Charles Eisenstein explores how technology could better be used to support the unfolding intelligence of Nature.
The purpose of this essay is not to instruct the reader on the fallacy of the technological fix. We can assume that by now the environmentally conscious person has seen through the delusion of applying technology to remedy the problems that have been caused by previous technology.
It is obvious that a new pesticide won’t finally eliminate the superweeds that evolved to resist the previous pesticide; that new and more powerful antibiotics won’t bring a final victory over the superbugs that evolved to resist previous antibiotics; and that massive geo-engineering projects – such as seeding the stratosphere with sulphuric acid or the oceans with iron to combat climate change – will likely cause horrific unanticipated consequences.
What is less obvious is how pervasive the mentality behind the technological fix is. In the United States, we respond to the failure of metal detectors, lockdowns and other forms of control in our schools by calling for even more control.
European countries unable to pay their debts are lent even more money, with the proviso that they try even harder to pay their debts. Imperialist powers apply military violence to fight the terrorism that is a response to previous imperialism and violence. Doctors prescribe drugs to address the side effects caused by other drugs. Urban planners address traffic congestion by building more roads (which leads to more development and more traffic). And millions of people manage the emptiness of a life of material acquisition by buying more material possessions.
As the word ‘fix’ implies, the logic of technology has very often been the logic of addiction. Feel bad? Have a drink. Feel even worse the next morning? Get drunk again. Depressed because you’ve now lost your job, your marriage and your health due to drinking? Well, why not do what made you feel better last night? Have another drink. As with agricultural chemicals, ever-increasing doses become necessary to maintain what was once your natural, normal state, and all at the cost of everything precious.
Where does the mentality of control come from, and what is the alternative? Is technology fundamentally a violation of Nature? Surely not. After all, all beings use their physical capacities to influence and cocreate their environment. What is different about what we humans have been doing? How can we embrace technology, and not reject this uniquely human gift?
We environmentalists decry human exceptionalism when we criticise the ideology of endless growth, linear extraction and toxic waste, but to say that our capacity for technology has no useful purpose on this planet is another kind of exceptionalism.
Ecology says that each species has a gift that enhances the wellbeing of the whole. The extinction of one species impoverishes the whole. Humanity is no different. The problem isn’t that we have the power of technology. The problem is that we have not used that power in the spirit of a gift. We have not used it in the spirit of ecology. We have not asked: “How might we best serve the totality of all life on Earth?” In contemplating a nuclear power plant, an incinerator, a subdivision, a mine, even a new patio behind our house, we are not in the habit of asking: “Does this best serve the wellbeing of all interested parties?” Our cost–benefit analyses do not include the trees, the water, the fish or the birds.
Why not? Is it because we are Nature’s big mistake? Is there something wrong with us? To think so would be to invoke human exceptionalism once again. It would imply as well that the way to live in harmony with the planet would be to conquer or suppress this badness. How different is that from the mentality of spraying pesticides and exterminating wolves, damming rivers and levelling mountains? The war on Nature, whether internal or external, is part of the problem; it is not the solution.
One simple explanation for why we fail to use technology in the spirit of service to all life is that we have lost touch with our unity, or as Thich Nhat Hanh terms it, our interbeingness, with the rest of life. Seeing Nature as separate from ourselves, of course we see it as inconsequential to our wellbeing. We might acknowledge our conditional dependency on Nature, but not our existential dependency. We might therefore imagine that someday we may become independent of Nature, if only we perfect technological substitutes for Nature’s gifts.
This indeed was the explicit vision of scientific futurists of the 20th century: some day, they dreamed, we will synthesise food, create artificial air, live in bubble cities, abandon the Earth for space colonies, even conquer death with bionic parts or by uploading our consciousness into computers. To some extent, such ambitions are still with us today in the ravings of nanotechnology and genetic-engineering evangelists.
Well, let us not call these visions ‘ravings’, as if they had lost touch with reason. These people are as rational as anyone. What has happened to them is the same thing that has happened to humanity generally (at least to modernised humanity): their reason operates within a narrative – shall we call it a mythology? – in which their aspirations make perfect sense. It is a story that casts us into an alien universe of impersonal forces, in which matter is a purposeless, insensate substrate upon which (why not?) we can impose our designs with impunity, and in which the tendency of all things is towards entropy, disorder, chaos.
In this story, Nature is devoid of purpose or intelligence. Any semblance of purpose is just the accidental result of the senseless cacophony of interacting forces and masses, the blind melee of genetically programmed flesh robots, each seeking to maximise its own genetic self-interest.
Underneath the technological fix is a way of perceiving ourselves and the world. More than a mere mentality of separation and control, it comes from a disconnected state of being that is blind to the indwelling purpose and intelligence of Nature.
For example, the skilled organic farmers might see unwanted weeds or bugs not as interlopers but as a symptom of imbalance in soil ecology. To address them holistically, they must believe there even is such a thing as soil ecology. In other words, they must believe in the wholeness and interconnectedness of all beings that make up soil. They must see soil as a collective, emergent entity in its own right, and not as an inert, generic substrate that plants grow in.
Conventional agriculture, on the other hand, sees weeds as an outbreak of badness, similar to the way we have seen terrorism, or violence in schools, or disease. To see them otherwise – as a symptom of a deeper disharmony – presupposes there is such a harmony, an integrity, a beingness, and not just a senseless jumble. The technological fix addresses the symptom while ignoring the illness, because it cannot see an integral entity that can become ill.
I don’t want to gloss over the profundity of the paradigm shift we are accepting if we are to see Nature as intelligent and purposive, to do which is to abdicate the exclusive domain to which we have appointed ourselves: the sole intelligence of the world. It is to humble ourselves to something greater, and seek our place not as Cartesian lords and possessors of Nature, but as contributors to an unfolding process beyond our selves. This inescapable conclusion is, perhaps, the reason why teleology is anathema to orthodox science. Purpose was supposed to be our domain! And the king of that domain was the scientist, wielding technology to enact its dominion.
The idea of an inherently purposeful universe is far more radical than religious notions of intelligent design, which agree with mechanistic science about matter and cede intelligence to an external, supernatural being. Such a narrative offers no compunctions to limit the despoliation of Nature. It asks us to humble ourselves to nothing of this world.
To be so humbled, we must see that the soul of Nature – its purpose, intelligence and beingness – comes not from without but from within. It is an emergent property born of non-linear complexity. In non-linear systems, small actions can have enormous consequences. The technological fix is based on linear thinking. The alternative is to develop sensitivity to the emergent order and intelligence that wants to unfold, so that we might bow into its service.
What would the expression of our uniquely human gifts of hand and mind look like exercised in the spirit of service to all life? In the short and medium term, this is not a difficult question to answer. The most urgent need before us is to heal the damage that has been done in the millennia-long course of separation. Vast realms of technology, much neglected today, have been developing in the margins, awaiting their moment for full expression.
Here are just a few:
• Regenerative agriculture and permaculture to heal the soil, replenish the aquifers and sequester carbon – all while producing far more food than chemical monocropping and GMOs can. (Industrial agriculture maximises yield per unit of labour, but not per unit of land, energy or water.)
• The use of fungi to detoxify PCBs and petrochemical waste.
• Restoration of deserts. This is not done by pumping in water (which leads to salinisation and the necessity for some new fix), but by identifying and encouraging latent healing processes.
• Conservation technologies that could reduce energy consumption to a fraction of what it is today without any big sacrifice.
• Waste-water treatment with reed beds, aquaculture, and so on (and composting toilets).
• Healing modalities that take seriously the intelligence of Nature and the body, including herbalism, mind-body modalities, touch-based therapies, bioenergetic modalities, and pretty much anything that goes by the name ‘holistic’ or ‘alternative’ today.
• And, since I am veering off the territory of scientific respectability, I may as well mention a few more controversial technologies (along with some so unorthodox they aren’t even subject to controversy) – cold fusion and other unorthodox energy technologies; unorthodox ways to neutralise radioactive waste; Schauberger-inspired water technologies; technologies of the mind called psi phenomena; and shamanic technologies based on direct communication with the hidden beings and forces of Nature.
Every one of the above technologies clashes in some way with our civilisation’s current operating systems. In some cases the clash is paradigmatic: the technologies contradict conventional scientific beliefs. In other cases the clash is economic: there just isn’t much money to be made in establishing public space or generating positive externalities such as aquifer restoration or carbon sequestration. Sometimes laws, building codes and conventional practices impose obstacles as well.
All of these – scientific orthodoxy, the economic system, and law and habit – are expressions of the same mythology of separation. Our money system, for example, rests on the conversion of Nature into products, and relationships into services, reifying the binary subject–object distinction that is at the heart of separation. If you examine closely the phenomena that science refuses to acknowledge, you will find that most of them imply intelligence, purpose and interconnectedness.
What about the long term? What is the purpose of technology on a healed planet? What is the purpose of this unique species to which Gaia has given birth? To that, no one can offer anything but speculation. I think it is something that we can only discover on the other side of the healing journey.
That journey has begun.
Today, painfully, we are becoming aware of the folly of the delusion that we can, with clever enough technological solutions, avoid the consequences of what we do to the world. The pretence of separation is increasingly difficult to maintain. We are learning that we are not separate from Nature, and that it bears a wholeness that we ignore at our peril.
Our techno-utopian dreams and scientific paradigms are unravelling in tandem with many of our social institutions, because the underlying narrative of separation is unravelling as well. These converging crises – social, ecological and intellectual – are expelling us from our old story. As that happens, none of our fixes, technological or otherwise, are working any more to control the pain: the grief, the rage, the loneliness we feel as we gaze out upon what we have wrought.
Thus begins the healing journey, out of the old story, through the space between stories, and ultimately into a new story of cocreative participation in the unfolding destiny of our planet.