Technology (and the eco-crisis)

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

Hadot (2008: 101 – 106) offers a detailed history of the development of ‘mechanics’, the predecessor of what would contemporaneously be called ‘technology’, from antiquity to the Modern period; he concludes the section (2008: 106) on this history by stating the following: “The Renaissance and Modern times, taking up [the] atomistic hypothesis…, were to place it in the service of the other tradition, that of the mechanical techniques of the engineers of antiquity”. For now, suffice it to say that the ‘atomistic hypothesis’ (which is a topic under more thorough scrutiny in the following section on science) was not scientifically reductionist in the context of Democritus and Epicurus; as Hadot says of the Epicurean context, the ‘atomistic hypothesis’ was “intended above all not to explain the world but to appease souls”. This is not the reductionist flavour of Modern science, nor does it thematically concur with the atomistic hypothesis of Modern science; instead, ‘atomism’ in the ‘mechanical’ sense of Modern science can be understood as the persistent compartmentalisation and categorisation of ‘objects’ into smaller and smaller parts, increasingly detached from a synergistic totality, as suggested by Vetlesen (2012: 26): “At ever-increasing pace, we have confined what used to be nature into small parcels”. Indeed, this is discursive reductionism. Vetlesen points out an important consequence to such a process: “Instead of fearing being overtaken by nature, technology in our era has enabled us to seize control over nature to an extent unimaginable to our forefathers. Hence Yupik Eskimos (and other indigenous people) with incredulity and apprehension refer to us Westerners as ‘the people who change nature’. Here, technology is explicitly linked with a process wherein nature is ‘reduced’, in the reductionist sense, in such a way as to fragment it and dissect it into smaller parts; these parts, detached from the whole, become ‘resources’, and in accessing them, the totality, ‘nature’, is changed. Heidegger (1977: 14-17), in his analysis of technology, says that nature is thus reduced to a ‘standing-reserve’ of resources. More will be said about Heidegger’s analysis of technology later on in this section1, but suffice it to quote Olivier (2005) for now, who after a brief outline of Heidegger’s analsysis of technology comments that “nature has become no more than a resource for human consumption, leading to its inevitable degradation”.

It is clear that Hadot (2008: 102-103) agrees with the above analysis of Western technology as reductionist and inherently exploitative of nature when he offers some very specific information about the ideological potential of ‘mechanical’ techniques arising in the third or second century BCE out of the atomistic hypothesis. He comments on an extract of a text called Problemata mechanica, which is taken to be representative of the then emerging ‘mechanical’ views:

First, mechanics is situated within the perspective of a struggle between man and nature. … Technology allows us to regain the upper hand over nature. Next, the goal of mechanics is to serve mankind’s practical interests, and therefore to relieve human suffering, but also, it must be admitted, to satisfy the passions, particularly those of kings and the wealthy: hatred, pride, and the taste for pleasure and luxury. Moreover, mechanics is a technique that consists of tricking nature, by means of instruments fashioned by human beings: machines of all kinds that enable the production of effects apparently contrary to nature. … Finally, mechanics is closely linked to mathematics, which allows one to determine how to produce a given effect.

It follows that mechanics and technology paved the way for modern, anthropocentric views, because what is described as emerging in the third or second century is very familiar as a general standard of Westerners’ use of mechanics and technology (which is not to say that it is exclusively the way mechanisation and technology are used). The industries discussed in Chapter 2, which perpetuate the ecological problems focused on in Chapter 1, “serve mankind’s practical interests” (Ibid), via Western technological procedures. To illustrate: topsoil, water and biodiversity (examples of ‘nature’) are affected heavily by the technological ‘feats’ of fossil-fuel industry that literally power industrial ‘civilisation’. Natural climate cycles are destabilised by the megalithic amounts of greenhouse gases emitted by the technologies of the fossil-fuel industry and the petro-chemical industries for the sake of human commerce, transport, entertainment, etc. The GMO industry prescribes that agricultural technological practices involve the spraying of petrochemical pesticides and herbicides to eliminate lifeforms that have not been genetically modified to resist the pesticides and herbicides for the sake of human food production. All of these practices weaken biodiversity, the key for all life. Hadot speaks of “tricking nature” (Ibid); genetically modifying organisms is surely a step beyond tricking nature into the territory of ‘changing nature’. These and other ecological issues outlined in Chapter 1, and the systemic industrial practices described in Chapter 2 that perpetuate the crisis, are well-contextualised when considering the anthropocentric foundation upon which ‘mechanics’ was born, and which in turn would reinforce the reductionist, anthropocentric foundation upon which technology has expanded.

Having just referred to genetically modified organisms and thereby invoking agriculture, it is fitting to incorporate another important historical event that grew out of the ‘mechanical’ views emerging between three hundred BCE and six hundred CE: an agricultural revolution, namely the change to the mouldboard plough. White (1971: 11) identifies this change as significant in early agricultural technology, and in a sense it marks the beginning of an approach to agriculture that has continued until contemporary times. According to White, the plough changed from a ‘scratch-plough’ to ‘mouldboard’ plough in the sixth century CE. The former agricultural tool facilitated subsistence farming; the latter, as Whites remarks, “attacked”2 the fields. The plough not only slices into the earth as a scratch plough does, but runs a horizontal share under the sod to sever a thick layer of it, which is then turned over by the mouldboard. White notes that this change in agricultural technology appears concurrently with representations in calendars of the seventh century CE where men are depicted for the first time “coercing the world around them” (White 1971: 11). This approach to agriculture is violently anthropocentric; it serves the purposes of advancing humankind with disregard for the ecological consequences of actions, hence White’s distinction between what was initially subsistence farming (scratch-plough) and later ‘aggressive’ agriculture (mouldboard-plough). White (1971: 11) makes an important observation in the following rhetorical question with regard to this technological event: “Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of Northern Europe?”. This hostile agricultural/technological approach must also be understood as coterminous with Christian discourse as explored in the above section to this chapter. In that section it has been shown that Christianity has historical roots where human beings are given divine mandate to practise dominion over the natural world. The agricultural approach also begins to occur a few centuries after Constantine’s initiation of the gruesome prosecution of all manners of lifestyles that were not endorsed by the Catholic church. Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth Century CE, starting an empire-long persecution of non-Christians. This of course means eliminating diversity of lifestyle and ‘universalising’ Christian views and practices – the offer of ‘accept Christianity or die a miserable death’ clearly helped to achieve this effect. It should be remembered that, to speak generally, the explicit reign of the church dominated discursively until well after the Reformation; a ‘decentralisation’ of sorts occurred with the onset of the Renaissance, but the Christian imperative to dominate nature had become widely entrenched in various discourses and, as it will be seen below, continued to be fed in the programme of science (to comment briefly here: science was to be characterised by nascent reductionism, largely associated with quantitative science born from the cradle of antiquity’s ‘mechanics’, ideologically overlapping with the dominion-imperative of Christianity).

The mouldboard plough is an example of technology developing according to the concepts of ‘subjective reason’ and ‘instrumental reason’, a central topic of Horkheimer’s text, The Eclipse of Reason (1947). He says that subjective reason

is essentially concerned with means and ends, with the adequacy of procedures for purposes more or less taken for granted and supposedly self-explanatory. It attaches little importance to the question whether the purposes as such are reasonable. If it concerns itself at all with ends, it takes for granted that they too are reasonable in the subjective sense, i.e. that they serve the subject’s interest in relation to self-preservation. … The idea that the aim can be reasonable for its own sake – on the basis of virtues that insight reveals it to have in itself – without reference to some kind of subjective gain or advantage, is utterly alien to subjective reason.

So in the example of the mouldboard plough, the purpose of increased agricultural output (a.k.a. more food, convenient for self-preservation) is taken as a self-evidently worthwhile outcome despite the plough ripping the land to shreds and thereby condemning it to perpetual farming (industrial GM agriculture adds to this condemnation perpetual applications of chemicals and poisons); that the land prior to human demand on it could be inherently valuable is not discursively incorporated. Horkheimer (1947: 21) later uses the term ‘instrumental reason’ to denote a way of viewing the world that is on par with subjective reason:

Having given up autonomy, reason has become an instrument. In the formalistic aspect of subjective reason, stressed by positivism, its unrelatedness to objective content is emphasised; in its instrumental aspect, stressed by pragmatism, its surrender to heteronomous contents is emphasised. Reason has become completely harnessed to the social process. Its operational value, its role in the domination of men and nature, has been made the sole criterion.

Horkheimer (1947: 4) distinguishes between this kind of reason and objective reason, the latter holding that the “degree of reasonableness of a man’s life could be determined according to its harmony with [its] totality. Its objective structure, and not just man and his purposes, was to be the measuring rod for individual thoughts and actions”. Clearly, the mouldboard plough, with its ‘violent’ agricultural interaction, is welcomed in the subjective schemata of ‘reason’ because it is all to do with “man and his purposes”, which in the context of this plough is clearly focused on dominion and not ‘harmony with the totality’ of things. Indeed, this distinction can be seen as summative of Horkheimer’s project in the Eclipse of Reason: as the title suggests, reason in its ‘objective’ sense, i.e. ‘a focus on methods and their relation to totalities’, gets eclipsed historically by reason in its ‘subjectivist’ and ‘instrumental’ sense, the latter of which is further explained by Horkheimer (1947: 6) in the following: “In the subjectivist view, when ‘reason’ is used to connote a thing or an idea rather than an act, it refers exclusively to the relation of such an object or concept to a purpose, not to the object or concept itself. It means that the thing or the idea is good for something else”. The mouldboard plough is clearly an instrument, ‘good for something else’. Much later in the text, Horkheimer (1944: 101) makes a crucial point that is most relevant to this discursive analysis of technology – “On the one hand, nature has been stripped of all intrinsic value or meaning. On the other, man has been stripped of all aims except self-preservation. He tries to transform everything within reach into a means to that end”. Vetlesen (2012: 32) uses the term ‘deictic’ synonymously with Horkheimer’s ‘objective reason’ and singles out technology as instrumental in the loss of focus on ‘matters of ultimate concern’:

…technology’s enormous potential for offering us relief (disburdening) from the care of things is commonly seen as liberation from toil. That this much-celebrated progress is bought at a heavy price is what deictic discourse in the sense intended is meant to help us recognise. Deictic discourse allows us to be guided by focal things, matters of ultimate concern that are other and greater than ourselves. Such a discourse cannot, and does not aspire to control its subject matter.

Based on the above exposé of the ‘development’ of technology, already, it is clear that it ‘aspires to control its subject matter’ and it follows therefore that it has lost sight of ‘matters of ultimate concern’, an example of which is preventing ecocide.

Fast forwarding now away from the sixth and seventh centuries: through the Middle Ages, past the Renaissance, and into the Modern period. All that has been said about the mouldboard plough is applicable to what happens in this period as far as technology is concerned; science develops along mechanistic lines3, which will be discussed in the next section in this chapter, but suffice it for now to point out that the “pragmatic attitude” (Horkheimer 1944: 104) of subjective/instrumental reason sparks new technological inventions with the help of mechanistic science, inventions that reinforce such rationality discursively. Examples of such technological feats are offered by Hadot: navigational technology and printing (2010: 123), and the telescope and the microscope (2010: 129); the first two examples extend the developmental speed and reach of the kind of perceptual frameworks under the spotlight here, while the second two home in on the ‘laws’ that are so important in the perceptual framework, laws that become utilised to extend the expanding speed and reach of the perceptual frameworks. As Horkheimer (1947: 104) says of such pragmatism, “Modern insensitivity to nature is indeed only a variation of the pragmatic attitude that is typical of Western civilization as a whole”. But there is a clear historical moment when technology, now associated with ‘subjective reasoning’, is given the chance to be unleashed into the world; Hadot (2008: 137) makes this clear: “It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century, from the time when production began to be industrialised and the flourishing of technology became universal, that man’s relation to nature was gradually modified in depth”. It is well known that around this timre steam technology was employed initially in the project of industrial production – and this is a telling example of how Horkheimer’s distinction between means and ends works: the means of industrial technology justifies the end, i.e. a fully technologized world, without a view of the ‘totality’ (nature included, and exploited labourers, etc.). Heidegger (1977: 4; 19-20) expresses this process in terms of what he calls Enframing: “Enframing means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve. Enframing means that way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological”. Olivier (2008), in his essay ‘The humanities, technology, and universities’, offers a useful description of how the technological Enframing works:

[T]echnology, or rather, its ‘essence’ as ‘Enframing’, is a pervasive, inescapable ontological ‘framework’ which operates tacitly and implicitly as unquestioned assumption whenever questions are asked, or problems approached, concerning politics, society, economics, nature, and just about anything which could possibly be a topic of conversation. No institution escapes being positioned in this framework of organisation and evaluation underpinning humanity’s current manner of experiencing the real[.]

Olivier continues:

What does Heidegger mean by saying the essence of of technology is ‘Enframing’? For him, this manifests itself as a mode of being or ‘openess’ where everything is seen as being fit to be ‘ordered’ or ‘set upon’, or as something that presents itself as a ‘standing reserve’, according to which things and energy, including human beings, can be used or ‘stored’ as ‘resources’ for use[.]

It was in 1859 that this approach of subjective reasoning, as well as the intricate process of technological Enframing, were to be provided with a fuel source (literally) that could accelerate the global spread of technology: the discovery of oil. Hartmann (1999: 16), in his text, The last hours of ancient sunlight, details the history of the discovery and use of oil. He says that it was already widely in use around 1850 in Romania, but that the “real boom” began in 1859 “when oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in the United States”. It is telling, and based on the above analysis, unsurprising, that the outcomes of the purposes served by oil technology were immediately exclusively anthropocentric: as explained by Hartmann, by “using this ancient sunlight locked up with carbon as a heating source and energy source, and by using it to replace farm animals with tractors, our ancestors increased dramatically their ability to produce food”. Hartmann also makes the crucial link between the use of oil and the massive expansion of the human population: just before the widespread use of oil, the human population numbered around 1 billion people; just over a century later, in 1960, the number was 3 billion (1999: 17) – this three-fold expansion of the human race makes sense not because oil was discovered, but rather because it was discovered in a context discursively conditioned by what Horkheimer referred to as subjective/instrumental reason, and where the process of what Heidegger calls The (technological) Enframing was well under way. And as Hartmann says, “we didn’t stop there”, which is something of an understatement considering the 2014 human population of over 7 billion people. Clearly, what happened with the mouldboard plough is different to what happened with the discovery and use of oil only in scale: the anthropocentric ‘rationality’ that facilitated their discovery are the same; the anthropocentric ‘means’ are the same; as are the anthropocentric ‘ends’; oil-technology simply unleashes such subjectivist-dominant anthropocentrism at exponentially increased rates. Furthermore, oil quickly became entrenched as the fuel source that powers the development and spread of technology; in a sense, global technology is ‘oil-technology’ thanks to globalisation, as implied in the gradual spread of oil and its uses since its discovery via Modern imperial endeavours. Considering the global ubiquity of such oil-technology, Hadot’s following sentiments (2008: 151) need no explanation, especially in the light of what was explored in Chapters 1 and 2 about the ecological crisis and their industrial causes, and in light of the discursive ‘dominion over nature’ so far associated with Christianity and technology:

[W]e must admit that mankind, far from having mastered [‘his’] situation, finds himself, on the contrary, faced with still more serious dangers. Technology is engendering a way of life and ways of thinking that have as their consequence the ever-increasing mechanisation of human beings themselves. It is impossible, however, to stop the implacable progress of this kind of civilization. In the process, mankind risks losing its soul as well as its body.

Hadot’s sentiments remind one, indirectly, that ‘progress’ has roughly been equated with technological development – Hoyer, K.G., and Naess, P. (2012: 213), in an essay called From ecophilosophy to degrowth, with reference to the work of von Wright, refer to “…myths of progress based on technological development and bureaucratic-paternalistic kinds of social engineering.” Furthermore, Vetlesen (2012:41) alludes to the “belief shared by the political and economic elite that technology is what will save us”, presumably from the eco-disasters created by humankind under guidance of the ‘political and economic elite’. But as Vetlesen points out, such a belief – that technology will save us –

appears shockingly naïve. Technology is as much and as deeply part of our current problems as part of their solution. Advances in technology, Jared Diamond reminds us, ‘just increase our ability to do things, which may be either for the better or for the worse. All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology.’ To speak of ‘all’ in this way may be putting it too strongly; it risks simplifying the causes of our predicament, and it seemingly subscribes to technological determinism. Diamond’s main point, however, is well taken: there is no reason to think that, at a certain point in our development (say, right now), new technology will cease to cause new (unintended, unforeseeable) problems, that its only impact on problems will consist in making them disappear.

It is necessary to finish this sub-section with a brief side-note, a caveat similar to the one found in the sub-section on Christianity: there is no claim here that the discourse under scrutiny – technology this time – is one that must necessarily advocate the kinds of ecologically insensitive ideological themes that came to the forefront above. This is acknowledged by a Norwegian eco-philosopher named Vetlesen who, in an essay called Technology, nature and ethics (2012), refers to an observation of Borgmann’s and thereby justifies a ‘generalised’ approach: “As Borgmann succinctly observes, a case-by-case appraisal of technology is inconclusive at best and grossly misleading at worst. There will always be cases where a new device or method is unobjectionable and truly helpful to address genuine human needs; …It is when we attempt to take the measure of technological life in its normal totality that we are distressed by its shallowness, not to mention frightened by its powers of destruction”. This ‘normal totality’ was the focus of this sub-section.

1 See Olivier’s essays: ‘Nature, capitalism, and the future of humankind’ (2005) and ‘The humanities, technology, and universities’ (2008).

2 Heidegger also uses such language to describe technology’s application to nature. It is, however, unclear whether White read Heidegger.

3 Whereas the invention of the mouldboard plough occurred in what was still a largely theocentric, teleologically oriented period; see Heidegger: ‘The Age of the Worldview’, in The Question concerning Technology and Other Essays.