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American Intellectuals' Widespread Failure to Stand Up to Billionaires and Authoritarian Power

The majority of intellectual work in the U.S. is actually helping to prop up our unjust distribution of wealth and power.

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Rationalization #2: Celebrating Technology

Facing the ecological realities is even more overwhelming. People once spoke of “environmental problems” that seemed limited and manageable, but now the questions are about whether a large-scale human presence on the planet will be viable within the foreseeable future. An honest assessment of the state of the ecosphere is frightening, and it is easier to believe that the world’s systems can magically continue rather than thinking about how radical changes in those systems are necessary -- and how even with such radical changes there is no guarantee that we can avoid catastrophe.

That frightening possibility is why the culture in general, and intellectuals in particular, are quick to embrace technological fundamentalism, a form of magical thinking that promises a way out of the problems that the extractive/industrial economy has created. Technological fundamentalists believe that the increasing use of evermore sophisticated high-energy advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is “geo-engineering,” the belief that we can intervene at the planetary level in the climate system to deal effectively with global warming. Given massive human failure at much lower levels of intervention, this approach—which “offers the tantalizing promise of a climate change fix that would allow us to continue our resource-exhausting way of life, indefinitely”—is, quite literally, insane.

Those who question such “solutions” are often said to be anti-technology, which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position does not assert that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects -- predictable and unpredictable -- on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge. We have moved too far and too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage the world we have created. The answer is not some naïve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of what we have created and a systematic evaluation to determine how to recover from our most dangerous missteps.

But the technological fundamentalists see no reason to consider such things. They have faith in human cleverness. The title of a recent book by an environmentalist— The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans—sums it up: Technological fundamentalists believe humans can play God and control an infinitely complex universe with enough competence to save not only ourselves but the planet. There’s nothing new about that arrogance. In 1968, Stewart Brand began the Whole Earth Catalog with that famous line, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Four decades later, with the evidence of human failure piling up, Brand remained the loyal technological fundamentalist, arguing that his suggestion had become an imperative: “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.”

Our experience with the unintended consequences of modern technology is fairly extensive. For example, there’s the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in internal-combustion engines, which give us the ability to travel considerable distances with a fair amount of individual autonomy. This technology also has given us traffic jams and road rage, strip malls and smog, while contributing to rapid climate change that threatens sustainable life on the planet. We haven’t quite figured out how to cope with these problems, and in retrospect it might have been wise to go slower in the development of a system geared toward private, individual transportation based on the car and spend more time considering potential consequences.

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