Are you Techno or are you Eco?

It’s hard sometimes to argue a case for the existance of environmental problems with a stalwart denier. They will always have the latest sensational report trashing the integrity of the IPCC or some maverick theory of sunspots or earth wobbles to undermine the modelling and observations of a thousand scientists. And, indeed, science itself is not that good at dealing with complexity in reality. Anyway for the vast majority of us a truly informed view is beyond our reach. Sometimes, as old as I am, I realise that the vast majority of what I believe in is learned rather than first hand experience. I have to choose, to a large extent, who I believe.

Clearly there are great intelligences among us who can take on board and grasp vast quantities and complex configurations of information and see it with clarity, but for many we can only listen and hope to learn. Intelligence does not guarantee exclusive access to the truth however and even the most rational of thinkers in the end has to fall back on beliefs.  So I conclude that  in the end, no matter how good the evidence or how well argued the case, what is important and what carries the day is a person’s beliefs.

I also conclude that in this area of environmentalism and correct stewardship there are two fundamental belief systems that are based on a simple but profound polarity. Well it seemed simple,  but now I come to try to explain it it is starting to look complex. I’ll start with labels. My labels are ‘techno’ and ‘Eco’.  Let’s explore what I mean by the question “Are you techno or Eco?’  If you are comfortable with a world composed entirely of artefacts, then you are definitely in the ‘techno’ camp. If you believe that the natural world has value and qualities beyond what mankind can make, then you are in the ‘Eco’ camp. Technos believe that whatever problems loom in our life and experience, history has shown us that there is a man made solution. We are masters of our own destiny and create most of the entities we live with and the environments we live in. Ecos on the other hand see the more than human world as a vast reservoir of experience, creativity and beauty that mere humans would be hard pressed to emulate. Depending on which camp you occupy, many other beliefs and opinions fall into place. Ultimately we could view this as a battle between the city and the wilderness. For most, however, it’s not that extreme.

There was a time when I concluded that technology was a kind of crime against nature. The argument ran thus. The natural world has evolved over millennia through endless adaptations of one entity to another, the competition and/or collaboration of one entity with another (the contribution of collaboration to evolution is unaccountably understated in classic evolutionary theory) as we are persuaded by the theologians of science, without purpose, other than perhaps to be. Technology, on the other hand, the adaptation of its environment by mankind to meet his own ends tends to be one sided and is dictated by purpose. Purpose implies gain, a sort of victory and is a product of the human mind. Here we have the conundrum that, though we are a part of nature and thus might sanction our actions including technology ones part of those actions because of this, because our actions seek advantage over nature and are at a scale much greater than evolutionary adaptation they effectively attack nature and disrupt its otherwise inevitable course.

It took mankind thousands of years to develop a sophisticated blade from simple rock tools but the act of cutting is a symbolic metaphor for the whole of technology that followed. Interesting that the other important prehistoric technology was the kindling of fire.  These were developments that wereinstrumental in the hard wiring of the hunter gatherer brain. The most significant aspect of technology as a system is that it is motivated by the will to overcome aspects of the natural order and bend them to human purpose dictated by the ambitions of the moment. Technos would view this as technology’s supreme value while Ecos would view it as its essential flaw. Of course there is much more to this, but it will have to wait until another day!

2 thoughts on “Are you Techno or are you Eco?

  1. I’m reluctant to comment too much, as you say there will be more. I like the idea that the first ‘Techno’ tool was a knife, that cuts across the grain of nature. I guess I’d like to understand whether you think that as Humans, we can exist entirely at either of these polarised extremes. If the use of tools against nature is, as you say, hard-wired in the hunter-gatherer brain, how do we think otherwise? To what purpose? A truly ‘Eco’ thinker aspires to what? A state of nature? Is that not the idealistic (not to say culturally problematic) realm of Enlightenment philosophers?

    Surely by this logic, all of human endeavour is ‘Techno’ and therefore against nature (which is not untrue), and we cannot undo everything we have done over tens of thousands of years. The world that we see has always borne the evidence of human manipulation, so we do not have a blueprint to which we can return as a natural ideal. Nor would we necessarily want to wholesale.

    Surely the best we can do is modify our behaviour on an ongoing basis, so as to capably maintain a diverse and thriving natural world. Given the huge number of challenges that presents especially in the face of a largely antipathetic population, isn’t dismissing potential solutions solely on the grounds that they are ‘Techno’ a little short sighted?

    Of course, you haven’t dismissed anything yet. I am getting ahead of myself. I await the next instalment…

    1. Thanks for this, Edric. Your observations are pertinent and have made me think harder about the basic proposition.

      Firstly, I’d say that all concepts are not so much pictures of reality as ways of dealing with it. They are indeed devices and maps like the tools and marks of early man (stone technology made both cutters and standing stones i.e. way-finding and centring devices). So the polarisation of Eco and Techno is a means to exploring two opposed life-plan options and world views, rather than an attempt to explain the nature of experience.

      Clearly, as you say, it is unlikely that any human being can be totally Eco, since that would seem to require a regression into an animal state (blurred boundaries here also, since some animals have technologies) and acceptance of discomforts we have long-since left behind. Also it is true that the exploitation of natural ‘resources’ to satisfy human desires and appitites is by no means new. What is new is the breadth and scale of the effects of technology in the Anthropocene era. I believe that you are not expressing doubt about many of these impacts and presumably acknowledge that we have to exercise restraint in some areas in our own self interest. It is here, specifically though, that the Eco/Techno polarity comes into play.

      I’ll try to address some of your points, though there is some very deep stuff here that I’m finding hard to resolve into coherent text. All human endeavour (excepting of course human interpersonal and social intercourse and culture of various kinds) can be defined as technology. My definition of technology is human activity of a purposive kind, as explained. The Techno/Eco polarity is of value in our current circumstance where, because of our numbers, potency and the extreme pressure we put on the earth systems and the biota, we need to make choices about possible futures. As you say, we can’t go back, but we have very substantial control over our future if we are prepared to face up to it. A techno future, from an Eco perspective leads us to ultimate surrogacy as we replace natural systems one by one with artificial ones and move from a diverse world to a homogenous one. The Eco standpoint does not deny technology, but it seeks to tame it.

      I think your penultimate paragraph is rather wise, however. “To modify our behaviour on an ongoing basis, so as to capably maintain a diverse and thriving natural world” is not a bad statement of the Eco standpoint if a bit arrogant. Now think about a similar statement to describe the Techno sensibility! The idea that I am entirely dismissing technology (you have realised of course that I side with the Ecos) is quite wrong. What I am trying to develop is persuasive argument that demonstrates the value of something (I refuse to call it just a resource, because another aspect of the Eco sensibility that we haven’t even touched on here is what some call compassion and others empathy, both for the broader human world (!) and sentient biota. More big questions open up!

      Lets assume that even Technos are not entirely selfcentred and allow that there are community and dynastic goods as well as goods for the individual. Then there are two possibilities: (a) aspire to a world in which earth systems and biota are allowed to flourish diversely and acknowledge that technology must operate within constraints and humanity stays in touch with the natural order and (b) aspire to a world entirely subjected to human will in which technology dominates and ultimately replaces the natural order.

      Gaia, the earth systems and the biota as a whole, is I would guess, pretty resilient. But equally she doesn’t much care about humanity. So whatever way we might package it, it’s not the ‘planet’ we are looking to save, but a sufficiently benign ‘planet’ for us to continue to enjoy and sustain our lives. So firstly, we’re talking about a spectrum of common (natural, used as a term simply for non-manmade) goods and consequently inevitably also about the politics of agreeing what are those goods that we value and who makes the choices about which we want. There’s more of course, including: do we entirely understand the complexities of interaction between technology and nature sufficiently well to make those choices. We’re getting into really deep water here, which is why the Eco/Techno polarisation is so useful.

      We should, however, look at the two poles from the point of view of three equally valid and complementary value systems: aesthetic, ethical and utilitarian. The Eco perspective does not deny technology, but it does require that it is directed by the exercise of all three value systems. Thus, in an ethical sense it aspires to a human enterprise that has the least possible negative impact on the non-manmade realm, thus preserving natural goods, avoiding actions that would deny others the right to enjoy nature in all its diversity. And then, how all of this can be sold to a humanity that encompasses saints and sinners and seems innately violent, has to be a question for another day!

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