Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Gods, Nanotechnology and Saving the World

 A few months ago, I got annoyed with Paul Kingsnorth for implying that his prioritisation of nature and wilderness was more worthwhile than my interest in people living as happy lives as possible. I subsequently had some feedback from various people, including from the good Kingsnorth himself, much of which critiqued my dichotomy of people and nature, pointing out the the two are so inextricable that neglecting the latter is detrimental to the former.

I agree wholly with this critique: in fact I had intended to convey that very point in my original article. It is precisely because the natural world is so key to human prosperity that I am a green, and that I think we should prioritise the environment above all else. But our policies should not aim to protect nature simply for the sake of it, but only to maximise human happiness. Since humans often derive happiness from untamed wilderness (not to mention ecosystem issues that affect our food, climate etc etc), this should be preserved as far as possible. But it would be senseless, for example (as Kingsnorth seems to call for) to abandon vital renewable energy projects in order to simply preserve a bit more nature.

Kingsnorth annoyed me again this week with a new article in the Guardian, in which he called for

A kind of vernacular environmentalism; an engagement not with "the environment", but with environments as we experience them in lived reality. Perhaps it's time to go back to basics.

So we might learn what grows wild in our local area and whether we can eat it. We might build up a bank of practical skills, from horticulture to land management. We might go out at night and plant seeds in vacant flowerbeds near where we live. We might work on small-scale engineering projects, from water purification technologies to micro-solar panels. We might work to save bees or butterflies or water meadows or woodlands or playing fields that we know and have a relationship with...

In the article, Kingsnorth admits that this kind of solution won't save the world, saying that "we've had four decades of trying to "save the world", and we have failed utterly." The reason he is so defeatist is that the current green proposals for environmental solutions are, according to him, business-oriented, technology-obsessed, wilderness-denying programs designed to preserve western capitalism and sate our demented thirst for never ending progress.

As opposed to the previous argument by him I critiqued, which harangued greens for being not romantic enough, this new article harangues them for not being socialist enough (and also not romantic enough). This is an argument I'm actually much more comfortable with - I definitely agree that there is a tendency for environmental solutions to fall short precisely because they are too keen to preserve the status quo, and I am generally anti-capitalism in general. It is misleading to claim that an ideal of "progress" is ever wrong - progress is defined as change in a good direction, so it's always subjective - but I agree with Kingsnorth that the Progress sought by many people in power simply means continuous economic growth and increasing inequality, things which do not necessarily make anyone happier.

But the major problem here, and it is the same mistaken argument made by many technophobes that really gets my goat, is that Kingsnorth conflates capitalism with the beneficial use of superior technology. We must be able to attack the problems of the former without taring the the latter with the same brush. Capitalists use technology, but technology is not exclusively the domain of capitalists. It has consistently been used through history to make things enormously better. In the Industrial Revolution, technology was mainly used to make things better for the wealthy owners and considerably worse for the majority of workers. The Luddites who attempted to destroy this technology had good reason to do so. But if, in a parallel world, that technology and the prosperity it brought had been shared by everyone, Luddite action would have been morally repulsive.

Kingsnorth complains that strategies that rely on technological or other kinds of manipulation of nature for our own ends, presumably even when these ends are extremely positive, are a form of "acting as gods". This accusation is the most infuriating of all. If you say someone's acting as a god, you're implying that they are meddling with things they shouldn't have any power over. The phrase hails to a time when it was preached that mortals should stay in their proper place as men, not try to change the things that are too important or holy for them. It's a dogma that has kept the lower rungs of society in check for centuries.

Does Kingsnorth seriously mean to say that by attempting to manage the environment we live in we are overstepping our proper place in the world? That in the position we were born into, it is only right to plant seeds at night and save the butterflies, and that if such low-level actions leave the world to burn then that is the fate we must silently endure? I imagine that he does not mean such things - but this is what his argument implies. Obviously, I can understand that Kingsnorth is saddened by the way human abuse of the planet has led to environmental disaster, and that he wishes to avoid making things worse by continuing such high-level manipulation. But he is unwise to say that such manipulation is necessarily wrong. It may be god-like behaviour, but the gods were not always evil, detrimental, nor even always hubristic. Sometimes they were well meaning and did wonderful things. Ceres made the crops grow every year. Was he thus wrong to behave like a god?

Take this extraordinary sentence from Kingsnorth's article:

[Greens say] The future lies in enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, nanotechnology, geo-engineering and anything else new and complex that annoys Greenpeace.

To be clear, Kingsnorth is being witheringly dismissive here. Biotech? Synthetics? Nuclear? Nano? From the way he says it, you might think he was talking about eugenics and atom bombs. Geo-engineering aside, the benefits of which are yet unproven, all these technologies have the capability to radically transform the world for the better. Nanomaterials are currently being developed for applications in nuclear waste disposal, allowing toxic substances that could be dangerous for thousands of years to be disposed of unproblematically. Should we abandon this tech for our vegetable patches?

It's right to say that we can't just let technology do all the work for us; that's not how it works. It's also right to say that we should try to preserve the capitalist system with ever greater technologisation. It's right to point out that god-like behaviour in the past has typically been unhelpful. But it's wrong to suggest the only alternative is to go back to our homes, create a harmonious local neighbourhood and wait til the fire and brimstone hit. We must at least try to wield god-like power in non-god-like ways. We can try and make the crops grow, but not hurl bolts from mountaintops. Sure, we'd like to just be mortals who don't have to meddle in such things. But Ceres and Zeus have left us, or we've already destroyed them. If we don't start making the crops grow, we're going to starve.