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Transhumanism and Degrowth - a false opposition?
Marc Roux   Jun 17, 2015   Transhumanistes.com  

Is it possible to imagine a transhumanist evolution in the context of Degrowth

A false opposition

When reading the publications of the “growth objectors”[1], one could think that this movement has nothing to exchange with Transhumanism. Their criticism is radical and even hostile, which evokes organizations like the French association Pièce et Main d’Oeuvre.

(Pièces et Main d’Oeuvre is a French organization openly neo-Luddite. They originally appeared in reaction to the creation of a nanotechnology cluster in the city of Grenoble but multiplied their actions since 2000. They even prevent many debates taking place by violently manifesting their opposition, on the grounds that “debate is to accept.” Wikipédia in French only)

The Degrowth writers do not hesitate to call themselves “neo-Luddites”[2], that is to say, those that are ready to destroy machines, the tools of technology. However, reading the requirements of Degrowth[3] with a good knowledge of transhumanist perspectives allows us to realize that this is a false opposition. Indeed, this opposition only consists of fears that the opponents of Transhumanism are projecting on it, without studying all the details. In fundamental principles Degrowth and Transhumanism - especially technoprogressivism - are not in conflict, and could even be necessary to each other!

This essay has been translated from the original version in French

by Alexandre Maurer.

A number of radical techno-progressivists (not all) easily agree with the criticisms of “degrowthists” on the productivist and consumerist society: the belief in an infinite growth in a finite world is absurd and dangerous. The same is true of the obsession with speed and instantaneousness. On a collective perspective, the necessity to rush toward human enhancement is questionable (and questioned by transhumanists): precipitation often leads to the precipice!

Considering the radicalism of transhumanist modifications, we should claim a “right to slowness”. Doing nothing can also be dangerous, but when faced with innovation, it is necessary to take time to check all the benefits and the risks. The same is true for criticisms presenting the productivist and consumerist use of technology as a source of alienation: progress in technology and consumption is not necessarily human progress.

This approach is consistent with many propositions of growth objectors; for instance when they say:

“Degrowth implies a sobriety in consumption, and thus, an end to the obsession of technological “innovation”: products must not be “new” but simple, durable, recyclable, produced in necessary and sufficient quantities, distributed in a limited area (to reduce the cost of transportation). Above all, they must fill vital and not superfluous needs.”[4]

A techno-progressivist could fully agree with that, except for the following points. First, stopping the obsession for technological progress does not mean stopping technological progress. Criticizing the “will to power” is not a renunciation of expanding our capabilities. In the long run, Transhumanism is likely to become a vital need and we should start thinking about it as soon as possible.  In the short run, some proposals of Transhumanism provide solutions to the aforementioned problems, starting with the radical extension of life in good health! Also, notice that techno-progressivists are in favor of a Universal Basic Income.

Finally, an interesting anecdote is that some members of the French Transhumanist Association (Technoprog) support anti-advertising movements, and some of them even make donations for this cause![5]

A Transhumanism serving Degrowth!

The objectives of Degrowth are not necessarily opposed to those of techno-progressivist Transhumanism, but this does not stop here. Some transhumanist ideas can also be excellent solutions to serve the objectives of Degrowth.

On resource consumption, the legitimate criticism of “degrowthists” is aimed at the excess in consumption of natural resources, and highlights the inevitable shortage of these resource. To attain a true balance between consumption and regeneration/recycling, we must develop techniques to enhance mankind without worsening the ecological footprint. In fact, we can even reduce it.

For instance, 3D printing is a developing technology that interests transhumanist technophiles. One of the major arguments put forward by proponents of 3D printing is that this technology can allow a total relocation of production, with each consumer becoming the producer of products required for personal consumption. Even better, the principle of many 3D printers is based on recycled materials (plastics, food waste…) [6].

Additinally, the main argument Transhumanism can offer Degrowth is the radical extension of life in good health. This increase is related to fertility decrease, and ultimately to population decrease. This is a fundamental type of Degrowth, as it results in many new forms of economics: demographic degrowth.

Over centuries, all observations show that in almost all human societies, families have less children when adults can project themselves into a longer life. Today, the “demographic transition” has begun in all countries of the world without exception, and the decrease of fertility has begun everywhere except in certain “underdeveloped countries” (according to the words of the UN) of Sub-Saharan Africa. The world population keeps increasing (and even faster than what was expected in the past), but it is the natural effect of the early “demographic transition” (drop in mortality, yet same birth rate). Ultimately, in the current dominant model, it would simply be logical that the phenomenon continues and generalizes (this is already the case in Bangladesh, for example).

After the demographic transition, the situation can be similar to what we observe in Germany or Japan. The transhumanist perspective of even more radical life extension could logically lead to even lower birth rates, which would not result in overpopulation (as feared by the press) but, on the contrary, in a progressive depopulation of the Earth. Incidentally, there are many risks that we should anticipate right now, such as the potential lack of dynamism of a society with few children and a slow renewal of generations.[7]

A society with increased healthy life expectancy would have a much lower level of consumption. Indeed, with aging, people are less easily tempted by consumption. After a certain age, most people have performed the major expenses of a lifetime (access to property, children, etc). For the majority, the following is only about maintaining a certain level of consumption. From a strictly economic point of view, the length of the period of “activity” and “social usefulness” is proportional to the length of healthy life.

As long as the aging process is not well controlled, the last years of life are the most costly to society in terms of healthcare and consumption of expensive technologies. In anticipation of a long healthy life, life is more likely to end via a brutal and instantaneous decrease of the level of consumption (accident or assisted suicide). Note that French techno-progressivists do not promote cryonics, which results in post-mortem consumption and trapped capital.[8]

Finally, if developing and commercializing molecules can be very expensive, the industrial production of such molecules can be very economical in terms of raw materials, once the process is in place. But the economic cost could also be established by a system other than the “free market”... [9]

Apart from these examples whose realization is already in progress, we could anticipate the effect of more speculative transhumanist projects.

For instance, what would be the economic effects of “moral enhancement”? One hope is that our knowledge and our increasing capacity of intervention on the brain could one day allow us to self-regulate our levels of moral sensitivity (while respecting the moral freedom of each individual). For instance, we could increase our empathy and decrease our need of material security, that triggers our reflexes of consumption and accumulation. Indeed, it may be desirable to achieve the goal of frugality highlighted by growth objectors, but the deep mechanisms of human psychology could make this objective difficult to reach.

It is obvious that “moral enhancement” aims for psychological effects first. Many transhumanists [10] suggest that most of humanity’s problem will not be resolved as long as humans are determined by neuronal patterns which are the result of Darwinian selection from the Paleolithic era. Our emotions (fear, anger…) are designed to allow us to survive against the saber-toothed tiger. From this comes the “will to power” or “dominance” [11], the main cause of our aggressive behaviors.

A more speculative idea is that the progressive modification of human biology could lead to more energy-efficient bodies, consuming less water and calories, etc. Today, the genetic improvement of the energy efficiency of individuals in still a science-fiction idea, but on principle, this may not be forever impossible. Besides, the convergence of technologies has shown us many times that what seemed impossible some decades ago is now part of our daily life.

Finally, in the very long run, no matter which model we adopt (growth, equilibrium, degrowth), astronomy teaches us that we will eventually have to move to other places than Earth, if we do not want to face annihilation. However, according to our current knowledge, it is not possible with our current body configuration.

Thus, we can see that the positions and criticisms of growth objectors are not always in conflict with the goals of Transhumanism, especially techno-progressive Transhumanism. On the one hand, Degrowth does not put forward an immutable conception of the human body. On the other hand, the apparent contradiction on the use of rare materials by emerging technologies related to Transhumanism only makes sense in the case of excessive consumption. In other words, in the context of sustainable consumption (moderation or frugality, recycling, etc.), I wonder which arguments the growth objectors could have against the principles of Transhumanism, if they only speak in the name of Degrowth?

Notes:

[1]: See for instance La Décroissance, n°115, December 2014.
[2]: Luddism is the movement that, in the 19th century England, was embodied by textile workers strongly opposed to the use of machines that make them unemployed. Neo-luddism is the inheritor of this movement.
[3]: The Wikipedia page, to begin with.
[4]: Same thing.
[5]: The french journal La Décroissance (“The Degrowth”) is edited by the association “Casseurs de Pub” (“Advertising Killers”). Thus, neo-Luddites are sometimes funded by Transhumanists!)
[6]: www.lesoir.be, Laetitia Theunis, “bientôt des aliments imprimés en 3 dimensions” (“3D-printed food is coming”), December 11, 2014.
[7]: A philosopher like Christian Godin was even able to see an “existential risk” for humanity: an excessive population decrease leads to a population under the numerical level of viability. Christian Godin, La fin de l’Humanité (“The End of Humanity”), 2003.
[8]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryonics. See also the position of the french Transhumanist association Technoprog on cryonics (2013).
[9]: For many of those hypotheses, see Didier Coeurnelle, Et si on arrêtait de vieillir ! (“What if we stopped aging?”), FYP, 2012.
[10]: Julian Savulescu, Unfit for the Future The Need for Moral Enhancement, 2012.
[11]: Henri Laborit, Éloge de la fuite, 1976. A summary of this thesis.

Marc Roux is the chair and co-founder of the French Transhumanist Association Technoprog!



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