Un-Freezing Environmentalism with Technology

(The Allenby Column by Brad Allenby) - Different areas of the world have developed different relationships to technology as well as environmentalism. In order for environmentalists to succeed in crossing the gap from West to East, Brad Allenby writes, they must embrace technology as they ask the world to embrace the environment.

Even the most superficial study of economic history reveals that, despite vigorous internal dialogs, every culture displays its own unique attitude towards technology. Since its founding, for example, the United States has generally regarded new technologies favorably (those who doubt it should reread their Emerson or Whitman).

European elites have tended to be more skeptical and even dismissive (perhaps a result of their manorial heritage), an attitude expressed today in formulations such as the Precautionary Principle. East Asia presents a more complex picture. Western cultural and economic ascendancy probably owes a significant debt to the tendency of traditional Chinese and Japanese feudal elites to choose social stability over new technology (the Chinese famously burning their fleet, the greatest in the world, in 1433, and Japan rejecting gunpowder because of its disruptive effect on the power of warrior elites).

But across Asia, from Bangalore to Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, to Tokyo, Seoul and Taiwan, technology is now rapidly being embraced, to the point where any technology (or environmental) policy that fails to consider East Asian capabilities and attitudes is obsolete.

Among the important determinants of cultural openness to technological evolution are whether technological activities (or, earlier, craft and artisan work) are disfavored as lower class, and whether a culture is willing to accept the constant challenge to existing institutions and power structures that technological evolution inevitably generates. Behind these factors lie equally fundamental and increasingly difficult challenges of control and complexity.

The most critical technology systems today – nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, applied cognitive science, robotics – create, and exist in, systems that are beyond centralized control, especially as they are globalized competencies. Elites and fundamentalists of various stripes may seek to regulate or even reject technology systems completely, but they will fail, especially where such technologies feed into enhanced economic, security, or cultural power.

Thus, Europe can demand that genetically modified agricultural organisms be banned – and they will be, in Europe. Elsewhere, the technology is widely adopted. The Bush Administration can strangle federal support of stem cell research – only to have such research flow to other nations, such as Singapore, or even to progressive states, such as California.

Why does this matter to environmentalists? Simply because the space within which technology and associated global systems are evolving is large and complex, but environmentalists work only in a limited, and perhaps increasingly irrelevant, part of it. Reflecting its roots and an Edenic, occasionally utopian, teleology, environmentalism as a discourse generally embraces a European skepticism of technological change and desire for stability. Utopias, as teleological endpoints, are static; the world, as complex adaptive system, never is.

Moreover, this privileging of the present necessarily defends current power structures and ideologies, which tend to be Western at this point in world history: seeking to ensure economic and social stability by stifling the uncomfortable challenges of technological change is necessarily if unintentionally reactionary. While it has been a strength of environmentalism that it is a generally Western cultural phenomenon – every major environmental organization is either European or North American in origin – this is now a growing weakness given Asia’s ascendancy as an economic, technological, and cultural force.

It is not that environmentalists should simply give up their current worldviews and ideologies, and try to become avid fans of technology. That will never happen; moreover, it would simply replace one limited worldview with another. Rather, it is that environmentalism as a whole and in spite of itself must be extended across the complex and conflicted cultural and intellectual landscape of the anthropogenic earth, a far more challenging and difficult space than heretofore that discourse has contemplated.

In particular, an environmental discourse which does not grow to include Asia – and Africa, and Latin America – as increasingly important, unique, independent and non-Western voices, and as equals, is anachronistic and, perhaps, grows morally questionable. Equally, a new environmentalism that reflects the grounding of the existing environmental discourse but rejects its pessimism, fear of change, and dislike of technology, must be developed – not because the current discourse is wrong, but because it is radically incomplete.

Western utopianism and romantic counterculturalism may be appealing, but especially with the Eastward shift of economic and technological prowess, such attitudes flirt with obsolescence; indeed, irrelevance. As the Jefferson Airplane duly observed in “Crown of Creation,” there is always an associated cost: “Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for/ In the only way it’s granted/ In a place among the fossils of our time.”

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