Crafting A New Praxis: The Art of Excoriating Technology For the Sake of the Natural
By Frank Smecker
26 March, 2009
It is imperative, when acting from one’s ethical sensibilities, or hankering for conditional propitiousness, to remain grounded in craftsmanship. Author and philosopher, Christopher Manes, states: “Technology confronts the world, forces it to do things it wouldn’t do naturally. Craft belongs to a humbler, more ancient relationship with nature…Craft fits human needs into the existing landscape…technology attempts to alter and deny landscape at an ever accelerating pace with no recognition of nature’s limits.” I would go on to promote that craft is an agency for creation that is heedful to the limits of its resources and the latter’s ecological provenance.
The advancement and progression of technology has indeed accelerated, as well as offered convenience and expedience to the tasks and avocations of our everyday lives. However, the evolution of technology has left a lucid trail of debris, destruction, and annihilation. The ascendancy of technology has, undeniably, exacerbated oil and other energy sources, water sources, and food sources (not to mention it has been culpable for the genetic transmutation of crops and trees i.e. tomatoes spliced with fish genes, fish spliced with human genes, cotton with larval genes, trees vacant of lignin – picture a human being without a skeletal structure, pesticidal seeds, ad nauseam).
Over the last seventy years, annual pesticide use has gone from zero to more than five hundred billion tons worldwide.
Technological advancement (viz. technomania) has been responsible for forced and violent dissolving of indigenous communities in order to access mineral-rich lands; it has been responsible for curable cancers and other degenerative ailments (while ironically, providing novel remedies and cures for specific ailments that, well, nature has provided all along). Industrial technology has, invariably, been culpable for the assault on ecosystems that pervade into the myriad regions of the planet, undermining the homes of variegated species and cultures of remarkable complexity.
Migratory birds are in inexorable decline.
Honeybee populations are in inexorable decline.
Whale populations are in inexorable decline.
Siberian tigers are in inexorable decline.
There’s more plastic in the planet’s oceans than there is phytoplankton.
Rainforests are in inexorable decline.
Potable water is in inexorable decline.
Amphibian populations are in inexorable decline.
The Eastern Lowland gorilla is in inexorable decline.
Traditional, vernacular communities are in inexorable decline.
Year after year, technological contrivances and the latter’s byproducts are discarded profligately into the planet’s waters, ground, and air (e.g. landfills, greenhouse gas emissions, illegal dumping, fluoridation, spent uranium holding tanks, ad nauseam) – destabilizing the only known complex system that supports life. The continuation of technological advancement (keeping in mind its stringent reliance on fossil fuels and mineral ores, and the damage done to our fecund planet in order to access the former and latter, and then the damage done again through refinement processes), at the rate and condition it is at now, will be responsible for the loss of one-third of all species on this planet within the next forty years, and according to Michael Soule, the founder of the Society for Conservation Biology, says “for all practical purposes vertebrate evolution is at an end… only large mammals left in another decade or two will be those we consciously chose to allow to exist.”
The anthropologist Marvin Harris admonished about the industrial bubble and that as it expands “its skin becomes thinner.” And it will pop.
Whether technology of “civilized” proportion has been implemented for practical purposes or for recreational purposes, it is not sustainable, and essentially has only been of practical use to humans (and of course not all humans) as a way to pander to a Western ethic, or Transcendental ethic, proclaiming, “certain obligations hold true everywhere at all times for all people.” Omniscience and omnipotence, a desire that has emerged from the Western philosophia perennis canon, is the ultimate goal of a static and technologized world.
Philosophy aside, technology has become the hallmark of modern societies and contemporary economies and deeply imbedded in a culture of extraction, hyper-exploitation, and a lack of reverence for the natural and physical reality we are circumscribed to. There is no doubt we are about to find out what it means to overshoot our physical limits, as we’ve invested an entire history of thought and actions into a way of life that is deleterious and unsustainable.
Wendell Berry, a prolific author, essayist, and critic wrote in an article for the May 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine on the topic of peak oil:
To deal with problems, which are after all inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work. It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits.
Berry’s expatiation on art is parallel to defining craft, through which engaged, craft respects its natural limits in order to “enrich” not “extend.”
It is impractical, fatuous, and irrational when folks advocate for technology as an answer to the problems we are facing with exponential growth and the quest for sustainability. I hear quite too often that technology is a hopeful option for survival and sustainability, and that if we just keep trucking along, advancements in science will resolve our plight. This strikes me as frightening for many reasons; there is already a plethora of realistic, pragmatic choices to make and actions to employ that will benefit not only the human species for generations to come, but the ecosystems that harbor the complex webs of relationships that affect our lives positively– and they do not require the aid of modern technology. These choices and behaviors include large-scale moderation, self-limitation, and a halt to many of the conventions we have today that are perceived as “healthy” for a "civilized" life.
We know that burning fossil fuels in order to bolster the industrial culture not only alters the global climates, but acidifies the oceans and creates dead-zones where no sea-life whatsoever can thrive; and that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for preventative cancers and other respiratory ailments resulting from air pollution causing agents, i.e. particulates, mercury, sulfur dioxide, lead, and more (there are 14,000 deaths biweekly in the U.S. from preventable cancers). And yet the baleful impacts felt by millions upon millions of humans and non-humans as a result of poisoning our only atmosphere and our only sources of water are not good enough reasons to stop burning fossil fuels....but instead, are reasons to continue scientific exploration to search for solutions to these problems, when in fact the monolith that is technological advancement can only continue with the plinth that is cheap and efficient energy resources such as fossil fuels and other mineral resources, as well as a vibrant economy with an annual growth trajectory of three percent. I hope the reader is realizing the illogic embedded in the pattern of thought here. In psychology this would fall pretty damn close to perseveration.
It's very similar to the behavior of heroin addicts; the incessant, self-afflictive abuse of a toxic, detrimental element to maintain an ephemeral feeling of satisfaction, ironically maintained under the dubious auspices of denial – upping the dose more and more. Until finally, chagrined with one’s dirty habit, one turns to methadone. “As long as the hospital is sanctioning me my methadone, I’m not an addict…” Still that denial, still that chemical attachment. Let’s face it; addicts who really kick the habit get sick before they get better. They go through hell, through pain, and sweat out their woes in a state of ungovernable catharsis, contorting with spasms and cramps, enduring the screaming fantods and until suddenly – voila! they remember how to live again! And better yet, they live without the chemical dependence – and they return to their families and friends.
Weaning off of our reliance on fossil fuels will not be easy, and it will not be effortless – it will be a painful process through which we will need to turn to each other and to our landbases for support. But kicking the habit will fare much better than overdosing.
Furthermore, the argument that science will present synthetic options to substitute the natural resources and requirements we continue to deplete is outright asinine. This is proven with Liebig's Law, also known as the Law of the Minimum. Richard Heinberg sums up the law pretty well in his book Powerdown, stating that "Every species has a list of requirements for survival – water, temperature range, degree of salinity of water, degree of acidity or alkalinity of soil, food of a certain nature, so many hours of sunlight, and so on." Liebig's Law elucidates that even if all factors are "optimal" it only takes the lack of one requirement to erode an organism's ability to survive. Heinberg goes on to note: "This puts a tough burden on humans' attempts to completely manage a fully artificial environment." In other words, my exegesis of L’s Big Law is that if we continue to use the planet as a natural resource to be exploited for whatever it is we are trying to accomplish here (because, really, what is the reason for this giant circus…seriously…we have proof that acephalous cultures lived peacefully for hundreds of thousands of years without monotheism, science, government, corporations, bureaucracy, et al – so what’s our deal; what is it we are striving for through all of this destruction and aimless development? Do we really think we’ll successfully colonize space or something? I think that’s it – some people want to be Masters of the Universe™); I apologize for the non sequitur, anyway if we continue to exploit the planet as a ‘natural resource,’ we will eventually undermine all ecosystems, leading to a complete collapse of all other life on the planet. This is by no means a scenario that can be managed realistically – we would eventually reach the point where we would have to synthesize everything. Looking at this logically and rationally – and really, just commonsensically, humans cannot survive in a world deprived of its natural requirements, let alone attempt to synthesize them all.
Even if fortuitously, science does prevail and a cheap energy source is discovered to supplant our reliance on fossil fuels (which, c’mon – it just ain’t gonna happen folks), what then? Self-aggrandizing economies will surely use it up, continue to dismantle the planet's pristine land-bases to provide resources for other innovations and contrivances, and exponential growth will continue. One important fact one must always consider is that energy comes from matter, and matter is finite – meaning it does not last forever – there is a limit that cannot be exceeded. Without self-limitation, the quest for energy will be a perpetual tail-chase exhibiting severe nocuous, deleterious, and annihilative repercussions.
Peak oil should be a matter of concern, a matter of public interest, and a matter of sustainability for the inhabitants of this planet. Our options for handling the decline in cheap energy sources are found in choices of moderation and self-limitation, community solidarity and education. The belief that science will provide new technologies to help us endure nature's response to our profligate growth (i.e. global warming, desiccation of potable water, diasporas, viral vectors, etc) is in my mind a severe state of denial within the dominant culture, as well as a casuistic rationalizing for the way the dominant culture behaves and for the way it is responding to (or perhaps denying) the repercussions of its treatment towards the very planet that has miracled us into existence in the first place. It is of vital importance that we begin to implement the steps needed to adjust our cultural behavior with regard to our personal limits alongside the laws of nature. Our holistic health, as well as our interrelations, domestic and foreign, is commensurate with the condition of the land beneath our feet.
Perhaps Wendell Berry has touched upon a crucial point, which is we must reevaluate not only our relationship with our habitat (Earth), but the way we engage with Earth as well. Perhaps the dominant, concerted view of expedience, tools, and appliances that beguile so many will be transformed by the concept of craft into a more sustainable and pragmatic notion of our vocations and avocations; and then the concept of technology can be replaced by the practice of art; blossoming a new praxis of engagement through arts and crafts.