Sunday, February 16, 2014


Welcome to our all-you-can-eat buffet of eco-predicaments, a remarkable achievement brought to you by our old friend, technological innovation.  Our friend isn’t evil.  He’s a hilarious charismatic trickster who excels at making comical mistakes.  Every brilliant idea blows up in his face, flattens him with a boulder, or rockets him over a cliff.  He never gives up.  He never learns from his mistakes.  He never succeeds.

Like the trickster, Americans are famous for our manic techno-optimism.  Economic growth and material progress make us giddy with delight, and seventy-two percent of us believe that the benefits far outweigh the harms.  The planet doesn’t matter.  Technology will certainly enable the kids to have a somewhat life-like experience, riveted to their glowing screens.  A sane person can only conclude that we live in a world of illusions.

Techno-Fix, by Michael and Joyce Huesemann, takes us on a voyage through the hall of illusions.  It provides readers with magic x-ray glasses that allow us to see right through heavy layers of encrusted bull excrement and clearly observe our way of life in its bare-naked essence.  It delivers a super-sized serving of precious common sense that should be a central part of every youngster’s rite of passage, but isn’t. 

The human species invented techno-addiction, a dangerous habit that seems impossible to quit; we always need bigger doses.  This addiction has put quite a kink in our evolutionary journey, repeatedly blowing up in our face.  Science and technology are the mommy and daddy of most of our severe problems.  No other species has developed a fascination with endless growth.  The other critters have remained in balance for millions of years, limited by predators and food supply, nature’s brilliant time-proven design.

The Huesemanns note that we took a different path.  “Humans have used powerful technologies to escape these natural constraints, first by using weapons to eliminate large predators, then by inventing agriculture to increase food supplies, and finally by employing sanitation and medical technologies to increase their chances for survival.”

Our devious experiments at controlling and exploiting nature have created a thousand nightmares.  We’ve zoomed right past seven billion, giving the planet quite a fever.  Still, the mainstream mindset is convinced that life is always getting better and better, and that technology will overcome any challenges on our joyride to utopia.  We have no doubt economic growth can continue until the sun burns out, and nothing will ever slow us down.  According to Huesemann’s Law of Techno-Optimism, “Optimism is inversely proportional to knowledge.”

The mainstream mindset is so weird — it celebrates the benefits of technology, and steps around the stinky messes, pretending not to see them.  Innovation is never a free lunch.  Every benefit has costs, and it’s impossible to predict every unintended consequence.  When serious problems are discovered, we tend to resolve them with additional innovation, which generates additional unintended consequences.  We can delay paying the bills for our mistakes, but every debt must and will be paid.  It’s something like quicksand.

A century ago, the benefits of the automobile were immediately apparent, and the staggering unintended consequences were not.  This technology has caused huge damage to our health, our families and communities, the ecosystem, and the unborn.  Car problems are still growing, as billions of people in the developing world are eager to live as foolishly as Americans do.  The car and the television are our two biggest techno-bloopers, according to the Huesemanns.

Foolish fantasies are the deliberate consequence of the mass media and advertising, which are tremendously successful at persuading folks that the purpose of life is to transfer as much stuff as possible from nature to landfills.  “Needs” are what is necessary for survival and health, like food, shelter, and community.  “Wants” are things we have no need for, stuff we have sudden impulses to acquire.  They are infinite in number, constantly changing, generally frivolous, and often useless.

The path to consumer happiness and high status involves devoting a substantial portion of our lives to doing various sorts of work.  For many, the work is less than meaningful or satisfying.  The reward is trade tokens, which are used to acquire wants, and each purchase provides a brief consumer orgasm.  The thrill is soon gone, the gnawing returns, and we are compelled to go back to the mall and get another fix. 

No matter how hard we thrash our credit cards, we never arrive at our destination — wholeness and contentment.  “We are chasing a mirage, thereby remaining forever dissatisfied and unhappy.”  In the last 50 years, rates of depression in the U.S. have increased tenfold, and continue to rise (rates among the Amish are far lower).

Depression is also a result of our mobility and isolation.  Until the industrial era, most people spent their entire lives in stable communities, and formed long-term social bonds with the people around them.  Before the hell of automobiles, daily life included pleasant face-to-face encounters with others.  Before the hell of glowing screens, people spent little time sitting alone.

Luckily, technology has a daffy response for any problem.  It’s far easier to develop techno solutions than social solutions.  Rather than attempting the social challenge of creating a way of life that isn’t so lonely and dreary, technology can simply chase away depression and anxiety with happy pills.  It’s easier to build new road systems than it is to convince people to give up their cars.  It’s easier to provide life-saving surgeries than it is to encourage people to vacate their couches and eat a healthy diet.

The Huesemanns harbor special loathing for the medical industry.  It’s extremely expensive, and remarkably ineffective.  Intelligent, low cost preventative care is not the focus.  New treatments are constantly being developed.  The dead generate no profits, so we keep very sick people alive on machines; we transplant organs.  Death must be delayed by any means necessary, regardless of cost.  “If it can be done, it should be done.”  We need to remember that old age and death are normal and natural.

The last section of the book provides the theoretical solutions to our predicaments.  This plan requires world leaders that will eagerly cooperate in rapidly and radically reconfiguring the way we live and think.  It requires a humankind that is spiritually connected to nature, people who abhor pollution and mindless consumption, folks willing to make enormous sacrifices in order to ensure the wellbeing of future generations of all species.  Energy will be renewable, non-renewable resources will be shunned, and all wastes will be safely biodegradable.  The Huesemanns warn us that the transition might not be easy. 

Huesemann, Michael and Huesemann, Joyce, Techno-Fix — Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada, 2011.


Riversong said...

I love the trickster analogy, which is so apt because modernists don't realize that most "advanced" technology is fool's gold, and devotion to science is but a substitute for the "old-time religion".

At least the creator of modern advertising, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, was honest enough to title the first book on the subject Propaganda (1928). Today, we consume it daily as non-nutritional "infomercials".

The authors of Techno-Fix seem to be well situated in a century-long tradition of exposing the false promise of technology for the improvement of the human condition, including:

Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (1918)
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)
Paul Goodman, Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life (1947), Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society (1960)
Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations (1957)
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (1959)
Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964)
Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (1964)
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934), The Myth of the Machine (1967)
Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967)
E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (1973)
Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973)
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977)
Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society (1979)
Edward René David Goldsmith, The Great U-Turn: De-industrialising Society (1988), The Way: An Ecological World View (1992), A Blueprint for Survival (1972)
Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)
Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations (1991).
Neil Postman, Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992)
Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (1995)
Ted Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future (1995)
Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (2006), Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (2011)
Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (2004), What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order (2008)
Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010)
Spencer Wells, Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (2010)

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, the trickster notion was modeled after Wile E. Coyote, a famous cartoon character from long, long ago.

Oh my gosh! He's got his own Wiki page, plus a lot of YouTube videos.

Propaganda certainly has real power to turn sunset into sunrise. Sigh!