04 Mai 2013

Promethean Dreams


In some quarters the faith in technology continues. Ozone layer destruction? We'll make new ozone. Soil erosion? We'll find a way to grow food without soil; maybe we'll just synthesize it. Total environmental collapse? No matter, we'll colonize the stars. Who needs nature anymore? The can-do spirit that has brought us this far will surely overcome any future obstacles. Human ingenuity is unlimited. If things seem to be getting worse, not better, if people seem to be getting sicker, busier, and more anxious, if life seems more stressful and the environment less healthy - rest assured! This is a temporary sacrifice, one step backward necessary to take a giant leap forward.
Today, though, the rhetoric of progress is wearing thin. It looks as though the future, always just around the corner, is never going to come. Since the mid-twentieth century, that feeling of betrayal and despair has spread beyond artists and intellectuals to engulf the general population. Superficially, many people still affirm that the onward march of technology will someday render all our present problems obsolete, but on a deeper level they have lost confidence in both science and technology. The long-promised marvels, the next step in our transcendence of nature, have failed to materialize, while new and unforeseen problems multiply faster than we can solve them. Gone is the '60s' optimism that sparked the War on Poverty, the War on Cancer, the Conquest of Space. Now we hope merely to stave off the problems that threaten to overwhelm us: the convergence of crises in the environment, health, education, the economy, and the politics.
Whereas technology once promised a grand future of leisure and security, today we need intensifying doses of it merely to keep the world from falling apart. A pattern of diminishing marginal returns seems to have infiltrated all areas of technology, whether material or social. Early in the twentieth century, modest expenditures in medical research brought enormous improvements in life span; today vast outlays barely succeed in maintaining present standards. In agriculture, small amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides once brought huge increases in crop yields; today, ever-greater chemical input can hardly prevent yields from falling, despite 'improved' varieties. In daily life, inventions such as cellular phones, personal digital assistants, convenience foods, and the internet barely enable us to keep pace with the ever-quickening pace of modern life.
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Technology usually has unintended consequences, often including a worsening of the problem the technology was supposed to solve. Generally speaking, unintended consequences are not the result of sloppy engineering, lazy planning, or lack of diligence; they cannot be eliminated, through tighter control; rather, they are built in to the very attempt at control.
By now this pattern of escalating dosage for a diminishing effect may remind you of another meaning of the word 'fix' - a drug fix. Our dependency on technology shares many features in common with drug addiction. Returning to the example of agriculture, once we've killed the natural predators, lost the topsoil, and depleted the minerals, we cannot grow crops at all without repeated applications of more and more technology. Each fix brings some temporary improvement, but then crop yields start falling and we need another fix. At this point we're hooked: if we go back to zero fertilizer, crop yields fall below the original prefertilizer level. Eventually, the soil is so damaged that no amount of fertilizer can coax life from it. The parallel with the course of addiction is uncanny: escalating dosage to get a less and less intense high, followed ultimately by complete desolation. 
Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity 


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