Occupying science: technology for the 99 percent


Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won't Save Us Or the Environment by Michael and Joyce Huesemann, New Society Publishers, 464 pp, $24.95.

Even to save the planet from climate change or to save the economy from the end of cheap oil, you can’t stop the march of technological progress, we’re often told. Whether it’s the personal car, industrial farming or nuclear power, once the genie’s out of the bottle, you just can’t squeeze him back in.

And anyway, we’re also told, even the most dangerous technologies are morally neutral. They can always be used for either good or evil. It just depends on who’s using them and for what. Thus, the answer to Hiroshima was “Atoms for Peace” and building out civilian nuclear power that would be too cheap to meter.

But today, the real answer to Hiroshima appears to be Fukushima. And the price for nuclear power appears to be somewhat higher, both in money and in safety, than scientists and the industry had originally led the public to believe.

Ditto for other technologies that were supposed to usher in a new age of progress beyond hunger and toil, ranging from cell phones to biotechnology to microwave ovens. If you look at all their unintended consequences, from cancer to climate change, it’s clear that all too often technologies cost society much more than their sticker price.

As people ask critical questions about more and more technologies at the very same time that Occupy Wall Street has drawn attention to the dangers of extreme economic inequality, the moment is perfect for a book like Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment.

An inside job

As the public loses ever more trust in authority figures from politicians to priests to pension fund managers, many citizens look increasingly to scientists as the last experts they can trust. That’s why it’s so powerful that Techno-Fix is written not by a humanities-type like my current favorite low-tech guru, agrarian-poet Wendell Berry, but by two PhD research scientists, husband and wife team Michael and Joyce Huesemann.

These environmental scientists know technology from the inside, and they blame scientists and technologists for serving their own egos and profits over the public interest.

The Huesemanns survey technology across society from labor savers that waste time to medicine that doesn’t heal to food that spreads hunger. And they find much technology wanting, especially cars and TV, the latter which they extend out to include the internet (where you’re reading this now!).

The authors bust the myth that science can be “pure” by showing how each major discipline today has a political or economic motivation: physics is aimed largely at enabling more advanced weaponry, chemistry serves the likes of DuPont and biology is mostly in thrall to Big Pharma. Just look at who funds the research. Then look at what they do with it.

The technologies that come out of basic scientific research are, of course, never value neutral. For example, when it comes to TV, the nastiness of the medium trumps any niceness in the message. Whether it comes to staying fit, thinking for yourself or loving your family, no matter what’s on tonight, TV won’t help. And think about this next time you’re watching Animal Planet:

Even if the message on TV is pro-environmental, TV viewing is intrinsically anti-environmental because it provides a substitute for experiencing nature first hand and because it encourages passivity, thereby undermining interest in environmental activism. In addition, because electronic media are able to make consumer products seem “more alive than people,” it is inherently biased toward materialistic consumerism, which is one of the causes of the environmental crisis.

People who love gadgets

But unlike one of those articles in Wired magazine that asks “when the robots take over, will they treat us kindly?” Techno-Fix doesn’t see new technology as unavoidable or somehow powered by its own internal evolution. Instead, the Huesemanns argue that society gets the technologies, and only the technologies, that our particular ruling elites want — those that increase the centralized power of the top one percent.

So, even after Fukushima, at least in the US nuclear power is still in, because it offers an endless supply of interesting intellectual challenges to powerful physicists while making electric power generation even more dependent on big, expensive plants that only the largest utilities can afford. Meanwhile, solar power from photovoltaic panels, which can be installed by a high-school dropout and which could give millions of homeowners control over their own energy, continues to labor against dismissive public policy and outright attacks like l’affaire Solyndra.

Even to save their own skins from eco-disaster or peak oil apocalypse, capitalists have shown that they won’t voluntarily give up profits to keep harmful technologies off the market. So the Techno-Fix authors call instead on their fellow scientists to police themselves and commit to a code of ethics where they would refuse to participate in life-destroying research like nuclear physics or genetic engineering — despite the lure of ego-gratification, prestige or grant money.

“Science has not given men more self-control, more kindliness, or more power of discounting their passions in deciding upon a course of action,” said Bertrand Russell. “It has given communities more power to indulge their collective passions…Men’s collective passions are mostly bad; by far the strongest of them are hatred and rivalry towards other groups. Therefore, at present, all that gives men power to indulge their collective passions is bad. That is why science threatens to cause the destruction of our civilization.”

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    Humanity is like a tribe of monkeys that figured out how to unlock doors and steal food. Even as we write laws to keep us away from our supplies so we don’t consume it all, we spend our time figuring out ways to unlock those laws so that we can have “freedom” and “choices” and all of the other lies we tell ourselves about how smart we are.
    Embrace the psychosis that is humanity while it lasts. A species doesn’t ‘evolve’ into another species: it dies off and a mutation takes its place (if there’s a survivable environment left).
    Be the change you want to see in the world. Progress is overrated.

  2. Erik Curren says

    Talk about progress being overrated. A striking example from the book is modern medicine.

    Advocates often claim that modern medicine is responsible for the increased life expectancy of humans in the industrial world. And it’s true that a couple centuries ago, 7 of 10 Europeans and Americans died before they could reach childbearing age, which averages out to a much lower life expectancy. Now we can expect to live into our seventies. But that’s not because of high tech medicine: it’s because of sanitation and nutrition improvements in early nineteenth century cities, which happened before vaccines, drugs and medical devices hit the scene.

    So, we really should be skeptical of any claims that technologies have improved the human lot.

    • Auntiegrav says

      We don’t need health care: we need healthy people. When people had to work for a living doing actual useful labors, our governments and corporations were more concerned with providing information and improving conditions. Now that every person’s body is viewed as a source of money, they inundate us with fears and ‘fixes’ all while preventing control over our own health and food. As Joel Salatin put it, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.”

      • Erik Curren says

        I love Joel Salatin. You may know he’s our neighbor in Virginia. You can’t imagine how much we fantasize about working on a farm like his!

  3. says

    I have mixed feelings about the message of this review (haven’t read the book yet). I totally agree that technology by itself cannot save us from peak oil. But it sounds like you’re suggesting that human inventiveness is inherently bad, which I disagree with. Our ability to develop and use tools that make our lives easier is part of our DNA, which makes technological progress an inevitability. It’s when technology is mixed with capitalism, cheap fossil fuels, and a complete disregard for the environment that it we find ourselves with such monumental problems. I hope this book touches on the fact that society will need some technological innovations to make it through the post peak oil transition. If we can no longer trust science, doesn’t that validate the agruments of the religious right? That’s a scary line to walk.

    • says

      I admit it’s a distinction, between the anti-science posturing of climate deniers and a healthy skepticism about the idea of technological progress that this book’s authors recommend. Being scientists, they absolutely do recognize that technology has a role to play in a more resilient world. But given how much cheerleading has happened on the pro-tech side for the last couple centuries, I think the authors want to restore a bit of balance. They’re not Luddites, but they don’t support tech for tech’s sake. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should do it. Instead, first, they want us to start thinking more rationally about technology and not giving it a free pass as we do today. Secondly, they want us to insist that any new tech benefit the 99%, rather than just the 1% of capitalists and scientists that much tech has served in the past.

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