The Myth of a Technological Salvation
by Paul Kingsnorth
Humanity is obsessed with progress, which usually means building better machines to solve our problems. What if this thinking was in fact making the problems worse?
"WHAT DO YOU DO after you stop pretending?" This was the question - or one of the questions - with which we launched the Dark Mountain Project in 2009. We were - still are - a network of writers, artists, thinkers and doers who had become disillusioned with our own work to change or 'save' the world, and who wanted to question more deeply the stories that underpinned our attempts to do so. Many of us had come through environmental activism, and had become disillusioned, or even despairing, about our ability to make the necessary changes in time.
The root cause of all these trends is the same: a rapacious human economy which shows no interest whatsoever in changing its direction of travel - indeed, probably could not do so even if all its leaders suddenly had a change of heart, such is its momentum now. It seems to me these days that these facts are giving us a simple, uncontroversial message: our civilisation is going to hit the buffers very hard in the not-too-distant future, and then it is going to fall apart.
Quite how or when this will happen, I couldn't begin to say, but the alternative - a mass change of hearts and minds - seems more preposterous still. Yet very few of us seem interested in looking honestly at the message this reality is screaming at us.
The obvious question - 'why not?' - can be puzzling if you assume, as both Marxists and neoliberals tend to, that humans are sensible creatures who assess evidence and then act in their own rational self-interest. The reality seems rather more complex: man is a prejudiced, confused, emotional animal who, in the famous words of Paul Simon, "hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest".
There is also a deeper problem: the stories we tell ourselves about who we are prevent us from believing what actually appears to be going on. Every civilisation has its foundation myth, and ours is the myth of progress.
Enlightenment rationalism grafted its own vision of the perfectability of humanity through science and the intellect onto Western Christianity's utopian rootstock, and we have all eaten of the strange fruit that resulted. We believe - we have to believe - that everything will keep getting better for us.
What does getting better look like in this culture? Usually it looks like solving every problem that comes our way with new technology.
"Give a Western man a job of work to do," wrote George Orwell in the 1930s, "and he will immediately set about inventing a machine to do it for him." Nothing has changed since then; we are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the current experience. Present 2.0.
'We still believe in 'progress', which we lazily define as the inevitable continuation of Western techno-industrialism.
Climate change? Overpopulation? The mass destruction of ecosystems? A collapsing economic model? No worries: the machines will come to our rescue.
It is this attitude that leads 'climate deniers' to do what they do, but it is also this attitude that leads environmentalists to adopt their quasi-religious attitude to renewable energy, in which the destruction of a mountain by a turbine range is simply the price we have to pay for our inevitable salvation-by-machine.
The mainstream green movement has bought completely into the myth of techno-progress, and has bet its house on creating a 'green economy' and a 'sustainable society' which, when examined, turns out to be much like the world we have now, only with more trees, a mysteriously stable climate and windfarms instead of coal.
It looks to me like a fantasy. It was Einstein who said, famously, that problems are not solved by the same mindsets that created them. We are not going to get ourselves out of the trap that this civilisation has flung the Earth into by accelerating deeper into the technosphere and discarding only the carbon. Something else is going to give. I'd guess that the myth of green progress may be one of the first victims.
Seeing our planet as a factory floor
If we believe that the rest of nature is a resource for human use, then we will treat our planet simply as a factory floor. Even if we manage that factory sustainably, it will be a poor and depressing world.
WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT 'NATURE', strange things happen in this culture. And by 'this culture', I mean the Westernised, post-Enlightenment world in which most reading this probably live. One of these strange things can be illustrated by quoting from a comment by "genfie" which appeared under the first article in this series, and which its writer liked so much that he or she repeated it almost verbatim under the second:
The notion of 'wilderness' is a human construct ... There is no such thing as 'wilderness' and most areas we see as 'wild' have actually been managed actively by human populations for thousands of years ... It's nice that you get a great feeling by being in the 'wild'. Somehow I don't think that should dictate anyone's policy on... anything. Particularly since whole Indigenous peoples were slaughtered for you to get it.
Personally, I've found that an attitude which appreciates, or even venerates, wild, untamed places accords strongly with the worldview of every indigenous community I've ever spent time with; and offends most strongly those who confuse the progress of humanity with the progress of industrial society.
I mention this because what is going on here is a battle between stories. All cultures are based on stories. We like to believe that we are primarily thinking beings, using our rational minds to take an 'objective' look at the world around us. In reality, the way we see everything is emotionally loaded and culturally constructed.
Our belief in the inevitability of 'progress'; our definitions of 'development' and 'justice'; our understanding of what science reveals or seems to reveal; our ethics and our moralities - all of these are stories which we have come to believe are facts.
Towering over all of these is a single, overarching story which dominates our way of seeing the world: the story of human centrality.
Originally, it was a religious story: in the West it stems from the Christian notion that God created the world for humans, who in turn were created in His image. In Genesis, God specifically instructs Man to dominate, manage and act as stewards to the rest of nature. On our journey through the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, we have mostly dropped the belief in God, but we haven't dropped the belief that Homo sapiens (our name for our own species tells us something about our stories) is the hub around which the world's wheel revolves.
This worldview is often called 'anthropocentric': human-centred. It puts our own species at the pinnacle of the nature's tree, and it sees the rest of the world through the lens of its needs or desires. Its most common political manifestation today is the often unquestioned assumption that humans have a right, a duty or simply a need to quell, tame and manage the rest of life on Earth; to behave, in the words of the American thinker Stewart Brand, "as gods".
It seems to me that this way of seeing is at the root of our environmental crisis. It also seems to me that it is a way of seeing that is not challenged often enough - if at all - in the world of mainstream environmentalism. The reason for this is understandable - if you're working to change policies or get corporations to behave themselves, you're unlikely to impress them with this sort of talk.
Yet this surely has to change; this way of seeing is at the root of our belief that the rest of nature is a 'resource' for our use. If we can't start to see the non-human world as intrinsically valuable - if we can't start to see the Earth itself as a living community of which we are only one part - we will continue to treat it simply as a factory floor. We may aim to manage that factory 'sustainably', but it will be a poor and depressing world we are building.
What's the alternative? It's a worldview that many other human cultures, particularly, though not exclusively, tribal cultures, have held in the past and in some cases still do. It has been called 'ecocentrism'. It sees humanity as part of a web rather than as the leader of a pack. The late environmental academic Stan Rowe explained it like this:
To switch Western culture from its present track ... means finding a new and compelling belief-system to redirect our way of living. It must be a vital outgrowth from our science-based culture. It seems to me that the only promising universal belief-system is ecocentrism, defined as a value-shift from Homo sapiens to planet Earth.
These are parts of a six-part series by Paul Kingsnorth. Read other parts here: Part One; Part Two; Part Four; Part Five
Paul Kingsnorth is a writer, poet and recovering environmentalist. A former deputy editor of The Ecologist magazine, he is co-founder and Director of the Dark Mountain Project, a network of writers and artists who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.
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