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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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Or how about CFCs and the ozone hole? Chlorofluorocarbons have a variety of industrial, commercial and household applications, including in air-conditioning. They were thought to be a miracle chemical when introduced in the 1930s—non-toxic, non-flammable and non-reactive with other chemical compounds. But in the 1980s, researchers began to understand that while CFCs are stable in the troposphere, when they move to the stratosphere and are broken down by strong ultraviolet light they release chlorine atoms that deplete the ozone layer. This unintended effect deflated the exuberance a bit. Depletion of the ozone layer means that more UV radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, and overexposure to UV radiation is a cause of skin cancer, cataracts and immune suppression.

But wait, the technological fundamentalists might argue, our experience with CFCs refutes your argument—humans got a handle on that one and banned CFCs, and now the ozone hole is closing. These gases, which were once commonly used in air-conditioning, were regulated in 1987 through the Montreal Protocol, which has reduced damage to the ozone layer. The oldest and most damaging CFC coolants have been largely eliminated from use, and the newer hydrochlorofluorocarbons that are now widely used have little or no effect on the ozone layer. That’s all true, but unfortunately we now know that the HCFC gases contribute to global warming. Scientists estimate that up to a quarter of all global warming will be attributable to those gases by 2050, so that “the therapy to cure one global environmental disaster is now seeding another.”

So the reasonable question is: If the dangerous HCFCs that replaced the dangerous CFCs are replaced by a new chemical that appears harmless, how long will it take before the dangerous effects of that replacement become visible? There’s no way to predict, but it seems reasonable to ask the question. Society didn’t react to the news about CFCs or HCFCs by thinking about ways to step back from a developed world that has become dependent on air-conditioning, but instead continues to search for replacements to keep the air conditioning running.

Intellectuals are in the business of assessing problems and offering solutions. Technological fundamentalism allows intellectuals to offer solutions that don’t threaten existing institutions and don’t make demands on society in general, which allows intellectuals to retain their status and level of comfort, at least in the short term. The obvious problem is that if we look only for “solutions” that don’t disturb existing systems, and those existing systems are unsustainable, then our solutions are at best irrelevant and at worst will exacerbate the fundamental problems and make it harder for people to imagine new systems.

This is not an argument to abandon all attempts to improve technology, stop exploring ways technology can contribute to a healthier planet, or halt research on renewable energy. A sensible approach to our cascading ecological crises is to pursue multiple strategies that mitigate the worst of what exists today while planning for a radically different tomorrow. Technological fundamentalism is dangerous because it encourages us to focus on the former and ignore the latter.

The problem, succinctly stated: When intellectuals limit themselves to inquiry that stays safely within existing systems, they are being unrealistic. That claim turns the tables on establishment intellectuals, who routinely criticize more radical colleagues for not being realistic. But imagine that you are riding comfortably on a train. You look out the window and see that not too far ahead the tracks end abruptly and that the train will derail if it continues moving ahead. You suggest that the train should stop immediately and that the passengers go forward on foot. This will require a major shift in everyone’s way of traveling, of course, but it appears to you to be the only realistic option; to continue barreling forward is to guarantee catastrophic consequences. But when you propose this course of action, others who have grown comfortable riding on the train say, “Everybody likes riding the train, and so telling us to get off is not realistic.”

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