[I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, and the September issue of Scientific American finally provoked me. They talk about exceeding our evolutionary limits, living beyond 1oo, manipulating ourselves to be smarter (but no mention of wiser), and so on. So, another long essay.]
The term appropriate technology was popularised after E. F. Schumacher’s pivotal work Small is Beautiful. Schumacher argued against the modern economic pathology of endless physical growth, which of course cannot continue on our finite planet. He argued further that some technology only promotes endless growth, or it distracts us from more important things in life, and is therefore not beneficial. Technology that supports a fulfilling life and is compatible with a steady-state or slowly shrinking physical economy he called appropriate technology.
As for technology, so for science. A common assumption by scientists is that if a challenge is there then it is fair game to address it. In fact it is commonly presumed that freedom of enquiry, a central ingredient of an open democratic society, justifies such an attitude. However we need to recognise that such freedom comes with responsibility. This seems to be recognised regarding human cloning, for example, where strong legal and social restrictions have commonly been imposed.
The need for exercising responsibility is only emphasised by humanity’s current global predicament. A broad assessment of our situation argues that some science is not beneficial, some ought to be low priority, and some is appropriate to stabilising humanity’s place within Earth’s biosphere.
Furthermore, it is reasonable to argue that our greatest challenges are not scientific, they are behavioural, and therefore also involve values, world views, and perhaps spirituality. Indeed Schumacher’s view was that the important things in life are not material, they are found in relationships and spirituality. This is a widely shared view, though it is not dominant at present.
Thus to evaluate the appropriateness or otherwise of a scientific topic we must develop the larger social and ethical context. That context ought also to inform our political and economic choices, as will emerge.
First, some examples of scientific topics where serious questions arise. It is one thing to work to cure diseases and thus to enhance the quality of life and life expectancy of many people. It is quite another thing to seek to substantially extend lifespans, possibly beyond what seems to be a natural limit of a century or so. At least while human numbers are stressing the planet, it would not be beneficial to increase the population further through artificial extensions of lifespan.
Even if human numbers were eventually to fall enough to remove this objection, there are more fundamental biological questions. It seems that sex and finite lifespans may have evolved together so as to optimise evolutionary resilience. Lifespans are specific to species and quite variable, so it seems they are programmed into our biology. We don’t die just because we wear out. Because sex is at least as old as multi-cellular organisms, perhaps one billion years old, sex and death are embedded deeply in our biology.
We are foolish to meddle at such deep levels in systems that not only are complex well beyond our present understanding, but arguably are intrinsically unpredictable. In other words, there may be no way of foretelling the consequences of our meddling, even after many more decades of study. Indeed this is already a concern with genetic modification of other species.
Another example is the burgeoning field of nanotechnology, which involves science as much as technology. There may be some important benefits to be had from nanotechnology, though one might still wonder why it is thought necessary, or at least important, a point I will return to. However there is clear potential for great harm, both unintentional and deliberate.
We can be quite sure that military scientists are busily working on nanotechnological weapons capable of who knows what horrors. Because their smallness may make them insidious, one might think of them in the same way as chemical and biological weapons. There are notional limits placed on chemical and biological weapons by international agreements. The limits exist precisely because such weapons are perceived as a double-edged sword, as capable of harming the deployer as the target, or of harming civilian populations with no direct involvement in a conflict, or of potentially harming everyone on the planet.
Nuclear weapons are also perceived as being of dubious military and ethical validity, and we have made imperfect attempts to limit their deployment. However once a technology is developed it is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.
Even if nanotechnology is not intentionally harmful, there is great potential for unintentional harm. Every technology has this potential, from stone axes and fire onwards, but the more novel and powerful the technology the higher the potential for harm. Our experiences with radioactivity, nuclear weapons and nuclear power offer clear notice of the dangers of playing with exotic forms of fire.
A final example is the field of human-machine interactions, which includes the internet. There are frequent projections of what will be possible within a few years or a few decades, and the potential is far from clearly benign. We are already discovering that the internet has not ushered in an era of democratic communication, where freedom of information prevails and individual freedoms are promoted. For every example of a popular movement being empowered by the internet there is another example of a powerful corporate or national entity enclosing a region of cyberspace and imposing rules that promote its self-interest, which is not at all assured to coincide with the interests of users.
However there are deeper concerns. Our children are losing touch with the natural world. Where once children routinely played outside, often in parks or natural woods, now they are much more housebound, through a combination of unreasonable fear of molestation and the pull of computer amusements. This not only promotes problems such as obesity, it stunts brain development, which is stimulated by the complexity of natural environments.
Adults too are losing connection with the natural world, and thus losing understanding of the realities that underlie humanity’s presence within the biosphere. This goes beyond setting good environmental policy, though that is already a critical concern. Many people perceive a healing or spiritual benefit from being in nature, and there is good reason to expect this to be real, given how recently in human history our artificial urban environments have replaced the natural world as our place of living. Scientists are appreciating more and more that we are co-creations of our genes and our environment, and this includes our brains and sensory environment.
Proposals for more intimate interactions of people and machines, including even hybrids, encounter some of the concerns of genetic interference, the concern of losing touch with biological reality (our own and the natural world’s) and an apparent obliviousness to the social, emotional and spiritual needs of people.
The issue here is still the issue so powerfully portrayed by Mary Shelley in her story of Frankenstein’s creation of a “monster” made of human parts. His created creature, though human in general form and behaviour, is a wretched misfit who inspires horror and fear in others and ultimately dies in despair. He has obvious abnormalities, he has no social context, no childhood, no family that has loved him into his present form. There is far more subtlety and depth to being a human being than being a walking, talking, living doll.
Underlying the continuing drive to do science for science’s sake is a general lack of awareness of or concern for the deeper needs of human beings, and the role those needs must play in relieving humanity’s present predicament. There is also a lack of appreciation of the scientific revolution flowing from our growing understanding of self-organising systems. They require a new way of doing science, and the abandonment of the idea that we can control nature.
Human beings are social, pair-bonding mammals. Our brains are so big they have developed a new kind of thinking, but our old thinking still often dominates our behaviour. However our present scientific-industrial society acts as though none of these things is true. Our economic system assumes we are competitive loners, rather like reptiles. Our economics and many in the science community assume we are “rational”, in other words that we use the new “logical” kind of thinking that emerged only recently in our evolutionary history, what Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking”. So a lot of our society is built around the assumption that we’re calculating reptiles. This may have something to do with why we are making such a mess of the world, our only world, our miraculous living planet.
Rather obviously, we are not calculating reptiles. As social mammals, being accepted in a social group is vitally important to us, otherwise, our old hominin brains tell us, we will soon be the prey of lions or hyenas. As pair-bonding social mammals whose offspring develop very slowly we crave an intimate, long-lasting relationship. To achieve and maintain these relationships we cooperate, give and receive, cede some of our individual autonomy to gain the greater security of a bonded social group.
We prize our “slow thinking”, for it is the basis of our intelligence, the thing that separates us from the dim-witted brutes around us. The great celebration of our rational intelligence was the European Enlightenment, during which it was conceived that all things were subject to “laws”, and that we would soon understand all those laws and thus be able to predict anything and everything. We would be masters of the universe and, incidentally, of ourselves. An orderly, prosperous, secure, peaceful world, with ourselves in charge, hove into the view of our mind’s eye.
The reductionist science of the Enlightenment was brilliant for understanding macroscopic physical things. Then the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics showed the world is not so simple. The very large, the very fast and the very small became seriously counter-intuitive, and in some ways even unpredictable. Nevertheless, after a few decades of confusion, we resumed the Enlightenment project, confident that we could understand, and control, all things.
Unfortunately that view is no longer tenable. Although we have gained vast knowledge of living things, we have not adduced “laws” that allow us to predict and control them, at least not without the pervasive bane of what we choose to call “side effects”. Worse, starting with Freud, psychologists have been telling us with increasing insistence that we, our slow-thinking rational selves, are not even in control of our own actions, at least not without cultivating something the touchy-feely set calls “awareness”.
Over the past half-century or so, a less-heralded scientific revolution has been developing around our growing understanding of nonlinear, self-organising systems. It suggests why living systems are so, well, fickle, and why we had better start finding out about our inner awareness, and how to develop a bit of it. It may even tell us that power over physical things is not our biggest challenge, and the acquisition of it not our most fulfilling life path.
Self-organising systems have become fairly widely known, but their deeper implications do not seem to be as widely appreciated. They suggest that living systems are intrinsically unpredictable. They suggest that our brains are the most complex things in the known universe, so perhaps it is not so surprising if we don’t fully understand ourselves. They require that scientists, and Westerners more generally, re-develop a neglected part of our character – humility.
Self-organisation is something that occurs in systems of many interacting parts. The parts may be fairly simple and fairly similar. The interactions among the parts can spontaneously generate patterns in space and time. Loosely speaking, weak interactions may generate simple patterns. Stronger interactions may generate increasingly complicated patterns. Very strong interactions may generate chaos, the lack of any discernible pattern, even though the system is still deterministic (in other words the chaos is not due to probabilistic quantum interactions).
As has become well known, the future details of a chaotic system are not predictable. Short of chaos is a less-sharply defined regime called complexity. A complex self-organising system exhibits patterns, but the patterns are not fixed, they are always shifting in small ways, and sometimes there is a large shift. They fall between the chaos of fire and the rigid stasis of ice. When a complex system undergoes a large shift it is hypersensitive to small disturbances or uncertainties, so the state into which it shifts is not predictable. Thus the future details of a complex system are also unpredictable.
The processes of living systems are clearly of the self-organising kind. There are good arguments that natural selection favours complex systems, and vice versa, implying that living systems are complex self-organising systems and therefore unpredictable in detail. Nevertheless a complex system can display what might be called a distinct character, a style of behaviour, even though its details are not predictable.
The fundamental lesson of complex systems is that their behaviour is not predictable from their detailed interactions. Their overall behaviour emerges from their internal interactions. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Reductionism therefore does not work for complex systems. They can only be fully understood by studying them as a whole, holistically, as well as in their parts.
This explains why reductionist studies of living systems have not yielded the simple underlying patterns or “laws” that have been found for non-living systems. Although a great deal has been learned about the how the parts of living systems interact, the systems must still be studied as a whole, and in their normal context.
Evidently much of biological and medical science still has to learn this fundamental lesson. A prime example is the extravagant claims made regarding the decoding of the human genome. It was said cures for many diseases would soon be found, but this has not eventuated. The claims were the more reprehensible because Stuart Kauffman proposed in the 1980s that gene switching renders genetic expression a complex process.
A similar lesson applies to genetic manipulation of organisms, and to their release into the environment. It is unfortunate that this technology has become captive to commercial interests who regularly make unsustainable claims that the risks associated with releasing genetically modified organisms are negligible. Given the intrinsic unpredictability of genetic expression, there can be no guarantee that genes will not migrate to related species with unexpected consequences. The release of genetically-modified organisms is an open experiment being conducted in the global biosphere.
There is a long and sorry history of biological releases into new environments, even without genetic manipulation. Australia’s experiences with rabbits and cane toads are only two of the better-known examples. It might be argued that those examples involved ignorance and stupidity, but there seems never to be a lack of monumental stupidity, as evident among the operators of the Chernobyl power plant, those who placed six nuclear power plants in a single site on a tsunami-prone coast, and indeed corporate spruikers for GMOs.
An ecosystem is a living system, just as unpredictable in detail as a cell or an organism. Furthermore living systems are evolving systems. This is simple lesson has yet to prevent the unnecessary use of antibiotics in livestock and their excessive use in medicine, which are selecting for “super bugs” that are increasingly beyond our means to control. We are now witnessing the selection of “super weeds” in response to genetically-modified crops that involve extensive use of herbicides. The efficacy of GMOs that produce their own pesticides is also found to decline because their insect targets evolve into greater resistance.
Meteorologists are of course well aware that the chaos of weather systems makes prediction impossible beyond a week or so. They do not display the hubris evident in so many other disciplines.
Economics is still the most resistant preserve of nineteenth-century reductionist hubris, persisting with the characterisation of people as rational, with the “rational expectations theory” (really an assumption) that claims peoples’ guesses about the future are accurate in the aggregate, and with the expectation that economic models are predictive despite their spectacular failure to predict the recent financial collapse.
All of these examples demonstrate the need for scientific humility. Especially when attempting to manipulate fundamental mechanisms of complex systems, we must be very cautious about the potential for “side effects”, which we will never be able to predict with confidence, nor eliminate.
This brings us back to technologies currently developing, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, artificial “intelligence”, and interfacing physical technologies with human beings. Our brains themselves are complex self-organising systems. With trillions of highly-connected neurons, they must qualify as having the most complex behaviour in the known universe. We must approach our brains, our thinking and indeed our whole physical, emotional, intellectual and, for many, spiritual being with humility.
Freud alerted us to the idea that much of our behaviour might be determined out of the range of our conscious awareness. A century later there have been many developments in psychology, and they have connected with Eastern practices to yield deeper insights and a wide range of therapies and personal-development strategies.
It is now well-established that we exhibit many “non-rational” behaviours and choices. These often result from “fast thinking”, in other words our older, pre-programmed intuitive and instinctive responses. Though labelled non-rational, they usually have rather obvious relevance to the hunter-gather life we have recently emerged from, such as responding to a perceived immediate threat more readily than a potential future threat.
Many of our behaviours can also be recognised as originating in our infant and childhood years. We begin life in total dependency on our carers. All parents have their idiosyncrasies, and some have rather unhealthy behaviours, but as infants it is imperative that we adapt our behaviour to please them. In this way we grow out of childhood with a suite of behaviours, either normal infantile behaviours or learned coping behaviours, that no longer serve us as we grow. Growing up includes growing out of these behaviours.
Traditional societies generally have a more structured process for growing up than do modern industrial societies. Traditional societies usually recognise a series of stages and transitions, with challenges, initiations and celebrations, that extend through childhood and sometimes through adult life as well. These are designed to help us to leave behind youthful behaviours that are no longer useful and to learn behaviours more appropriate for the next stage of our lives. They are, in other words, designed to promote our emotional development and maturing.
Industrial societies have lost many of these practices, so that many of us either have to muddle through our emotional maturation or fail to progress as we might. Unfortunately our consumerist society actively promotes infantile behaviours such as instant gratification, reliance on conformity and reliance on fast-brain responses that the marketing industry exploits with sophisticated ease.
Much of the process of emotional maturation involves learning to recognise our old, fast urges and to consciously shift our behavioural response. Childhood fear of the dark can be calmed as we feel more capable of detecting and responding to real threats. We can learn to defer gratification. We can overcome our fear of being thought different, and therefore potentially abandoned, and learn to express our own uniqueness. We can learn to trust our ability to respond to circumstances and people, and so let go of urges to control, exclude or attack unfamiliar people.
There are many personal development processes now available that can help us to move on from old behaviours that are no longer appropriate and no longer serve us. These are typically emotionally trying, because it is in re-living old “irrational” fears, some of them ferocious, that we learn we survive them and can learn, slowly, to respond more appropriately. There is still a tendency to lampoon such “touchy-feely” processes, but many can attest to their benefits in greater maturity and a richer life, including me.
The point here is that many of our irrational or immature responses helped to cause our present predicament, or they greatly exacerbate it. Our natural desire for material goods to satisfy our physical needs has, for many of the rich minority of humanity, been taken far beyond what is sufficient. This is because, egged on by the marketing industry and a pseudo-scientific economics profession, we allow our old impulses to rule us – the desire for status, the desire for power over others, the futile quest for security (of the kind we felt as children, protected by parents) and so on. With greater maturity we can ceased to be governed by these impulses, and can choose to live materially sufficient, trusting lives that ultimately are more fulfilling.
We are fearful of change, fearful of the uncertainty of doing things in new ways, so we deny the need to change. We, collectively, deny that exponential material growth cannot continue forever. We deny that the environment is suffering and declining on a daily basis. We deny that there is no future in degrading the soil. Above all of course, we deny that global warming is a problem, or that we are responsible for it.
Thus the resolution of our present crisis, and the creation of a more peaceable and fulfilling future for our descendants, does not lie with science and technology. Some science and technologies can certainly help, but only those that are appropriate.
Humanity is in a precarious situation. The central problem is that the materially extravagant lifestyle promoted by consumer capitalism is rapidly degrading the Earth’s living systems and physical environment. Global warming is the most urgent symptom, but far from the only one.
The way to resolve this crisis is clear enough, but it is not much acknowledged in our politics, mainstream media and popular culture. We must reduce the material throughput of our industrial societies and stop emitting poisons. We must explicitly abandon the mirage of endless economic increase. We must promote the gradual reduction of world population, which can be done without resort to drastic measures. We must learn again to live with and within nature, and abandon the attempt, thousands of years old, to dominate and control nature.
There are obstacles at several levels to the resolution of the crisis. Probably of first importance is our fear of change, fear of stepping onto a path not travelled before. Then there is our addiction to material things. Then the body of thought, habit and misconception known as mainstream economics, which promotes the present pathology. Then the institutions that have grown up within the pathology, including a business culture that puts competition and profit above all else. Then those within institutions, public and private, who feel more emotionally secure according to how much power they wield, and who therefore feel very threatened by talk of change.
Thus the means to the required resolution are not primarily technological. The primary needs are the overcoming of fear and changes in habits, thoughts, and institutions. Technologies can support this process, but technology alone cannot accomplish it. Technologies must also be appropriate to the need. Some technologies can certainly be helpful. Others are clearly not helpful. Yet others are of dubious value on balance or would be a distraction from the urgent challenge at hand.
Reducing the material throughput of our economies does not mean regressing to peasant or cave-man lifestyles. It means being much smarter in how we do things, and especially learning to recycle materials. A major obstacle to this change is the mainstream economics profession, which is beholden to a central theory that is blatantly irrelevant to modern economies, which continues many detrimental habits and practises, particularly around money and debt, and which has become so insular it seems to be incapable of admitting the evidence, new conceptions, knowledge and technologies that can move economics and our societies forward.
There are already many technologies and designs that can reduce the energy needs and material throughput of our economy. The primary need is not so much new technology as good design, design that is carefully integrated to avoid waste and to promote re-use of materials. Buildings have been built that require much less energy for a modest additional cost that has a short pay-back time from energy savings. Material needs can be drastically reduced by designing from the start to recover and recycle materials, according to the Cradle-to-Cradle concept of McDonough and Braungart. Germany already requires substantial recycling of its vehicles. City layout can be changed to greatly reduced the need for commuting.
Interface Carpets has the ambition to be a benign presence on the planet, and has made major progress towards that goal through creative and persistent attention to all its processes. Comparable examples are proliferating, and the path forward, including complete elimination of fossil fuels, is becoming rapidly more evident.
There is a clear need for more basic research to facilitate these changes, for example in energy storage and fuel cells. New materials that have a benign life cycle are needed to replace the many materials that are in short supply or that deplete or pollute the natural world.
Currently there is a rush to extract fossil fuels from less accessible, more dangerous, lower yielding, more polluting sources such as tar sands, coal seam gas, shale oil and deep sea clathrates. There could hardly be a less appropriate application of science and technology, virtually guaranteed to ensure drastic global warming, and to generate more destruction of the biosphere and many other problems along the way.
There are various proposals for geo-engineering to reduce the warming effects of greenhouse gases. The climate system, the ocean system and the biosphere are all prone to rapid shifts of state, in the manner of complex systems, so any proposed large-scale interference must be regarded as risky and of highly debatable benefit. The same can be said of nuclear power, for the reasons that it is unnecessary if we pursue efficiency and renewable technologies, it is prone to cover for the development of nuclear weapons, and the waste problem is arguably intractable given the riven state of the Earth’s crust. Proposals to bury carbon dioxide emissions are highly speculative, require large supplies of scarce water, and are likely to be extremely expensive if they ever work at all.
What these dubious or unhelpful technologies have in common is a continuing reliance on big systems that are prone to continue the compounding of “side effects” and, more fundamentally, a continuation of the mentality of dominating and controlling nature rather than working with it.
By contrast, several of these problems can be addressed together and in a bio-friendly way by promoting agricultural methods that work with nature. These are developing rapidly and in many parts of the world, rich and poor. Such farming methods increase soil retention of carbon and water, improve the soil micro-ecology and general fertility, and are achieving yields comparable to those of monocultural industrial agriculture. Highly mechanised and chemicalised agriculture depletes the soil of carbon and water and commonly pollutes rivers and oceans – it has no future. On the other hand natural and organic methods address the current global problems of helping people to feed themselves, making more efficient use of water, avoiding destructive pollution and helping to draw down the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide. Instead of compounding side effects, this approach yields compounding benefits.
The American agrarian Wendell Berry calls farming “a high and difficult art”. He insists it can only be done well by people who are intimate with the local environment, and who are part of a strong, local human community. This returns us to the essential needs of human beings – loving relationships, social bonds, material sufficiency delivered in a healthy way and a life that can be as challenging and fulfilling as we desire.
There is a simple, fundamental truth about our place on planet Earth. We have emerged from the living biosphere, and we are still intricately and intimately a part of it. All of our food, all of our fresh water and all of our breathable air comes from or exists because of the web of life. None of our clever technologies has change those basic facts. If the web of life weakens, we are weakened. If it dies, we die. Our health and thriving depend on having a healthy and thriving biosphere to live in.
All of our industries, not just agriculture, need to be examined for their compatibility with the biosphere. That is why people are busily exploring how to redesign our products and processes so their materials can be recycled indefinitely, and so they can function on the natural energy flows of the Earth. Our homes, our cities, the way we trade things near and far, all of our activities need to be adapted to our new reality on planet Earth.
Whether we like it or not, whether we meant to be or not, we are now so powerful that we are necessarily the custodians of the living planet that we are part of.
It is said by some that physicists lost their innocence when the first atomic bomb was exploded. No longer could they explore the physical world just because it is there. They had to consider the potential consequences of their explorations. It may be that innocence was lost, but few so far seem to have appreciated the lesson, and the lesson applies now to all science. Science will certainly play a key role in our future, but no longer can we presume to push blindly forward on all fronts.
No longer can we blithely presume to explore the depths of our genetic and biological makeup, no longer can we contemplate devices operating at the planetary scale or the nano scale, or devices that blur the boundary between the human and the physical. We must become far more discriminating. We must study the complexity, the subtlety, the interconnectedness, that comes with being a human being on this planet. We must respect our fellow humans, and foster our fellow creatures. We must re-learn the wisdom that has been passed down to us from millennia past. If we proceed with explorations, we must do so with deep caution and with profound humility.
Will it be possible, ever, for humanity to live within the biosphere in mutual support into the indefinite future? Well, every other species is required to live this way or it does not survive. Furthermore we have learned recently that this condition seems already to have been achieved by one section of humanity, in an unexpected place and for a very long time.
When Europeans first encountered the more fertile regions of Australia, starting in 1770, they we struck, over and over again, by their beauty and their productivity. Grasslands, scattered trees and woodlands were interspersed in pleasing harmony, and game abounded. Much of the landscape, it was said repeatedly, had the park-like character of an English gentleman’s estate. Historian Bill Gammage has recently argued persuasively that these landscapes were not natural. They were the product of a system of human management that was pervasive subtle, intricate and intimate, and that extended over the entire continent, through many ecosystems and climates and across diverse language groups. The same features existed in Tasmania, which was isolated at the end of the ice age about 11,000 years ago, suggesting that the system was well-established at least that long ago.
This system was disrupted by the European intrusion and the land rapidly lost its striking character and much of its fertility. In many places that fertility has probably never been regained. There are now people trying to develop forms of agriculture that work with the land and its nature. It will be a very long process of learning and adapting. The old Aboriginal system cannot be re-created because there have been many extinctions, many exotic species have been introduced, and much knowledge has been lost. Nevertheless some of the knowledge remains, and the example is now revealed, to inspire us.
This story challenges the core assumptions of our modern industrial societies regarding the value of technology and material things, and the nature of that much-abused concept sustainability. We need not and cannot abandon all of our knowledge and technology, but we can be far more discriminating in decided which knowledge and which technologies really serve us – and serve our grandchildren and our distant descendants into the indefinite future.