Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1985

Abstract

"Technological optimism" is a term of art, an article of faith, and a theory of politics. It is a view that pervades modem attitudes, yet gets little explicit attention. For a brief period the situation was otherwise. In the early 1970s, the optimistic outlook figured prominently in an important debate about nothing less than the future of the world. Technological optimism won. The outcome was unsurprising, given the nature of the argument. On one side of the debate was a group of self-proclaimed Malthusians who foresaw an impending period of stark scarcity unless relatively drastic remedial steps were quickly taken; on the other side were the technological optimists, whose message, essentially, was not to worry--at least not too much. The two sides moved quickly to joinder on an issue that neither could carry. The debate, in other words, reached a dead-end; it came down to believing whatever one wished. Most people wish to be optimistic. This is why the optimists triumphed. It is also why, today, critical discussion of the optimistic viewpoint is largely passé. The literature on the subject is more or less closed. Not many people know very much about it, lawyers in particular. The exception might be those who work and teach in fields like environmental law and natural resources, where technological optimism has a special relevance and a notable dominance. Our aim in this essay is to reopen the old debate and move it to new ground. Resolution, on the assumption it could ever be within our capacities, is for the present not on our agenda. We hope for now only to reveal and explore the assumptions or premises of the optimistic viewpoint, and to explain why they trouble us. Placed in its largest setting, our argument is indeed about the future of the world--a sure way to lose an audience--but we are content merely to consider its implications for technology at a time of continuing enthusiasm for technological solutions, and, briefly, its implications for American politics at a time of growing concern about democracy's capacity to cope with modern-day problems. We proceed from where we began, by considering technological optimism as a term of art, as an article of faith, and especially as a theory of politics.


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