Is It Even Possible to Be Green in Modern Techno-Industrial Society?
o the alienation and division of labor led to a moral anaesthesia in the youthful industrial revolution. That anaesthesia has grown, with the best modern commentary coming from Jacqus Ellul and his critique of "technique,” through which unbridled efficiency comes to rule all business operations and eventually social relations as well. The same dynamic which made pacifism difficult for Birmingham Friends holds true for the modern dilemma, likely our final one, of climate disruption, caused by unleashing stored carbon through the increasingly efficient modes of production of the industrial revolution, which was already firmly established by Samuel Galton’s time. We no longer have control of the process, and though we can influence the rate of carbon release to some degree, the thoroughgoing imbeddedness of human lives in the “infernal” - see William Blake, my favorite Christian prophet next to Jesus – techno-industrial machine has probably doomed the effort. At this point, the atmosphere and oceans already hold too much carbon, and we need to create vast new carbon sinks. Unfortunately, this requires a scale that only an industrial state can manage, with Faustian efficiency.
Case in point. I have a friend who turned in his driver’s license several years back. He lived in an owner-built yurt, grew a large garden, kept chickens and ducks, hunted and fished. As his daughter grew older, he watched as his wife chauffeured that daughter to all her pre-teen activities, feeling a heavy burden of guilt towards his family. He was a passionate ecologist, but this just wasn’t fair. So he got his driver’s license back, and drawn by the energy of commerce and the power of mechanical engagement, bought a big new truck (the first new vehicle of his life) and acquired a business, which he and his wife have grown (an ecological one, fixing motherboards for commercial dryers), doubling its workforce. They now travel around the world, and their business is booming. I recently asked him if he still had a garden, and he answered that he didn’t have time. Same for the poultry. He does still hunt deer, which he can watch in the broad expanse behind the cabin he bought and remodeled. He does not use the high-tech gadgets that many local hunters have adopted.
My point is that, whereas my friend previously tried to live as simple and self-sufficient life as possible, he now has a busy, complex life, with a huge balance sheet of eco-sins and eco-virtues. Nothing is simple for him or his family anymore. I’ve known others who have tried to live simpler lives, subsisting in teepees, putting up food. But in every case, life’s necessities have led them into something more comfortable and economically sustainable. When we moved back to the NC mountains at the millennium, we managed with one car. I organized carpools, and more often borrowed friends’ cars (the chief person, who had the most cars in the family fleet, called me on this inconsistency after several months). We recently acquired a second Prius, so that, with Geeta commuting for work 8 days a month, I wouldn’t need to drive the farm truck (acquired from the friend who surrendered his license; we live a in a small world out here) to Asheville to visit family and go to choral rehearsals on at least a weekly basis. That makes three vehicles. Funny, but when I asked the motherboard man several years ago if he would join me in creating a local transportation network for us rural mountain folk, he scoffed, saying that Asheville (48 miles distant) was not “local.”
The big push among enviros is to create a 100% renewable energy system. Among progressive architects, it’s to create zero-emissions buildings. Green farmers aim for even more, which is to grow carbon-negative crops, with the most exciting possibilities coming from agro-forestry. Just recently, the Asheville City Council joined many larger cities in voting to make city buildings and functions 100% renewable by 2030. Trouble is, the city controls but a tiny fraction of Asheville real estate. And there’s no farmland in WNC available for young folks who want to change modes of production.
But “renewables” are yet another industrial mode, with gains in efficiency of producing energy, still bearing industrial-level costs. The rare earth metals required in wind turbines and solar panels come almost exclusively from China, where activities associated with their mining and transport have devastated entire traditional farming communities and endangered their water supply. All of the plans that will save us from burning all the stored carbon and methane in the earth’s crust are simply redirections of the Elephant which is our techno-industrial say of life. To be embraced, they must be as unnoticeable and painless as possible. The not-so-hidden premise of all these proposals is to preserve the system. Preserving the Earth, and her “ecosystem services” without which global capitalism could not exist, remains mostly at a cognitive level. If we felt this in our entrails, then we would join Ned Ludd and his crowd and throw off our industrial, statist chains.
Carbon costs are not simply convertible to dollars through a tax, no matter how carefully structured (a fair tax would cost many times what is being proposed, with a racheting up that would never be achieved before Doomsday, at even the most rapid rates of proposed increase). Our economic activity should be measured in carbon dioxide expenditures, the dollars be damned! But this kind of thinking is limited to a few rogue economists, anarchists, and idealists, who have not made much headway during the Climate Emergency.
I recently read a review of William Vollman’s Carbon Ideologies, an extensive report published in two volumes as fiction, since his publishers lacked the courage to publish the facts. Among his chillingly telling points was to point out how catastrophic it will be for India to raise its standard of living even to the level of Namibia; they are dead set on becoming like us as quickly as possible, and making progress. Why shouldn’t the poor want to live with the comforts of the rich? This is the human dilemma.
In the fall of 2000 I attended a life-altering training with Joanna Macy in leading despair and empowerment groups. Her husband Fran made periodic reports to us on the news of the world, as it affected climate disruption. One morning, he announced that China had just been voted into the WTO. A poet in the group immediately burst into tears – an example of the kind of moral imagination we lack so badly. Her reaction was one of the most memorable moments of a powerful fortnight. The world has doubled its carbon emissions since that date, largely due to China’s unprecedented rate of industrial development.
In such a world, we need a total restructuring of the economic-political model. Thomas Berry said in his final book that we needed a “Re-invention of the human, at the species level.” Think tanks and fringe socialist are not going to do that. Nor are California crystal-worshippers. Social evolution is moving rapidly towards the complete embrace of technique, in Ellul’s sense. The evolution of consciousness operates at the personal level, not the group. Biological evolution takes a long time, but given the immense power evolution on this planet has shown, with niches rapidly expanding after each large extinction event, I place hope in Nietzsche’s insight that we are a bridge species, that must ubergehen - “go over,” “go beyond,” transcend itself, through traveling the immensely thin archipelago to a future conscious species, an Overman characterized by emotional intelligence and moral imagination, not just overdeveloped frontal lobes hard-wired to a reptilian brain-stem.
Make love, not war, said the bonobo to the chimp.
Recorded on a remote camera, a troupe of baboons once spontaneously sat down by a deep pool in the midst of the forest, staying for half an hour, even their young mostly stilled. Just as suddenly as they had halted, they got up and went about their foraging business. A simple life framed in silence, a possibility for highly evolved primates with a mystical bent embraced – but never fully realized – by the Society of Friends.