the SDG goals. EUTECH provides the ideal setting for international, intercultural exchange and networking ‒ not only by providing spaces in our centers across the world, but also by organizing numerous events and fostering networking between agents of the tech industry worldwide.

Dr Ann-Kristin Iwersen
RT DE Productions GmbH