Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Transhumanism Now Shapes the Conventional Unwisdom of "Thought Leaders" at Davos

Last week I recommended Richard Jones' excellent short free e-book Against Transhumanism: The Delusion of Human Transcendence.

Today I want to recommend a follow-up post from Jones' blog ridiculing what I have called "accelerationalism" in current tech-discourses in which metaphors of speed re-frame and rationalize disastrous policy proposals and the dreary history that results from them. And so, for example, very longstanding and completely familiar right-wing efforts to loot, privatize, and deregulate public goods are now described as "disruption," as though it is the fierce innovative energies unleashed by entrepreneurial techbro brains are subliming away pesky barriers to progress through the sheer force of their momentum. And as I put the point in The Unbearable Stasis of Accelerating Change, "the 'accelerating change' crowed about for the last two decades by futurologists in pop religious cadences and by more mainstream and academic New Media commentators in pop sociology cadences has never had any substantial reference apart from the increasing precarity produced by neoliberal looting and destabilization of domestic welfare and global economies -- often facilitated, it is true, by the exploitation of digital trading, marketing, and surveillance networks -- a precarity usually seen and experienced from the vantage of privileged people who either benefit from neoliberal destabilization or who (rightly or wrongly) identify with the beneficiaries of that destabilization."

There is nothing more commonplace than marketing firms that re-package failed and stale products and features as "exciting" and "new" via ad-copy in order to invest them with phony excitement and seductiveness. What consumer has not learned to be leery at the sticker slapped on some tired commodity declaring it "New And Improved"? It is in this spirit that I think we should apprehend the paradoxical emergence of a narrative of "accelerating change" and even "acceleration of acceleration" at a time when the furniture of everyday life and the quality of life more generally has been more static than not. As Eduardo Porter put the point in a recent review in the New York Times:
Take a look back at some of the most popular TV programs of the mid-1960s -- “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Bewitched,” even “The Beverly Hillbillies” -- and what do you see? Like today, middle-class Americans typically had washing machines and air-conditioning, telephones and cars. The Internet and video games were not yet invented. But life, over all, did not look that different. There were TVs and radios in most homes. Millions of people worked in downtown offices and lived in suburbs, connected by multilane highways. Americans’ average life expectancy at birth was 70, only eight years less than it is today [and the lived experience of life expectancy at retirement age was even less different, inasmuch as these statistics reflect most dramatically changes in survival in infancy and from childhood diseases -- I must remind, d].

But flash back 50 years earlier. Then, less than half the population lived in cities. Though Ford Model T’s were starting to roll off the assembly line, Americans typically moved around on horse-drawn buggies on dirt or cobblestone roads. Refrigerators or TVs? Most homes weren’t even wired for electricity. And average life expectancy was only 53... Has technological progress slowed for good? The idea that America’s best days are behind us sits in sharp tension with the high-tech optimism radiating from the offices of the technology start-ups and venture capital firms of Silicon Valley...
In a post published today at Soft Machines, Richard Jones derides Davos discourse promoting a so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution" and the "Exponential" technology-driven change presumably "disrupting" the linear history preceding it. Jones writes:
The World Economic Forum at Davos provides a reliable barometer of conventional wisdom amongst the globalised elite, so it’s interesting this year that, amidst all the sage thoughts on refugee crises, collapsing commodity prices and world stock market gyrations, there’s concern about the economic potential and possible dislocations from the fourth industrial revolution we are currently, it seems widely agreed, at the cusp of. This is believed to arise from the coupling of the digital and material worlds, through robotics, the “Internet of Things”, 3-d printing, and so on, together with the development of artificial intelligence to the point where it can replace the skill and judgement of highly educated and trained workers... all that this illustrates is the bleeding of transhumanist rhetoric into the mainstream that I criticise in my ebook Against Transhumanism: the delusion of technological transcendence. It’s a wish that some people have, that technologies will allow them to transcend the limitations of their human nature (and most notably, the limitation of mortality).
Jones concludes that he is "optimistic about the potential of technology" and distinguishes his view from that of pessimistic writers like Tyler Cowen "that slow technological progress is inevitable because we’ve already taken the 'low hanging fruit.'" I must say that I am ambivalent about these prospects myself. This will surprise critics who are quick to deride my critiques as "negative" "pessimistic" "anti-imagination" "deathist" and "luddism" and the rest -- but needless to say I reject the premise that there is anything the least bit positive, optimistic, productive, life-affirming, or techscientifically realistic about wish-fulfillment fantasizing, con-artistry, or pseudo-science. I will say this: Innovation arises from ongoing public investments in education, infrastructural affordances, specific programs of research, attention to bottlenecks that offer up no immediately profitable applications. Progress -- and since progress is a moral and political concept I must actually specify, as few who extol progress ever do, that, for example, as a advocate of democracy and ecology I personally define progress as progress in the direction of ever more sustainable, consensual, flourishing equity-in-diversity -- arises from the ongoing struggle to ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes are equitably distributed to all the stakeholders of that change by their lights. This matters, because it reminds us that both innovation and progress are social and political in their substance, far from determined by the technical specifications of a particular scientific discovery or instrumental application. Being "optimistic about the potential of [this or that] technology" is neither here nor there -- flourishing requires democracy quite as much as it does discovery, emancipation is a matter of equitable distribution quite as much as it does technical delivery.

Given the current state of plutocratic wealth concentration, the resulting disintegration of democratic participation and accountability, and the disastrous and destabilizing neoliberal precarization of the lives of the overabundant majority of people on the planet I am not sure that it is responsible to be too optimistic about our potential to invest in innovation and ensure progressive equity-in-diversity whatever the genius of our collective problem-solving genius. Optimism too readily invites acquiescence, especially in an epoch in which techoscience is invested with the reactionary imperial cadences of manifest destiny. To ensure innovation and progress the last thing we need to be doing is celebrating celebrity tech CEOs who are little more than skim-and-scam artists or indulging in uncritical consumer lifestyles and commodity fandoms expecting to purchase our way to Tech Heaven as wage slaves without rights or hope assemble our gizmos as our aquifers dry, our soil shatters into sand, our shorelines and skylines are smashed by angry waves, our atmosphere shrieks and swells with greenhouse storms and landfills rise like mountains of toxic smoking sludge leaching poisons into the dying land.

On the other hand, the ruins of neoliberal feudalism are evident everywhere, and organized resistances to the self-serving free market and austerian pieties of incumbent elites keep emerging in country after country, election after election, uprising after uprising. As the shocks of climate catastrophe imperil urban enclaves, devastate private insurance, destabilize nation-states it may be that the circumstances may be ripe for a turning of the anti-democratizing tide, our polities may rediscover the indispensability of commonwealth and our intelligence may be provoked from complacency into ardor just as public investment in that intelligence rises to meet us where we are. I certainly do not agree any more than Jones does with those who posit there is some structural phenomenon that made discovery long seem too easy and now too hard. Although there is some justice in the suggestion that superiority of so-called Western modernity was little more than a vast bubble blown up by non-renewable energy extraction and waste within which economic history was a sequence of convulsive bubble-chapters and recovery-chapters within that bubble culminating in the bubble-bursting chaos of anthropogenic climate catastrophe, the truth is that the building of sustainable energy, communication, and transportation infrastructure could readily be the incubator of new innovation, new employment, new flourishing, new progress. A host of dis-eases and dis-abilities likewise seem susceptible of therapeutic remedy given sufficient investment in research and the political will to ensure universal access. What will pass as "low hanging fruit" for technological progress is determined less by physics than by social and political preparation. I daresay Tyler Cowen may suggest otherwise not least because he is an apologist for and therefore needs an alibi for the neoliberal economic policies which seem to me the likelier culprit for our current technoscientific malaise.

As Jones puts the point in his own conclusion,
Technological progress continues, in some areas it moves fast, in other areas it moves much more slowly, despite our society’s most pressing needs. Which technologies move fast, and which we neglect and allow to stagnate, are the results of the political and social choices we make, often tacitly. We might make better choices if our discussions of technology weren’t conducted entirely in terms of tired clichés.
I am not sure we can avoid all the cliches when we seek to narrativize the quandaries of our historical moment as we must -- after all, all the talk of accelerating acceleration of acceleration notwithstanding, there is really nothing new under the sun where questions of the human condition are concerned, including the contingency of history and the shock of the unexpected that mock our expectations and our plans and keep things so very interesting while we are alive together in the living world --  but I would rephrase Jones' point in a way that retains its spirit by simply proposing instead that we take care our discussions of technology (or more to the point the politics that enable and shape its vicissitudes) aren't conducted in terms of inapt frames: chief among these I would note are narratives of autonomous artifacts, historical determination, scientistic reduction, manifest destiny, and the pining after certainty, absolute control, overcoming finitude or, in Jones' own phrase, delusions of transcendence.


jollyspaniard said...

Nerds with a sense of privilege tend so see reality very much like a computer game at times. You get ahead by accumulating bonuses which allow you to ignore the rest of the picture.

In reality progress is defined by the lowest limiting factor. These are things which are easy to ignore when one wants to. Especially if the lowest limiting factor is something that is going to be a problem for someone else.

Richard Jones said...

Thanks for the kind words! On the sources of my technooptimism, I could have expressed myself more clearly, though I think you see where I'm coming from. Where I agree with the pessimistic economists like Cowen and Gordon is in their identification of the (rather obvious) fact that the numbers simply don't support the view that "progress" is accelerating; my difference with them is that I don't think this results from any fundamental diminishing of opportunities - instead we've just stopped trying. I'm feeling my way to a better understanding of the political economy of innovation, but in essence I think what has happened is that in the postwar period the USA and the UK had very well developed state and para-state institutions which were enormously effective at bringing innovations to the point of use - though of course the goals of that innovation were driven by the imperatives of state power in the cold war. At the end of the cold war those institutions atrophied, and the idea that an economy run on free market fundamentalist lines could produce radical innovations has proved false (as, in fact, classical economic theory would predict). I don't think we're short of ideas that could in principle be turned into such radical innovations (though as a physicist you might say this was my deformation professionnelle), what needs to happen is that we need to rebuild the institutions that would allow us to direct the large scale collective efforts needed to bring them to fruition, together with the mechanisms to direct that innovation towards widely shared societal goals.

Dale Carrico said...

I agree with all that you say here. I gladly recommend your work because I agree with so much of it and think it is so important. I have always also appreciated that you are one of my most engaged sympathetic readers and I have personally benefited from our exchanges over the years. Now that all that's out of the way, let me focus on what worries me, because I think this is the useful contribution I can make.

I've been criticizing the transhumanists now for over a quarter century. I suppose Mr. Prisco can be forgiven his mistaken assertion that I am some kind of lapsed transhumanist myself... That claim is not at all true, I've always been a critic of the transhumanists if not always so impolitely as now, but I daresay few non-transhumanists have paid so much attention to and engaged directly with so many transhumanists for so long as I have. I must indeed seem to the True Believers much like a vitriolic lapsed Catholic seems to the faithful.

In all those years the transhumanists and futurologicals have never gotten less nonsensical nor have they changed their tune much at all (especially for people who go on about disruption and shock and accelerating change all the time)... But they have definitely gained money and power and attention year by year by year. Musk, Thiel, Bostrom, Kurzweil, Page are all Very Serious players these days to our great distress. They have never been more dangerous to the hopes for sensible public deliberation about science, more deranging to reasonable budgetary priorities, or more injurious to majorities to the short-term parochial profitability of a coterie of elite-incumbent plutocratic figures than they are now.

I think one has to take care not to give too much comfort to transhumanists then -- and I fear that even your very critical arguments risk validating them when you focus on what they are pleased to call the "technical" details on their own terms and then affirm some kind of techno-optimistic orientation for yourself as you do in this piece. It is no wonder that to a True Believer your critique can actually be seen as signaling you are a closet transhumanist as some of your futurological readers have actually, hilariously, declared.

I'm no less "optimistic" than you are about the indispensability of technoscience to the solution of shared problems and our hopes for democratic emancipation, but there is a reason I get tarred by the futurologists as a deathist, luddite, relativist, mystic, bigot, hater, and all the rest of that nonsense. The reason is (mostly) because my critique is pitched at the actual substance of transhumanist belief and sub(cult)ure.

Dale Carrico said...

*Of course* it is not science but the organization of qualified and disparate scientific observations into narratives freighted with superlative aspiration and soliciting sub(cult)ural identification that is distinctive and definitive of transhumanism.

And so, I wonder if you really mean it when you suggest that biology provides an existence proof for nanotechnology, when futurologists mean by nanotechnology not the obviously promising new materials and therapeutic biochemistry (and so on) of actual nanoscale technoscience, but reliable robust programmable multi-purpose replicative room-temperature "Drextech" invested with superlative hopes of superabundance overcoming the constitutive bottlenecks of political economy and offering the prospect of eternal life. I must say that futurological nanotech as against real-world nanoscience seems to freight the analogy to existing biology beyond bearing. This is not a matter of "the science" or the "technical details" but of the discourse of futurology -- an archive of mobilized conceits, a deployment of customary figures, a recurrence to characteristic argumentative sleights of hand, reductionisms, equivocations, patheticisms, and so on.

Very similar operations play out in the hyperbolization of legitimate, even urgent, network security and user-friendliness issues into futurological talk of AI, robocalypse, Friendliness, and so on. It is not the science but the discursive investment of selective technoscience with aspiration, significance, salesmanship, belonging that gets to the heart of what transhumanism is doing and what it is about.

When transhumanists jovially declare you to be "Carrico Without the Insults" I think it is worth grasping that what they are dismissing as insults -- well, apart from the actual insults that I give as good as I get -- are my criticisms of their discourse qua discourse, my exposure of their conceptual confusions (eg, of uploading that a picture of you isn't you, and so on), citational mobilizations (eg, theological omni-predicates, rapture, magical armor, genies-in-a-bottle, the sorcerer's apprentice, and so on), figurative dependencies (eg, info-soul, cyberspace, meat-robot, consciousness migration, translation, and so on), and rhetorical pathologies I have already mentioned in this comment.

I think you get all this, and I tend to think you find it a congenial point, and I think you even think the transhumanists are as dangerous to public deliberation and investment as I do -- I just think you are positioned to undermine futurological discourse better than I am and as such a figure I think you should wonder why transhumanists do not seem to be as threatened by your critique as I know they should be.

Richard Jones said...

I do indeed wonder about lots of things, many of which I would love to discuss with you (preferably in a more congenial real-life setting). It's maybe worth saying by way of background that when I first started thinking and writing about nanotechnology as an object in itself (rather than in the underlying nanoscience which of course I'd been studying since my physics PhD) - around 2000, I hadn't heard of transhumanism. My engagement with Drexler's thinking at that time was indeed entirely on the technical level - thinking to myself, well this is interesting but I'm sure it's not right. So when I said biology is an existence proof for nanotechnology, I did mean it, and Soft Machines was an exercise in thinking that line of thought through - and coming to a destination rather different to Drexler. And to speak as a physicist that engagement was fruitful - I poked lots of fun at all those pictures of nanosubmarines, but the process of thinking through, well, how would you propel a nanosubmarine in reality, led me to some experimental work that as a physicist I'm pretty proud of. So from that perspective I stand by my judgment of Drexler as wrong, but interestingly and sometimes fruitfully so. But here I mean fruitful in terms of generating interesting lines of scientific inquiry, rather than in the way that his work has affected wider discourse about science, in the pathological ways you describe. But in 2004 I didn't think about that sort of thing very much - I was focused very much on the notion that the discussion was a straightforward one of whether or to what extent his views were "right" or "wrong".

After 2004, when the book was published, I learnt a lot about the wider contexts of science, its discourses and imaginaries, from your own writing, as I'm always happy to acknowledge, and from a number of other writers in the STS field (Wynne, Stirling, Rip, Edgerton, Jasanoff, Nordmann, to mention some of the ones who have influenced me most) some of whom I had the opportunity to talk to and work with, and this caused me to think more critically about the scientific enterprise in which I've made my living. I also found out a bit more about the transhumanists, firstly from online encounters, which left me genuinely surprised as I began to understand the true nature of the movement. And then it took a visit to a Foresight Conference in San Fransisco (because, really, they're not that big in South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire!) for me to begin to grasp that transhumanism might not just be a fringe movement of no significance, but that it did have some importance and political reach. Which, as you say, has only grown since then.

It's also worth mentioning that my own political views have evolved over that time too. I remember some internal university event not that long ago when one my politics colleagues accused me of being a tool of a Gramscian neo-liberal hegemony. I had to go home and look the words up (and conclude that of course he was probably right). And indeed I could say a lot more about the various conflicts I find myself with as a university administrator and the holder of a government appointment in a science funding body - but it's precisely in these capacities that I've had to try and do more to understand how innovation really works in the political and economic situation we find ourselves in, and try and use what agency I have in a positive way.

All this probably reads like a series of excuses for what you probably see as my equivocation, but there we are.

Dale Carrico said...

You'll have to forgive the grumpy tone of my last response. I posted it while at the same time thinking through some enormously irritating and unexpected problems with a student last term who has risen unbidden like a sea monster from icy tides to make unexpected incredibly time-consuming demands on me at the beginning of a new term. You may know how that is.

I do agree that it is a very good thing to entertain far out hypotheses since we want to break what Dewey called "the crust of convention" and keep scientific inquiry open. I guess that after analyzing two generations of tranhumanist discourse so intently and observing the clockwork recurrence of its tropes, conceits, gestures, furniture and the reactionary politics (acquiescent consumerism, technocratic elitism, corporate-militarist apologiae, eugenic bigotry, alibi for plutocratic wealth-concentration) that freight it I have come to see tranhumanism as a rather staid and static business, at best superficially provocative, mostly an irrational indulgence in infantile wish-fulfillment and imperial ego.

I don't think you are indulging in equivocation -- though transhumanists seem to read you as saying their dreams are "hard" rather than *incoherent*, and may take "a long time" rather than *too long for any rational person to treat more seriously than actually proximate actually urgent technoscience issues instead* -- and perhaps you provide material some of them will deploy in their own equivocations. That is hardly your fault -- they have even used stuff I've written in their souffles.

I do think your work can make a difference in the critical reception of futurology at a time when this is getting quite important. Since you are the rare reader who appreciates the discursive and cultural critiques I make this means you can always include this dimension in your technical exposes in ways that resist self-serving interpretations by transhumanists and, more important, provide a wider range of connected pathologies to render the viewpoint less attractive to naive readers looking for a conceptual framework in which to make sense and significance out of technoscientific dynamisms, threats, hopes in their complexities at a time when dramatic futurological conceits are becoming the most ready to hand for this purpose at the cost of both morals and sense.

As far as I can tell I find very congenial the place where you are landing in the matter of innovation policy -- so if those views make you a hegemonic dupe or whatever I daresay I'm a hegemon too (and I teach Gramsci).

I agree it would be lovely to have a real face to face conversation some time. I can assure you that I'll return to England the minute I win the lottery and we can have a nice talk. Best to you.

Muhammad al-Khwarizmi said...

One begins to wonder at what point critics of transhumanism will switch from "neener neener you're a wiener and your head is in the clouds" to "OK this is happening but you're literally Hitler for doing it".

Dale Carrico said...

Why choose? This critic of transhumanism is quite happy to point out that their heads are in their asses and that they more or less want to be Hitler at one and the same time.

jimf said...

> There is nothing more commonplace than marketing firms that
> re-package failed and stale products and features as "exciting"
> and "new" via ad-copy in order to invest them with phony
> excitement and seductiveness.
Ten Years To the Singularity If We Really Really Try: ... and other
Essays on AGI and its Implications
Paperback – December 25, 2014

Are we really really trying? If so -- 9 years to go!

(99 bottles of beer on the wall. . . )

jimf said...

> As Eduardo Porter put the point in a recent review in the
> New York Times. . .
Robert J. Gordon, a professor of economics at Northwestern University
who has patiently developed the proposition in a series of research
papers over the last few years, has bundled his arguments into
an ambitious new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”
(Princeton University Press).

There was a follow-up yesterday -- Paul Krugman reviewed Gordon's book
in the Sunday Book Review.
Back in the 1960s there was a briefly popular wave of “futurism,”
of books and articles attempting to predict the changes ahead.
One of the best-known, and certainly the most detailed, of
these works was Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener’s
“The Year 2000” (1967), which offered, among other things,
a systematic list of technological innovations Kahn and Wiener
considered “very likely in the last third of the 20th century.”

Unfortunately, the two authors were mostly wrong. They didn’t miss
much, foreseeing developments that recognizably correspond to all
the main elements of the information technology revolution,
including smartphones and the Internet. But a majority of their
predicted innovations (“individual flying platforms”) hadn’t
arrived by 2000 — and still haven’t arrived, a decade and a half later.

The truth is that if you step back from the headlines about the
latest gadget, it becomes obvious that we’ve made much less progress
since 1970 — and experienced much less alteration in the fundamentals
of life — than almost anyone expected. Why?

Robert J. Gordon. . . has repeatedly called for perspective: . . .
[T]he I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five
Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970:
electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals,
the internal combustion engine and modern communication. . .

Then came refinement and exploitation of those inventions — a
process that took time, and exerted its peak effect on economic
growth between 1920 and 1970. Everything since has at best been
a faint echo of that great wave, and Gordon doesn’t expect us
ever to see anything similar.

Is he right? My answer is a definite maybe. . .

Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already
recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment,
with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator
and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be
annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified
or disgusted.

By contrast, urban Americans from 1940 walking into 1870-style
accommodations — which they could still do in the rural South — were
indeed horrified and disgusted. . .

Of course, Gordon could be wrong: Maybe we’re on the cusp of truly
transformative change, say from artificial intelligence or radical
progress in biology (which would bring their own risks). But he makes
a powerful case. Perhaps the future isn’t what it used to be.

Dale Carrico said...

"Accelerating Change" in tech is the marketing of Decelerating Change in tech.

jimf said...

> In a post published today at Soft Machines, Richard Jones
> derides Davos discourse promoting a so-called Fourth Industrial
> Revolution" and the "Exponential" technology-driven change presumably
> "disrupting" the linear history preceding it.

More Davos-bashing (from your blog roll):
A last stand for the Davos ‘gods’?
Adam Parsons
1st February 2016

. . .

Oxfam has released widely-reported research with hard-hitting
statistics that highlight the obscene levels of inequality that
many of those attending Davos are both responsible for and benefit
from. Predictably, the extreme concentration of wealth has reached
a new high: a single coachload of 62 billionaires now own as
much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population – a
number that has steadily fallen from 388 billionaires in 2010. . .

[T]he issue of inequality was noticeably pushed down the
agenda at this year’s gathering, even as the gap between rich
and poor continues to widen apace. Instead, the official theme
at Davos 2016 was “mastering the fourth industrial revolution”. . .

[C]limate change is also of relatively minor concern for global
business leaders. . . [T]he primary concern among the 1,400
CEOs interviewed by PwC was the impact of excessive government
regulation. . .

Nothing illustrates the entrenched neoliberal mind-set of business
gurus and policymakers at Davos more clearly than their obsession
with deregulation and ‘techno-fixes’ in the face of a global crisis. . .

But the grand designs of the corporate elite don’t end there: a
new and completely undemocratic model of global governance is
being furtively established by the Davos class in a bid to clear
away the ‘red-tape’ of public oversight. . .

In the end, the covert political deals fostered at exclusive
conferences such as the WEF could amount to little more than a last
stand by the Davos ‘gods’ to shore-up their political influence
and maximise their earning potential during an uncertain period
of economic turmoil and political instability. Whether their
strategy succeeds largely depends on how effectively concerned
citizens mobilise to confront an unsustainable, unjust and increasingly
undemocratic status quo in the months ahead.

Those attending Davos should take note: millions of people are already
demanding a fairer sharing of wealth and democratic power in countries
across the world, and there is every indication that this trend is
on an upward trajectory.

jimf said...

> [C]limate change is also of relatively minor concern for global
> business leaders. . .

Paul Krugman sez (in today's NY Times):
Wind, Sun and Fire
Paul Krugman
FEB. 1, 2016

So what’s really at stake in this year’s election? Well, among other
things, the fate of the planet. . .

[C]limate change. . . is, by far, the most important policy issue
facing America and the world. . .

[W]e’re now achingly close to achieving a renewable-energy revolution.
What’s more, getting that energy revolution wouldn’t require a
political revolution. All it would take are fairly modest policy
changes. . . But those changes won’t happen if the wrong people
end up in power. . .

Most people who think about the issue at all probably imagine that
achieving a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would
necessarily involve big economic sacrifices. This view is required
orthodoxy on the right, where it forms a sort of second line of defense
against action, just in case denial of climate science and witch hunts
against climate scientists don’t do the trick. For example, in the
last Republican debate Marco Rubio — the last, best hope of the G.O.P.
establishment — insisted, as he has before, that a cap-and-trade
program would be “devastating for our economy.” . . .

But things are actually much more hopeful than that, thanks to
remarkable technological progress in renewable energy.
The numbers are really stunning. According to a recent report by the
investment firm Lazard, the cost of electricity generation using wind
power fell 61 percent from 2009 to 2015, while the cost of solar power
fell 82 percent. These numbers — which are in line with other
estimates — show progress at rates we normally only expect to see
for information technology. And they put the cost of renewable energy
into a range where it’s competitive with fossil fuels. . .

Now, skeptics may point out that even if all these good things happen,
they won’t be enough on their own to save the planet. For one thing,
we’re only talking about electricity generation, which is a big part
of the climate change problem but not the whole thing. For another,
we’re only talking about one country when the problem is global. . .

Salvation from climate catastrophe is, in short, something we can
realistically hope to see happen, with no political miracle necessary.
But failure is also a very real possibility. Everything is hanging
in the balance.