Tuesday
Oct052010

« Technomessiahs, Redux »

A week ago on my local PBS radio station I heard this show on Geoengineering—the range of ideas concerning global efforts to take some mighty heroic measures to combat the looming prospects of damage from climate change. Anytime I have heard this topic come up in the last year or so, my skin crawls and my stomach feels ill. It presents itself to me as science fiction, and dangerous fiction at that. To me it smacks of hubris on a level not ever seen before, except in some parallel movements in genetics and economics which are pushing into dangerous territory once regarded as the domain of the divine. It seems the kind of ambitious technological overreach that elicited a response from the Lord in Genesis, who watched humans building the great tower, something which was met with the confounding of language, meant to at least make it hard to get such ideas off the ground.

The technological genie has been out of the bottle for a couple of centuries now. Geoengineering is one more prayer for what I call the "technomessiah" to come and save us from, ironically, the other technomessiahs who have come in ever-accelerating fashion. The soul work associated with loosing ourselves from the technological straitjacket is too hard to do, it seems, so the de facto answer is to keep charging ahead into the same thing we desperately need to escape. I think I encountered the idea in Richard Heinberg's work, that civilization is one big unintended consequence of our first dabblings in toolmaking. The makers of flint axes could not have imagined our dilemma today, but it was a slow climb up a long ladder for millennia, with a quite noticable acceleration in the last 250 years ago, and certainly in the last century. What does it take to dare look down in preparation for a retreat from these dizzying heights?

Today the news let me know about the red tide of toxic sludge flowing through Hungary. The devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is still wreaking its havok. These are just two examples of humanity not having control over its technology. We're adolescents still, thrilled with our ability to make stuff, but seemingly unable to harness it. To be clear, I am not against technology per se, nor am I against invention and progress. I should be clear about that. But I do criticize the automatic reaction to meet problems with more advanced technology in lieu of maybe stepping back and changing priorities. Appropriate technology for a job is quite fine, but it takes discernment to know what that is, and not to automatically run to whatever is the latest and (supposedly) greatest. What I think has been a dangerous combination is how technological development has been taken to market for mass production even before we have a chance to understand what could follow. Most of the things we use now have no big impact if they were the only ones of their kind, but they are not—they are mass produced consumer goods that draw down resources and when used by individuals according to individual priorities, and not social vision, will bring us to where we are now.

The answer that keeps presenting itself to me is to revisit and learn from the great spiritual traditions that guide us in how to relate to one another, to creation, to our creator. What is needed is literally a counter-cultural response to our great dilemmas. A counter-cultural response might emerge from any of the great traditions that predate our love affair with our technological development in the industrial age; those traditions have a memory of a life before the creative explosion that has paradoxically led us to the crisis of our time that is being met in certain circles with the grandiose ideas of geoengineering. Those traditions are the only things that frame life as inherently hard, and that instruct people in possible ways to move gracefully nonetheless. Our love affair with technology has much to do with our aversion to difficulty. I guess one thing that bothers me about the geoengineering ideas is that they presume an inability to change the fundamentals. They don't require the soul work to change the underlying problem. We might embark on a project like that with the unbridled expectation of economic growth, even though that has been the leading cause of our greatest problems.

The soul work of relinquishment, humility, love for others is all hard work but I feel it is the work that will draw us back from our dangerous place. Tapping into that consciousness will be the liberation we need from the thought structures that have brought us here, a place of neurosis, unable to cope properly with the technological genie we have loosed on the world. We're really quite miserable this way. Isn't it time for something else?

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