For the endnotes to these letters, please refer to the PDF of Technological Slavery. You can also view HTML versions of all correspondence between David Skrbina and Ted Kaczynski, as well as all the texts in the book.
Are things bad and getting worse, and is technology primarily responsible?
A. Arguments that technology has made things bad and is making them worse are presented throughout ISAIF (the Manifesto), as well as in the writings of Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Kirkpatrick Sale, and others. Your colleague has not addressed these arguments in any specific way. The only substantive arguments that he offers are the four examples of ways in which things are allegedly getting better. I would be perfectly justified in dismissing these four examples by pointing out that neither I nor any responsible commentator has claimed that technology makes everything worse — everyone knows that technology does some good things. I could then simply refer your colleague to ISAIF, Ellul, etc., for arguments that the evil done by technology outweighs the good, and challenge him to answer those arguments, which so far he has not attempted to do.
Nevertheless, I will consider the four examples in detail (below) because they offer scope for interesting discussion, and I will make your colleague’s question about whether things are bad and getting worse into an opportunity to supplement some of the arguments offered in ISAIF and elsewhere.
B. Obviously, any determination as to whether things are bad and getting worse, and, if so, how bad, involves value judgements, so the question will have no answer that will be provably correct independently of the system of values that is applied.
I should mention by the way that in order to justify revolution it is not necessary, in my opinion, to prove that things will get worse: With respect to concerns that could be grouped under the very broad rubric of “freedom and dignity,” things are already bad enough to justify revolution. This is another value-judgement, and I feel safe in assuming that it would be a waste of time to try to persuade your colleague to agree with it. Even so, I do not think it will be an idle exercise to call attention here to some facts that are relevant to the questions of whether things are bad or whether they are getting worse.
C. First let me point out that the answers to your questions as to whether there is a core reason why things are getting worse, and when the downhill trend began, are found in my letter of 10/12/04.
D. Your colleague suggests that “things have always been bad for human society, and that we have no rational reason to expect anything better than simply staying one step ahead of death.” This is a highly pessimistic attitude, even a defeatest one, and on the basis of my readings about primitive societies I would be rather surprised if such an attitude had been current in any primitive society prior to the time when the society was damaged by the intrusion of civilization. But I actually agree that we have no rational reason to expect anything better than simply staying one step ahead of death — because simply staying one step ahead of death is just fine. We’ve been adapted by a couple of million years of evolution to a life in which our survival has depended on the success of our daily efforts — efforts that typically were strenuous and demanded considerable skill. Such efforts represented the perfect fulfillment of the power process, and, though the evidence admittedly is anecdotal, such evidence as I’ve encountered strongly suggests that people thrive best under rugged conditions in which their survival demands serious efforts — provided that their efforts are reasonably successful, and that they make those efforts as free and independent men and women, not under the demeaning conditions of servitude. A few examples:
W. A. Ferris, who lived in the Rocky Mountains as a fur trapper during the 1840s, wrote that the “Free Men” (hunters and trappers not connected with an organized fur-company) “lead a venturous and dangerous life, governed by no laws save their own wild impulses, and bound their desires and wishes to what their own good rifles and traps may serve them to procure… [T]he toil, the danger, the loneliness, the deprivation of this condition of being, fraught with all its disadvantages, and replete with peril, is, they think, more than compensated by the lawless freedom, and the stirring excitement, incident to their situation and pursuits… Yet so attached to [this way of life] do they become, that few ever leave it, and they deem themselves, nay are, …far happier than the indwellers of towns and cities…”
Ferris reported that during his own rugged and dangerous life in the mountains he usually felt “resolute, cheerful, contented.”
Gontran de Poncins wrote of the Eskimos with whom he lived about 1939-1940:
“[T]he Eskimo is constantly on the march, driven by hunger…”
“[T]hese Eskimos afforded me decisive proof that happiness is a disposition of the spirit. Here was a people living in the most rigorous climate in the world, …haunted by famine…; shivering in their tents in the autumn, fighting the recurrent blizzard in the winter, toiling and moiling fifteen hours a day merely in order to get food and stay alive. …[T]hey ought to have been melancholy men, men despondent and suicidal; instead, they were a cheerful people, always laughing, never weary of laughter.”
The 19th-century Argentine thinker Sarmiento wrote of the gaucho of his time:
“His moral character shows the effects of his habit of overcoming obstacles and the power of nature; he is strong, haughty, energetic…he is happy in the midst of his poverty and his privations, which are not such for him, who has never known greater enjoyments or desired anything higher…”
Sarmiento was not romanticizing the gaucho. On the contrary, he wanted to replace what he called the “barbarism” of the gaucho with “civilization.”
These examples are by no means exceptional. There’s plenty more in the literature that suggests that people thrive when they have to exert themselves in order to “stay one step ahead of death,” and I’ve encountered very little that indicates the opposite.
E. It would be instructive to compare the psychological state of primitive man with that of modern man, but such a comparison is difficult because, to my knowledge, there were hardly any systematic studies of psychological conditions in primitive societies prior to the time when the latter were disrupted by the intrusion of civilization. The evidence known to me is almost exclusively anecdotal and/or subjective.
Osborne Russell, who lived in the Rocky Mountains in the 1830s and 1840s, wrote:
“Here we found a few Snake Indians comprising 6 men 7 women and 8 or 10 children who were the only Inhabitants of this lonely and secluded spot. They were all neatly clothed in dressed dear and sheep skins of the best quality and seemed to be perfectly contented and happy. …I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor…”
Such impressions of very primitive peoples are not uncommon, and are worth noting. But they represent only superficial observations and almost certainly overlook interpersonal conflicts that would not be evident to a traveler merely passing through. Colin Turnbull, who studied the Mbuti pygmies of Africa thoroughly, found plenty of quarreling and fighting among them. Nevertheless, his impression of their social and psychological life was on the whole very favorable; he apparently believed that hunter-gatherers were “untroubled by the various neuroses that accompany progress.” He also wrote that the Mbuti “were a people who had found in the forest something that made their life more than just worth living, something that made it, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care.” Turnbull’s book The Forest People has been called “romantic,” but Schebesta, who studied the Mbuti a couple of decades earlier than Turnbull, and who as far as I know has never been accused of romanticism, expressed a similar opinion of the pygmies:
“How many and varied are the dangers, but also the joyous experiences, on their hunting excursions and their innumerable travels through the primeval forest!”
“Thus the pygmies stand before us as one of the most natural of human races, as people who live exclusively in accord with nature and without any violation of their organism. In this they show an unusually sturdy naturalness and heartiness, an unparalleled cheerfulness and freedom from care.”
This “freedom from care,” or as we would say nowadays, freedom from stress, seems to have been generally characteristic of peoples at the hunting-and-gathering stage or not far beyond it. Poncin’s account makes evidence the absence of psychological stress among the Eskimos with whom he lived:
“[The Eskimo] had proved himself stronger than the storm. Like the sailor at sea, he had met it tranquilly, it had left him unmoved. …In mid-tempest this peasant of the Arctic, by his total impassivity, had lent me little of his serenity of soul.”
“Of course he would not worry. He was an Eskimo.”
“[My Eskimos’] minds were at rest, and they slept the sleep of the unworried.”
In discussing the reasons why many whites during colonial times voluntarily chose to live with the Indians, the historian James Axtell quotes two white converts to Indian life who referred to “the absence [among the Indians] of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail [among the whites].” As we would put it, the absence of anxiety and stress. Axtell notes that while many whites chose to live as Indians, very few Indians made the transition in the opposite direction. Information from other sources confirms the attractiveness of Indian life to many whites.
What I’ve just said about anxiety and stress probably applies to depression as well, though here I’m on shaky ground since I’ve encountered very little explicit information about depression in primitive societies. Robert Wright, without citing his source, states that “when a Western anthropologist tried to study depression among the Kaluli of New Guinea, he couldn’t find any.” Though Schebesta met thousands of Mbuti pygmies, he heard of only one case of suicide among them, and he never found or heard of any case of mental illness (Geisteskrankheit), though he did find three persons who were either feeble-minded (schwachsinnig) or peculiar (Sonderling).
Even in classical (Greek & Roman) civilization, depression may have been rare: “Harris illuminatingly comments on the virtual absence of reference to anything like depression in [classical] antiquity.”
Needless to say, stress and depression were not completely absent from every hunting-and-gathering society. Depression and suicide could occur among Poncin’s Eskimos, at least among the old people. The Ainu (hunter-gatherers who were nearly sedentary) suffered from such anxiety about following correct ritual procedure that it often led to serious psychological disorders. But look at the psychological condition of modern man:
“About 45 percent of Australian men said they ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ feel stress.”
“There is certainly a lot of anxiety going around. Anxiety disorder … is the most common mental illness in the U.S. In its various forms … it afflicts 19 million Americans …”
“According to the surgeon general, almost 21 percent of children age 9 and up have a mental disorder, including depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder.”
“The state of college students’ mental health continues to decline. …The number of freshmen reporting less than average emotional health has been steadily rising since 1985 …76 percent of students felt ‘overwhelmed’ last year while 22 percent were sometimes so depressed they couldn’t function. …85 percent of [college counseling-center] directors surveyed noted an increase in severe psychological problems over the past five years…”
“Rates of major depression in every age group have steadily increased in several of the developed countries since the 1940s. …Rates of depression, mania and suicide continue to rise as each new birth cohort ages…”
“In the U.S., …the suicide rate in the age group between 15 and 24 tripled between 1950 and 1990; suicide is the third leading cause of death in this age group.”
“A new UC Berkeley study group reports that Mexican immigrants to the United States have only about half as many psychiatric disorders as U.S.-born Mexican Americans.”
One could go on and on.
F. Psychological problems of course represent only one of the ways in which “things are bad and getting worse.” I will discuss a few of the other ways later. I want to make clear, though, that statistics on mental disorders, environmental damage, or other such problems fail to touch certain central issues. Though improbably, it’s conceivable that the system might some day succeed in eliminating most mental disorders, cleaning up the environment, and solving all its other problems. Bu the human individual, however well the system may take care of him, will be powerless and dependent. In fact, the better the system takes care of him, the more dependent he will be. He will have been reduced to the status of domestic animal. See ISAIF, sections 174 and note 12. A conscientious owner may keep his house-dog in perfect physical and psychological health. But would you want to be a well cared-for domestic pet? Maybe your colleague would be willing to accept that status, but I would choose an independent and autonomous existence, no matter how hard, in preference to comfortable dependence and servitude.
G. Your colleague’s argument that things are getting better because “Humanity is ‘flourishing’ … based on sheer numbers” makes no sense. One of the principal objections to the technological society is that its food-producing capacity has allowed the world to become grotesquely overcrowded. I don’t think I need to explain to you the disadvantages of overcrowding.
H. As for your colleague’s claim that the “overall material standard of living seems to be increasing,” the way that works is that the technoindustrial system simply defines the term “high standard of living” to mean the kind of living that the system itself provides, and the system then “discovers” that the standard of living is high and increasing. But to me and to many, many other people a high material standard of living consists not in cars, television sets, computers, or fancy houses, but in open spaces, forests, wild plants and animals, and clear-flowing streams. As measured by that criterion our material standard of living is falling rapidly.
IV. Your colleague claims that reform offers a better chance of success than revolution. He claims that “we … would act … to restrict technology as it becomes necessary,” and that such action represents “the general pattern.” You and your colleague offer four examples to illustrate this general pattern: “slavery,” “political oppression,” “sanitation and waste disposal,” and “air and water pollution.”
A. Let’s take “political oppression” first.
- As I argued in my letter to you of 10/12/04, representative democracy replaced authoritarian systems not through human choice or human planning but as a result of “objective” factors that were not under rational human control. Thus the spread of democracy is not an instance of the “general pattern” that you propose.
Political oppression has existed virtually since the beginning of civilization, i.e., for several thousand years. An alternative to authoritarian political systems — representative democracy — has been known at least since the days of ancient Athens. Yet, even under the most generous view, the time at which democracy became the world’s dominant political form could not possibly be placed earlier than the 19th century. Thus, even after a workable solution was known, it took well over 2,000 years for the problem of political oppression to be (arguably) solved. If it takes 2,000 years for our present technology-related problems to be solved, we may as well forget about it, because it will be far, far too late. So your example of political oppression gives us no reason whatever to be hopeful that our technology-related problems can be solved in a peaceful and orderly way, and in time.
You admit that the replacement of authoritarian systems by democratic ones often occurred through revolution, but you claim that “many times it did not (e.g. England, Spain, S. Africa, Eastern European communist bloc).” However, you’re wrong about England and S. Africa; or, at best, you can claim you are right about them only by insisting on strict adherence to a technical definition of the term “revolution.”
England developed into a full-fledged democracy through a process that took roughly 6 1/2 centuries. Since the process took so long, one can’t say it was a revolution. But the process certainly did involve violence and armed insurrection. The first step toward democracy in England was Magna Carta, which became law ca 1225 only through a revolt of the barons and an ensuing civil war (arguably a revolution). At least one other step toward democracy in England required a very violent insurrection, 1642-49 (again, arguably a revolution), and the “revolution” of 1688 was nonviolent only because of the accidental fact that James II declined to fight.
As for South Africa, democracy there for whites only goes back to the 19th century and was peacefully established, but whites never comprised more than a fifth of the population, and I assume that what you have in mind is a recent extension of democracy to the entire population. This, however, occurred at least in part through violent revolutionary action. “Resistance by black workers continued, and saboteurs caused an increasing number of deaths and injuries.” If the process was not a revolution, then it was saved from being one only by the fact that the government decided to grant democracy to all races through a negotiated settlement rather than let the situation get further out of hand.
In most of the principal nations of Western Europe, democracy was established through revolution and/or war: In England, partly through violent insurrection, as noted above; in France, through revolution (1789, 1830, 1848) and war (1870); in Germany and Italy democracy was imposed from the outside through warfare (World War II). Among the larger Western European nations, only Spain achieved democracy peacefully, in 1976, after Franco’s death in 1975. But Spanish democracy clearly was only a spin-off of the democracy that had been established by violence throughout the rest of Western Europe. Spain was an outlier of a thoroughly democratized, powerful, and economically highly successful Western Europe, so it was only to be expected that Spain would follow the rest of Western Europe and become democratic. Would Spain have become democratic if the rest of the Western Europe had been fascist? Probably not. So you can’t maintain that the democratization of Spain occurred independently of the violence that established democracy throughout the rest of Western Europe.
The same can be said of much of that part of the “Eastern European communist bloc” that actually has become democratic and done so peacefully. Countries like Poland and the Czech Republic lie on the fringes of Western Europe and are very heavily influenced by it. When one looks at Eastern European countries less closely linked with Western Europe, the status of democracy there seems considerably less secure. As far as I know, Serbia has become democratic, but it did not achieve democracy peacefully. I suppose you realize what is happening in Russia: “President Putin continues to move his country away from democracy…,” etc. As for Belarus: “Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said … that he won a mandate from voters to stay in power in a … referendum scrapping presidential term limits. But foreign observers said that vote process was marred by violations… That allows the authoritarian president … who has led the nation since 1994, to run again in 2006.” “Lukashenko [is] often branded as Europe’s last dictator…” In Ukraine, the future of democracy is still uncertain.
So your purported examples of democracy peacefully achieved look rather unimpressive. You would have done better to cite the Netherlands and the Scandanavian countries. The Netherlands’ evolution toward democracy was quite peaceful, though seemingly influenced by the violence elsewhere in Europe in 1848. Sweden’s evolution toward democracy began early in the 18th century and apparently was entirely peaceful. Norway’s democratization seems to have been equally nonviolent; though Norway much of the time was not an independent nation. In Denmark on the other hand I think the absolute monarchy was abolished only as a result of the 1848 revolutions; however, Denmark’s progress toward democracy thereafter was reasonably orderly. Note that all the foregoing countries, as well as England, are Germanic countries. Predominantly Germanic Switzerland, too, adopted democracy readily, though the 1848 revolutions apparently played an important role. Compare this with the often violent and for a long time unsuccessful struggles toward democracy of the Latin and Slavic countries. Germanics seem to take to democracy relatively easily, a point that I will have occasion to mention later. (It’s true that in Germany itself the first attempt at democracy — the Weimar Republic — failed, but this can be attributed to peculiarly difficult conditions, namely, the Versailles treaty and disastrous economic problems.)
But what happened in particular countries is somewhat beside the point. Consider the worldwide democratization process as a whole: Democracy was an indigenous and partly violent development in England. It was established in America through a violent insurrection. As I pointed out in my letter of 10/12/04, democracy became the world’s dominant political form only because of the economic and technological success of the democracies, especially the English-speaking countries. And this economic and technological success was achieved not only through industrialization at home but also through worldwide expansion that involved violent displacement of native peoples in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, and economic exploitation elsewhere that was often enforced by violence. The democracies repeatedly had to defend themselves in war against authoritarian systems, notably in World Wars I and II, and they won those wars only because of the vast economic and industrial power that they had built, and built in part through violent conquest and exploitation all over the world.
Thus, democracy became the world’s dominant political form through a process that involved violent insurrection and extensive warfare, including predatory warfare against weaker peoples who were to be displaced or exploited.
It should also be noted that democracy, as a political form, cannot be viewed in isolation; it is just one element of a whole cultural complex that is associated with industrialization and that we call “modernity.” Usually democracy (in its present-day form) can be successfully and lastingly implanted in a country only when that country has become culturally modernized. (India and Costa Rica are probably exceptions.) In my letter of 10/12/04, I maintained that democracy had become the world’s dominant political form because it was the political form most conducive to economic and technological success under conditions of industrialization. It might possibly be argued that it is not democracy itself, but other elements of the associated cultural complex that are mainly responsible for economic and technological success. Singapore achieved outstanding economic success without democracy; Spain achieved good and Taiwan achieved excellent economic success even before they were democratized. I still think that democracy as a political form is an important element of the cultural complex that confers success in an industrialized world. But whether it is or not, the fact remains that modern democracy is not a detached phenomenon but a part of a cultural complex that tends to be transmitted as a whole.
When a country becomes democratized peacefully, what typically happens is that either the country is so impressed by the success and dominance of the leading democracies that it willingly tries to absorb their culture, including democracy; or else, due to the economic dominance of the democracies, economic forces compel the country to permit the infiltration of modern culture, and once the country has become sufficiently assimilated culturally and economically, it will be capable of democracy.
But in either case the peaceful advent of democracy in any country in modern times (say, since 1900) is usually a consequence of the fact that the cultural complex of which democracy is a part has already become economically and technologically dominant throughout the world. And, as noted above, democracy and modernity have achieved this dominance, in important part, through violence.
So your example of democracy — as an allegedly nonviolent reform designed to solve the problem of political oppression — is clearly invalid. I want to make clear that my intention in the foregoing discussion has not been to indict democracy morally, but simply to show that it does not serve your purpose as an example of nonviolent reform.
B. Much of what I’ve said about the spread of democracy applies also to the elimination of slavery. Since the arguments applicable to slavery are analogous to those I’ve given in the case of democracy, I’ll only sketch them briefly. First note that rejection of slavery, like democracy and industrialization, is a feature of the cultural complex that we call “modernity.”
- I would argue that slavery was (partly) eliminated only because, in the modern world, there are more efficient means of getting people to work. In other words slavery, due to its economic inefficiency, has been eliminated from the industrialized world by “natural selection” (see my letter of 10/12/04), not primarily by human will. True, much slavery was eliminated through conscious humanitarian efforts, but those efforts could not have had much success if slave societies had been more efficient economically than the industrializing countries where the antislavery efforts originated. Hence, the basic cause of the elimination of slavery was economic, not humanitarian.
Slavery was widespread for thousands of years before it was (partly) eliminated in modern times. As I pointed out above, we can’t afford to wait thousands of years for a solution to our technology-related problems, so your example of slavery gives us no reason to hope for a timely and peaceful solution to those problems.
The elimination of slavery was by no means a nonviolent process. Slavery was expunged from Haiti through bloody revolution. Slave revolts occurred repeatedly in at least some slave societies, and, while these revolts rarely achieved lasting success, it seems safe to assume that they contributed to the economic inefficiency of slavery that led to its eventually being superseded by more efficient systems. When slavery was eliminated in modern times, it was often eliminated through violent intervention from outside. For example, slavery in the American South was ended by the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, and the Arab slave trade in Southeast Africa was closed down in 1889 only after war between the slave-dealers and the colonial powers.
So your example of slavery gives us no reason to hope for a peaceful solution to anything.
C. Before I address your other two examples, I want to point out that in focusing on isolated, formal features of societies — on whether governments were representative democracies or whether human beings were technically owned as property — you distract attention from more important questions: How much personal freedom did people have in practice and how satisfactory were their lives?
If I had to live in a specified society, would I rather live as a slave or as a non-slave? Of course, I would rather live as a non-slave. Would I prefer that the society’s government should be democratic or authoritarian? All else being equal, I would prefer that the government should be democratic. For example, if I were to live in Spain I would rather live in Spain as it was in 1976, after democratization, than in Spain as it was in 1974, when Franco was still alive. If I had to live in Rome in AD 100, I would rather live there as a freeman than as a slave.
When the questions are framed as above, democracy and the elimination of slavery appear to be unequivocally beneficial. But, as we’ve seen, democracy and the elimination of slavery have prevailed not as isolated and detached features but as part of the cultural complex that we call “modernity.” So what we really need to ask is: How does the quality of life in modern society compare with that in earlier societies that may have had authoritarian governments or practiced slavery? Here the answer is not so obvious.
Slavery has taken a wide variety of forms, some of which were very brutal, as everyone knows. But: “Various Greek and Roman authors report on how Etruscan slaves dressed well and how they often owned their own homes. They easily became liebrated and rose in status once they were freed.” In as much of Spanish America as came under Simon Bolivar’s observation, the slave-owner “has made his slave the companion of his indolence”; he “does not oppress his domestic servant with excessive labor: he treats him as a comrade…” “The slave … vegetates in a state of neglect … enjoying, so to speak, his idleness, the estate of his lord, and many of the advantages of liberty; …he considers himself to be in his natural condition, as a member of his master’s family…” Such examples are not rare exceptions, and it will immediately occur to you to ask whether under these conditions slaves might not have been better off than modern wage-workers. But I would go further and argue that even under the harsher forms of servitude many slaves and serfs had more freedom — the kind of freedom that really counts (see my letter of 10/12/04) — than modern man does. This, however, is not the place to make that argument.
I could make a much stronger argument that nominally free (non-slave, non-serf, etc.) people living under authoritarian systems of past ages often had greater personal freedom — of the kind that counts — than the average citizen of a modern democracy does. Again, this is not the place to make such an argument.
But I do want to suggest here that democracy (in the modern sense of the word) could actually be regarded as a sign of servitude in the following sense: A modern democracy is able to maintain an adequate level of social order with a relatively decentralized power structure and relatively mild instruments of physical coercion only because sufficiently many people are willing to abide by the rules more or less voluntarily. In other words, democracy demands an orderly and obedient population. As the historion Von Laue put it, “Industrial society … requires an incredible docility at the base of its freedoms.” I suggest that this is why the Germanic countries adjusted to democracy so easily: Germany cultures tended to produce more disciplined, obedient, authority-respecting people than the comparatively unruly Latin and Slavic cultures did. The Latins of Europe achieved stable democracies only after experience of industrialized living trained them to a sufficient level of social discipline, and over part of the Slavic world there still is insufficient social discipline for stable democracy. Social discipline is even more insufficient in Latin America, Africa, and the Arabic countries. Democracy succeeded so well in Japan precisely because the Japanese are an especially obedient, conforming, orderly people.
Thus, it could be argued that modern democracy represents not freedom but subjection to a higher level of social discipline, a discipline that is more psychological and based less on physical coercion than old-fashioned authoritarian systems were.
I can’t leave the subject of democracy without inviting you to comment on this passage of Nietzsche: “Liberal institutions immediately cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: subsequently there is nothing more thoroughly harmful to freedom than liberal institutions. …As longa s they are still being fought for, these same institutions produce quite different effects; they then in fact promote freedom mightily. …For what is freedom? That one has the will to self-responsibility. …That one has become more indifferent to hardship, toil, privation, even to life. That one is ready to sacrifice men to one’s cause, oneself not excepted,” Twilight of the Idols (Gotzen-Dammerung), #38 (translation of R. J. Hollingdale).
D. Now let’s look at your third example, “Sanitation and waste disposal.” It’s not clear to me why you chose this particular example. It’s just another one of the innumerable technical improvements that have been devised during the last few centuries, and you could equally well have cited any of the others. Of course, none of the responsible opponents of technology has ever denied that technology does some good things, so your example tells us nothing new.
Poor sanitation and inefficient waste disposal were bad for the system and bad for people, so the interests of the system coincided with the interests of human beings and it was therefore only to be expected that an effective solution to the problem would be developed.
But the fact that solutions are found in cases where the interests of the system coincide with the interests of human beings gives us no reason to hope for solutions in cases where the interests of the system conflict with those of human beings.
For instance, consider what happens when skilled craftsmen are put out of work by technical improvements that make them superfluous. I recently receieved a letter from a professional gravestone sculptor who provided me with a concrete example of this. He had spent years developing skills that were rendered useless a few years ago by some sort of laser-guided device that carved gravestones automatically. He’s in his forties, unable to find work, and obviously depressed. This sort of thing has been going on ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and it will continue to go on because in this situation the interests of the system conflict with those of human beings, so human beings have to give way. Where is the solution that, according to your theory, society is supposed to have developed? As far as I know, only two solutions have been implemented: (i) welfare; and (ii) retraining programs. My guess is that organized retraining programs cover only a fraction of all workers displaced by technology; at any rate, they apparently haven’t covered the gravestone sculptor who wrote me. But what if they did cover him? “Okay, John, you’re 45 years old and the craft you’ve practiced all your life has just been rendered obsolete by Consolidated Colossal Corporation’s new laser-guided stonecutter. But smile and be optimistic, because we’re going to put you through a training program to teach you how to operate a ball-bearing-polishing machine…” Your colleague may think that is consistent with human dignity, but I don’t, and I’m pretty sure the above-mentioned gravestone sculptor wouldn’t think it was consistent with human dignity either.
It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that improved sanitation too seems to have had unanticipated negative consequences. Sanitation no doubt is one of the most important factors in the dramatic, worldwide reduction in infant mortality rates, which presumably has played a major role in the population explosion. In addition, improved sanitation may be responsible for allergies and inflammatory bowel disease. There has been a “sharp increase” in allergies over the past few decades, and it is hypothesized that modern sanitation is responsible for this. The idea is that because we are too clean, children’s immune systems don’t get enough “exercise,” so to speak, and therefore fail to develop properly. Though I can’t cite the source, I’ve read something similar about Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease that was virtually unknown until modern times. It is hypothesized that the disease is caused by lack of exposure to intestinal parasites, and one experimental treatment has been based on intentionally infecting patients with certain intestinal worms. I don’t know whether the latest research has confirmed these hypotheses and I’m not in a position to dig up the relevant literature.
E. Your fourth example is “air and water pollution.” You claim that the (partial) solution to this problem has been acceptable “as defined by the majority.”
- Assuming for the sake of argument that the solution actually has been acceptable to the majority, that means nothing. The great majority of Germans supported Hitler “until the very end.”
The majority’s opinions about society’s problems are to a great extent irrational, for at least two reasons: (i) the majority’s outlook is shaped, to a considerable degree, by propaganda. (ii) Most people put very little serious effort into thinking about society’s problems. This is not an elitist sneer at the “unthinking masses.” The average man’s refusal to think seriously about large-scale problems is quite sensible: Such thought is useless to him personally because he himself can’t do anything to solve such problems. In fact, some psychologists and physicians have advised people to avoid thinking about problems that they are powerless to solve, because such thinking only causes unnecessary stress and anxiety. It could be argued that people like us, who put substantial time and effort into studying social problems while having only a minimal chance of contributing measurably to the solutions, are freaks. And our thinking may be influenced by propaganda more than we realize or would like to admit.
The point is, however, that the majority’s putative acceptance of existing levels of air and water pollution is largely irrelevant.
- And how do you know that existing levels of air and water pollution are acceptable to the majority? Have you taken a survey? Maybe you simply assume that existing levels of pollution are acceptable to the majority because there currently is very little public agitation over pollution. Though the meaning of the term “acceptable” is not at all clear in this context, it can by no means be assumed that the level of active public resistance is an accurate index of what the public feels is “acceptable.” I think most historians would agree that active, organized public resistance is most likely to occur not necessarily when conditions are worst, but when people find new hope that resistance will bring success, or when some other new circumstance or event prods them into action. So the absence of public resistance by no means proves that the majority is satisfied.
What the system has done is to alleviate the most visible and obvious signs of pollution, such as murky, stinking rivers and air darkened by smog. Since these symptoms are directly experienced by the average man, they presumably are the ones most likely to arouse public discontent; and while their (partial) cure may inconvenience certain industries it does not significantly impede the progress of the system as a whole. The most successful industrialized countries, for the present, have easily enough economic surplus to cover the cost of controlling the aforementioned visible forms of pollution. But this may not be true of backward countries that are struggling to catch up with the more advanced ones. For example, the air pollution over Mexico City is notoriously horrible.
In fact, if you look beyond the comforting improvements in air-pollution indices over our cities as reported by the EPA and consider the worldwide pollution sanitation as a whole, it appears that what the system has done to alleviate the problem is almost negligable. The following by the way goes also to support the argument that things are bad and getting worse:
Acid rain (due to certain forms of air pollution) is still damaging our forests. At least up to a few years ago (and perhaps even today) the Russians were still dumping their nuclear waste in the Arctic Ocean. The public (in the U.S.) has been warned not to eat too much fish, because fish are contaminated with mercury and PCB’s (from water pollution, obviously). For the foregoing I can’t cite a source; I’m depending on memory. But:
“The indigenous populations of Greenland and Arctic Canada are being poisoned by toxic industrial chemicals that drift north by wind and water, polluting their food supplies. On January 13, 2004, The Los Angeles Times told its readers that the pollutants, which include PCBs and 200 other hazardous compounds, get into the native food chains through zooplankton. ‘The bodies of Arctic people…contain the highest human concentrations of industrial chemicals and pesticides found anywhere on Earth — levels so extreme that the breast milk and tissues of some Greenlanders could be classified as hazardous wastes,’ the Times’ Marla Cone reports.”
“In the mid-1980s, some researchers in the northern Midwest, Canada, and Scandinavia began reporting alarming concentrations of mercury in freshwater fish. …[T]he skies already hold so much mercury that even if industrial emissions of the metal ended tomorrow, significant fallout of the pollutant might persist for decades…”
“Measurable levels of cancer-causing pesticides have been found in the drinking water of 347 towns and cities. Creation and use of toxic chemicals continues at a rate far faster than our capacity to learn how safe extended exposures to these substances are. …The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was mandated to test existing pesticides — just one class of chemicals — for health risks by 1972, but the job still isn’t completed today, and regulators are falling further behind.”
“The new residents [on grounds of former U.S. Clark Air Base, in the Philippines] dug wells, planted crops … unaware that the ground water they drank and bathed in, the soil their rice and sweet potatoes grew in, and the creeks and ponds they fished in were contaminated by toxic substances dumped during a half century of U.S. tenure. Within a few years, health workers began tracking a rise in spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and birth defects; kidney, skin, and nervous disorders; cancers, and other conditions… Today, the Pentagon acknowledges pollution major overseas bases, but insists that the United States isn’t obligated to clean them up.”
(On the bright side: “Air-pollution emissions have dropped 7.8% since 2000 [what pollutants are measured, and where, is unstated]… Critics say the drop in water-quality complaints reflects laggard enforcement…”)
Anyone who wanted to search the media could go on and on citing things of this sort. And if what I’ve seen is any indication, he would find vastly more on the negative than on the positive side.
Perhaps the biggest pollution problem of all is global warming, which scientists now agree is due at least in part to human production of “greenhouse gasses,” carbon dioxide in particular. It’s not just a matter of temperatures rising a few degrees; the consequences of global warming are extremely serious. They include the spread of disease, extreme weather conditions such as storms, tornados, and floods, possible extinction of arctic species such as the polar bear, disruption of the way of life of arctic residents, rising sea levels that will flood parts of the world, and drought. “More of the Earth is turning to dust[.] ‘It’s a creeping catastrophe’, says a U.N. spokesman. Desertification’s pace has doubled since the 1970s…” However, global warming is only one of the causes of desertification.
Your colleague’s proposed “general pattern” doesn’t work here, because you can’t just turn something like global warming around when enough people become concerned about it. No matter what measures are taken now, we will still be stuck with the consequences of global warming for (at least!) a matter of centuries. In fact, some scientists fear that human modification of the atmosphere may soon “throw a switch” that will trigger a dramatic, disastrous, and irreversible change in the Earth’s climate.
Since it is in the system’s own interest to keep pollution and global warming under control, it is conceivable that solutions may be found that will prevent these problems from becoming utterly disastrous. But what will be the cost to human beings. In particular, what will be the cost to human freedom and dignity, which so often get in the way of the system’s technical solutions?