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Reconciling Humans, Nature and Technology
J. Hughes   Apr 15, 2003   Betterhumans  

Ecological destruction is bad because it hurts human interests and preferences. Solving the problem will take both more science and more democracy.

In the bathroom today I glanced at the back of the Earth Day issue of one of my kids’ magazines. “If humans suddenly vanished from Earth, life on the planet would go on. But life on Earth would end without the…”

That’s true as a statement of fact, but for “deep ecologists” and the people influenced by them, it implies a moral idea: That Earth’s ecosystem has intrinsic value independent of humanity, and that the ecosystem is possibly more important than humanity.

In the 1980s I was tempted by this “deep ecological” idea of nature’s intrinsic value. As with a lot of progressive Buddhists, I was drawn to a kind of pagan-Buddhist syncretism that saw ecological activism as a natural expression of Oneness. I was also excited by the emergence of the Green parties.

The German Greens shocked the political landscape by entering the Bundestag in 1984. They proclaimed themselves to have a new radical vision that would leapfrog over the limitations of social democracy, and knit together the rainbow of progressive social movements that had joined the post-Marxist labor movement. So, as a left-wing Buddhist, I was naturally attracted to this deep ecological vision of an organic politics that defended the Earth.

As with all charismatic movements, the Greens, in Germany and worldwide, almost immediately splintered into two broad factions. These were the “fundamentalists,” who were generally deep ecologists and anti-electoral, and the “realists,” who were generally more social democratic and advocated coalitions with social democratic parties.

Deep ecological philosophers and organizations such as Earth First! began to argue openly that the human population would have to drop to a fraction of its current numbers in order to reclaim the appropriate balance with a reclaimed and restored wilderness. Meanwhile the realist mainstream environmental movements and left-wing and electoral Greens were trying to find a way to reconcile full employment and economic health with the ecosystem under the rubric of “sustainable development.” By the late 1980s it was clear that the deep ecologists could be profoundly misanthropic, and red-Greens and social democrats had begun to fight back against their influence.

Around 1989 I founded the international zine Eco-Socialist Review to engage this debate, to encourage a dialogue between social justice activists and environmental activists, and to build a left-green politics. ESR was pretty successful so far as partisan zines go, and during its seven-year run I became very aware of some unhappy facts about the state of progressive politics.

Intelligence makes nature valuable

One realization was that the ecological, feminist and deconstructionist attacks on the arrogance and imperialism of Western, enlightenment thought had worked all too well. Progressives and liberals had generally surrendered the idea that reason, science and technological power were necessary parts of human self-emancipation. Progressives had retreated from being champions of technological progress, to being merely its consistent critics. Why speak for even a left vision of progress when the enemy—corporate and military interests—used their enormous resources to trumpet the virtues of science and denigrate all caution. Beleaguered progressives were increasingly reduced to bleating a romantic and futile “No!” to the juggernaut of industrial capitalism.

Another realization was that the deep ecological view was profoundly un-Buddhist. In 1993, Buddhist philosopher John McClellan wrote “Nondual Ecology,” which argued that a truly Buddhist outlook doesn’t partition the world into natural (ecosystems) and unnatural (technology), but embraces human culture and technology as a vital expression of the evolutionary process. For McClellan, the co-evolving technobiotic world, the MetaMan, should be as embraced and celebrated as trees and animals.

In fact, approaching ecology from a Buddhist or nontheistic humanist point of view, only intelligent life gives meaning and value to nature. If all humans disappeared from the planet the ecosystem would continue, but the world would be largely meaningless, at least until dolphins and apes evolved more abstract thought.

If the ecosystem is only valuable because humans value it, and human civilization is a part of the ecosystem, then the point is not to get humans out of nature, but to take responsibility for managing our coevolving techno-biosphere. One of the philosophical forebears of this nondual ecological viewpoint was Walter Truett Anderson, who in 1988 wrote To Govern Evolution.

“Today the driving force in evolution is human intelligence. Species survive or perish because of what people do to them and to their environments. The land and air and water system are massively altered by humankind which has become, as one scientist put it, ‘a new geological force,’” he wrote.

“Even our own genetic future is in our hands, guided not by Darwinian abstractions but by science and medical technology and public policy,” he continued. “This is the project of the coming era: to create a social and political order—a global one—commensurate to human power in nature. The project requires a shift from evolutionary meddling to evolutionary governance.”

Global democratization is a green project

After putting the EcoSocialist Review to bed in 1995, I turned to this new passion: Encouraging dialogue between the largely libertarian techno-humanists and the advocates of democracy, helping to rebuild the forgotten techno-optimist, utopian, humanist wing of democratic radicalism.

So what is the humanistic techno-democratic spin on ecological dilemmas? That ecological destruction is a problem because it hurts human interests and preferences, and that our ecological problems require both more science and more democracy. Techno-democracy is distinct from both deep ecology, which suggests that human preferences are precisely the problem, to be addressed by self-negation, and the libertarians, who think that all human preferences can and should be fulfilled by the market.

Techno-democrats argue instead that science gives us the ability to understand the consequences of our growing technological powers, while democracy makes it possible for us to use those powers to achieve the widest possible set of human interests, including human health and ecological protection.

The techno-democratic viewpoint is critical of the domination of Western democracies by corporate concerns, but appreciates that liberal democracies are far more sensitive to ecological sanity than authoritarianism.

After the collapse of the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, country after country discovered widespread ecological disasters bred by unaccountable governments pursuing industrialization unchecked by informed citizen movements. After the privatization of their economies, and their reformation into liberal democracies, the former apparatchiks all became good capitalists, and were often still in control of the state. But now, as in the West, Eastern European citizens at least have the opportunity to investigate the dumping of toxins in their lakes, or their exposure to toxins in the workplace, and organize to stop these threats.

Also, just as in the West, when Eastern Europeans eventually get their ecological concerns onto the public agenda they have the opportunity to decide tradeoffs between economic growth and jobs, on the one hand, and ecological destruction and pollution on the other. They can elect Greens and Social Democrats to their parliaments to fight for public policy solutions that protect the interests of workers in jobs, consumers in cheap products and citizens in health and eco-stability. To balance the agit-prop science paid for by the corporations, democratic states can build environmental protection agencies and subsidize independent ecological researchers.

From a techno-democratic perspective, population control is not an end in itself. Nonetheless, both science and democratization are essential for population control. Science and technology make possible contraception and the industrial civilization that encourages smaller families. Liberal democracies provide women with education, employment opportunities and publicly financed family planning, contraception and abortion, giving them the means and incentives to control their fertility. Affluent liberal democracies also require children to be educated instead of worked in farms and factories. They invest in public health to reduce the childhood mortality rate. They ensure the well-being of the elderly through old age pensions. All are measures that reduce parents’ incentives to have children as investments in their future.

And the lamb shall lie down with the lion

The ecophilosophy emerging as the natural complement to technodemocracy is “reconciliation ecology” or “ecosystem management.” Reconciliationists argue that instead of trying to rope off and protect nature preserves from human encroachment we need to focus on making human-occupied areas places where diverse ecosystems can thrive. Instead of trying to get humans out of “interference” in the ecosystem, we need to take responsibility for the global ecosystem and manage it responsibly.

A recent synthesis of the reconciliation ecology view is found in Michael Rosenzweig’s new book Win-Win Ecology. Rosenzweig boils down his approach to the redesign of human habitat for ecosystem compatibility to several simple steps.

“First,” he says, “drink deeply from the natural history of the species you want to help. Study their reproductive cycles, their diets, and their behavior. Abstract the essence of their needs from what you observe. Then apply it without worrying whether your redesign of the human landscape will resemble a wilderness. It won’t, so feel free to be outrageously creative.”

The goal of outrageous creativity in the service of reconciling technology and ecology also inspires the related micromovement led by Bruce Sterling, the Viridians. Sterling’s Viridian manifesto of January 3, 2000 argued for saving the planet from ecological destruction by making green technologies sexy. Toward that end, the Viridians have sponsored various design contests and promoted eco-high-tech ideas. As do the reconciliationists, the Viridians believe that the dour, pastoral romanticism of the anti-industrial greens has discouraged people from embracing sustainability; if the choice is only between civilization and the ecosystem, most people will choose civilization. But we can have both.

All watched over by machines of loving grace

In 1967, Richard Brautigan wrote the poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” which begins:

I like to think (and the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think of Brautigan’s vision as a prediction of what a pervasively monitored and managed global ecosystem will be like. Already scientists are telemetrically monitoring wild herds—from deer, wolves, bears and elephants to dolphins and crocodiles. As computers shrink, nanotechnology permits nonobtrusive tagging of virtually everything, and the world becomes densely crisscrossed by electronic communications, we could indeed live in a techno-ecosystem all watched over by machines of loving grace.

Nanotechnology actually may oblige us to set up global eco-monitoring as a precaution against “gray goo,” as Robert Freitas proposes in “Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators.”

Freitas suggests the need for global technological regulations to self-limit the possibility of wild nanoreplication, and the creation of a global satellite monitoring system to detect the heat signatures and other traces of outbreaks of nanoreplication in the wild. Now Freitas and the Foresight Institute have been joined by the Council for Responsible Nanotechnology to push this precautionary techno-democratic agenda.

With the US Congress now debating the threat of gray goo and superintelligence scenarios as a part of hearings on nanotechnology funding, and the deep ecologists mobilizing to insist that all nanotechnology and genetic engineering be banned, we need to also consider that nanotechnology and genetic engineering may be our only hope for ecological preservation and restoration.

In Our Molecular Future, Doug Mulhall proposes nanoecology, for example, which is the use of nanotechnology to prevent ecological destruction by using cleaner and less resource intensive technology, making humanity immune from ecological disasters and remediating ecological damage. (See the ecology chapter of Eric Drexler and Chris Peterson’s Unbounding the Future for a vision of all the possibilities enabled by nanotechnology.) Similarly, genetic engineering makes possible crops that require less agricultural land, pesticides and fertilizer.

In the coming decades we may find the health of humanity, other species, and the ecosystem itself threatened both by the simple-minded technophobia of the deep ecologists—and the constituencies that have lazily adopted their pre-modern views—and the corporate elites who would sacrifice everything in the service of profit. Hopefully we will find the creativity, science and democratic resources to chart a sustainable course.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)

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