The Luddite Tradition in America (and elsewhere)

or

The Critique of the Technological Paradigm

Luddites

The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labor-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage laborers.

The movement was named after Ned Ludd, a youth who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779.

An agricultural variant of Luddism, centering on the breaking of threshing machines, occurred during the widespread Swing Riots of 1830 in southern and eastern England.

The Luddite movement emerged during the harsh economic climate of the Napoleonic Wars, which saw a rise in difficult working conditions in the new textile factories. The movement began in Nottingham in March of 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England over the following two years. Handloom weavers burned mills and pieces of factory machinery.

The British Army clashed with the Luddites on several occasions. At one time, more British soldiers were fighting the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon.

The British government sought to suppress the Luddite movement with a mass show trial in January of 1813. Many of those charged had no connection to the movement, and the trials were intended to deter Luddite activities by meting out harsh consequences, including execution.

Parliament subsequently made “machine breaking” (i.e. industrial sabotage) a capital crime with the Frame Breaking Act and the Malicious Damage Act.

The term “Luddite” is now used to describe those opposed to, or slow to adopt or incorporate, industrialization, automation, computerization or other new technologies – similar to “technophobic”.

According to a manifesto drawn up by the Second Luddite Congress of April 1996 in Barnesville, Ohio, Neo-Luddism is “a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age”. Neo-Luddites are characterized by the practice of destroying or abandoning the use of technological equipment as well as advocating simple living. Neo-Luddism is based on the understanding that technology has a negative impact on individuals, communities and the environment, and that new technologies inevitably have unknown impacts. The modern Neo-Luddite movement has connections with the anti-globalization movement, anarcho-primitivism, radical environmentalism and Deep Ecology.

A major critic of technology was German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In The Question Concerning Technology (1953), Heidegger posited that the modern technological “mode of Being” was one which viewed the natural world, plants, animals, and even human beings as a “standing-reserve” – resources to be exploited as means to an end. In this sense, technology is not just the collection of tools, but a way of Being in the world and of understanding the world which is instrumental and grotesque. According to Heidegger, this way of Being defines our modern way of living in the West. For Heidegger, this technological process ends up reducing beings to not-beings, which Heidegger calls ‘the abandonment of Being’ and involves the loss of any sense of awe and wonder, as well as an indifference to that loss.

One of the first major contemporary anti-technological thinkers was French philosopher Jacques Ellul. In his The Technological Society (1964), Ellul argued that the rationality of technology enforces logical and mechanical organization which “eliminates or subordinates the natural world”. Ellul defined “technique” as the entire totality of organizational methods and technology with a goal toward maximum rational efficiency. According to Ellul, technique has an impetus which tends to drown out human concerns: “The only thing that matters technically is yield, production. This is the law of technique; this yield can only be obtained by the total mobilization of human beings, body and soul, and this implies the exploitation of all human psychic forces.”

Another critic of political and technological expansion was Lewis Mumford, who wrote The Myth of the Machine (1967/1970). The views of Ellul influenced the ideas of the infamous American Neo-Luddite Ted Kaczynski. The opening of Kaczynski’s manifesto reads: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” While his methods for promulgating the message were disreputable, his manifesto remains one of the seminal critiques of western civilization.

Bibliography

Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (1918)

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)

Paul Goodman, Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life (1947), Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society (1960)

Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations (1957)

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (1959)

Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964)

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (1964)

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934), The Myth of the Machine (1967)

Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967)

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (1973)

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971), Tools for Conviviality (1973), Medical Nemesis (1975)

Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977)

Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society (1979)

Edward René David Goldsmith, The Great U-Turn: De-industrialising Society (1988), The Way: An Ecological World View (1992), A Blueprint for Survival (1972)

Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988)

Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations (1991).

Neil Postman, Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992)

Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (1995)

Ted Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future (1995)

Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (2006), Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (2011)

Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (2004), What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order (2008)

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010)

Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (2010)

Michael & Joyce Huesemann, Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us Or the Environment (2011)

Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) was a German historian and philosopher whose interests also included mathematics, science, and art. He is best known for his book The Decline of the West, published in 1918 and 1922, where he proposed a new theory, according to which the lifespan of civilizations is limited and ultimately they decay.

Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894 – 1963) was an English humanist, pacifist, satirist and writer best known for his novels including Brave New World and a wide-ranging output of essays. Huxley spent the later part of his life in the United States, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death. He was latterly interested in spiritual subjects such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism. He is also well known for advocating and taking psychedelics. By the end of his life Huxley was widely recognized to be one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of his time.

Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895 – January 26, 1990) was an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and influential literary critic. Particularly noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a broad career as a writer. Mumford believed that what defined humanity, what set human beings apart from other animals, was not primarily our use of tools (technology) but our use of language (symbols). In The Myth of the Machine Vol II: The Pentagon of Power (1970), Mumford criticizes the modern trend of technology, which emphasizes constant, unrestricted expansion, production, and replacement. He contends that these goals work against technical perfection, durability, social efficiency, and overall human satisfaction. Mumford describes an organic model of technology, or biotechnics, as a contrast to megatechnics. Organic systems direct themselves to “qualitative richness, amplitude, spaciousness, and freedom from quantitative pressures and crowding. Self-regulation, self-correction, and self-propulsion are as much an integral property of organisms as nutrition, reproduction, growth, and repair.” Biotechnics models life in seeking balance, wholeness, and completeness. A key idea, introduced in Technics and Civilization (1934) was that technology was twofold: Polytechnic, which enlists many different modes of technology, providing a complex framework to solve human problems; and Monotechnic, which is technology only for its own sake, which oppresses humanity as it moves along its own trajectory. Mumford also refers to large hierarchical organizations as megamachines – a machine using humans as its components.

Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) was a German Jewish philosopher, sociologist and political theorist, associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. Active in the United States after 1934, his intellectual concerns were the dehumanizing effects of capitalism and modern technology. Celebrated as the “Father of the New Left,” his best known works are Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964). His Marxist scholarship inspired many radical intellectuals and political activists in the 1960s and ’70s, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Eric Arthur Blair (1903 – 1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist and journalist. His work is marked by keen intelligence and wit, a profound awareness of social injustice, an intense opposition to totalitarianism, a passion for clarity in language and a belief in democratic socialism. Considered perhaps the 20th century’s best chronicler of English culture, he is best known for the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and the allegorical novella Animal Farm (1945), which together have sold more copies than any two books by any other 20th-century author. The London Times ranked him second on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.

Arthur Koestler (1905 – 1983) was a Hungarian-British author and journalist. In 1940 he published his novel Darkness at Noon, an anti-totalitarian work, which gained him international fame. Over the next 43 years from his residence in Great Britain, Koestler espoused many political causes and wrote novels, memoirs, biographies, and numerous essays. In 1968, he was awarded the prestigious Sonning Prize “for outstanding contribution to European culture” and, in 1972, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Leopold Kohr (1909 – 1994) was an economist, jurist and political scientist known both for his opposition to the “cult of bigness” in social organization and as one of those who inspired the small is beautiful movement. For almost twenty years he was Professor of Economics and Public Administration at the University of Puerto Rico. He described himself as a “philosophical anarchist.” His most influential work was The Breakdown of Nations.

[…] there seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if we consider that bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Whenever something is wrong, something is too big. […] And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations, have been welded into overconcentrated social units.

Paul Goodman (1911 – 1972) was a novelist, playwright, poet and psychotherapist, although now best known as a social critic, anarchist philosopher, and public intellectual. The author of dozens of books including Growing Up Absurd and The Community of Scholars, Goodman was an activist on the pacifist Left in the 1960s and a frequently cited inspiration to the student movement of that decade. A lay therapist for a number of years, he was a co-founder of Gestalt Therapy in the 1940s and ’50s.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar, professor of English literature, literary critic, rhetorician, and communication theorist. McLuhan’s work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory, as well as having practical applications in the advertising and television industries. McLuhan is known for coining the expressions “the medium is the message” and “the global village” and predicted the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented.

“The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind .” (Marshall McLuhan 1962)

McLuhan coined and certainly popularized the usage of the term “surfing” to refer to rapid, irregular and multidirectional movement through a heterogeneous body of documents or knowledge.

In the early 1960s, McLuhan wrote that the visual, individualistic print culture would soon be brought to an end by what he called “electronic interdependence”: when electronic media replace visual culture with aural/oral culture. In this new age, humankind will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a “tribal base.” McLuhan’s coinage for this new social organization is the “global village”.

“There can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies”. – The Gutenberg Galaxy

“Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside.” – The Gutenberg Galaxy

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man is a 1962 book by Marshall McLuhan, in which he analyzes the effects of mass media, especially the printing press, on European culture and human consciousness. It popularized the term global village,[1] which refers to the idea that mass communication allows a village-like mindset to apply to the entire world; and Gutenberg Galaxy,[2] which we may regard today to refer to the accumulated body of recorded works of human art and knowledge

Ernst Friedrich “Fritz” Schumacher (1911 – 1977) was an internationally influential economic thinker, statistician and economist in Britain. His ideas became popularized in much of the English-speaking world during the 1970s. He is best known for his critique of Western economies and his proposals for human-scale, decentralized and appropriate technologies. According to The Times Literary Supplement, his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered is among the 100 most influential books published since World War II.  In 1977 he published A Guide for the Perplexed as a critique of materialist scientism and as an exploration of the nature and organization of knowledge.

Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) was a French philosopher, law professor, sociologist, lay theologian, and Christian anarchist. He wrote several books about the technological society and the interaction between Christianity and politics. A philosopher who approached technology from a dialectical viewpoint, Ellul, professor at the University of Bordeaux, authored 58 books and more than a thousand articles over his lifetime, the dominant theme of which has been the threat to human freedom and Christian faith created by modern technology. His constant concern has been the emergence of a technological tyranny over humanity.

Edward René David Goldsmith (1928 – 2009), widely known as Teddy Goldsmith, was an Anglo-French environmentalist, writer and philosopher, and the founding editor and publisher of The Ecologist. Known for his outspoken views opposing industrial society and economic development, he expressed a strong sympathy for the ways and values of traditional peoples. He co-authored the influential Blueprint for Survival with Robert Prescott-Allen, becoming a founding member of the political party “People” (later renamed the Green Party). A deep ecologist and systems theorist, Goldsmith was an early proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, having previously developed a similar cybernetic concept of a self-regulating biosphere.

Ivan Illich (1926 – 2002) was an Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and “maverick social critic” of the institutions of contemporary western culture and their effects on the provenance and practice of education, medicine, work, energy use, transportation, and economic development. The book that brought Ivan Illich to public attention was Deschooling Society (1971), a critical discourse on education as practiced in “modern” economies. Illich posited self-directed education, supported by intentional social relations, in fluid informal arrangements. Tools for Conviviality (1973) generalized the themes that he had previously applied to the field of education: the institutionalization of specialized knowledge, the dominant role of technocratic elites in industrial society, and the need to develop new instruments for the reconquest of practical knowledge by the average citizen. He wrote that “[e]lite professional groups . . . have come to exert a ‘radical monopoly’ on such basic human activities as health, agriculture, home-building, and learning, leading to a ‘war on subsistence’ that robs peasant societies of their vital skills and know-how. The result of much economic development is very often not human flourishing but ‘modernized poverty,’ dependency, and an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts.” Illich proposed that we should “invert the present deep structure of tools” in order to “give people tools that guarantee their right to work with independent efficiency.” The book’s vision of tools that would be developed and maintained by a community of users had a significant influence on the first developers of the personal computer. In his Medical Nemesis (1975), Illich argued that the medicalization in recent decades of so many of life’s vicissitudes – birth and death, for example – frequently caused more harm than good and rendered many people in effect lifelong patients. He introduced to a wider public the notion of iatrogenic disease  which had been scientifically established a century earlier by British nurse Florence Nightingale (1820–1910).

Edward René David Goldsmith (1928 – 2009), widely known as Teddy Goldsmith, was an Anglo-French environmentalist, writer and philosopher, and the founding editor and publisher of The Ecologist. Known for his outspoken views opposing industrial society and economic development, he expressed a strong sympathy for the ways and values of traditional peoples. He co-authored the influential Blueprint for Survival with Robert Prescott-Allen, becoming a founding member of the political party “People” (later renamed the Green Party). A deep ecologist and systems theorist, Goldsmith was an early proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, having previously developed a similar cybernetic concept of a self-regulating biosphere.

Theodore Roszak (1933 – 2011) was professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay. He is best known for his 1969 text, The Making of a Counter Culture. Other books include The Cult of Information (1986), The Voice of the Earth (1992), Ecopsychology: Healing the Mind, Restoring the Earth (1995), The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science (1999), and Longevity Revolution: As Boomers Become Elders (2001).

Neil Postman (1931 – 2003) was an American author, media theorist and cultural critic, who is best known for his 1985 book about television, Amusing Ourselves to Death. For more than forty years, he was associated with New York University. Postman was a humanist, who believed that “new technology can never substitute for human values”. In his 1992 book Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Postman defines “Technopoly” as a society which believes “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment … and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”  He argues that the United States is the only country to have developed into a technopoly, and claims that the U.S has been inundated with technophiles who do not see the downside of technology. However, according to Postman, it is impossible for a technological innovation to have only a one-sided effect. With the ever-increasing amount of information available Postman argues that: “Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems.” In a 1996 interview, Postman re-emphasized his solution for technopoly, which was to give students an education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, so they may become adults who “use technology rather than being used by it”.

Wendell Berry (born 1934) is an American man of letters, academic, cultural and economic critic, and farmer. He is a prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and essays. He is also an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal, and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. On February 10, 1968 Berry delivered “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam” during the Kentucky Conference on the War and the Draft at the University of Kentucky in Lexington:

“We seek to preserve peace by fighting a war, or to advance freedom by subsidizing dictatorships, or to ‘win the hearts and minds of the people’ by poisoning their crops and burning their villages and confining them in concentration camps; we seek to uphold the ‘truth’ of our cause with lies, or to answer conscientious dissent with threats and slurs and intimidations. . . . I have come to the realization that I can no longer imagine a war that I would believe to be either useful or necessary. I would be against any war.”

According to him, the good life includes sustainable agriculture, appropriate technologies, healthy rural communities, connection to place, the pleasures of good food, husbandry, good work, local economics, the miracle of life, fidelity, frugality, reverence, and the interconnectedness of life. The threats Berry finds to this good simple life include: industrial farming and the industrialization of life, ignorance, hubris, greed, violence against others and against the natural world, the eroding topsoil in the United States, global economics, and environmental destruction. He has published 14 works of fiction, 15 uncollected stories, 29 works of non-fiction, and 26 collections of poetry.

Jerold Irwin “Jerry” Mander (born 1936) is an American activist and author, best known for his 1977 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Mander earned a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, then an M.S. in International Economics from Columbia University’s Business School. After receiving his M.S., Mander worked in advertising for 15 years. In 1971 he founded the first non-profit advertising agency in the United States, Public Interest Communications. Mander was the executive director of the International Forum on Globalization, which he founded in 1994, until 2009 and continues to serve on its staff as a Distinguished Fellow. He is also the program director for Megatechnology and Globalization at the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

In 2007 Jerry Mander appeared in the full-length documentary film, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire.

Kirkpatrick Sale (born 1937) is an independent scholar and author who has written prolifically about political decentralism, environmentalism, and technology. He graduated from Cornell University, majoring in history, in 1958. Sale worked initially in journalism for the leftist journal New Leader, a magazine founded in 1924 in part by socialists Norman Thomas and Eugene Debs, and the New York Times Magazine, before becoming a freelance journalist. His second book, SDS, was about the radical 1960s group Students for a Democratic Society, of which he was a founder. In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.

Theodore John “Ted” Kaczynski (born 1942), also known as the “Unabomber”, is an American mathematician, social critic, anarchist, and Neo-Luddite. Kaczynski was accepted into Harvard University at the age of 16, where he earned an undergraduate degree, and later earned a PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan. He became an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley at age 25, but resigned two years later. In 1971, he moved to a remote cabin without electricity or running water, in Lincoln, Montana, where he lived as a recluse while learning survival skills in an attempt to become self-sufficient. He decided to start a bombing campaign after watching the wilderness around his home being destroyed by development, according to Kaczynski. From 1978 to 1995, Kaczynski sent 16 bombs to targets including universities and airlines, killing three people and injuring 23. Kaczynski sent a letter to The New York Times on April 24, 1995 and promised “to desist from terrorism” if the Times or the Washington Post published his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future (also called the “Unabomber Manifesto”), in which he argued that his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom necessitated by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization. He is incarcerated at ADX Florence on a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

Morris Berman (born 1944) is an American historian of culture and science and is a social critic. He earned his BA in mathematics at Cornell University in 1966 and his Ph.D. in the history of science at The Johns Hopkins University in 1972. He is an academic humanist cultural critic who specializes in Western cultural and intellectual history. His books include Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (2011), Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (2006), The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000), Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West (1989), and The Reenchantment of the World (1981). Berman has been on the faculty of a number of universities in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and emigrated from the US to Mexico in 2006, where he was a visiting professor at the Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico City from 2008 to 2009 and where he continues to live.

Ronald Wright (born 1948) is a Canadian author with a background in archaeology, history, linguistics, anthropology and comparative culture, whose nonfiction includes A Short History of Progress, which looks at the modern human predicament in light of the 10,000-year experiment with civilization. In it he concludes that human civilization, to survive, would need to become environmentally sustainable, with specific reference to global warming and climate change. His latest work What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order continues the thread begun in A Short History of Progress by examining what Wright calls “the Columbian Age” and consequently the nature and historical origins of modern American imperium.

In his book A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright coins the term “progress trap”, which is a short-term social or technological improvement that turns out in the longer term to be a backward step. By the time this is realized – if it ever is – it is too late to change course. Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight. “This new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.”

Joseph Tainter (born 1949) is an American anthropologist and historian. With a PhD in Anthropology from Northwestern University, he holds a professorship in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. His previous positions include Project Leader of Cultural Heritage Research, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico.

Tainter is arguably best-known for the book, The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), in which he examines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations and of the Western Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics and complexity theory. Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions, and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their “energy subsidies” reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. He recognizes collapse when a society rapidly sheds a significant portion of its complexity.

Spencer Wells (born 1969) is a geneticist and anthropologist, an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, and Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor at Cornell University. He earned a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University in 1994, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University (1994-1998), and a research fellow at Oxford University (1999-2000). He leads the Genographic Project of the National Geographic Society and IBM that aims to map historical human migration patterns by collecting and analyzing DNA samples. In his book The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (2002), he explains how genetic data has been used to trace human migrations over the past 50,000 years, when modern humans first migrated outside of Africa. By analyzing DNA from people in all regions of the world, Wells has concluded that all humans alive today are descended from a single man who lived in Africa around 60,000 – 90,000 years ago, a man also known as Y-chromosomal Adam.

His book Pandora’s Seed takes us back to a seminal event roughly ten thousand years ago, when our species made a radical shift in its way of life, becoming farmers rather than hunter-gatherers, and setting in motion a momentous chain of events that could not have been foreseen at the time. Although this decision to control our own food supply is what propelled us into the modern world, Wells demonstrates – using the latest genetic and anthropological data – that growing grain crops ultimately made humans more sedentary and unhealthy and made the planet more crowded. The expanding population and the need to apportion limited resources such as water created hierarchies and inequalities. The desire to control – and no longer cooperate with – nature altered the concept of religion, making deities fewer and more influential, foreshadowing today’s fanaticisms. The proximity of humans and animals bred diseases that metastasized over time. Freedom of movement and choice were replaced by a pressure to work that is the forebear of the anxiety and depression millions feel today.

As Wells demonstrates, analysis of the skeletal remains of people living before and after the transition to agriculture during the Paleolithic demonstrate an all-around collapse in quality of life when farming was adopted.

Hunter-gatherers living during the Paleolithic period, between 30,000 and 9,000 BCE, were on average taller – and thus, by implication, healthier – than any people since, including people living in late twentieth-century America. Their median life span was higher than at any period for the next six thousand years, and their health, as estimated by measuring the pelvic inlet depth of their skeletons, appears to have been better, again, than at any period since – including the present day.

Why, Wells asks, would any community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The answer seems to be: not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had spelled the end of their hunting and gathering lifestyle by getting too good at it. They had killed off most of their prey and expanded their numbers beyond the point at which they could all survive. They had fallen into Ronald Wright’s “progress trap”.

Paul Kingsnorth (born 1972) is an English writer and environmental activist. He studied modern history at Oxford University (1991-1994), and was a co-founder of the Free West Papua Campaign for the secession of the provinces of Papua and West Papua from Indonesia, where Kingsnorth was made an honorary member of the Lani tribe in 2001. He worked on the comment desk of the Independent, before leaving to join the environmental campaign group EarthAction, and as a publications editor for Greenpeace. Between 1999 and 2001 he was deputy editor of The Ecologist, the world’s longest-running environmental magazine. He was named one of Britain’s ‘top ten troublemakers’ by the New Statesman magazine in 2001. In 2009, Kingsnorth co-founded the Dark Mountain Project with writer and social activist Dougald Hine. Believing that “civilization as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world”, the Dark Mountain Project aims to bring together writers, artists and others to “conjure into being new ways of seeing and writing about the world”.

Michael Huesemann, PhD, is a research scientist with a special interest in sustainability and critical science. He has specialized in environmental biotechnology for more than 25 years.

Joyce Huesemann, PhD, is an activist and academic who has taught at several universities and participates in environmental, wildlife protection and companion-animal organizations.

Their book, Techno-Fix questions a primary paradigm of our age: that advanced technology will extricate us from an ever increasing load of social, environmental, and economic ills. Techno-Fix shows why negative unintended consequences of science and technology are inherently unavoidable and unpredictable, why counter-technologies, techno-fixes, and efficiency improvements do not offer lasting solutions, and why modern technology, in the presence of continued economic growth, does not promote sustainability but instead hastens collapse.

The authors explore the reasons for the uncritical acceptance of new technologies; show that technological optimism is based on ignorance and that increasing consumerism and materialism, which have been facilitated by science and technology, have failed to increase happiness. The common belief that technological change is inevitable is questioned, the myth of the value-neutrality of technology is exposed and the ethics of the technological imperative: “what can be done should be done” is challenged. Techno-Fix asserts that science and technology, as currently practiced, cannot solve the many serious problems we face and that a paradigm shift is needed to reorient science and technology in a more socially responsible and environmentally sustainable direction.

Value-Free or Neutral Tool Fallacy

Bushmaster M4-A2

Bushmaster M4-A2

Most inventors like to believe that their creations are “just tools”. But the myth of neutral, or “value-free”, technology has been thoroughly debunked by the likes of Herbert Marcuse (One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 1964), Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society, 1964), Lewis Mumford (Technics and Civilization, 1934, The Myth of the Machine 1967), Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, 1967), Jerry Mander (In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, 1991), Neil Postman (Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, 1992), Kirkpatrick Sale (Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age, 1995).

by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced with attribution for non-commercial purposes

 

See also:

Health Impacts of a Grain-Based Agriculture

A New Green History of the World

Death by Medicine

 

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