A few months ago, Rachel Donald had me on her show, “Planet:Critical.” You can watch that interview here:
After our discussion, Rachel released a followup video called “The Case for Technorealism”:
In it, she argues that modern industrial technology such as nuclear power is “our friend” and is an essential part of mitigating the climate crisis.
This video is my response. In it, I dive into philosophy of technology, discuss Lewis Mumford’s democratic vs authoritarian technics, and explain what I think technorealism looks like: a deep skepticism of technology’s ability to save us from ecological collapse. I also explain why I reject the idea that we must constrain our political projects to what is socially pragmatic, because in any conflict between physical limits and societal desires, physics will ultimately prevail.
A few months ago Rachel Donald had me on her podcast which is called Planet Critical. It’s a show that looks at the environmental crisis and talks to all kinds of different people. There’ve been some guests who I’ve really enjoyed and appreciated, and I enjoyed the conversation with Rachel. I thought it was very stimulating. And recently, just a couple weeks ago, she released a follow-up video called ‘The Case for Technorealism’. And I finally got around to watching it and I made quite a few notes which I’ve got here. And I wanna respond to it, both for Rachel and her viewers of the show, because I think that there are some really important topics that she brought up and some areas where I think we have disagreements which are also very important.
First of all, I would just say that I’m also all for technorealism. I think that we have a different definition of what that means. What is realism? From my perspective, a realistic perspective on technology looks at it critically. A realistic perspective on technology – especially industrial technology because that’s really what we’re talking about here is sort of this modern, hi-tech, industrial technology that’s emerged over the last 150 years. Rachel, at one point in the video says, (and I hope you’re watching Rachel because I’d be interested in getting your feedback on this) …at one point in the video she says, ‘Technology is our friend’, and I think that is a vast oversimplification. And if people aren’t familiar with him I would highly recommend one of the most important American thinkers I think of all time, a man named Lewis Mumford. And Mumford is most famous for sort of urban planning and architecture and urbanism studies. But some of his most important contributions to thought I think come in the area of philosophy of technology. There’s a really great piece he wrote that’s short – it’s just a pamphlet-length, it’s a long essay essentially – that’s called Democratic and Authoritarian Technics. And Mumford makes the argument in this essay that – he uses this term ‘technic’ to define not just a technology but the associated social roles, societal forms of organization, economic forms and so on, that are associated with a given technology, that both are required to produce a given technology and that tend to be reinforced by certain modes of technological development. He calls that a technic.
So you could think about, you know, technics in terms of the nuclear age which was a big thing that Mumford wrote about and it was a defining feature of the Cold War era. So he says that technics are not neutral. Technologies, and more broadly, technics, are not neutral. They influence society in all kinds of different ways. And that’s objectively true. We can look at, for example, the internet – this medium that we’re communicating on right now. And the internet is a physical object. We think of it as sort of information and the exchange of information and the cloud and so on, but the internet is literally composed of millions of computers, each of them made of materials that have been mined out of the earth, all kinds of rare-earth elements and metals and plastics and so on. Silicon computer chips some of the most complex technologies ever created. And interconnections between all those computers made up of networks and routers and undersea cables and cell phone towers and so on. All of these things are physical. They have material footprints in the world. They’re made up of materials that come from the earth. That’s one level. Now, another level of the technic of the internet is that this technology has a profound influence on our society. That on the one hand it emerges from a certain form of society – the internet was invented and created in the sort of scientific, academic, military milieu of the United States and has propagated in a way that supports and upholds that type of world-view. The internet is used as a critical tool today by military and especially by corporations – especially by corporations, to which the internet is essential to their modern operation, right? So, you know, it’s fine to say that we can separate the internet from those sort of social forms of organization, but we have to understand that’s a theoretical discussion, right? That doesn’t reflect the actual physical structure of what’s happening: the economic structure, the social structure of what’s happening and how it’s playing out. And theorizing about changing that is just that – it’s theorizing. It’s not reflected in the world that we see today.
And certainly in some areas we have a fundamental contradiction between, as Mumford says, democratic and authoritarian technics. So he says that certain technologies or groups of technologies tend to be both associated with and reinforce democracy and grass roots people-power, and others tend to be associated with and reinforce authoritarianism and the centralization of power and hierarchy. And one of the greatest examples is of course the nuclear industry which is not just nuclear power but also nuclear medicine, all kinds of radiology, other uses of nuclear materials in all kinds of other corporate products and research settings, and nuclear weapons of course. So these technologies emerge from a very specific situation, very similar to the internet in this case, right? They emerge from an academic military-industrial complex and they tend to reinforce that situation as well, because to continue to build and maintain nuclear technologies you not only need an entire academic complex devoted to certain modes of instruction and teaching and education, you need agencies to safeguard fissile materials, you need security measures, you need a military structure that can accommodate the threats and “opportunities” of nuclear weapons. The technology itself, like Mumford says, again, it emerges from and reinforces a certain way of being in the world. So to say that technology is neutral or to say, as Rachel says, that technology is our friend, I think is frankly dangerously naive.
And I think that if we look at these issues ecologically, we see the issues start to arise at the very beginning. Because, you know, I’m here at Thacker Pass right now for example, and it’s very easy for people to look at lithium mining and the lithium that powers laptops and smartphones and so on as our friend, because as journalists, as writers, as activists, as community organizers, as human beings simply interested in learning and knowledge and so on, these technologies help us. But that is a blinkered view. That’s not a comprehensive analysis of the social costs at the sort of cultural level and economic level of this form of organization and development, but also the ecological costs associated with that, right? Places like this are destroyed so that we can have lithium. The earth is a closed system, right? What’s here is what’s here, and what we make of it is choices. So Mumford contrasts those nuclear-type technologies which are authoritarian technics in his view, with democratic technics which both emerge from and support and reinforce a democratic grass roots egalitarian world-view and society. And by this he means things that are simple, technologies that are ‘simple’ in our every day words, every day parlance. He’s not talking about nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or the internet. He’s talking about pottery, basketry, small scale permaculture and indigenous agricultural techniques. He’s talking about storytelling and methods of cultural knowledge transfer. He’s talking about all of these traditional methodologies and world-views and information systems and technologies which have existed and changed and been modified for thousands of years.
So, as I was saying, technology leads us down certain roads, and Lewis Mumford is not the only person to recognize this. There’s a long history of critics and philosophers of technology who understand this and who look at it in detail. People like Jerry Mander. People like Langdon Winner (I wrote the introduction to one of his books, a French translation). Lewis Mumford, I mentioned. People like Derrick Jensen, Chellis Glendinning…there are many. There are many people who’ve come to these similar understandings. And it can be a challenging one because there is no doubt in my mind that these modern technologies do provide us with benefits. I would not be alive right now without modern medicine, for example. I would be dead. I would not have made it. And these benefits especially accrue to people in wealthy nations like the United States, like the UK and elsewhere. And at the same time it cannot be denied that industrial civilization is destroying the planet and that technology plays a large role in that. It’s very significant. You know, you can go back and look at people like Paul Ehrlich and the Limits to Growth study, and they used a very simple equation to try and estimate human impact on the planet. It’s just a thought experiment essentially, but they said,
population size x technology x affluence = impact
And this is a key part of the equation – technology, and what we’re doing exactly.
So, you know, some people say that this critique is unrealistic and that’s sort of the implication of the title of the video that Rachel made. ‘The Case for Technorealism’ implies that the critique of industrial technology is unrealistic, that we’re going to keep developing this technology no matter what, that we might as well try and do it in the best way possible. And I understand this critique, but I have an issue with it. And the issue is fundamentally this: whenever there’s a clash – a contradiction between physical science like the laws of ecology, and ideology – physics wins. It just does. And it may not win votes. It may not win popularity campaigns. But that doesn’t change the reality, right? This is Galileo being persecuted by the church for saying that we live in a heliocentric solar system, right? This is a very similar situation. And it may be heretical to say these things that I’m saying, but that doesn’t make them any less true.
We have a choice essentially. Either we grapple with the limits of this planet, the boundaries of planetary ecology, the boundaries of growth of technology and so on, or we pay the price. And right now, we’re paying the price. That’s the direction that we’re being taken in, driven largely by politicians and businesspeople and governments and so on. Not by every day people, right? We’re not living in that world of democratic technics where our choices and the direction of our society is being shaped from the grass roots level by every day people. It’s being shaped by elites. It’s being shaped by individuals who have a profit motive and a power motive to pursue development along certain paths that’s leading us to ruin collectively. So I don’t actually believe that this is an extreme position. I think that when people say electric vehicles can save the world or nuclear power is an answer to our problems (like Rachel says in this video), I actually think that’s an extreme position. I think that’s a position that’s not supported by the available evidence. And when every indicator of ecological health is headed in the wrong direction, driven or at least in parallel with the escalation of technological development (even if you don’t want to put a value judgment on it, it’s parallel), we have to question these things. We have to, because the fate of our entire planet is at stake here.
A couple more points. I think it’s a misnomer that the issue here is just capitalism because, you know, even if you are taking a sort of traditional Marxist approach, Marx didn’t say that the world’s problems began with capitalism. He talked about – Marx and Engels – they wrote about the development of human society from what they called “primitive communism” (in sort of a racist colloquialism of their day) to slave societies, early sort of kingships and empires, to feudalism and then to, you know, mercantilism and capitalism, right? So they understood that this problem of the development of hierarchical power, parallel to the ongoing destruction of the planet, has been a problem going back thousands of years. And again, this is something that we have to grapple with even though it is challenging. And, you know, we can’t just pin all the blame on capitalism, because you look at, you know, the most socialist countries in the world from Costa Rica where they’ve gone rampant with hydropower development even though it’s considered one of the greenest countries in the world, the scandinavian countries very similarly financed by oil and gas development, you know, doing things like building wind farms and massive transmission in territories of the Sami people in the far north (they’re one of the few remaining indigenous peoples of Europe). Or you can look at China, of course. A lot of people would contest that it’s even a socialist country, but if you look at their development, it may not be driven as much by profit as the United States, but it’s driven by productivism. It’s driven by creating a robust economy, by driving these human-centric measures of progress and economic development that ultimately are counterproductive; that are driving us into a mass extinction event; that have decimated the ecology of their nation and contributed to the decimation of the ecology of the planet. And that’s not to single China out, of course, right? Because they’re following in lockstep behind the United States, behind Japan, Australia, all the other highly industrialized nations of the world which have sort of laid the foundation and the groundwork for this model. So it’s not just capitalism, and I think that’s important.
So the final piece of this that I want to talk about is nuclear power, and I’ve touched on this a bit throughout this video because Rachel mentions it in her video and I want to emphasize I think nuclear power is a terrible, terrible mistake. The primary problem with nuclear power is not meltdowns and catastrophic accidents, although those can be terrible. If you look at what almost happened at Chernobyl as a result of what they call ‘a systems accident’, you know, a failure in multiple systems that compounded each other, that synergistically interacted in a way that wasn’t predicted by the engineers, by the scientists, right? New reactor designs have more safety features and so on, but as we’ve seen with Fukushima, even modern reactor designs are not immune to these problems. But that’s not the main problem with nuclear power. The main problem is nuclear waste, and it’s strange that nuclear power actually results in ways that is much more radioactive, much more dangerous after it has been used as fuel than it was before it was used. And intentionally digging up and concentrating this material and making it more toxic in a way that will last for hundreds of thousands of years or millions of years is insane to me. It’s absolutely insane. You know, there’s no doubt that compared to coal-fired power plants, nuclear reactors have lower carbon emissions per unit of power generated. That, to me, seems largely beside the point, you know? It’s like telling people, you know, ‘You wouldn’t want this stab wound of coal, but you know what? We can give you this gunshot wound instead.’ These things are not beneficial to the planet. They’re not a plan with a future. There are at least 500,000 tons of uranium-235 (that’s depleted Uranium) in the United States alone as a result of the nuclear power industry. That has a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years. And this is the material that’s “recycled” into depleted uranium weaponry that’s been used in places notably like Fallujah in Iraq where it has toxified the entire city and led to an entire generation of babies being born with terrible birth defects. And actually in Fukushima it was stored radioactive waste that was the major problem, not the nuclear reactor itself. Similarly, major fires in the Los Alamos nuclear waste storage area in both 2000 and 2011. Near flooding of a nuclear reactor in Mississippi in 2011 as well.
There is no good way to store this waste. There is no plan. Nobody has a good idea for what to do with it and nobody wants it in their backyard, in their community, in their neighborhood, in their state. Everyone will fight this because it is horrific.
The reality here is that there are no easy solutions. All of these technologies have costs. And I’ve written several articles about nuclear power, nuclear energy, weapons and so on, including an article about lithium mining and how the Thacker Pass lithium mine will likely supply lithium compounds to nuclear reactors and contribute to dangers of weapons proliferation, of nuclear accidents and of this massive toxic waste problem. So these issues are very serious. And, you know, I think that people like – Bill Gates I know is a big promoter; James Hansen, big proponent of nuclear energy – I think that these people are living in a world in which they cannot imagine our society stepping away from a high-energy industrial path. And if you can’t imagine that, if you can’t even consider that possibility, then I don’t think it really matters what technological choices you make because you’re headed down this road of growth and development and destruction of the natural world and extraction and industrialism. You’re headed down the road of the authoritarian technic, and it does not end well. You know, every civilization that has existed on this planet up til this point has destroyed its ecological foundations and then collapsed, and I don’t think that we are immune from that. We are subject to the exact same limits and ecological laws that those peoples were. We may be perhaps more aware of the process playing out. We may have better science telling us why the droughts are coming, how exactly they’re functioning; how the climate is changing and the extreme weather accelerating; why our economic system is in serious trouble; why we’re seeing catastrophic declines in oceanic productivity and fish populations; why we’re seeing songbird populations collapsing, insect populations collapsing. We may have the paleoarcheology to look at, you know, previous societies and how they made mistakes and destroyed the land around them, and to look at paleobotany records and in ice cores and sediment bottoms in lakes and say, you know this is what drove these previous societies to collapse. We have all this knowledge. We have all this information, this science, this modern technology. I don’t think that’s gonna change the course that we’re on.
Fundamentally, I don’t think the challenges we’re facing – the ecocide crisis, the ecological crisis that we are accelerating faster and faster into – is a technical problem. I think it is a cultural problem. In many ways it’s even a spiritual problem. A spiritual problem that is driven in the here and now in this reality by certain institutions, certain powerful individuals and sectors of government and business and so on which, you know, as Utah Phillips said, ‘Those who are destroying the planet have names and addresses’, right? There is a very physical nature to what is happening to our planet, which is why I’ve been camped out for most of the last two years trying to protect this mountainside from lithium mining. This physical place, this land right here, you know, these shrubs and this soil and these creatures, the rabbit I just saw here, the ravens that hawk that flew overhead earlier, the lizards sunning themselves on that rock, the pronghorn who migrate through here, the sage grouse who breed up on this mountainside, and the people who depend on this place, too, for water. This is their watershed. This is their air shed. The air that they breathe comes from this place. That’s why I’m here: because of the physical nature of this. But I don’t think we can lose track of that fact – that this is not primarily a technical problem. Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon who became secretary of energy, I believe, under Obama, he said global warming is an engineering problem and has engineering solutions. And on one level, I agree, right? Blowing up a refinery or an oil pipeline is perhaps, by some stretch of the imagination, an engineering solution, an engineering approach, right? Interdicting, using non-violent direct action, using legal action, using all kinds of different methods. The functioning of an industrial economy – to precipitate its movement away from Earth-destroying ways towards democratic technics could be perceived as an engineering problem. But I don’t think that’s really an accurate way to look at it.
So this is an important conversation, it’s an interesting conversation. I’m sorry that this video has gone on so long. Y’all are probably very sick of hearing me ramble. But I appreciate going on Rachel’s show and I think that these are very important topics. So I look forward to continuing this discussion, hopefully with Rachel again. Maybe on the show or in person, who knows, and with everyone who’s listening because we all need to be grappling with these issues. This should not be a topic that is being discussed on the fringes of society in, you know, podcasts and YouTube videos. This should be one of the main topics of discussion at every level of politics, at every level of our communities and our societies and our institutions around the world, because time is short and things are headed in the wrong direction. But nonetheless, for me, I put my faith in the land. I put my faith in the plants, the animals, the natural systems of this planet, the water cycle. I don’t put my faith in the technological tools and toys of, you know, the priests of modern technology. I don’t believe they’re gonna save us. I think they’re only gonna lead us astray.