Technology as a Force in Human Life

I worry about technology as a force in human life. I see how much harm it had done in the past; how it degrades our present; and how it might ruin our future. This is a minority view at present, as technology seems to be embraced by almost everyone as an unambiguous, unmitigated good. Let me begin by invoking the words of Marshall Mcluhan: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” to indicate one of my concerns. I think it is a fair question to ask just how much we want to be shaped by our tools, and to further inquire as to whether we even have the volition to choose. I have seen very little evidence that the people of our culture have ever been able to say no to technology, no matter how horrendous in implication that technology might be. I am thinking of things like the building of the atomic bomb, genetically engineering life-forms, and pursuing nanotechnology. All of these seem extremely dangerous to me, and, once brought into the world, difficult if not impossible to control. But it is not just these extreme technologies that concern me. I worry about virtually all technologies as having the potential to draw human societies into territory that is not good for their long term prospects. Here let me introduce a stanza or so from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Things are of the snake,
The horseman serves the horse,
The neatherd serves the neat, [sheep]
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

There are two laws discrete
Not reconciled
Law for mankind and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet
But it runs wild
And doth the man unking.
‘Tis fit the forest fall
The steep be graded
The mountain tunneled
The land shaded
The orchard planted
The globe tilled
The prairie planted
The steamer built.” (from Ode Inscribed to William H. Channing)

I wish Emerson had expounded further on these “two laws discrete” that he brings to our attention. Discrete and not reconciled, he says, as if this were a proposition he understood. Not knowing exactly what he means or intends, I will venture a speculation.

The word unking suggests the loss of sovereignty, as do all the verses quoted here. Loss of sovereignty in these “days of chattel” (chattel being personal property that is moveable), is nicely captured in the line, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” This poem, written in the time of chattel slavery (1847), could not foresee atomic weapons, Frankenfoods, and itsy-bitsy self replicating nanoparticles, nor quite envision how technology would come to insinuate itself into human institutions and our common experience, as well as embed itself in individual human lives. But Emerson grasped the principle that technology, and “things,” are “of the snake.” We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. Believing that tools would somehow improve their lives, our distant ancestors shaped spear points, arrowheads, knives, baskets, and bowls, and I would be hard put to say that those particular items did them more harm than good, as those items helped keep them alive. Now, in the global world of the twenty-first century, we as a people hold the faith and belief that technology has brought us better lives than those who have gone before, and that technology will continue to better our lives into the indefinite, but ever-improving, future. This is a faith; it is part of a belief system—but it is a faith that I question, and in fact doubt.

I have publicly expressed these doubts in the context of speculating about future human survivors of the coming, and converging, catastrophes. I call these (conjectural) survivors the People of the Fresh Start, and I raise the question of just how much technology they can safely and morally allow into their lives. Both of these words, safely and morally, arise from lines of thinking I’ve explored in other places, but let me speak to them briefly here. I see the culture of civilization as being based upon theft, deception, and violent destruction. Civilization itself is founded upon empire, which is in turn based upon injustice—to other people, to other places, to other species. And I see all artifacts of this culture as carriers of the perceptions, values, and stories of this same imperial culture–and technology is certainly included among the artifacts of culture. A giant earth-moving machine assumes that gouging out the flesh of the Earth is permissible and desirable. There is nothing neutral about this, or any other, technology. Even something as simple as an ax has far reaching implications: changing interpersonal dynamic within a group as well as making the chopping down of trees an easy option.

The conditions I am assuming are post-energy-bubble, when the remaining survivors of cataclysm have to live within the daily solar budget. Not having resources to squander, and meaning to live in such a way that many generations of humans could follow them, my People of the Fresh Start need to have a clear understanding of their actual situation, and leftovers from a failed culture and civilization are not likely to serve their needs. People today, who are anchored in the present and are reluctant to envision a future without all the amenities of the present, ask me pointed questions. I’ll include a few exactly as I received them:
“At what point would the People of the Fresh Start draw the line in adopting technologies? Is agriculture okay? How will they enforce these taboos? And by what means did they come to understand the rather advanced concept of Holonic Reciprocity? If they devised an ax would it inevitably lead them to do something bad with it? Do they need to have taboos against particularly helpful tools lest their inherent inability to use them only in constructive ways lead them into problems? My point is that you are perhaps brining in holonics to ensure their safety, but not really trusting it to protect them from the potential harms of new technologies.”

By way of response to these good questions, let’s start with these two words: trust and technology.

If you look at the history of our people, you see one long unvarying pattern: technological advances continue to be made, and our people (almost) never say no to them—if we can tunnel we tunnel, if we can till or plant or grade, we do it, and usually without much thought to what is being transformed, or understanding the long-term effects of those transformations. It is difficult to explain within the metaphysical framework we have inherited how technology could have a will of its own, but it nevertheless continues to be the case, as Marshall McLuhan has noted:”We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Or, as Emerson suggests: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” So the word trust, or its opposite, is appropriate. How much technology can these People of the Fresh Start handle? And by what criteria do they come to their own decisions about this?

The Law of Holonic Reciprocity is alluded to in one of the questions, and let me here state that the holonic worldview may not come all that intuitively to the people of the culture of civilization because we have been taught to believe that we and Nature are separate, that it is the Other, and (laughably) that it is subordinate to the human order. Within such a context the concept of holarchy and holonomy may seem advanced, but most indigenous tribal peoples, including our own wild ancestors, not only understood the concept but lived by it. The anthropological literature is replete with data supporting this view. But this does bring us to another one of the questions, and that is: By what means do they come to understand the holonic worldview?

If we can go by what has worked for many thousands of years, a partial answer would be oral culture: the stories they tell themselves about their past; who they are, what they are here to do; and what is valuable. But where do the stories themselves come from? Judging from the past, and from those few cultures relatively uncontaminated by our own, a people’s body of cultural beliefs derived from present group experience, from past group experience (the ancestors), and from the land itself, including from the spirit world that inhabits (and perhaps animates) a group’s immediate life-giving environment. Animism and shamanism have been the spiritual traditions of tribal peoples everywhere–for tens of millennia–and I would say that makes animism and shamanism the archetypal human spiritual tradition, and one that is hard-wired into our human collective unconscious—no matter how we moderns may deny it, with our overlay of monotheism and science. Remove the overlay of the culture of civilization, and I believe our descendants could easily be back in touch with their own deep ancestors and with an animate Earth. Or, granting them not even that much, but just an intellectual capacity equal to our own, wouldn’t you think that after seeing our ways of living in the world crash so spectacularly– with cascades of ecosystem failure and the breakdown of civilization–these People of the Fresh Start might be able to come up with some stories and taboos of their own? If there is any hope for their success at all, it is a requirement that they be at least adaptive enough to question the assumptions, and lifeways, that have brought us to the brink of collapse—and soon (I’m sure) beyond. As for how these people will enforce their new cultural taboos—that would be the same way as always: group consensus, peer pressure, and punishment for offenders (from ostracism to fines to banishment). In small groups, these methods are time-tested and proven.

At what level of technology do these People of the Fresh Start draw the line? By their time, they have to have figured out that technology is a slippery slope that leads humans to becoming tools of their tools. In addition to this cautionary insight, they are out of the resource and energy bubble that plagues the world and supports our delusions today. They have their daily solar budget and their daily ecosystem services (we hope) and they have no choice but to live on the interest of Nature’s economy, and not (like us) on its capital. They aren’t making rifles and loading ammunition, for instance, nor forging ploughshares. Not only have we mined everything there was to mine of all the non-renewable resources, we’ve mined all of the fish in the ocean and all of the forests of the world and other such resources that could have been “sustainable” had we lived off the interest instead of the principal. By living as we have (and continue to live) we leave our descendents very little to work with. Of course it is inter-generational injustice of a most pernicious and self-centered kind, but our narcissism doesn’t permit us to think much about others, and our economic system doesn’t allow us to think very far ahead—and of course our political system is owned by our economic system, so there is no help for the future there. If these People of the Fresh Start are living by the Law of Holonic Reciprocity, then they are considering the seventh generation, and beyond; and not only the seventh generation of humans, but of All Our Relations; and of not just the Community of Life, but of all that supports that Community, including the air and the water and the Gaian systems that make life possible.

One big question remains. How do these people feed themselves? If the domestication of plants and animals–what has been alternately called the Neolithic revolution and the Neolithic catastrophe—was a branching in the human path that led ultimately to the failed experiment of civilization, how much agriculture, if any, can these People of the Fresh Start allow into their lives? I think the answer has to be, not much—and for two reasons. The only agriculture that was really ever “sustainable” was practiced on flat river bottoms that were supplied with fresh fertility from distant mountains. Right now, water backed up behind dams has drowned most of these once-rich areas. Practices like permaculture offer, perhaps, a transitional technology, but permaculture, like all forms of horticulture or agriculture, requires the importation of fertility to keep things going. Importation of fertility, without fossil fuels, means a huge expenditure of energy to transport it—and that is not the worst of it. With our present imperial mind-set, we think nothing of stealing “resources” from other places, other people, other species, but our descendents are going to have to think differently than that. Justice, sustainablilty, and the Law of Holonic Reciptocity require fairness to all, and to the All. That is the Law of the Universe, and though we have circumvented it for a time, and the Law of Cause and Effect has been temporarily deferred, the Law will not be denied. Because everything is interconnected and mutually interdependent, stealing from Peter to pay Paul has no long-term viability.

Does that mean bows and arrows, obsidian knives and willow and hazel-wood baskets are going to be the preferred technology of the human future? Is hunting and gathering really the only viable way for humans to go on living on this finite and damaged planet? Well, I don’t know. We can speculate about the future, but it is not really ours to see. When you think in terms of trends and trajectories, it seems that the trend of agriculture leads, ultimately, to the parade of horribles now visited upon the world, including, of course, our massive population overshoot, resource overreach, and our poisoning of the biosphere. Agriculture is another one of those slippery slopes where our technique for feeding ourselves, by transforming Nature into something not Nature, has the effect of enslaving the human, and making us the tool of our tools.

The anthropologist Marashall Sahlins, author of Stone Age Economics, has called those who practice the lifeway of the hunter-gatherer “the original affluent society,” because our ancient ancestors usually devoted only a couple or three hours a day to “earning a living.” With the rest of their time our wild ancestors could do whatever pleased him or her, in a life that offered variety and great potentials for individual growth and development. This is the opposite of what he have been schooled to believe by our own self-promoting culture of civilization. In this way our culture is like our economic system, and like technology itself: it has its own agenda, and just uses us to serve its ends. Most of us haven’t figured this out yet. I am trusting that our People of the Fresh Start will.

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How Science and Religion fail us Morally

I know of only three basic approaches to morality. The one that has been around the longest looks to Nature itself for direction in how the human should live. There have been variations on this view, ranging from the animism of hunter-gatherers, to the shamanism of tribal peoples, to the Taoism of the historical Far East. Then, some four thousand years ago, a monotheistic religion arose in the West, which declared that all morality was decreed by a male god-figure in the sky, and that the Laws of Morality were codified on clay tablets miraculously delivered to the Earth, to be discovered by a special chosen people. This was the doctrine of Judaism, which was later picked up by the Christians and declared to be Universal Law, with the injunction to spread this Law, and this religion, all over the world. Some fifteen or sixteen hundred years later, with the rise of the Scientific Revolution, a wholly different doctrine of morality would begin to take shape. Among scientific materialists, morality would come to be seen as a strictly human invention. Morality might well have social benefits– they would say–providing some basis for a social contract, perhaps, but had no relevance or validity beyond this limited, and somewhat arbitrary, application.

The better to understand and sort out this muddle, it is instructive to view it in historical perspective: to see how one thing led to another led to another: how the egalitarian spirituality of animism, which located meaning and morality in the spirit-filled Earth, was transformed into a monotheistic religion which put the human at the center of everything, subject to the directives of a distant all-powerful patriarch, while the Earth itself was demoted to lowest possible statues within this rising new hierarchy. With its roots in the Agricultural Revolution, this cosmological and ontological reversal of an ancient understanding of the world took several millennia to fully develop and become codified, but in its effects it has proved to be a cognitive and ideological revolution on a scale never seen before or since. This revolution–which has never been given its proper name—was a usurpation of Power on the most grandiose scale imaginable. At the heart of this revolution was the dual claim that the human was separate from Nature and that the Earth was the sole property of human beings. In place of Sacred Earth we now had Empire Earth—and when enough people came to take this proposition seriously, and commit themselves to its assumptions, the Revolution of Empire Earth was on its way.

This is the historical context in which another, but lesser, revolution was to take place: the Scientific Revolution. And here again it is important to understand the historical situation when Establishment Religion and Establishment Science divided the world between them, in a Power-sharing compact that still informs, and shakes, the world today. In essence, the deal was: the Church would take the ‘soft’ and less visible side of things: the spirit, the emotions, the soul, along with all the doctrines that attach to their sacred text. Science would deal with the physical and material: those things that could be weighed, measured, and computed. That wholeness does not divide itself so neatly into discrete categories of mind and body, matter and spirit, did not seem immediately troubling to either side of this grand bargain. One reason for this has to do with our Western philosophical tradition, in which (Platonic) Dualism and (materialistic) Atomism had been at loggerheads for two millennia and more. Christianity had long allied itself with the two-different-worlds view of Plato, replacing Plato’s world of perfect ‘forms’ with its (distant) Christian Heaven. The Earth, in both Christianity and Platonic thought, remains as a flawed, and rather despised, lesser realm.

Atomism is monistic and materialistic, and is philosophically irreconcilable with dualism. It is also reductionist, and sees things in terms of their smallest constituent parts—long thought to be the atom. Working within the reductionist-materialist cognitive framework that Science inherited as their part of the bargain, it is not surprising that they came up with the explaining story they did. The world as they saw it through their materialist lens, had no mind, no spirit, no creator, and thus it came to seem that it had no meaning or purpose, either. Instead, at least among the more extreme materialists, the Universe and the Earth would come to be understood as random, meaningless, and indifferent to humans, with the Laws of Life cruelly set up as one-life-against-another in pitiless competition for survival. This view, I should point out, has not been derived scientifically, but is instead a bedrock assumption taken for granted and passed on from one generation of scientists to another, as unquestioned, and unquestionable, doctrine. With such a nihilistic worldview it is little wonder that morality is seen by Science as a wholly human construction– something we pretty much make up as we go along.

When Science parted ways with Religion four or five hundred years ago, they did not start fresh with a brand-new set of underlying assumptions. Instead, Science embraced the entirety of our long cultural tradition, going back to the beginnings of agriculture. What they did, by way of distinguishing themselves from Religion, was embrace one school of Greek philosophy over another (Atomism over Dualism), making that the basis for their inquiry into Nature, and also the basis of their worldview. That is, Science is nothing more than a schism within the Revolution of Empire Earth. In both the religious and the scientific paradigms, the human being is still at the center of everything; none of the other plants, animals, or fungi has status of any importance, except in how they serve the human being. And the desacralized Earth remains as nothing more than a storehouse of resources, a waste dump, and a Power to be outdone and overcome. The Community of Life is not recognized as an interdependent, holonic community which far exceeds the sum of its parts. Nor is the self-organizing, life-nurturing Earth itself recognized as anything but an indifferent machine. Stuck in a scientific model where organism is simplified to mechanism, and complex, non-linear systems are reduced to a cartoon version of their relational intricacy, it is perhaps not surprising that Science has so little to offer in the area of morality.

It is true that there was once an ecologist who was also a moralist of Nature, and here is an example of his thinking: ‘A thing is right,’ he said,’ when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ Aldo Leopold was an unusual man, and a brave one, because thinking in whole systems like this very much went against the grain of the scientific community of his own day– and it still does. In fact, this kind of thinking is much more allied with the Indigenous Worldview than with that of the West. His Land Ethic is very similar to that of indigenous people: it ‘simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.’ Within our culture, such talk is worse than heresy; it is counter-revolutionary, as it would topple the human from his lofty throne and invite him to transform himself ‘from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.’ An Earth-centered and system-centered Land Ethic ‘implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.’ Schooled to see the world through the prism of the isolated individual, neither scientists, nor anyone else, is encouraged to notice the kinds of relationships that are implied by the word: ‘community.’

The best our most up-to-date science can do is notice, and quantify, whether or not certain moral strictures serve some practical purpose in the real world. They can say that treating cows as sacred in a country like India has particular practical results—which they can demonstrate with graphs and charts. But it is not theirs to comment on this practice as moral doctrine.

Moral doctrine is supposedly the province of Religion—and certainly Establishment Religion claims morality as its own—but their vision of what morality is, is truncated and foreshortened by their myopic and narcissistic anthropocentrism. That is to say, when you look at something like the Ten Commandments you see that it has only to do with how people relate to their jealous god, or how they relate to one another. Nowhere do you find any injunctions about how to relate to the Earth, or to the other creatures of the Earth. Nor is this simply an oversight; instead, it follows quite logically from the Big Lie of Separation and the cultural and philosophical Revolution of Empire Earth. If everything is about people, and people only, then it follows that morality can only be about people, too. The thinking is circular, solipsistic, and tautological, but few have seemed to notice just how much has been left out of what passes for morality—namely, the more-than-human world. Having no cultural taboos against destroying other life forms and taking their habitat for our own, and, with no prohibitions against tearing apart the living Earth, paving it over, and choking it on our poisonous wastes, we have systematically committed acts for which our language has no name—and no shame.

We have lately had to invent our own words to describe what are essentially crimes against Nature—words like ecocide or omnicide—but these do not begin to cover the multitude of sins that the Church itself does not acknowledge as wrong. We can speak of the human extirpation of species—which is ongoing at about the rate of 200 species a day—but we have no terminology for this offense. When you kill a king you call it regicide; when you kill off an entire species, you are left speechless, at a loss for words. You can try coining a clumsy word like species-o-cide or planet-o-cide, and someone might have a vague idea what you mean, but the fact is, we have in our culture no prohibitions against depleting the species of the Earth, or against so degrading the Earth that it will no longer support Life. With no such cultural taboos–deeply understood and felt by all–mere neologisms carry little weight.

It is difficult to believe that a dominant culture like ours could live in the world for thousands of years and remain so oblivious to the world that has given us our lives. But this is what we have done: we have built a false world inside the real world, and all we have seen is the one of our own making. The voice of Aldo Leopold is, to my mind, a voice of sanity in a world gone mad, speaking simple, obvious truth: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ Integrity and stability are qualities that might be rendered in some measurable form, and may thus seem appropriate to the concerns of the scientifically trained ecologist. But what about this quality of beauty: How does that figure in? I think it is first and foremost a human response to the self-willed and spontaneous beauty of the natural world; not just the sunsets and the grand views, but the aesthetic way in which Nature organizes itself, at all scales: from the microscopic to the telescopic to the everyday. Moreover, beauty does not just exist for its own sake, but is a talisman and marker for something else: and that is system health. In the world of Nature, when something looks good to the eye, it is probably because balance and symmetry manifest themselves from the inside out. Beauty and system-health go together, and whether that system is an organism, an ecosystem, or a planet’s biosphere, it is a pretty good guess that when natural beauty has been replaced by its opposite something is amiss.

Western Religion and Western Science fail us morally because they are obsessively human-centered, and made accordingly blind to the larger context of our lives– blind especially to the health and beauty of the complex systems that make our lives, and all Life, possible. A system of morals that does not recognize biotic systems, and our dependence upon them, is worse than dysfunctional: it is suicidal—along with also being ecocidal, species-o-cidal, and planet-o-cidal. And this is moral failure on the grandest scale imaginable. What is needed in place of our myopic human-centered ethical shortfall is, of course, an Earth-centered moral system that recognizes our dependence upon everything else for our survival. And it is not like we would have to start from scratch to arrive at such a system. Our wild ancestors (and indigenous people alive in the world today) understood (and understand) the relationship between the human and the rest of the living world. They understood (and understand) that all systems, at all levels, are mutually interdependent, and rely upon reciprocity to go on working at their optimum best. These systems require something of us, and we owe them a moral debt, for giving us precious Life. We are born into the world with responsibilities to the Whole, and any morality that fails to recognize this basic truth has failed us and the Life System at one and the same time. This, it turns out, it the price of living the Big Lie. We are not Separate from everything else, and we never could be. All flourishing is mutual, and any morality that does not stand on this truth is a sham.

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