Friday, March 13, 2009

The Unabomber, Kevin Kelly, Ran Prieur and me

Kevin Kelly posted an essay recently, The Unabomber Was Right, and Ran Prieur posted a critical review of it which I mentioned in an earlier post. I thought it was interesting and important enough to review and comment on.

An issue I'm constantly aware of when writing on the subjects covered by this blog is what may be loosely termed doomer porn, and everything which the term implies. There are lots of people unhappy with Industrial Civilisation for all kinds of reasons and they look forward eagerly to its demise. Whatever their reasons for being unhappy with it, they tend to imagine some sort of golden age once IC is no more: some of these utopian fantasies are religious in nature, some involve ideas of a new culure based around ecological principles and some are simply primitive Mad Max fantasies where the thinker sees themselves as a powerful warrior in a violent world. Looking forward to these utopias they often lap up bad news stories about the current world. If you feel marginalised and alienated from whats going on around you for whatever reason: social exclusion, failure, sexual or other humiliation or for some less personal or more altruistic reason — the list is endless — there is a temptation to wallow in these stories.

Or you may go further, as the Unabomber did, and take some direct action. Kevin Kelly's essay examines the validity of the Unabomber's view of the world and then critiques the conclusions he drew from these views and the actions he then took. Ran Prieur jumps on KK's argument and makes some valuable points. But both of them missed an important error in thinking which was apparent in the first few paragraphs of KK's essay. The crucial quotes are from Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber himself:

"The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity"


"When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it."

Kevin and Ran treat this statement as valid and then go on to argue for conclusions based on it. Kevin Kelly says yes: industrial civilisation does force us to fit into tight patterns to satisfy its demands and does lots of bad things along the way but the freedoms and choices it gives us are more or less worth it. Ran Prieur says maybe: but the freedoms which result are only for a fortunate few and the majority are oppressed by their low status and lack of control over their lives: hence many people don't love the system and would be happy to see its demise.

But I would argue that the loss of freedom the Unabomber rants against is not the property of Industrial Civilisation and its technologies alone, but is an inescapable part of the human condition from the beginning of time. This is true at a societal level and a personal one too. Look at the second quote from the Unabomber and ask yourself what else it could be applied to. I can think of anything from clothing (as opposed to nakedness in our oh-so-pluralistic and tolerant society!) to the Catholic Church in the European Middle Ages.

When are we truly free? The only time is before we have decided on a course of action: that state of indecision when a cloud of possibilities hangs in the air but nothing has yet happened which may be difficult to back out of. Keeping that in mind, look at his first quote. A cynic would say it sounds like a description of marriage. "The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behaviour that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system." Sheesh!

I'm really not joking here. My attitude to the intellect and its products is that of a child poking a bull ant's nest with a long stick. I can't resist it, but I'm aware of the raw power, danger and unpredictability of the endeavour. Both Kevin and Ran are very American. They believe in certain ideas which have a weaker hold on me and on Australians in general. Their thinking is deeply fundamentalist Christian, even if they are not Believers. Of course so much of our English language and culture are a product of two millennia of Christian thought. We use Christian ideas all the time in our thinking even if we've never been to church. This applies to Australia as much as the USA, but we had the advantage of inheriting the Christianity of the Vicar of Bray rather than that of the founders of the Plymouth Colony.

So Kevin and Ran are both idealistic — it's the American inheritance — and the ideas of salvation and redemption are never far below the surface.

I doubt that whatever replaces Industrial Civilisation will make Kevin, Ran or the Unabomber very happy. I have my own views which I'll explicate in my upcoming novel. Lets just say that I'm not a Panglossian either and the hero of my novel is a Candide. I believe in dealing with the world as it is rather than what I wish it to be. And it will turn out as it will, not as I will it. If I'm lucky I might make an insy-winsy bit of difference in the present, but the future depends on vast largely unknowable forces.

It's interesting that both KK and Ran assume that somehow we could have consciously planned and built a different, better world. Ran talks about having civilisations grow and collapse until we get it right. I'm a child of the sixties and seventies and went through all that stuff back then. We never know enough to predict the outcome of any of our dreams, but historic experience shows pretty unequivocally that the more utopian the dream and the more thoroughly it is pursued by its advocates the more atrocious the results. Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Lenin & Trotsky. And let's not get started on the wars of religion.

The bad things that Industrial Civilisation has done and is doing to the world are not something that could have been prevented, once the genie of cheap energy was out of the bottle. Who could have resisted such power for long? Who ever has? This is why all talk of reducing greenhouse gases is in my opinion never going to be any more than talk. There are way to many humans on this planet for it to carry and greenhouse emissions will start to disappear when our numbers start to reduce, not before. But I don't see a great rush of voluntary suicides any time soon. Our vast numbers depend on technologies which are environmentally destructive. Selling the message that to save the planet, large numbers of us will have to drop off the perch and not be replaced is something no politician in a democracy will ever be able to do.

I think it's important to look at what really drives people to try and build a "better" world. How often is it a hangover from some vague millenarian traditions echoing in the hallways of culture, inevitably full of imagery of the saved and the damned? Who picks up these ideas and runs with them? How often is it a sick puppy like the Unabomber who first and foremost is a life-hating misanthrope who cloaked his bloodlust in some sophisticated intellectual drapery?

At this point I'll lay my cards on the table and try to be honest about my own motivations. Primarily I want to survive myself and I want the people I love to survive. My love casts a wide net, but I'm not indiscriminate. Hostile selfish people I don't care much for. Beyond that I want to reduce suffering because I don't enjoy seeing either people or non-human creatures suffer.

If we can't control our numbers, and I don't think we can, nature will. Cheap fossils fuels are finished and so is exponential growth of economies and populations. The reversal — the slide down the back side of the bell-shaped curve — is not going to be nice. But we can do what we can to not make it any worse by leaving crackpot ideals and Utopian fantasies well alone.


Elizabeth Richardson said...

Man that's deep.

I just dropped in to say hello and I got side-tracked by this post.

When are we truly free? The only time is before we have decided on a course of action...I feel freer once I've made the choice.

By the way, do you recognize anyone on this page HERE?

Anonymous said...

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Industrial Society is destroying necessary things [Animals, Trees, Air, Water and Land] for making unnecessary things [consumer goods].

"Growth Rate" - "Economy Rate" - "GDP"

These are figures of "Ecocide".
These are figures of "crimes against Nature".
These are figures of "destruction of Ecosystems".
These are figures of "Insanity, Abnormality and Criminality".

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature [Animals, Trees, Air, Water and Land].

Destroy the system that has killed all ecosystems.

Destroy the society that plunders, exploits and kills earth 365 days of the year and then celebrates Earth Day.

Chief Seattle of the Indian Tribe had warned the destroyers of ecosystems way back in 1854 :

Only after the last tree has been cut down,
Only after the last river has been poisoned,
Only after the last fish has been caught,
Only then will you realize that you cannot eat money.

To read the complete article please follow any of these links.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Delhi, India