Environmentalists vs Environmentalists

greenlogoTechnophoria is the irrational, overexuberant belief that technology can solve all the world’s problems. It has existed for over a century:

  • since the zealots of the early industrial revolution promised us a life free of toil and drudgery, 
  • since futurists promised that traffic problems were going to be solved by flying cars powered by hydrogen, 
  • since the architects of the ‘green revolution’ promised the end of hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, and
  • since biotech pioneers promised us pollution-eating bacteria. 

It is a tempting and seductive delusion — it is comforting, positive, and sexy. It is also dangerous. Technophoria is precisely the blind faith that has caused many the problems it promises, on the flimsiest of carefully-selected evidence, to solve. It is absurdly naive and idealistic, and ignorant of how and why things are the way they are. It is the progressive’s version of The Rapture. And Bruce Sterling, pioneer member of the Well and Wired, sci-fi writer extraordinaire, digital culture icon, and big supporter of the two most popular environmental blogs, WorldChanging and TreeHugger, has fallen victim to this not-so-new groupthink technology religion.

Let me say at the outset — I’m a fan of Bruce Sterling. Here are a few excerpts from an interview with him in David J Brown’s new book Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse that show how clever and informed Sterling is:

When you have complete corporate dominance, nobody’s going to innovate. [In the contemporary oligopoly-based economy when] you already have 95% of the market, there’s no reason to do anything much except post armed guards and clip stock coupons [he might have added, and hire lots of patent lawyers]… It’s tough to find anybody who will actually loyally work for a modern corporation… They’re just an inherently unstable way to try to run human affairs.

Computation has very little to do with what human brains do. We’re abusing the term “intelligence” as a kind of smear-over, conflating term to try to unite cognition and computation… There’s just no good technical reason for [AI] machines to behave in a way that resembles human cognition. That’s like asking “Why won’t this jet flap its wings?”… So you can call what a jet and what a bird does “flying” but although they’re bound by similar laws of aerodynamics, they don’t scale, one to another… I never argue with hard AI guys because they’re more set in their ways than the Jesuits. It’s theological, it’s blue-sky handwaving, it’s not practical.

I think the most important technologies of the 21st century are going to be whatever technologies allow us to keep 9.5 billion people on the planet without drowning in our own spew — feed and educate people, keep the plagues at bay while we’re doubling our numbers and causing a really serious biosphere problem. [The biggest threat to the human species is] the greenhouse effect… The thing that worries me is that there may might be just a few hundred thousand [human survivors by the end of this century] in a world that’s so severely ruined that they’re sliding into some kind of posthistory. Civilizations do crumble. Civilizations have been known to fall. Most of them have, always. And if you have one global civilization that’s everywhere and it makes one really big mistake you could have one very large barbarism in pretty short order.

I like to quote Havel on [the subject of hope]. He says that “hope is not the conviction that things will turn out well, but the conviction that what you are doing makes sense no matter how things turn out”. [So my objective is] to become more like myself. This doesn’t mean you should aspire to be perfect. You’re not trying to become soulful, morally better, or angelically good. You’re not subjecting yourself to some kind of idealistic framework from outside time and space. You become more willing to recognize yourself as a mammalian, physical, living entity, moving through time, having mass and occupying space. I think since that’s the truth, you should come to terms with that, and you should arrange your life in a way in which that knowledge makes some sense.

smartcar2All of this strikes me as entirely reasonable, sober, pragmatic. And Sterling’s Viridian Green movement design:

Of course, many people claim not to be convinced by climate change evidence. That is because they are shortsighted sociopathic morons who don’t want to lose any money. Worse yet, they have a vested interest in obscuring and distorting the truth about climate findings. Plus, they carry out intensive campaigns of personal smear attacks on the integrity of scientists. This practice is Lysenkoism, which all serious intellectual workers must hold in contempt and abhorrence.

and his movement’s principles

Very few people earn their daily bread by pointing out malfunctions, bugs, screw-ups, design failures, side-effects and the whole sad galaxy of trade-offs and failings that are inherent in any technological artifact. To counteract this gross social imbalance, a wise designer and a wise critic will make it a matter of principle to look at the underside first. Every design process is incomplete unless it takes into careful consideration what could be done with the product by a dictatorial megalomaniac in command of a national economy, a secret police, and a large army.

are brilliant, witty and buoyant.

But…

Then there’s this — a keynote address at the recent SXSW conference, with a prediction that technology will solve all the world’s problems by 2060, in which Sterling sounds like a Stepford Environmentalist, spouting an “everything’s rosy” we’re-gonna-fix-it-all with-bottom-up people-centred-design mantra that could have been written by the Davos corporatists for Lomborg. Talk about “theological, blue-sky handwaving”!

And then there’s this — a smug and supercilious attack on James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, in which Sterling shrugs off Kunstler’s argument that:

No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it. The wonders of steady technological progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us into a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true. These days, even people who ought to know better are wishing ardently for a seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements… The widely touted ‘hydrogen economy’ is a particularly cruel hoax. We are not going to replace the U.S. automobile and truck fleet with vehicles run on fuel cells. For one thing, the current generation of fuel cells is largely designed to run on hydrogen obtained from natural gas. The other way to get hydrogen in the quantities wished for would be electrolysis of water using power from hundreds of nuclear plants.

with this bizarre and irrelevant retort: “That [Jiminy Cricket] insect is one of those nagging, mindful, spiritual, conscience-driven coffee-cup enviro types… Even if hydrogen storage and transport turn out to have insuperable problems, that doesn’t make hydrogen a hoax. A hoax is a deliberate fraud.”

Huh? What happened to the principles? Has Sterling been ‘persuaded’ to don rose-coloured glasses, or gone through one of the spiritual make-overs he used to disdain, or has he just been seduced by the groupthink of technology-will-overcome idealists who have picked him as their poster boy?

It is really distressing to see technophoric environmentalists dismissing as doomsayers and conspiracy theorists fellow environmentalists who are justifiably dubious of technology’s promise to solve urgent social and environmental problems in the face of a political and economic power structure determined to ignore, trivialize and discredit any attempt to change the status quo. In the face of megapollution apologists, environmental crisis-deniers, and perpetrators of junk science who smear the work of legitimate scientists, the last thing we need is an open and hostile feud between ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ environmentalists.

I can almost hear the ‘bright greens’ calling Kunstler a ‘dark green’ and the ‘deep greens’ calling Sterling ‘green lite’. So let’s agree on bright (Viridian) green and deep green as the labels of our shades of our shades of difference of opinion, and agree that there is room for more than one shade under the green umbrella. So perhaps WorldChanging and TreeHugger are ‘bright green’ blogs, and How to Change the World is ‘deep green’. We need each other, and we have to work toward common goals.

My point is that wishful thinking, accompanied by ‘happy news’ reports of promising potential new technologies and inventions (many of them exaggerated to obtain research grants) will not be enough to solve global warming, pollution, loss of biodiversity, habitat destruction and the degradation of our land, water and air. Of course we should buy environmentally friendlier products and celebrate substantial scientific breakthroughs. And I think we all agree there is no point filling our blogs with the depressing and endless litany of environmental bad news that is constant and everywhere. And that echo-chambers of indignation, and hand-wringing and letter-writing campaigns aren’t nearly enough either. But the resurgence of technophoria, the faith that we can just invent our way out of the mess we have created, is dangerous — it gives those who look to us for leadership, information and inspiration false comfort, saps our energies and divides us. And plays right into the hands of the “shortsighted, sociopathic morons” and “Lysenkoists” that Sterling warns us about.

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14 Responses to Environmentalists vs Environmentalists

  1. Raging Bee says:

    If you think technophoria is dangerous, try the alternative, technophobia. From that direction we get creationism, faith-based enforced ignorance and fearmongering, AIDS policies that only worsen the problem, phony sex-ed, Drug-Empowered Absolutism, and a million voices (including yours) that undermine the physical sciences at a time when they are most needed to keep the politicians and televangelists honest.Sterling is right on this one: we’re finding technological solutions to our problems faster than we can put them to work. Most of our current problems are caused by technologies that now need to be updated. Furthermore, the historical record shows that scientists have always been more honest and helpful than ideologues.

  2. This reminds me of the theme of my e-novel “inventing for the sustainable planet” where tech journalist Max using creativity techniques creates a vision of the sustainable society and gets really disappointed.Instead of finding a society with amazing technology and the social order of today he finds a society with today’s technology and another (amazing)social order.we shouldn’t be surprised. Studying an animal community we look at the appropriateness of its behaviour in utilising the services of the eco system it is living in without degrading it. Same with us. We should look at how we behave with the technology we have not stare ourselves blind at the technology.(download book from avbp.net)

  3. Zephyr says:

    There’s a lot of wisdom in what you say, Dave, but the current wave of internet technology. has been and will be in the future, a very powerful thing to better our world.Internet and computers lead to free and quick exchange of information and ideas – it decentralizes sources of information. It’s all about learning,and thinking.What has caused war in past decades and centuries?What has allowed it to continue and be done againand again? Lack of information to the general populace of those nations who’s governments engage in war.The internet makes for ways to express ourselves, creatively- and ways to communicate without any use of any naturalresources.I have a book I got recently with a lot of photographs by a man named Lewis Hine – who documented childlabour in pre world war II USA. It’s interestingto see the difference in the way of life of peopleas you look at these photos. If you’re immersed ina society, you don’t see these changes clearly, sometimes. One tends to forget.Do you know how much we changed our attitudetowards thinking and life in 1995, in the USA, whenthe internet became widespread? The other day I read a bbc article which spoke ofscientists researching the possibility of growingmeat cultures in a laboratory. Think what thatwould do – if we could dispense with the terribleslavery on factory farms.The fact is, our government isn’t conscientiousenough to make laws which close that circle which begins with extracting chemicals for usein technology, and ought to end with recyclingthese chemicals, or making them benign substancesagain which could be powdered and returned to theearth.I also beg to differ with your opinions about theuse of hydrogen.. The fact is, we have probablyreached peak oil, today. And our society willcertainly find a way to use our cars and factories, in the coming centuries without the use of the the oil and natural gas which won’t exist anymore. The use ofhydrogen is the course which seems to be the most feasible, here.There’s a lot of wisdom in what you say, Dave, but the current wave of internet technology. has been and will be in the future, a very powerful thing to better our world.Internet and computers lead to free and quick exchange of information and ideas – it decentralizes sources of information. It’s all about learning,and thinking.What has caused war in past decades and centuries?What has allowed it to continue and be done againand again? Lack of information to the general populace of those nations who’s governments engage in war.The internet makes for ways to express ourselves, creatively- and ways to communicate without any use of any naturalresources.I have a book I got recently with a lot of photographs by a man named Lewis Hine – who documented childlabour in pre world war II USA. It’s interestingto see the difference in the way of life of peopleas you look at these photos. If you’re immersed ina society, you don’t see these changes clearly, sometimes. One tends to forget.Do you know how much we changed our attitudetowards thinking and life in 1995, in the USA, whenthe internet became widespread? The other day I read a bbc article which spoke ofscientists researching the possibility of growingmeat cultures in a laboratory. Think what thatwould do – if we could dispense with the terribleslavery on factory farms.The fact is, our government isn’t conscientiousenough to make laws which close that circle which begins with extracting chemicals for usein technology, and ought to end with recyclingthese chemicals, or making them benign substancesagain which could be powdered and returned to theearth.I also beg to differ with your opinions about theuse of hydrogen.. The fact is, we have probablyreached peak oil, today. And our society willcertainly find a way to use our cars and factories, in the coming centuries without the use of the the oil and natural gas which won’t exist anymore. The use ofhydrogen is the course which seems to be the most feasible, here.I love Vaclav Havel’s idea of hope which you havementioned. Hope must be matched with action.

  4. Zephyr says:

    Sorry for the double post – I wish I could edit it…

  5. Joe Deely says:

    Dave, I guess it depends on what you mean by “solving these problems”.Personally, I think we have already solved the problems of pollution, habitat destruction and the degradation of our land, water and air. However, although we have solutions to the problems above, many of these solutions have not been fully implemented yet. As this century progresses these solutions will be implemented further. Any new technology is not necessary but may serve to speed up improvements.We still have some work to do on the loss of biodiversity and a lot of work to do for global warming. Biodiversity is a problem that needs to be better measured and the public needs more education on this issue. Global warming is the one issue that I see as being a difficult issue… one that will require both new technology and possibly changes to the way we live.I am an environmentalist who sees the glass as being more than half-full and I have a hard time understanding the positions of enviromentalists who see it as being almost empty.

  6. When I first saw the title of this post I thought of this post I just read today:http://octavo-dia.blogspot.com/2005/08/sportmanship.htmlAt first this was all I was going to say on the issue, but I can’t resist adding my 2 cents.Quote:”Technophobia – From that direction we get creationism, faith-based enforced ignorance and fearmongering, AIDS policies that only worsen the problem, phony sex-ed, Drug-Empowered Absolutism, and a million voices (including yours) that undermine the physical sciences at a time when they are most needed to keep the politicians and televangelists honest.”Technophobia? So creationists, Christians, Politicians, ect are all scared of technology and refuse to use it like that Amish… I understand the point you’re trying to make with that comment but I think your usage of terms may be slightly skewed. I do agree with you on the point that we need to make better use of the technology we already have, although advancing too fast would also have it’s own new problems.Another Quote:The internet makes for ways to express ourselves, creatively – and ways to communicate without any use of any natural resources. Ummm… electricity comes from where? The magical energy elves? (Psst… think coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and other power plants…Natural Resources.)Although I agree that surfing the web uses far less energy than driving your car to a university campus every day. In addition I too think that something will have to change in the next few years. Gas will no longer be the wondrous, cheap energy source that it once was. I’m an optimist, but as much as I’d like to think something will replace it, I still think we’ll be force to adjust our consumer habits. I doubt it will happen easily, we humans are far too stubborn for that.

  7. Kevin says:

    Great post. I have been struggling with this issue for a while now since I decided a while back to change my path, learn more about this environmental stuff, and get a job that is actually helping things rather than hurting. The more I learn however, the more “deep green” I become. I can’t be optimistic about technology allowing us to live as we have come to enjoy, yet not have any negative effect on the natural systems that support us. The problem then comes when I start to think about what’s next. Yet, I get the feeling that my less-than-optimistic-about-technology-to-save-the-world view point is not really what potential employers are looking for. I feel like if I want to be able to live, I have to either pretend that I am gung-ho and enthusiastic about all the great “breakthroughs” I read about on WorldChanging or, I have to somehow trick myself into actually believing it -and believe me, I have spent a lot of time trying to find something… anything, that will give me reason for optimism.The only thing I can find that *might* cause me to succumb to technophoria is that the only other solution is a dramatic change of values within people and cultures. Likewise, the more I learn about past cultures, the less hope I have that this will happen either. So which is better? Be poor and promote the unlikely complete turn-around of what human societies value, or be able to life the lifestyle I am used to by promoting the equally unlikely (but much more popular these days) scenario where technology saves the world. And although I don’t know much about him, (maybe I am just being cynical) I can’t help but think that maybe Sterling, and many techno-prophets, have made their decision when faced with this very same dilemma.

  8. Kevin says:

    I re-read my comment and it looks like I am accusing Sterling of “selling out” or conciously acting in a way that is contrary to his beliefs in order to achieve financial gain. That is not what I meant so I just wanted to clear that up… I am sure he believes what he says with all his heart and is increadibly passionate about it. It’s just that the fact that techno-optimism is very appealing and easy in that it allows us to live the unsustainable lifestyle we are accustomed to with less guilt (in some cases it may even make us feel as though we are activly doing good). This must surely influence our beliefs. I guess that if one is to believe that technology can not save the world, it is very hard to reconcile it with our current lifestyle. As a natural psychological defense against such constant stress, I would guess that maybe our beliefs might actually begin to change. Not saying that is what happened in his case, but I wont be suprised if it happens in mine.

  9. Raging Bee says:

    It’s just that the fact that techno-optimism is very appealing and easy in that it allows us to live the unsustainable lifestyle we are accustomed to with less guilt (in some cases it may even make us feel as though we are activly doing good).Actually, it could help us to make our lifestyle a lot more sustainable, by – for example – offering more efficient or clean-burning engines, better wind-turbines, safer nuclear power plants, fuel-cell and hybrid engines, solar cells, more efficient recycling technologies, cleaner manufacturing technologies, etc. etc.Of course, all of this stuff tends to be produced by large corporations, and it wouldn’t do to admit that corporations sometimes do good things, would it?

  10. Wes Johnston says:

    Techonology is like anything else which is developed, it can be used for “good” or for “evil”. It does appear to have many advantages such as the development of renewable energy and more energy efficient products and operations which arguably have a positive affect on climate change. I would question the use of technology and science in the development of GMO foods and keeping people alive who would likely find much more peace in the after state. The dark side of technology reminds me of an arms race, where societies and cultures are never satisfied with this material aspect of their lives. If one society (or corporation) develops a newer technology, the race is on to create the next next great thing, and trump the old one. Not only does society become a slave to the technology (your computer or cell phone) but we become a slave to the advancement of future technology. And who will control the techonology? Consumerism and technology seem to be very interconnected. It is now developed to sell to the masses, a promise of an easier life. Will corporations still control it(and not be responsible for it!)and use it to manupulate people to strengthen thier bottom line? Strengthening the relationships between people, animals and our environment is more important than technology. Techology can make life “easier” (until the next great thing comes along and your out of date) but does technology make our lives “better?” Technology us in the mess were in now.I see technology as a small part of the means to assist in making our society and environment more natural and/or progressive. Technology is a part of our society and it is here to stay (for many years to come – barring a disaster). Depending on technology is not healthy (like we depend on oil).I would much rather depend on my neighbor or brother.

  11. Raging Bee says:

    I don’t see any ill effects from depending on technology to keep up with the latest flu, keep me warm in winter, meet chicks, and keep me informed of world affairs. Neither do you, judging by the fact that you’re using the Internet to rail against the evils of technology.Do you feel “enslaved” by your use of various gizmos and medicines to stay alive and comfortable? I’ve never been there myself, but I’ve seen photos, and I’m quite sure I’d feel a lot more “enslaved” by the lack of the technology I currently take for granted.As for depending on my neighbor or brother, my current neighbors are okay (except for the crazy lady across the street), but if I were much poorer, I’d probably be forced to live with “neighbors” of much lower calibre, and would NOT want to depend on them.

  12. Kevin says:

    I am not sure that many people are claiming that technology is “bad”, or that technology alone enslaves us, but I think that *reliance on technology* as a downstream solution to problems (often caused by earlier use of ill-thought-out downstream sollutions) is the real issue. I have nothing against technology… but I can not bring myself to believe that we will be able to invent our way out of all the existing technologies negative side effects. At some point we have to start looking for non-technical solutions as well, we have to think about changing our behaviour, relying on ourselves to solve our problems.I think this is where the idea of enslavement comes from. Recognizing problems caused by behaviour and changing that behaviour doesn’t mean there is no need or use for technology (rubbing two sticks to get fire is technology), but as long as we keep looking downstream we are forever trapped by the need to keep solving whatever problem the newest solution causes. Considering the complexity of our world, and the alarming rate at which problems are arising compared to the rate at which they are being solved, it seems that it’s a race we can’t win.

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Steve: Great site you have, and an interesting concept behind the novel, too. Zephyr: I’m just not as optimistic as you are about technology, and I don’t see the changes wrought by the Internet being (at least so far) that momentous, as my Aug 28 and 29 posts argue. Hydrogen just isn’t going to save us. And while we can, with the benefit of hindsight, see some of the evils of the past that no longer exist, there are undoubtedly evils just as dreadful today that we won’t (because vested interests are keeping them secret) know about until the future. Joe: You don’t ‘solve’ a problem just by inventing a technology. Otherwise you could say we’ve ‘solved’ the problems of poverty, hunger and disease. A solution needs political will, broad education and social effort, which are incredibly difficult. John Gray’s book shows the degree to which every new technology creates as many problems as it solves. I think the answer is to start seeing the glass as *both* half-full and half-empty.Jeremy, Kevin: Thank you. I’m with you all the way. Kevin, I’m not sure what to recommend re: employment. You have to assess how much you’re willing to put up with and stack it against what the position you achieve allows you to do to make things better. Read “Straw Dogs” and then go out and play with a pet or a child (or, like Jeremy today, talk with an old person), and you’ll be able to figure out how and where to strike the balance. Be good to yourself, you’re one of my heroes.Wes: Excellent points.

  14. Zephyr says:

    To get some perspective, on how the computer has changed ourworld, one can watch a couple rerun episodes of “Star Trek-the next generation.” This is a circa 1992-era televisionseries. And within those stories, one can see how computersare thought about, early in the last decade. They areintriguing things which can do magical actions, but thesemachines are only interacted with, by a few keypresses.There are no highly visual photograph based computerscreens seen, in that film. The workings of computers areexplained by people who use a highly technical lingo.Because computers are so efficient with processing andsending information, they have become, primarily, over thelast decade, a means of sharing images and text around theglobe. How has this changed our society? How will it, inthe future?To today’s north american civilization, computers and theinternet represent a new frontier. Consider the opportunitythat was there for people in the 1800s, when they could getland grants in the Western part of North America. Think ofall the different courses which society could have takenfrom that point. Anything was possible. The same thing istrue today. Those who will seize the opportunity with theinternet, will be the ones who make our society what it is,in the coming century.By the way, if you’d like to delete that above post,Dave -I’ll write a better version. I had two drafts ofthose paragraphs, on my page, when I copied the text, andpasted it into your comments section.

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