Anti-technologists descend on New York City… by plane and car

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promoting various naturalistic fallacies, backward-looking reactions to modernism and globalisation, and other kinds of outdated green fantasising.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.

37 Comments

  1. Mary M

    I eagerly await the #technoutopia tweets.

    Reply
  2. Jeff Walther

    It would be interesting to track down where the money for this is really coming from. I bet it ultimately leads back to banksters (promoting commodity scarcity) and fossil fuels (trying to lock in gas infrastructure as coal ages out), even if the money is laundered through bogus foundations.

    Reply
    1. First Officer

      So if banksters fund Hans Rosling, you and your family will now wash your clothes, and everything else, by hand?

  3. Bluebell

    This is all one sided Mark….but thats you ..isn’t it.

    Reply
    1. Steve Crook

      There’s another side? Some alternative universe where these people don’t look like fools or hypocrites?

  4. Jonathan Brown

    As someone who has just carried many buckets of drinking water – the pro and anti lobbies are equally and “extremely” stupid. Yes, we have a mobile phone, electricity, fridge/freezer, tv, lap-top computer and even a washing machine (unused for 2 years).

    We are also putting together a package to construct a 30 MW solar farm and a factory that will volume produce leading edge and “green” hollow core concretes for low cost housing – strong houses that use around half the materials as solid concrete structures.

    What is horrific is the dumping of obsolete technologies in the third world that do not really address the specific needs of those countries. For example, many hot third world countries expend 40% of their electrical power on heating the outside environment to create cooler internal “pockets” that people occupy – old technology that fosters greater dependency upon carbon based power generation. As the populations increase so do the demands for electricity. It is technologically possible to provide better air conditioning that saves 50% to 70% of capital and running costs in part by improving building technology.

    One example, the US built a nuclear power plant, here in Bataan, Philippines. The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) was built in the early 1980’s but never went into operation. Construction on the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant began in 1976. Following the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States, construction on the BNPP was stopped, and a subsequent safety inquiry into the plant revealed over 4,000 defects. Among the issues raised was that it was built near major earthquake fault lines and close to the then dormant Pinatubo volcano. The volcano’s Plinian / Ultra-Plinian eruption on 15 June 1991 produced the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta in the Alaska Peninsula. The philippines has not been able, with limited resources, to catch up for the lost nuclear power plant, that has been substituted by a number of coal fired power plants.

    Reply
    1. ActindeAge

      So, about that Bataan nuclear plant…
      1) Exactly which organisation found “4000 defects”? Could you link to their site so we can familiarise ourselves with their credentials?
      2) The Philippines has been hit by earthquake, volcano and typhoon since the plant was completed. How much damage has it sustained in that time? I know it’s none, which seems like pretty thorough pre-operational testing.
      3) I have it on good authority that the current alternative to activating BNPP is conversion to a coal plant. But we know the pollution from coal directly causes respiratory diseases and death – versus speculative damage from a nuclear accident?
      4) The US response to Haiyan included the USS George Washington – a nuclear carrier that can desalinate a vast volume of water daily. I don’t doubt that many Philippinos were happy to have a couple of reactors on their coast in the aftermath.

    2. Steve Crook

      There was an IAEA inspection of the plant in 2008 as a preliminary to seeing if it could be made operational. Then in 2011 the government were considering making it a tourist attraction!

      In 2014 I see there’s an active proposal to build a gas or coal plant on the site. If there’s already the infrastructure to distribute generated power it would make sense.

    3. Clyde Davies

      “Among the issues raised was that it was built near major earthquake fault lines and close to the then dormant Pinatubo volcano. The volcano’s Plinian / Ultra-Plinian eruption on 15 June 1991 produced the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta in the Alaska Peninsula. The philippines has not been able, with limited resources, to catch up for the lost nuclear power plant, that has been substituted by a number of coal fired power plants.”

      Deaths per TWh per energy source:
      http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html
      Coal – world average 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
      Solar (rooftop) 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
      Nuclear 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

      Anybody who thinks that renewables alone is going to help developing nations climb out of poverty is living in cloud-cuckoo land, to be honest.

  5. Robert Wilson

    Mark,

    I feel like the BBC journalist who looked at the front cover of UKIP’s manifesto and saw nothing but white faces.

    Of the speakers 40 or so are white people from western countries. Incredibly the only non-white speakers from a western country are spokespeople for indigenous groups. And almost every non-white speaker is a spokesperson for an indigenous group.

    This can only be described as creepy.

    Of course there also doesn’t seem to be a single person under the age of 50. This should make it clear that this is just a tired, dated and now irrelevant strand of environmental thinking.

    Reply
  6. Clyde Davies

    Can we not just organize an event like this ourselves in a huge shed somewhere, wait for all these ‘experts’, ‘gurus’ and activists to turn up, and just lock them all in for perpetuity?

    Reply
  7. ActindeAge

    “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 rebranding of glimmering PV and statuesque white turbines as the be all and end all of renewable energy leads so many astray these days.

    We can only assume these participants would be happy to have the totality of both industries chugging along In Their Backyards.

    China is far more out of mind.

    Reply
  8. Farmscience

    I’m gonna call Heather Colburn on Monday and ask her if Shiva really gets $40k for her speeches. I want to hear her justify that. I wonder what would happen if several, or more, people were to call Colburn about Shiva’s astronomical (no pun intended) fees.

    HEY! I just had a brilliant idea! You know her anti-gmo good buddy, Jeffrey Smith, the flying yogi? She can just get on a blanket with him, and fly for free!! (oh, yeah; the $40k fee still applies tho, right?)

    Will get back to y’all on Monday after I talk to Ms. Heather about Shiva’s fees.

    Reply
  9. Stuart M.

    I am a lifelong washing machine user. But I once went for an extended stay in Romania. The rural town I lived in had no washing machines. Everyone used big plastic basins, detergent, and just rolled up their sleeves and went squish, squish, squish! So I did it too. Hmmm, not so bad, I thought. It really builds arm strength, it’s good exercise! Of course, my dainty clothes started to stretch out with all my wringing them. But it was lots of fun to watch the clothes steaming while drying outside in the very frigid winter. Much, much later, I happened on a blog by a Romanian-American who complained that Romanians stank from body odor. I suggested to him in the comments that many Romanians don’t have washing machines and therefore wear the same clothes much longer than we do in the West. He almost blew a fuse and adamantly maintained that all Romanians had washing machines. I guess having washing machines is associated with a certain level of civilization and my suggestion was an insult to him.

    Reply
  10. Phallacy

    It is always autism because autism is a diagnosis of the modern era, first becoming a seperate diagnosis in the 60s and not really becoming well diagnosed until the 90s. Whatever modern ill you want to decry, you can correlate it to a rise in autism rates.

    Reply
  11. First Officer

    Boy, won’t they be surprised and dismayed when they learn Cooper Union has a prestigious Engineering program.

    http://www.cooper.edu/engineering

    Hee, hee.

    Reply
  12. Timothy Baldwin

    Judging from the programme this conference is not about opposing technology. It is a rejection of the idea that new technology is necessary and sufficient to solve the majority of problems effecting society, social change is needed instead; and a rejection of the proliferation of useless and harmful technology.

    Will making the social and political changes needed to replace fossil fuels with nuclear or renewable power solve climate change? Will inventing a new type of nuclear reactor help if the anti-nuclear movement stops its construction?

    Will energy efficiency help without social, political or economic mechanisms exist to limit energy use?

    Reply
  13. Toby Thaler

    “Everybody in the world cannot have cars and washing machines…” says Hans in the video. Cars and washing machines are not equivalent in cost, energy use, or environmental impact. Nor do washing machines (or access to use them regularly) require any where close to $40/day. Pretty weak.

    Reply
    1. Clyde Davies

      Why the hell shouldn’t every household have a washing machine? It liberates women from drudgery, which has to be a GOOD THING. I bet Hans wouldn’t give up his washing machine in a hurry.

      Talk about pulling up the ladder…

    2. Toby Thaler

      Where did I say people (or women specifically) shouldn’t have access to washing machines? I was commenting on Hans Rosling’s overly broad generalization and overall poor logic.

    3. Clyde Davies

      I know you didn’t. I was agreeing with you.

    4. Toby Thaler

      Sorry–I can be tone deaf to written comments…

  14. Clyde Davies

    Perhaps we should challenge these people to organize a meeting of this kind without resorting to anything remotely technological? Not even tin cans at either ends of a piece of string?

    You’re going to have to start to post something I disagree with at least once in a while, Mark. I find myself agreeing with you on just about every topic you mention.

    Reply
  15. Clyde Davies

    PS: is there REALLY somebody attending called ‘Jerry Mander’? What’s he speaking on, ‘New Approaches to Electoral Poltics’?

    Reply
  16. Margaret Swedish

    But none of this is the point. None of the polarities you outline here are the real ones. The divide you delineate among environmentalists is not the correct one, and it is way too simplistic.

    The real issue is not technology v anti-technology. The issue is overshoot and tipping points already past. It’s that the techno world you treasure is going to collapse this century and nothing we do now will keep that from happening.

    The real divide is among those who know this, and those who don’t. The conference is useless for helping us figure out how to survive, but so is this post. We will need to localize our technologies and restore local ecosystems in order to survive. How we do that, and decouple from corporate domination of the economy to make it possible, is our real struggle. The issue of technology is about how to serve that. Humans are just not as superior as you think we are. We are subject to all the same laws of nature as any other beings.

    This way of framing things, esp in these accusatory tones, is just not helpful

    Reply
    1. Toby Thaler

      Very well said. You summarize in a few words what numerous authors have spent thousands of pages explaining. E.g., Howard T. Odum, Donella Meadows, William Ophuls, Herman Daly.

    2. Clyde Davies

      “We are subject to all the same laws of nature as any other beings.”

      What laws of nature are we subject to, and which ones are we transgressing?

    3. Margaret Swedish

      We are subject to all of them. That we think we are not is our great transgression.

    4. Toby Thaler

      “What laws of nature are we subject to, and which ones are we transgressing?”

      Here are two:

      1. Limits to growth. In addition to the 1972 classic of that name, see
      http://www.manicore.com/fichiers/Turner_Meadows_vs_historical_data.pdf
      http://www.clubofrome.org/?p=326
      http://www.albartlett.org/articles/articles_by_al_bartlett.html

      2. Second law of thermodynamics. There is a good body of work exploring the connections between thermodynamics and economics and sustainability. http://www.amazon.com/The-Entropy-Law-Economic-Process/dp/0674281640
      is one starting point.
      This recent paper provides an excellent perspective: http://www.yadvindermalhi.org/uploads/1/8/7/6/18767612/malhi_2014_metabolism_of_a_human_dominated_planet.pdf

      Also of interest is the linkage between political and economic systems and the implications of exceeding the limits to growth at the same time as the inequitable distribution of economic wealth and thus of political power increases too much. This recent paper speaks to the issue:
      http://www.sesync.org/sites/default/files/resources/motesharrei-rivas-kalnay.pdf

    5. Margaret Swedish

      Thank you for these links. Eager to get into them!

    6. Toby Thaler

      Toby Thaler says:
      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      29 October 2014 at 4:56 pm
      “What laws of nature are we subject to, and which ones are we transgressing?”

      Here are two:

      1. Limits to growth. In addition to the 1972 classic of that name, see
      www dot manicore.com/fichiers/Turner_Meadows_vs_historical_data.pdf
      www dot clubofrome.org/?p=326
      www dot albartlett.org/articles/articles_by_al_bartlett.html

      2. Second law of thermodynamics. There is a good body of work exploring the connections between thermodynamics and economics and sustainability. www dot amazon.com/The-Entropy-Law-Economic-Process/dp/0674281640
      is one starting point.
      This recent paper provides an excellent perspective:
      www dot yadvindermalhi.org/uploads/1/8/7/6/18767612/malhi_2014_metabolism_of_a_human_dominated_planet.pdf

      Also of interest is the linkage between political and economic systems and the implications of exceeding the limits to growth at the same time as the inequitable distribution of economic wealth and thus of political power increases too much. This recent paper speaks to the issue:
      www dot sesync.org/sites/default/files/resources/motesharrei-rivas-kalnay.pdf

    7. Clyde Davies

      I don’t tend to think of those as laws of nature in the same way that many Greens would. Greens like to appeal to ‘Nature’ and her ‘natural wisdom’ without spelling out exactly what they mean. Which is why I asked that question.

      I’m with Mark’s analysis in The God Species: there are nine planetary boundaries that we ignore at our peril. Theyare:
      * Stratospheric ozone layer
      * Biodiversity
      * Chemicals dispersion
      * Climate Change
      * Ocean acidification
      * Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
      * Land system change
      * Nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
      * Atmospheric aerosol loading

      You can read about them at http://www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/research-programmes/planetary-boundaries.html .

      I just wish that when people appeal to ‘Laws of nature’, they’d inject a note of rigour once in a while. We don’t need any of this New Age posturing scheduled for New York to understand what we’re up against, and we certainly do need to get fatalistic about it or turn our back on technology either.

    8. Toby Thaler

      Clyde Davies–I am familiar with Rockström et al 2013; that work is totally consistent with the material I cited. I am not trying to defend the “greens”. On the other hand, I find those who believe “technology” will somehow save us to at least as lacking in rigor as New Age posturing. Rosling’s video exemplifies their skill at illogical arguments that ignore reality.

  17. Foster Boondoggle

    Many thanks for the Rosling video. He makes a wonderfully concise and empathic case for the dissemination of modern technology.

    I think you hit the nail on the head in identifying the ahistorical error at the heart of the modern Luddite movement. Few if any of these people would want to live as their ancestors did, as recently as 100 years ago, when a large majority of the population lived in agricultural communities heavily dependent on manual labor.

    There’s also the thinly veiled message from this crowd – whether in the 1970s “limits to growth” form or the more modern “agroecology is the answer” (what was the question?) version – that the world population must shrink. Of course it’s some other people far away that have to starve to make that happen.

    Reply
    1. Toby Thaler

      Population can shrink without people starving to death. However, it would require a redistribution of wealth sufficient to bring up the standard of living enough for birth rates to drop far enough soon enough. The relationships are well documented.

      You sneer at “limits to growth” (my comment posted 2.5 hours before yours in part on that very subject is still awaiting “moderation”). My questions for you: Do you think there are no limits to growth? Do you think our current industrial and technological civilization is capable of being sustained without fossil fuels in quantities in the same order of magnitude as today’s production? Do thou think such production is sustainable for more than a decade or so, and if so, what’s your basis for that opinion? Do you think civilization can be sustained without substantial sources of energy with an EROEI of at least 5 or 10 to 1? What are those sources going to be in 2100?

    2. Margaret Swedish

      We’ve been in overshoot for decades. Everything we consume now is drawdown. Growth is a myth. Economic growth = depletion of what remains.

      Even so-called “renewable” energy – imagine the industrial project of switching to solar, wind and the rest – the materials that will need to be mined, the factories that will have to build the things, the metals, the rare earth minerals.

      A lot of this discussion focuses on how to lower carbon emissions, but climate change is only a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. We are in drawdown mode and every technological fix means energy and materials that have to come from somewhere.

      We don’t want to deal with the real conundrum – the planet cannot support the human species in its current mode of being. There are better and worse ways to deal with this crisis of overshoot. Denying it is one way, or abiding by the definition of insanity (doing more and more of the same approach hoping for a different result), but that leads us down a terrible, terrible road.

      Limits, yes. They exist. The planet is a sphere, a closed system. We’ve been brilliant in manipulating it to allow more and more drawdown to keep things going. The impossibility of continuing this now looms, the wall into which we are about to crash because we didn’t want to turn on the headlights to see where we were headed.

    3. Bas

      @Margeret,
      Not so pessimistic.

      There are many technology fixes that improve the situation. Just compare the present LED lights with what we had.
      Etc…

      Check some more TED video’s from this fantastic Swedish guy.

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