2015’s opening offers an appropriate time to examine high technology and its development of weapons of mass destruction and other threats to the Earth. My own background to write about these issues includes being raised in the Southern military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas. I served briefly as an officer in the U.S. Army, resigned my commission to protest the American War on Vietnam, and have engaged in an extensive study of the military. This includes teaching courses on “War and Peace” at Sonoma State University and contributing chapters and poems to half a dozen books on war.
The United States military has long had the fastest and most powerful supercomputers. The New York Times reported on June 9, 2008, that the military’s “new machine is more than twice as fast as the previous fastest supercomputer, the IBV Blue Gen/L, which is based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,” a national security and weapons center.
That new supercomputer, Roadrunner, “was devised and built by engineers and scientists at IBM and Los Alamos National Laboratory,” the Times reported. Military computers have continued to advance at rapid rates, enabling drones to slaughter entire families, funerals, and weddings by the push of buttons in distant places, by operators as if they were playing the games they were raised on and addicted to.
The atom bomb was created at Los Alamos and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the wounding of many more, most of them civilians. “Boys with toys” would be one description of the horror they unleashed. Dropping that death machine on Hiroshima was bad enough, but then they did it again on Nagasaki.
Upon seeing the Trinity test of that weapon of mass destruction in New Mexico on July 16, l945, physicist Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atom bomb,” said “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was quoting the ancient Hindu spiritual text the Bhagavad Gita, which opens on a battlefield. Among war’s many sins, the dropping of these two bombs ranks as one of the worst.
Upon deciding to leave the military, I studied and taught at Ivan Illich’s Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Mexico in the late l960s. I encountered the fierce criticism of advanced technology by Austrian philospher Illich and psychologist Erich Fromm, best known for his classic book “The Art of Loving,” 1956. Fromm taught us material that later appeared in his book “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness,” l973.
Fromm bemoaned “the preparation of nuclear war,” on whose path high tech weapons drive us. He quotes Herman Kahn’s classic “On Thermonuclear War” (1960), which “calmly raises the question whether 50 million dead would still be ‘acceptable.’” (p. 351) Fromm had fled Germany for the United States during the rise of Hitler’ war-making. Who might accidentally or purposefully push the next nuclear weapon launch?
With the massive militarization of police forces around the United States by the Pentagon’s providing millions of dollars of tanks and war equipment, these instruments of death can now be turned upon civilians seeking to exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly. The “military-industrial complex” that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about has arrived in force and is likely to worsen, unless steps are taken to limit the multiple threats of high technology and replace them with lower technologies.
High technology is a root cause of many of the problems that threaten the Earth’s water, air, land, plants and inhabitants. It has sped us up on the path to self-destruction, not only of our species.
Nuclear power is another example of a significant high technology threat. After the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima disasters, you would think that most people would realize how hazardous nuclear energy and the plants that make it are. The risks far outweigh any benefits. The wastes alone can be fatal to humans and others and are long-lasting. How many more nuclear disasters do we need before we realize that we should end the use of nuclear power? Fortunately, many do realize the dangers of nuclear power, yet our high-energy demands have made it hard for some to let go of it.
However, appropriate technologies also exists, including in areas such as medicine. But when technology often creates a problem—such as the extraction of fossil fuels, which creates human-caused climate change—it then promises solutions, which often create unintentional consequences, including more problems.
“Technology rarely offers a free ride; there are new costs incurred by nearly every technological advance,” writes best-selling author Richard Heinberg in The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies. (p. 109) Indeed, the human “party” that we have been having on this “miraculous world,” as poet and farmer Wendell Berry describes it, may be on the path of destruction.
High Tech Communication Tools
Are communication tools such as cell phones and laptops neutral? Or can they lead to an erosion of moral values and be dangerous to their users and innocents unaware of them as weapons? Let me admit that I write as what my good friend and technology advocate the psychologist Dr. Ofer Zur describes as a “digital immigrant,” whereas the younger generation are “digital natives.” I also describe myself as a “digital dinosaur.”
I posed such questions about our high tech communication tools to my Sonoma State University students, which lead to vigorous discussions. I would speak about the danger of texting while driving, which most of them admitted doing. Then in 2010 one of our students, while texting and driving, killed a two-year-old in a crosswalk. Cell phones were a factor in 18% of 2009 fatalities that occurred in distraction-caused crashes.
As a college teacher for most of the last four decades, I have seen the disastrous impact of high tech communication tools on the focus, concentration, and even personalities of students. This is well documented in the book “The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can be Saved” by Todd Oppenheimer, a winner of the National Magazine Award. We live in what some describe as a “culture of mass distraction.” Many students today have what I would describe as “techno-personalities,” based on machines and speed.
High tech tools, such as laptops, contribute to massive destruction. “Blood diamonds” is a term that has become familiar. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes about “blood gadgets” and “conflict minerals” in his June 29, 2010, column.
“An ugly paradox of the 21st century is that some of the elegant symbols of modernity—smart phones, laptops and digital cameras—are built from minerals that fuel mass slaughter and rape in Congo,” Kristof writes. War correspondent Kristof reports that “warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold,” used to make phones, computers, and gaming devices.
The conflict in Congo for these precious minerals, Kristof reports, has made Congo “the site of the most lethal conflict since World War II.” It “claimed 5.4 million deaths as of April 2007, with the toll mounting by 45,000 a month.” One might describe this as an example of high-tech genocide. Is getting another new phone worth that level of death and suffering?
Our ethics have not kept up with our inventiveness and industriousness. In fact, Americans have become techno-addicted, as have others around the world, willing to ignore the current and future costs of high technology in order to feed their addiction. Ironically, high tech agriculture tools, such as chemical use, have been hazardous to the health of many.
As early as 2006, a nationwide study by Stanford University reported on “internet-addiction,” which has gotten much worse. “We worry when people use virtual interactions to substitute for real social interactions—and seeing their real relationships suffer as a result,” Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude is reported as saying in the Oct. 20, 2006, San Jose Mercury News. The report documents “impulse control disorders” and isolation.
“Are cell phones the new cigarettes?” asked New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in a June 29, 2010 column. She asserts that we have become “slaves to technology” and “that technology is a narcotic.” She reports that “One Swedish study that followed young people who began using cells as teenagers for 10 years calculated a 400 percent increase in brain tumors.”
High tech tools threaten our basic freedoms, liberty, and privacy. A person’s home in the United States is no longer her or his “castle.” It can easily be invaded by surveillance tools, without even the permission of a judge. Humans increasingly enslave ourselves to machines. A few people profit, but the rest of us pay the costs, including the loss of our freedoms.
We are naïve to think that we shape technology; it shapes us.
Positive Responses to High Technology
“Technology: Friend of Foe?” titles the Winter, 2014, issue of Communities magazine. In addition to my article “Black Oak Down: On Chainsaws and Morality, Denial and Acceptance,” it includes the following and other articles: “Social Media or Social Isolation?” “The Virtues of Off-Line Communication,” “Technology in Service of Community,” and “Tiny Houses as Appropriate Technology.”
Though the dangers of high technology are numerous, responses can be made to mitigate their impacts. Part of positive responses to the multiple dangers of high technology can be to return to lower technologies. Instead of using the highly polluting leaf blowers, for example, I rake and broom. I use a scythe to mow, though I must admit that I sometimes use a gasoline-powered mower. I have many trees on my farm, which I prune with hand tools. However, when a large tree does fall, I sometimes use a chain saw.
One of the consequences of the over-use of high tech tools is people using their bodies less. Americans have become the most obese population on Earth. By working physically on a regular basis, one can extend their life expectancy, as well as experience physical pleasures.
We can benefit from re-skilling ourselves and returning to some of the older technologies. Farmers used to have the highest life expectancy of any profession. However, with the growth of chemical and industrial factory farming, that is no longer the case. Returning to old-fashioned farming and gardening, including in urban settings, are important ways to mitigate the threats of high technology.
Farmer and author Wendell Berry has asserted that America needs 50 million new farmers. Peak Oil expert Richard Heinberg calls for a “re-ruralization” in his book Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. He asserts that it could fulfill “Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian democracy.” (p. 64)
Groups such as the California Grange, the Farmers Guild, and Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) are examples of what Heinberg describes as an emerging “alliance among environmental organizations, farmers, gardeners, organizations promoting economic justice, the anti-globalization movement, universities and colleges, local businesses, churches, and other social organizations.” (p. 64). Such an alliance, Heinberg suggests, could be a “survival strategy.” (p. 65) He asserts that we could be “staring at techno-collapse.” (p. 45)
Will this writer continue using some of the tools I criticize here? Of course, since I really have no other choice, if I want editors to publish my work. We do have a technology tyranny and a “digital divide.” However, I use high tech in moderation and consider its downsides. For example, the first draft of this article was written long-hand, as all my contributions to two dozen books have been. Only later, in order to edit those drafts, do I put them on a computer.
Among those describing the downsides of high technology and struggles against them are groups such as the Post-Carbon Institute, which challenges our fossil fuel based economy. One of its fellows, Heinberg, wrote the following in the forward to the second edition of When Technology Fails by Matthew Stein, “Many people think of modern technology as if it were a magical, autonomous entity capable of overcoming our ancient net-energy constraints. In reality, modern technology has merely increased our exposure to collapse.”
May 2015 be a year in which more of us closely examine high technology and the many risks that its consequences create. “Technology will fail. You can count on it,” Heinberg asserts. I hope that he is correct. But what then? Will many humans be left?
Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.