06 November 2005


(Part 1, 2, 3)

Technology is simply the accumulation of practical knowledge. This includes economics, political science, earth sciences, and so on. It happens to include stuff like monitors and PDAs (and nuclear bombs, assault rifles, and catherine wheels). However, it also includes alternatives to these things. Torture is a category of technology; so is extracting information from people forcibly; so is law enforcement; so is intelligence & counter-espionage. These are separate categories of technology, although torture is often adopted as a strategy of "managing incompetence" by practitioners of the other technologies. Technology not only includes methods of social coercion; it ALSO INCLUDES ALTERNATIVES TO SOCIAL COERCION.

In these essays I've talked a bit about technologies that take the form of behaviors; legal systems, for example, or pedagogy, artistic disciplines, languages, or organic farming. I've done so because it's natural for people to visualize technology as tiny gizmos that can do cool stuff, or terrifying weapons that do uncool stuff very effectively, and I want to explain how limiting, and indeed, how destructive, that misapprehension can be. Heinberg speaks for a huge number of industrial dissenters when he attacks the expansionist imperative of modern capitalism; but equating this imperative with technology itself is very wrong.

It's arrogant and destructive to declare that "the only hope" for survival is a "scaling back of the entire human project—in terms both of human numbers and per-capita rates of consumption," and then behave in a manner identical with everyone else in Heinberg's income bracket. Is Heinberg proposing to live like a Bengali, on a income of a $2 per day? No, he is proposing to live in the Northwest in relative isolation, a landbased Captain Nemo. In other words, the other 6.5 billion humans had better get themselves crammed into a sustainable lifestyle or a casket, because he says so (from the comfort of his internet-connected home ). It would be one thing to admit that he has not yet thought of a way in which humans can live sustainably in a way that is not degraded, fearful, brutish, and short. That's not blameworthy, not at all. But to insist that no such problem exists—there is no way, and each human (other than himself) had better get herself reconciled to living in unwashed, disease-wracked squalor, and anyone who doesn't like this idea is welcome to kill himself—makes Ebeneezer Scrooge's diatribe about "the surplus population" sound like the epitome of compassion and humanitarian solidarity, by comparison.

This sort of thinking puts Bill Totten's environmentalist concerns at violent odds with his principles of humanitarian compassion. There's no way to reconcile the two, which is tragic because a true understanding of the matter would indeed reconcile them. You see, the economic system under which we live suffers from organization technology that is flawed; it requires rapid expansion to sustain a constant level of poverty. If (and only if) the rate of expansion goes up, poverty declines. This simple fact is the link, and a very mutable link it is. Totten then cites Cuba favorably as a model of the way nations ought to be, which is another mistake: judging a regime (Castro's) by [some of] its enemies (e.g., Tom Delay and the US State Department). While I would certainly agree that the official condemnation of Castro's regime is overblown and hypocritical, readers need to understand that the island's "solidarity" is actually regimentation, and regimentation by a would-be state capitalist. The country has, for example, remained utterly devoted to cash crops, needlessly exposing it to immiseration as the global price of sugar fell. And Totten is now stuck with the burden of defending not only a Stalinist ideal of economic development, but also statist repression. Hence, clashing with a third ideal he happens to cherish, that of individual liberty.

(I'm not linking very much because most of my knowledge of Cuba's socialist economy is based on interviews with one-time residents, such as an Indian professor of economics. My contacts were not especially hostile, although they did say that Cuba has a highly invasive, regimented society; and it is littered with the detritus of an attempted industrial economy, a la Stalin. My impression of the early Soviet economy is based on readings of E.H. Carr.)

The problem, of course, is indeed one of technology—the choices of technology we make. We are looking forward to a future of capital investments, investments that can be made either in gadgets or in institutions. If in institutions, we need to establish which ones we trust and cherish; this means the progressive, freedom-loving, environment-cherishing, egalitarian Bill Totten (and the rest of us) need to accept that humans are actually quite intelligent and sensitive about the choices we make—even if we're (gasp) US nationals. This will erase the violent clash between solidarity and freedom, anarchy and contempt for observed preferences, concern for humanity and the desperate wish that most of them would drop dead.

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