By George Kimbrell, International Center for Technology Assessment, and the Center for Food Safety

A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series

Andrew asked us to write about “how technological innovation should contribute to life in the 21st century.”  Technological innovation is often blindly referred to as “progress.”  The question is — progress towards what?

We live in the age of technology.  In past generations, most people spent the majority of their time in nature, and then in later years more often in social settings.  In the modern world, most of us spend an ever-increasing amount of time in an interconnected web of machines.  I’d like to say I’m writing this on a riverside, but unfortunately I’m not – I’m in my office typing on my laptop, with my email open on a different web browser.

What currently drives this technological innovation, this technological bubble that defines our age?  In modern society, self-interest, greater productivity, greater consumption, the laws of supply and demand and the commoditization of the world are all drivers.  This economic system, which has now succeeded in global hegemony, dictates all our social interactions. Far from being a natural state of being, it is of course only as old as the United States (Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776) and not based on any natural law. In early societies, the market system was never the method by which basic societal problems were addressed; rather the marketplace was delegated only a limited role by our ancestors compared to their cultural and religious beliefs and social patterns.  Nature (not to mention labor), although treated as such, is not a commodity. Nature does not respond to supply and demand. The old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest will not speed up their growth rate to address increased demand.  More fundamentally, the natural world has intrinsic, incalculable value above and far beyond “market values”.  Even the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) recognizes this truth, in that it prohibits the extermination of species no matter how lucrative the activity  that is causing the killing.

Not only are the current dominant economic systems and their intertwined technological systems at odds with the ecological cycles of the natural world, but they are also actively and quickly eviscerating the planet.  We are exponentially reducing the earth’s capacities in every natural realm: land, air, water, and everything in between, through ozone depletion, acid rain, species extinction, deforestation, and desertification.  By commodifying nature to match our own systems we are threatening the planets’ survival and our own.  Global warming illustrates this conclusion best: Our industrial technologies have created the first global environmental crisis in human history.

We now face what is known as the technological dilemma—the “developed” portion of the world’s population has become dependent on the technological environment. Yet the same technologies that support life for the richest part of human population are threatening the very viability of life on Earth.  Even former President George W. Bush said we are “addicted to oil.”  And this addiction to these unhealthy systems of production is destroying our world.  To paraphrase and apply the wisdom of Rowlf the Dog from the Muppets to market-based mass consumerism: we can’t live with our technologies, and we can’t imagine living without them.

These are not new revelations.  And there are really only two options.  Forty years ago, writers and leaders began urging that we institute “appropriate technologies” in sync with the cycles of nature, rather than the mega-global-techno-systems causing planetary and human peril.  Attorneys and policymakers have succeeded in passing and utilizing laws that would limit the impacts of capital and industrial systems, like the ESA.  Scientists began to develop more holistic visions of their vocations.  This approach/option is a step toward addressing economic development within the context of rather than at the expense of our global environment and the society which depends upon it.

But others too have come to the conclusion that our current technology is not compatible with life.  They have foreseen the growing conflict between globalization, mass consumption, and the laws of nature.  However, their solution to the dilemma is very different.  Rather than change our economics and technology to better comport with the needs of living things, corporations and governments began to engineer life itself to better accommodate the market system and the technologies upon which it is predicated.  Ignoring the constraints of the natural world, living systems are to be remade, engineered at the genetic and molecular level to further the necessities of the technological age.

What’s the result of this worldview?  You probably see where this is going.  Genetic engineering, or recombinant DNA technology, is seen as the tool by which we can alter life at the genetic level to better fit industrial production systems and become a technological commodity.  Cloning is seen as the tool by which we can emulate the factory model of identical production for life forms.  Rather than redesigning industrial agriculture to fit the animal’s natural behavior, we are redesigning the animal to fit industrial agriculture.  Because patent control spurred production for products, we must now patent plants, animals, and human genes and cells.  Nanotechnology is a means by which we can control and manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular level to enhance industrial processes.  Lastly, synthetic biology is a means by which we combine several of these tools to create and design entirely new life forms to perform our industrial tasks. Even Dr. Frankenstein was cautious enough to not make his creature a mate; “synthetic biologists,” on the other hand, want their creatures to reproduce before systems are in place to control them.

Got environmental problems? Global warming does not to be addressed by stopping harmful greenhouse gas emissions and putting in place strictures to address systemic problems; instead, we should geo-engineer the planet to ameliorate the problem, or genetically engineer plants to be more drought- tolerant or trees to grow faster.  Chemical pollution causing environmental and health hazards? We do not need to reduce our use of harmful pesticides; instead, we should engineer production plants to be immune to them.  Pigs and chickens not amenable to horrific close-confinement factory farming?  Don’t encourage organic and humane farming and change the systems by making industrial agriculture internalize the true costs of its production; instead,  genetically alter the animals to withstand extreme confinement and diseases that proliferate therein.  Wild salmon runs dying out?  Don’t remove the dams and stop the pollution, farm them and genetically re-engineer them to grow faster in crowded, polluted ponds.

So where does that leave us?  Well, first, we must recognize and address the underlying philosophy and economy that drives and controls technological innovation. An order of magnitude in change is required; we must institute a paradigm-shift to a system of governance and life that is based on coexistence with and benefit to natural systems: An earth-centered system.  As Thomas Berry explains in The Dream of Earth, we must move from the technological age to the ecological age.  We must begin treating ourselves and the natural world as part of an interconnected web; stop thinking in straight lines and start thinking in circles.  “Progress” must include the natural as well as the human world, encouraging mutually enhancing human-earth relationships.  Human technologies should function in an integral relationship with earth technologies, not in a despotic manner.  Nature, over hundreds of millions of years and through an infinite number of experiments, worked out ecosystems that were already flourishing abundantly when we came to exist.  How can technological innovation help us determine how we can best be present in this context?  Modern society must treat life and the natural world as the spiritual force it is.  There must be a mystique of rivers if we are ever going to restore the purity of our rivers.  This is not a new idea, it is actually the oldest.  Is this an idealized vision? Perhaps, but it’s a considerably less naive world vision that that which claims we can sustain our current industrial system.

Can technological innovation help us get there?  If it changes the course current path we’re going down, if it helps stop the bleeding.  If it breaks away from being driven by corporate profits, and instead helps spread knowledge, wisdom, and awareness.  If it helps us flesh out and establish an earth-centered system to replace the current oppressive paradigm.  We must evolve our technological systems so that they are democratic and responsive to us, that we are responsible for them, and so that they comport with nature and with life forms on the earth.  We can dust off the old ways and make them the new again, making them more seductive and more logical than our current destructive ways. Only with these changes will technological innovation properly serve the planet and enhance, as well as extend, a meaningful human experience.

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George A. Kimbrell is a staff attorney for the nonprofit Center for Food Safety (CFS) and its parent organization International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), based in San Francisco, California.  He practices environmental and administrative law with a focus on legal and policy issues related to new and emerging technologies.  For ICTA, he works on matters involving nanotechnology, biotechnology and climate change technologies.  For CFS, he covers genetically engineered food and crops, organic standards, factory farming and aquaculture.

Mr. Kimbrell received his J.D. magna cum laude from Lewis and Clark Law School and has a B.A. from the College of William and Mary.  Prior to joining ICTA and CFS, he completed a clerkship on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

I do not here officially represent my organizations or clients.  The views discussed herein owe much to the ideas and writings of others.  For more detailed discussion of many of these issues, please see, inter alia, Andrew Kimbrell, Salmon Economics (and other lessons), Twenty-Third Annual E.F. Schumacher Lectures, Stockbridge, Mass. (Oct 2003).

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