Technocracy, Luddism,and the Environmental Crisis

The green movement needs to think about social power just as much as about technology.

A LITTLE OVER TWO CENTRUIES AGO, on March 11, 1811, a small band of weavers and other skilled textile industry workers broke into a shop in the village of Arnold in Nottinghamshire, England, and smashed several “wide stocking frames” — mechanical knitting machines, relatively new at the time, that could mass produce knitted material for stockings. The action of these workers, who named themselves Luddites, sparked a rebellion against the use of machines that swept across various industries in the region until it was eventually suppressed with legal and military force in 1813.

The Luddites were not technophobes, as the history written by the victors tells it, nor were they opposed to the use of machines per se. In fact, many of them were highly skilled machine operators. Their slogan was that they would “put down machinery hurtful to Commonality,” i.e., to the common good and the common people, to the values of a society based upon the Commons. They put that into self-disciplined practice, breaking some machines whilst leaving others in the same room alone. The Luddites were among the few social movements that thought about technology in a political way, that understood that technology is never neutral — it is both socially constructed and has its own set of “technological values” that shape it in consistent ways.

In my view, that is the lesson the environmental movement needs to learn when it comes to technology — precisely not that the whole problem is bad technology and the solution is better technology, but that we have to escape from the tendency to think about technology and society separately. We need to think techno-socially.

THE REASON THAT TECHNOLOGY ISSUES are so critical in our current environmental crisis is that technology is the nexus between humans and nature. The impact of societies on the environment tends to be defined by two things — the technology that they use, especially to produce the necessities of human life, and the religious and cultural ideas they have about humanity and its relation to nature.

In traditional and feudal societies, cultural ideas tended to moderate human manipulation of nature. But, as many writers of the 1970s green movement have argued, since the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, the increasing technological control and domination of nature has come to be defined as “progress.”

I believe the roots of the environmental crisis lie as much in the technocratic attitude towards nature expressed in Western cultures and technologies as in the capitalist drive for profit, growth, and accumulation. The power of industrial-capitalism is that its technological, social, and economic values mutually reinforce one another.

Plenty has been written about capitalism, growth, corporate greed, and misbehavior, etc., so let’s focus on the industrial aspect.

I call the system of power over humans and nature built upon scientific and technological knowledge “technocracy.” It comprises several elements, including:

  • a set of ruling values such as efficiency, uniformity/standardization, rationalization, streamlining, automatic control, “smartness,” etc.;
  • the elevation of the machine to the ideal of cultural perfection. Large-scale social manifestations of this include industrialism and bureaucracy, which tend to create a dehumanized and machine-like social order;
  • the dominance of technical discourses over other ways of thinking, and the accompanying magnification of the power of technical experts.

Many of the most obvious examples of the technocratic values of domination and control of nature can be seen in industrial agriculture, including the large-scale reshaping of landscapes via massive deforestation, the use of monocultures that create huge pest problems and destroy biodiversity, the suppression of those pests with pesticides, and the treatment of animals in factory-farming as “production units” rather than living beings. Other current examples include synthetic biology and geoengineering, where we see the drive toward total control of nature at the smallest and largest scales. In these cases, it is clear how technocratic concepts harm nature. However, to understand how the overall industrial system has led to our global environmental crisis, we need to look more deeply into its workings.

IN PRE-INDUSTRIAL SOCIETIES, most necessities of life are produced at the family or village level, using local raw materials and human skills. In these systems, the natural resources of the Commons are managed communally in order to preserve sustainability and social fairness.

In the industrial system, workers’ knowledge of the natural or raw materials and their hand-brain skills are appropriated by the machine owner and embodied in machinery; the craftsperson is reduced to a low-paid lever-puller. The industrial production process is more efficient, but the alienation of the worker from the products of their labor, and their alienation from nature are just different facets of this same techno-social process.

This fundamental process of dispossession of humans and destruction of our relationship with nature is writ large in industrial societies. The basic business plan of industrial capitalism is to make us dependent upon industrial commodities and the market for our basic needs. Through mechanization of agriculture and the enclosure of the Commons (all in the name of increased efficiency), the bulk of the population is exiled to the cities.

The environmental impact of industrial-capitalism is predictable. Traditional production systems, based as they are upon local resources and human skills, are limited by their relatively low energy inputs. Their environmental impacts are, therefore, inherently limited. They have been tested for sustainability over generations, through people’s direct experience.

Industrial production systems, in contrast, are based upon abstract and universal technical knowledge and are, therefore, inherently much less limited in their scope. As industrial production processes grow, they become impossibly complex, relying upon extraction of raw materials from far-off places. And as industrial ramifications become global, it becomes increasingly impossible for people who no longer have any control over the production process (and who have become dependent upon the products being churned out by industry) to exert any direct control over its impacts upon nature. So, when there is a problem — and problems are common — we are reduced to campaigning for the masters of industrial technology to deal with it.

ALMOST ALL SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS are due to a combination of social and technical issues, mostly resulting from the distortion of social, economic, and material relations in industrial-capitalist society. Because of their technocratic training, which divorces science from its political context and rules out science which includes it, scientists tend to be like the proverbial person whose only tool is a hammer: Every problem looks to them like a nail. Frustrated by the complex nature of the problems, and the need to address them politically, scientists perpetually try to cut the Gordian knot with technical solutions. But this technocratic misframing of the problem creates as many or greater problems than those they were intended to solve, requiring a new generation of techno-fix “solutions.” Because they occur within a capitalist social context, such “solutions” serve the interests of corporations by giving them new products (drugs, seeds, gadgets etc.) to sell.

A classic example of a supposedly green technofix is the idea of using genetic engineering to increase crop yields and feed the world, which is still being touted by some scientists and “eco-modernists.” The basic misconception here is that people across the world are going hungry because there isn’t enough food to go around, when in fact, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that there is plenty of food. Poor people are hungry because they cannot afford to buy enough food. And poverty is the result of unjust socioeconomic systems, not inadequate crop yields: World hunger demands a political, not a technological solution.

In the 1960s and ’70s, radicals critical of the role of science and technology in capitalism created other models of technology development that will become essential to revisit and relearn in the current crisis.

Being a Luddite means starting from a position of rational skepticism about technology.

One of the most inspiring of these was that of workers at Lucas Aerospace in Britain, which primarily produced aircraft components for the military. Faced with likely redundancy for many workers in the 1970s, the workers set up an unofficial trade union body, known as the Combine, and asked employees across the company’s 17 factories for ideas of socially useful non-military products the company could make using their skills and technology. In response, about 150 ideas came directly from the shop floor for products like medical equipment and heating systems for poor communities, as well as many ahead-of-their-times environmental innovations such as wind turbine blades, hybrid car engines, and a bus that could travel on rail lines as well as roads. The workers also developed a form of “human-centered technology,” which is high-tech, but does not eliminate the need for human skills.

Around the same time, others were attempting to use technology to improve the lives of people in the global South. Government aid projects tried to introduce Western technologies, most notoriously tractors, in those societies, leading to a series of high-profile failures and social disasters, because the technologies were fundamentally culturally inappropriate. This led to EF Schumacher’s concept of “intermediate technology,” and to the “appropriate technology” movement that took the radical step of first consulting people for whom the technologies were intended about what they felt their needs were, before starting to design technology.

At the heart of these alternative approaches is a break with the technocratic habit of pushing ahead with high-tech development, assuming that it is automatically better and will naturally make things better for people. Rather than starting with the question, “What is technologically most efficient?” the Lucas workers and the appropriate technologists started with the social question: “What is socially useful?”

I WOULD ARGUE THAT TECHNO-FIX thinking is also prevalent in the mainstream environmental movement, which arose as a technical correction within industrial-capitalism, not as its opponent. Starting with Rachel Carson, a series of scientists started to warn about the damage to the environment caused by crude industrial technologies. The central message was that a better scientific paradigm (i.e. ecology) was needed.

The agenda of the green movement has since then been consistently set by scientists and so has tended to concentrate on technological solutions. Another example from the early days of the green movement is the 1972 Club of Rome report on “Limits to Growth,” which was based on a mathematical model that assumed that existing industrial-capitalist social and power relations would continue.

Later depoliticized technocratic approaches included the term “sustainable development,” which again fails to question the politics of capitalism, simply requiring that industrial-capitalist development can be indefinitely continued without destroying the environment. This set the stage for the current “green capitalism” approaches, which have become the UN and governmental orthodoxy, where technical improvements such as “more accurate accounting” for biodiversity and carbon, increased “eco-efficiency,” and technology are seen as the best means of responding to the ecological crisis, rather than addressing its root causes.

Rather than looking at the social and political causes of the destruction of nature, the mainstream Western environmental movement has been consistently de-politicized. This refusal to think techno-socially has left the movement open to corporate co-option and vulnerable to supposedly green industrial techno-fixes, such as industrial biofuels and even nuclear power.

For all the undoubted benefits that industrial technologies have brought us, there really is an inherent structural problem with them that is at the root of the environmental crisis. If you accept that, you will get called a Luddite, and people will accuse you of being anti-technology.

My answer to those people is that Luddism is an anti-technocracy, not an anti-technology movement. Being a Luddite means starting from a position of rational skepticism (not rejectionism) about technology, rather than the mainstream irrational exuberance, and overcoming that almost irresistible tendency in our society to think of technology as something separate from society and politics. Overcoming industrial-capitalism will mean creating both a new society and a new technology consistent with the new human and social values of commonality. That means abandoning hopes of saving the world through green technofixes without having to get involved in the dirty world of politics and in struggles over exploitation and oppression.

To save the planet, environmentalists will have to get working class people and peasants on our side, which means being on their side on the social justice issues which dominate their lives, as the climate justice movement does.

How a transition beyond industrial-capitalism can work is the subject of a book that has not been written. In the next couple of decades, we are going to have to work it out as we go, and it will be messy. For certain necessities of life, industrial production may be necessary indefinitely, but one thing is certain: If we desperately try to hang on to our industrial lifestyles, the crash, when it comes, will be much more devastating. We must start having a conversation about what is socially useful, and how we can overcome technocracy, now.

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