The Spiral of Solutionism

“[...] To work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” — Vaclav Havel

Why is it that, as a species, we are able to come up with such far fetched ideas as placing panels in space to reflect sunlight, but are unable to change habits that are accelerating climate breakdown? Are we addicted to solutions?

Many of us have been fed ideas like ‘there are no problems, only solutions’ or ‘focus on the solution, not the problem.’ But this often leads to fixing the wrong problem, or creating new ones in the process, something often observed in conservation work, international development, and humanitarian interventions. 

And because we live in a Zeitgeist of techno-utopianism, this attitude of solving society’s ills with the-next-big-thing is ever more prevalent, especially in the climate sphere. Whether that’s lab grown meat, or geoengineering the climate, the Silicon Valley approach to problems – there’s-an-app-for-that – has permeated many spaces. Social entrepreneurs are popping up right, left and centre with innovative ideas that can be quickly scaled up to solve the climate crisis, poverty, inequality, or any of our ills.

Solutionism, a term coined by technology critic Evgeny Morozov, is the idea that, with the right code, algorithm or robot, all our problems can be solved, that complex issues can be solved “by reducing their core issues to simpler engineering problems.” 

We keep believing that technology will save us, despite proof to the contrary. Why is that?

According to Morozov, there are three reasons: first, in our complicated world, it’s reassuring to think that some things can be fixed easily. Secondly, despite working with limited resources, solutions offered are often cheap. And finally, it’s a form of hope, of positivism. It supports a technocratic approach to problems we face, where we take the problem apart and fix it, rather than face alternatives that have social and political dimensions often regarded as too complex.

‘The easy fix’ is also related to the myth that humans have control over the world. In her book Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert writes that a 1965 report on climate change presented to the then US president Lyndon Johnson argued that we shouldn’t cut our use of fossil fuels, rather we should change the climate crisis through geoengineering. Kolbert says her book is about “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” 

And of course none of these actually tackle the root causes. They are a symptom of our single focus, short termist approach to life, a life that is perpetually accelerating, in which we never have time to stop and think (so we hand over the thinking to algorithms). Coupled with our increasingly superficial interactions, it serves the myth of ‘get rich/successful/famous fast and effortlessly.’ 

Erich Fromm said many societies that successfully follow one aim end up getting off track because they become unable to see at what point the pursuit of that aim has prevented them from following a more total aim. In societies concentrated on the production of things, “we created a split between intellect and emotions because in order to produce a modern technique, you have to use intellect. So we have created men who are very clever but our emotional lives have become impoverished.” 

Even when we do realise we are off track, many of us don’t know what to do. So we keep going until we can’t anymore. Bayo Akomolafe says we are in a sort of death spiral, like the phenomenon of ant milling where a group of army ants get separated from their colony and end up in a pheromonic trance in which they keep going round and round in circles, following the one in front of them, until they eventually die of exhaustion. 

He calls it ‘anthromilling:’ “we're telling ourselves we're almost there, we're about to arrive, just keep going, you can do it, this is motivational speaking, … but then we become veterans quickly in our youth and then we wonder what went wrong.”

So can we get out of this spiral? Akomolafe says solutions lock us into answers, into one logic, one perspective, and what we need is bewilderment. Our challenge is we only see what we can name, what makes sense, or what (we think) we can fix. We struggle with long term thinking and unanswered questions. Yet, letting go of our need to fix, to control, to achieve stability, is a form of liberation. It’s a space where we welcome other ways of seeing – this is the work of imagination, and it’s available to all. 


Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

References

“The Delusion at the Center of the A.I. Boom. Rampant solutionism.” Slate, Evan Selinger,

March 29, 2023. Read here.

To Save Everything, Click Here. The Folly of Technological Solutionism.
Evgeny Morozov.

“Evgeny Morozov: 'We are abandoning all the checks and balances'”, Ian Tucker, The Guardian, 9 March 2013. Read here.

“Bill Gates and the problem with climate solutionism,” MIT Technology Review, Leah C. Stokes, 16 February, 2021. Read here.

Under a White Sky,
Elizabeth Kolbert.


‘The Mike Wallace Interview: Erich Fromm’, 25 May 1958. Listen here.

“Bayo Akomolafe: "Why We need Postactivism Today," The Schumacher Center for a New Economics, 29 April 2023. Listen here.

Further Reading


“Experts call for global moratorium on efforts to geoengineer climate,” Fiona Harvey, 14 Sep 2023. Read here.

“Fact-checking series: How false solutions fortify fossil fuel dependency,” 350 Degrees, 1 August 2022. Read here.

May 26, 2023

The Cult of the Hero

“[People] fall into a cult of big hero/rockstar worship and don’t appreciate the efforts of small local ‘invisible’ everyday heroes and their small acts.” — Manish Jain

Jul 23, 2021

The Spell of the Status Quo

“The true force of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressor’s relationships.” — Audre Lorde

Feb 12, 2021

Where is the Love?

Apr 29, 2022

Improvisation as Liberation

“The act of engaging in free-improvisation will become a liberator, and emancipator, for many people to touch into their emotional lives in a non-verbal and non-judgemental way. We must introduce this healthy way of life.”— LaDonna Smith

Aug 27, 2021

An Imagination Crisis?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Albert Einstein

Jul 29, 2022

Seeing With New Eyes