In _Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed_, Jared Diamond observes that the vast majority of technologies create more problems then they solve, and in the aggregate, technology virtually always fails to keep up with the unintended consequences it generates. The more we're able to do, the more net damage we do. He observes about people who advocate one or many technical solutions to our environmental problems all seem to be making the same basic error in reasoning,
All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. The rapid advances in technology during the 20th century have been creating difficult new problems faster than they have been solving old problems: that's why we're in the situation in which we now find oursleves. What makes you think that, as of January 1 2006, for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems it previously produced?
To me, this query of Diamond's is an important reminder that we have blinders on when it comes to the real feasibility of our solutions. For example, let us consider one commonly discussed solution to global warming - telecommuting. If only we could just get all those workers out of the office, we wouldn't have to heat those offices, we wouldn't have people sitting in traffic, etc... And that might even be true. Now it is worth noting that this is a solution heavily weighted to the benefit of rich folk - the person who cleans your toilet, the person who builds your house, the person who cooks the dinner you normally get by take out, those folks aren't going to be permitted to telecommute - in fact, some will lose their jobs. But that in itself isn't an argument against widespread telecommuting.
But the problem is that all those telecommuters would be buying more and better technology for their homes in order to be able to do the work they normally do at the office, and spending more time overnighting documents, heating their own homes, and doing all sorts of other things. Now it might well turn into a net gain - you never know. But it is worth noting, for example that recent evidence suggests that all of us on our computers are a huge global warming problem http://environment.independent.co.uk/climate_change/article2640428.ece - as bad as flying all over the planet. All those new computers would be built and shipped, as would all that new software, and those extra laptops and fax machines, and the old ones would go leak mercury into the groundwater in Lagos (I bet you didn't know that when your computer dies, it gets to take a long vacation to a poor nation to be disposed of - lucky it!).
Now I'm not opposed to telecommuting solutions per se, but I think it is worth noting, for example that the miracles of computer technology have not come with the environmental miracles we were already promised. Remember how we were supposed to all go paperless, and it would save a billion trees a year or more? Didn't happen - worldwide paper usage rose by 4%, and it rose faster in the developing world. Remember how we were supposed to be getting greater efficiency from lower energy use - it turns out that between 2000 and 2004, worldwide energy emissios rose by 3 times what had been expected, and much of that was in the US, Europe and Australia, so we can't blame China. Oh, and I bet you remember all the extra free time we were told we'd have, in a new "leisure society" - that didn't happen either, as we all know.
Now I'm a Luddite by nature, inclination and political persuasion. For those who aren't familiar with them, the word "Luddite" does not actually mean, as it has come to in the popular parlance, "someone who hates or is afraid of technology for no particular reason." The original Luddites were those who were angered at the notion that they ought to sacrifice their livelihoods and starve to death in order to serve "progress." They resisted and demanded that technology be bounded by recognition of human needs. Now they lost the battle (did you notice?) despite the leadership of the mythical "Ned Ludd," and mostly were executed or starved. But they were right, and they weren't afraid of technology - they simply didn't think that they should be sacrificed for the greater economic good. Now we've gotten so used to the notion that that should happen we hardly notice it - but the simple fact is that economic systems are intended to serve us, not the other way around, and so is technology.
Modern Luddism is very simple - it merely observes that technology has consequences, and technologies shouldn't be adopted without a clear eyed analysis of their net benefits and consequences, and a real assurance that the technology is improving lives (on a wholistic scale) more than it is harming them). The preference is for less dependence, rather than more, simpler rather than harder, things you can fix rather than things you have to throw away, human or animal power rather than fossil power or even "renewable" energy power.
Which brings me back to the computer. I am fond of mine. I make part of my living as a writer, and as a blogger, a notable irony. The internet is bringing a lot of people together who might never have been aware of environmentalism. And yet, all this time we spend blogging, and reading other blogs, and emailing each other has consequences. Some of them are the technological ones - when the computers break down, we replace them. We buy new software and games and update our stuff, and all that good stuff, along with all the time we spend talking about our sustainability goals is warming up the planet. It is so easy and so compelling to let the computers off the hook - after all, aren't we changing the world? Don't we need all this information at our fingertips? We don't stop to count the costs of the infrastructure very often.
Well, it turns out that all this information isn't making us better informed. We're about as stupid as we used to be, according to a recent poll. And it isn't changing the world, either. Our energy usage is going up, while we all sit around and talk about how to get it down - and while the climate warms faster and faster and faster. And just as some elements of the internet have saved us some energy and made some people's lives better, it looks like the net harm is probably greater than the net savings. I know none of us like to hear this, of course. A lot of us derive a lot of satisfaction from the internet. But overwhelmingly, it isn't making us smarter, or know more, saving us energy or changing the world. It is just another technology, doing some good and some bad, and probably a little more bad than good.
A recent Ohio educational study suggests that the average American 10th grader runs educationally behind the average Amish 15 year old - and the Amish kid left school two years before and no only doesn't have a computer in her classroom, she doesn't have electric lights. Poor adults in Kerala who get their news not by television or computer (don't have 'em) but by weekly newspaper are overwhelmingly better informed than average American adults, according to Bill McKibben. An political research firm in the Netherlands found that Brazilian 10 year olds in favelas had a slightly better understanding of globalization than middle class Americans with computers.
What about community? After all, that's what the internet gives us, right, the chance to bond with people like us. Well I love that too - don't get me wrong - but I hear more and more from people who say they can't get along with the people they actually live near, who are on an endless quest for people just like them, to spend their post-peak time with the mythical community of perfectly like-minded people. I hear more and more that someone can't have a relationship with their neighbors and the people near them, and need to move somewhere else. Now that can be true - there are places that are just disheartening after a while. But the sheer number of people I hear from in those places suggest to me that there's more too it. Perhaps that's an unintended consequence of the internet, no? Now that we've experienced the joy of little clubs filled entirely with people focused on X or Y shared thing, we're less able to get along with the people whose common connection to us is a place, or a history or a more formal relationship? Certainly we're more alienated from our families, more likely to be divorced or live far away from kids and loved ones. The internet may be bringing us together, but it seems as though it is also enabling us to be apart.
What we do see is that people are less happy now than they were two decades ago. We have fewer social ties, and fewer emotional connections. Screen time is associated with mental illness and depression in both adults and children, and overwhelmingly, adults rate their screen time as less pleasurable than time they spend with other people - even when they are nominally "connecting" with others. It may be that the internet creates some of the problems it also relieves. Don't get me wrong - I love the internet, and I've been its beneficiary in many ways. But our computers aren't doing for us what they are purported to do, and it is worth being clear about this. I'm not suggesting we turn them all off - but perhaps more of us could spend less time on the computer, or share them more. Perhaps your household only needs one, or none - perhaps you could use the library computer a few times a week.
The thing is, it isn't just that X technology won't save us (insert preferred technofantasy where "X" is - hydrogen, desert sized solar panels, electric cars, etc...), it is that all of them won't save us. There's simply no way, as Diamond points out, of only producing "good" technologies - that's not how it works. Pouring billions of dollars into R and D for how to make a better solar panel or wind generator isn't going to fix the problem - and at some point, we aren't going to have billions.
The only way we can fix the problem is to back up. We have spent several centuries asking "can we do it." And often enough the answer was a resounding "yes we can!" But instead, what we need to ask is this - should we do it? We need to switch away from the engineering mode and towards the ethical. We could, if we chose, begin from the assumption that in most areas (some exceptions perhaps exist) we have done all the R and D we ever need to do.
What a radical concept that is, and how alien from the notion that we will always be able to make things better by simply taking the next step. I'm not trying to hinder science - I have no objection to tinkerers tinking away. But instead of devoting our economy to technical research, and to funding it with our government or with our personal dollars, spent on R and D after we buy stuff they've already developed, what if we tried to optimize what we already have?
What if instead of turning vast resources to making more things and different ones, we backed up and started asking "what is the best way for us to get what we need." What if we took a look back at intermediate technologies, and considered how we might improve them. Someone once observed that if we'd put the same energies and money into breeding open pollinated corn as we have into hybrids and GMO, there's no telling what we'd have. The same is true about a technological society that thinks that the next step is already better. What would happen if we backed up, and thought about how we could improve the wood cookstove, the solar oven or the hand washer?
Luddism may be the only answer. Unless we are willing to ask "is this really good for us, now and forever" we are likely to be trapped in the assumption that the next thing will magically set us free. And it won't. The next thing will further invest us, and move us a little closer not to a solution, but to a collapse. What we want is to step away from the collapse - and the answer there is simple. Need less. Use less. Substitute human power and human scale tools for fossil based power and industrial scale tools. Back up. Slow down. Remember, the price isn't what we think it is.
As a practical solution, I'm trying to turn my computer on only four days a week. I've always kept a sabbath, now I'm cutting back further. If I have to write my book and these posts in longhand and type them out quickly afterwards, perhaps it will be salutary to my writing (it could only improve my editing ;-). It isn't that I don't love the speed of composition, the relationships, the research at my fingertips. It is simply that I don't love them enough to pay the price, or to ask other people to pay it.