So I got an email this afternoon with the intriguing subject line: ‘All the troglodytes in one place’. I won’t reveal the sender, but it turned out to be a surprisingly accurate description of an event to be held in New York in two days’ time, grandly titled: “Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth: Why Technology Will Not Save The World”.
I invite you to read the, er, PDF. There is a rambling pre-amble, but the real meat is in the sessions – all of them dedicated to promoting various naturalistic fallacies, backward-looking reactions to modernism and globalisation, and other kinds of outdated green fantasising. Humanity’s “unquenchable thirst” for knowledge is lamented; as is the loss of an imagined past where “we once lived in contact with wild Nature, and in-close human community; connected, embedded”. (Hence the rapid progress of various plagues…)
It’s all dressed up in environmentalist language, but it’s a peculiarly Leftish dystopian discourse: “With the planet depleted, overbuilt and poisoned, wild nature and its great gifts are disappearing… For corporations, innovation solves the problem: Ignore the mess, create saleable ‘green’ false solutions, and build and market ‘substitute nature’ for uninterrupted product development and growth”. This sounds like a pseudo-religious narrative – capitalism is seen as humanity’s Sodom and Gomorrah, drowning us in consumerist excess that can only end with an apocalyptic Fall.
A teach-in is a rather old-fashioned type of event, didactic and reminiscent of the 1960s, but no doubt that is intentional. Things after all were better in the past! Even though many more children died young, gay rights were suppressed everywhere in the world, life expectancies were lower, and societies more violent and ignorant, things were better before, agree the speakers. Progress is an illusion, and the increasing sum of human knowledge and technological capacity must be stopped – whether it’s nanotechnology, nuclear fission or the mapping of the genome.
All this anti-tech stuff no doubt has limited appeal to the mainstream, but it seems to be pulling in a few people who really should know better. What is 350.org doing as a co-sponsor, and Bill McKibben as a speaker, at an event which is partially dedicated to old people moaning about how these pesky youngsters spend too long on their smartphones? “Many in our society see the ecological crisis as a grand new economic opportunity for growth and profit… inventions as Google glass, driverless cars, app-after-app- after-app, and ever more handy instruments for cyber-envelopment of our consciousness and everyday lives.” Okaaaay, like whatever.
And then there’s the rank hypocrisy of well-fed intellectuals flying in from all over the world to bemoan the march of technology. I mean, where do even you start on all the ironies? The fact that it’s promoted on the web? That no-one is coming by horse? That Vandana Shiva might have missed the party had she had to row over from India in a canoe? That electricity will no doubt be an essential part of the logistics of the proceedings?
In my experience, few of those promoting backwardness for other people live out those dreams themselves. If Vandana Shiva, for example, really believed her own rhetoric about the noble simplicity of the lives of the Indian poor, would she be demanding $40,000 and business-class travel for her speeches to the gullible but well-heeled Western audiences who seem to have an endless fawning appetite for her particular brand of Eastern mysticism? If you don’t believe Shiva is interested in money, check out this email from her speaker bureau, as revealed by blogger Keith Kloor at Discover magazine:
Along with the explicit rejection of the scientific method comes a whole barrowload of woo. There’s someone called Katie Singer talking about ‘An Electronic Silent Spring: EMRs/Radiation Soup’ – no doubt promoting scary fictions about the dangers of wi-fi and mobile phones. Ooh look, there’s a book you can buy on Amazon, and a website telling you about “why exposing children to wi-fi may lead to autism”. (Why is it always autism? Same with the anti-GMOers – autism seems to be the quintessential modern fear. Ironically.)
There’s woo too from Helen Caldicott, who believes that millions – yes, millions – of people are dying or will die because of nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, and that the scientific community’s vastly lower estimates are the result of a huge, sinister conspiracy involving everyone who disagrees with her. The GMO haters on the speaker list are too numerous (and tedious) to mention. There’s no-one on the bill who hates wind turbines or solar panels, but then this rejection of modern technology is nothing if not selective.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if this event – silly as it may be – does indeed highlight an essential divide in environmentalism, most especially between the pessimists and the optimists. Optimists believe that human ingenuity and innovation makes our species special, and enables us to solve complex and profound problems in all sorts of ways – generally involving tools, otherwise known as ‘technology’. Pessimists believe in retreat, that the only answers lie in abandoning human power and agency and going back into the bosom of mother nature – and that deploying the dreaded ‘techno-fix’ will only lead us deeper into doom.
Unfortunately this latter belief, in some form or another, is probably held by the majority of modern environmentalists. It is deluded, simplistic, ahistorical and anti-scientific, as well as politically reactionary and absurdly hypocritical.
I’ll give the last word to Hans Rosling, who gently mocked his green-inspired students in this superb video about the washing machine that I never get tired of watching:
I could ask the same question of the anti-technology speakers and participants at the upcoming NYC teach-in. How many of you wash your own clothes? Not with hot running water either, but by bashing them on a rock on the edge of the East River. No? Thought not. Then surely everyone in the world has the right to a washing machine just like you? We’d better continue with industrial development for a while longer then, hadn’t we? Just for the sake of equality, mind you.