Three Luddites Talking …


Three elder critics of technological civilization got together in a rather bizarre way — via email.  Their mission?  To reflect on the anti-technology movement of the 1970s-‘90s and offer perspective to new generations growing up in a cyber-world.  Ecologist Stephanie Mills is the author of six books, including Whatever Happened to Ecology? and Epicurean Simplicity.  She lives in Maple City, Michigan.

Psychotherapist Chellis Glendinning wrote My Name Is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, When Technology Wounds, three other books — and hails from Chimayó, New Mexico.

Historian Kirkpatrick Sale lives in Coldspring, New York and Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  He has authored ten books, including Human Scale and Rebels Against the Future.

Stephanie Mills:  The latest technological onslaught is proving to be more complete and brutal than we could ever have imagined – you think?.

Chellis Glendinning:  I find it hard to conjure words to even speak of it.

SM:  I’d say this recent rampage is a function of the exponential growth of populations and economies.  It has to do with globalization and the steady increase in computational power.  It’s what Jacques Ellul called technique, which is intrinsically hegemonic.  This onslaught is the accelerating momentum of technologies and instrumental mentalities that are exterminating spontaneity, undermining love and common decency. It’s a thief of time and includes all the palpable and subtle violations of body, mind, and spirit done in the name of science, government, enterprise, progress, and profit. It’s the ugliness of mass production and consumerism, the banality of advertising.  Although it claims to do just the opposite, it’s predicated on disempowering and effacing persons.

And it means we’re all stuck on the downside of The Golden Age.

CG:  I confess I’ve long held a secret longing for that Golden Age.  It’s curious how one can yen for not just the ancient days of land-based living and communalism – but, good Lord, for the year 1969!  2000!  But I also mean longing for some Golden Age in my own psyche – before initiation into the dominant civilization.

Kirkpatrick Sale:  How so?

CG:  I see this onslaught as the final shattering and scattering of the Whole.  It’s that wrench between human and nature that occurred,  as you Kirk propose in your book After Eden,  due to a violent planetary event some 70,000 years ago that instantaneously skewed climate.  The volcano that turned skies black and chased temperatures down unfurled an icy world in which humans were forced to become more aggressive and dominating just to eat and stay warm.

And as goes the outer,  so goes the inner.  The psyche that, by all accounts, had been a worthy reflection of the unity of seasons, wind and waters, soil and rock,  stars,  plant and animal life was shattered and scattered too.  I see this breakage as the traumatic response – the splitting and sending into unconsciousness those experiences the organism is not designed to process, the seat-of-the-pants clawing for function and meaning in what is left of the conscious mind.  And so the onslaught that appears to us as the unending march of harsher forms of technological systems, the grasping for control by global corporations,  the splitting of community into those who have it all and those who have nothing — this is reflected in a parallel inner onslaught that manifests as the march of abuse, a grasping for rationalization, and the splitting of psyche into denial and numbing on one side and unspeakable suffering on the other.

As I’ve been able to heal the breakage from some of these onslaughts in my personal history, I’ve found my longing for a Golden Age actually receding; arising in its place is mindfulness of What Is.  What Is is a sad and broken world barely hanging on after millennia of onslaught.

KS:  Thanks, Chellis.  And the subtitle of After Eden is The Evolution of Human Domination — domination over the entire globe and almost all its species.  That is the onslaught.  It has been going on a long time, I argue, but in the 20th century humans have certainly perfected it, extending  domination to every single corner of the earth and our Homo sapiens population to more than 6 billion — until no place is untouched by despoliation.

In the 21st century we will reap the whirlwind of that “perfection.” Within the next ten years and certainly in the next 20, human domination will produce catastrophes that will put the future of human societies, and probably that of most other surface species, in doubt. I need not list them out for you, you already know them.  And you probably know that Edward Wilson quote that sums it up: “The appropriation of productive land — the ecological footprint — is already too large for the planet to sustain and has likely stressed the earth beyond its ability to regenerate.”

SM:  Could even the most prescient analysis of modern technologies have predicted that 96% of the world ocean would become contaminated?

CG:  So, how could one predict the effect of a new technology before it’s deployed?

SM:  I’d say any prediction worth its weigh would consider the spiritual, material, and unintended consequences of introducing a new technology to the world. It would proceed from the kind of understanding Chellis articulated: Life is Whole.  Respecting beings, places, and life ways would be a basis for a worthy systemic analysis. And such an analysis would be inherently conservative, assuming that technology — from the fire stick to the silicon chip — is apt to do more harm to the Whole than good.  It would be more concerned with the Whole than the parts and has to proceed from the premise that death and pain, short life spans, and no bread without sweat must be accepted.

Given all that history has shown us of the consequences of technology — from the atlatl spear to the A-bomb — why have so few groups of human beings managed to resist the incursions of technology?  Or be choosy about the extent to which they’ll employ a technological innovation?  Agrarian Anabaptists, Christian Scientists, and Samurai are among the rare examples of renunciation stemming from an unwillingness to sacrifice the spiritual qualities of community life.  Evidently there is no separate salvation.  Individuals can refuse to use a given technology, but unless they live in total isolation will have to engage with people whose psyches have been shaped by a multitude of technologies.  And there is no escaping the pervasive ecological effects.

CG:  I’ve been rereading Lewis Mumford, and beyond his scope of comprehension and passionate language, what stuns me is his capture of the underlying metaphor for mass technological society, the megamachine.  When I first read his work back in the 1960s, I was catapulted from being lost in a world made incomprehensible by a zillion quirky, nonsensical phenomena to seeing the line-up of those zillion things in a mechanistic pattern of production, dissemination, use, abuse, and discard.  I’d say that such a viewpoint lays the basis for any decent systemic analysis of technology.  What does a new technology do?  How does it fit in?  Does it support a dysfunctional system — or help us break from it?  Mumford doesn’t go into the actual mechanisms that allow technologies to be developed and to succeed.  Langdon Winner helps us understand those mechanisms that government, industry, science, and capital use to bring about normalization – but, in our lifetimes, we’ve had ringside seats to a transformation equal in scope and impact to the Neolith.  Or the industrial revolution.

I’ve been watching with horror the infiltration of wireless contamination.  I’ve seen the ways multinational corporations entice a populace made lonely and scared by life in mass society into believing that they cannot survive without a gadget that a year before they could not imagine.  I’ve seen how the old technologies that served similar purposes suddenly become unavailable, are outlawed, or the means by which they function  impossible to find.  How the industry sets up its hegemony via legislation giving carte blanche to proliferate and profit.  How people are brainwashed into accepting, even championing these technologies.  How the cancers and heart attacks and immunological diseases that result are then accepted as separate acts of individual fate rather than results of direct exposure to electromagnetic radiation.  How, by dependence on these new technologies, they become impossible to protest.

A decent analysis, I’d say, has to grasp such a process.  But, Steph, I don’t believe for a moment that a Life-Is-Short-And-Brutish analysis is the universal picture.

SM:  Oh?

CG:  Well, maybe in Europe where the climate was inhospitable.  Or maybe because that’s what industrial-revolution propaganda wants you to think.  But history abounds with examples of peoples living gracious and long lives in places that the human species was suited to inhabit.

And that may be the point.

KS:  That is certainly the point: when the human species was born, on the African savanna, life was pretty good;  we could live in harmony with the rest of nature, and that’s what I’ve been calling Eden. The only technologies that humans devised for some 2 million years were fire and the hand ax.  That’s all.  Eden didn’t need anything more.  And it was only when we invented the spear and began roaming the planet that technologies got complex and central to human survival.

SM:  OK.  So how do you see technology’s place in today’s world?

KS:  My analysis, especially of the computer revolution, always comes back to capitalism.  It’s that economic system that has led to Western civilization’s willingness to enslave ourselves to machines — because some people benefit enormously from it, while the costs are borne by other people and the planet.  Add to that the fact that modern governments, existing primarily to protect and enhance capitalism, maintain their power through the use of technologies that control the populace — by bread or circuses, by war or schooling, by armies and police, all of which are enabled and empowered by technology.  That is what we might call the stick part of capitalism, while the riches-for-the-few is the carrot.

It’s worked pretty well for five centuries.  But it’s come to the point that the technologies are destroying the earth.  I’m convinced that the catastrophes of the next two decades will be so vast as to bring about a world where life, if it survives, will be far simpler — and the technologies, too.  Then we will have come full circle to something like life on the savanna.

SM:  So … a systemic analysis of technology derives from nature.

CG:  A crucial point!!

SM:  Yes.  If a technology is elegant, biodegradable, made from renewable materials and employs a minimum of muscular, water or wind energy, is responsive, beautiful in its way, and challenging to the user in that it develops the user’s senses and strength — it may comport with nature.

A deep analysis judges technology morally — from its conception and intention to the totality of its consequences, knowing that all “raw materials” once were someone’s home or sustenance, that extraction and manufacture at industrial scale reduce landscapes and their human beings, that distribution, employment, and disposal of technologies change lives in unpredictable ways.

CG:  The first really coherent analysis of technology was articulated as all-out industrial expansion emerged from the accumulation of booty and ambition of classical empire.  This was the Luddite analysis.  To my mind, despite perspectives made by such visionaries as Lewis Mumford or Langdon Winner along the way,the Luddites had it down.

They saw the friction edge between expanding-exploitative-mass society and sustainable-human-scale-nature-based culture.  Aside from all the seeming complexities, this is the bottom line of any politic in today’s world — whether it’s expressed by an indigenous group fighting to protect traditional lands from oil exploration, urban dwellers battling the city to not mow down community gardens, a farmer shielding his crop from genetically-engineered seeds, or citizens protesting yet another imperial war.  And, as you say Steph, the best insight comes from intimacy with that which we once and future are.

KS:  Stephanie’s right: it’s from love and knowledge of nature that any sensible understanding must come.  Technology is essentially antagonistic to nature — that in fact is why it’s created, to do something to or with nature that wasn’t there before, that wasn’t natural.

CG:  Good point.

KS:  So the technology that does the least alteration of nature, the least harm to other species and systems, and provides the greatest intimacy of human with nature, is the best.  We could make a scale with that in mind, and judge any technology by its place on that scale: speech and eyeglasses, say, would rank low; nuclear bombs and coal plants, high.

I like to quote the British anarchist Herbert Read: “Only a people serving an apprenticeship to nature can be trusted with machines.”  And: “Only such people will so contrive and control those machines that their products are an enhancement of biological needs, and not a denial of them.”  I hasten to add that when I speak of knowledge of nature, I do not mean industrial science, which argues that nature is inert and can be understood only to enable humans to manipulate it.  I mean that sense of nature that Aldo Leopold had in mind when he said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community, wrong when it tends otherwise.”

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