Technological Fundamentalism

Why bad things happen when humans play God

If humans were smart, we would bet on our ignorance.

That advice comes early in the Hebrew Bible. Adam and Eve’s banishment in chapters two and three of Genesis can be read as a warning that hubris is our tragic flaw. In the garden, God told them they could eat freely of every tree but the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This need not be understood as a command that people must stay stupid, but only that we resist the temptation to believe that we are godlike and can competently manipulate the complexity of the world.

We aren’t, and we can’t, which is why we should always remember that we are far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable. It’s true that in the past few centuries, we humans have dramatically expanded our understanding of how the world works through modern science. But we would be sensible to listen to plant geneticist Wes Jackson, one of the leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement, who suggest that we adopt “an ignorance-based worldview” that could help us understand these limits.1 Jackson, cofounder of The Land Institute research center, argues that such an approach would help us ask important questions that go beyond the available answers and challenge us to force existing knowledge out of its categories. Putting the focus on what we don’t know can remind us of the need for humility and limit the damage we do.

This call for humility is an antidote to the various fundamentalisms that threaten our world today. I use the term “fundamentalism” to describe any intellectual, political, or theological position that asserts an absolute certainty in the truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. Fundamentalism is an extreme form of hubris—overconfidence not only in one’s beliefs but in the ability of humans to understand complex questions definitively. Fundamentalism isn’t unique to religious people but is instead a feature of a certain approach to the world, rooted in mistaking limited knowledge for wisdom.

In ascending order of threat, these fundamentalisms are religious, national, market, and technological. All share some similar characteristics, while each poses a particular threat to democracy and sustainable life on the planet.

Religious fundamentalism is the most contested of the four, and hence is the one most often critiqued. National fundamentalism routinely unleashes violence that leads to critique, though most often the critique focuses on other nations’ hyperpatriotic fundamentalism rather than our own. And as the prophets of neoliberalism’s dream of unrestrained capitalism are exposed as false prophets, criticism of market fundamentalism is moving slowly from the left to the mainstream.

Religious, national, and market fundamentalisms are frightening, but they may turn out to be less dangerous than our society’s technological fundamentalism.

Technological fundamentalists believe that the increasing use of evermore sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. Those who question such declarations are often said to be “anti-technology,” which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects—predictable and unpredictable—on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge.

Our experience with unintended consequences is fairly extensive. For example, there’s the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in internal-combustion engines, which give us the ability to travel considerable distances with a fair amount of individual autonomy. This technology also has given us traffic jams and road rage, strip malls and smog, while contributing to climate destabilization that threatens the ability of the ecosphere to sustain human life as we know it. We haven’t quite figured out how to cope with these problems, and in retrospect it might have been wise to go slower in the development of a system geared toward private, individual transportation based on the car, with more attention to potential consequences.2

Or how about CFCs and the ozone hole? Chlorofluorocarbons have a variety of industrial, commercial, and household applications, including in air conditioning. They were thought to be a miracle chemical when introduced in the 1930s—non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-reactive with other chemical compounds. But in the 1980s, researchers began to understand that while CFCs are stable in the troposphere, when they move to the stratosphere and are broken down by strong ultraviolet light they release chlorine atoms that deplete the ozone layer. This unintended effect deflated the exuberance a bit. Depletion of the ozone layer means that more UV radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, and overexposure to UV radiation is a cause of skin cancer, cataracts, and immune suppression.

But wait, the technological fundamentalists might argue, our experience with CFCs refutes your argument—humans got a handle on that one and banned CFCs, and now the ozone hole is closing. True enough, but what lessons have been learned? Society didn’t react to the news about CFCs by thinking about ways to step back from a developed world that has become dependent on air conditioning, but instead looked for replacements to keep the air conditioning running.3 So the reasonable question is: When will the unintended effects of the CFC replacements become visible? If not the ozone hole, what’s next? There’s no way to predict, but it seems reasonable to ask the question and sensible to assume the worst.

We don’t have to look far for evidence that our hubris is creating the worst. Every measure of the health of the ecosphere—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity—suggests we may be past the point of restoration. As Jackson’s example suggests, scientists themselves often recognize the threat and turn away from the hubris of technological fundamentalism. This powerful warning of ecocide came from 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists:

Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.4

That statement was issued in 1992, and in the past two decades we have yet to change course and instead pursue ever riskier projects. As the most easily accessible oil is exhausted, we feed our energy/affluence habit by drilling in deep water and processing tar sands, guaranteeing the destruction of more ecosystems. We extract more coal through mountain-top removal, guaranteeing the destruction of more ecosystems.5 And we take technological fundamentalism to new heights by considering large-scale climate engineering projects—known as geo-engineering or planetary engineering, typically involving either carbon-dioxide removal from the atmosphere and solar-radiation management—as a “solution” to climate destabilization.

The technological fundamentalism that animates these delusional plans makes it clear why Wes Jackson’s call for an ignorance-based worldview is so important. If we were to step back and confront honestly the technologies we have unleashed—out of that hubris, believing our knowledge is adequate to control the consequences of our science and technology—I doubt any of us would ever get a good night’s sleep. We humans have been overdriving our intellectual headlights for thousands of years, most dramatically in the twentieth century when we ventured with reckless abandon into two places where we had no business going—the atom and the cell.

On the former: The deeper we break into the energy package, the greater the risks. Building fires with sticks gathered from around the camp is relatively easy to manage, but breaking into increasingly earlier material of the universe—such as fossil fuels and, eventually, uranium—is quite a different project, more complex and far beyond our capacity to control. Likewise, manipulating plants through traditional selective breeding is local and manageable, whereas breaking into the workings of the gene—the foundational material of life—takes us into places we have no way to understand.

These technological endeavors suggest that the Genesis story was prescient; our taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil appears to have been ill-advised, given where it has led us. We live now in the uncomfortable position of realizing we have moved too far and too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage safely the world we have created. The answer is not some naïve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of what we have created and a systematic evaluation to determine how to recover from our most dangerous missteps.

A good first step is to adopt an ignorance-based worldview, to heed the warning against hubris that appears in the most foundational stories—religious and secular—of every culture. That would not only increase our chances of survival, but in Jackson’s words, make possible “a more joyful participation in our engagement with the world.”

  1. Wes Jackson, “Toward an Ignorance-Based Worldview,” The Land Report, Spring 2005, 14-16. See also Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson, eds., The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008). []
  2. Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back (New York: Crown, 1997). []
  3. Stan Cox, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer (New York: New Press, 2010). []
  4. Henry Kendall, a Nobel Prize physicist and former chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ board of directors, was the primary author of the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” []
  5. Naomi Klein, “Addicted to Risk,” TEDWomen conference, December 8, 2010. []

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 29th, 2011 at 9:34am #

    torah:
    “God told them they could eat freely of every tree but the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This need not be understood as a command that people must stay stupid, but only that we resist the temptation to believe that we are godlike and can competently manipulate the complexity of the world.”

    the hebrew or a shemite who wrote this, i educe, hated people; especially nonshamanic-nonpriestly ones.

    and even jensen runs for cover under the word “complexity” instead for word “simplicity” and remain out in the open.

    instead of using the word “complexity”, self forever reverberating in endless complexities, why not use following simplicity and crystal clear one at that: we do not know at this time what we’d get to know even tomorrow.
    and we may never ever need to know everything there is to be known.

    the above torahic quote is sufficiently rebutted by another torahic quote: sufficient onto the day is the rigor thereof.
    what the fella meant, i conjecture, is that we [provided we are not deceiving or disrespecting people] can only know some much on any day and go on w.o. worrying, arguing about what we don’t know and cannot know! tnx

  2. bozh said on January 29th, 2011 at 9:48am #

    “We aren’t, and we can’t, which is why we should always remember that we are far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable”.

    to me this utterance make no sense. now if one wld say that priests know more than me and people like me what makes themc tick, what they r concerned about, what makes them peaceful-happy, such verbal construct is easy to understand.
    but why i be ignorant because i can’t read priestly or political minds?

    i am not ignorant because i do not know all about priests or people who wage wars, ignorance, etc.
    i simply don’t know nor does anyone else why such enorm wickedness? is there really a devil who guides some brains? tnx

  3. bozh said on January 29th, 2011 at 10:07am #

    jensen:
    “Religious fundamentalism is the most contested of the four, and hence is the one most often critiqued.”

    replace the label [recall, please most labels confuse or even deceive] “religious fundamentalism” [an extreme obnubilation] with the label “religious science” and, presto, only priests get mad and the rest of us exult in knowledge.

    in short, all science comes out our brain structure; alas, by now most of these brains overloaded with scientific knowledge which arose, say, 10 k yrs ago.

    compare our sciences with that of hopis, haydas, crees and we discover what? well, they had none of that and thus no priestly class to poison verybody’s minds! tnx

  4. bozh said on January 29th, 2011 at 10:20am #

    jensen:
    “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources.”

    the statement appears erroneus: by implication, it blames a job ‘giver’ [read, please, work robber], banksters, politician, tiller, fisher equally.

    it blames a general commanding an army and demanding more and better weapons and a ditch digger. the statement does not acknowledge the power of deceiving, lying by those who lead us from crisis to crisis; from war to war; from lack of healthcare to lack of heatlh care.

    and above else, that we have been robbed of our humaness long time ago! tnx

  5. Deadbeat said on January 29th, 2011 at 12:53pm #

    Jensen is obviously on a “fundamentalist” crusade of his own targeting “technology” while deploying reverse psychology to immunize himself from criticism. He says the labeling of “anti-technology” is a meaningless insult while at the same time he indicts everyone for the current state of the system. It appears to me that Jensen’s views are more insulting for his failure to indict capitalist production and the oppression that workers face under this system.

    Technology is not at fault. Capitalist ownership of and development of technology under the Capitalist system are at fault. It’s all about profits and the use of technology to derive greater profits.

    Jensen’s only mention of Capitalism in his article is about neoliberal’s “dream” of unrestrained capitalism but there is no criticism offered by Jensen of the Keynesian’s fantasy of regulated Welfare State Capitalism that keeps the Capitalist class in power. Capitalism cannot be regulated or managed thus Capitalism itself is the source of the problem and how POWER is arranged and maintain under this system.

    Why Jensen is diverting our attention by making “technology” the boogieman falls right into the same old pseudo-Left canard of axioms, bromides and cliches to “pollute” our minds with rather than confront Capitalism and Zionism.

  6. bozh said on January 29th, 2011 at 1:46pm #

    no tool can even pinch let alone, hurt, kill anyone; drive one outta hisher home, indebt anyone; or fire a shot, drive a tank; belittle-deceive-lead to war or force a person to drink water, etcetc.

    and knowledge cannot do any of it, either.
    it is people who do that. all we need to know is which people do that and why!

    we know that obama, and all u.s. prezs are those people who do all that and much more.
    unfortunately, there r in the region at least another 20mn just like obama; many of which may be calling for even more violence, oppression, lying, etc., than by obama.
    they also own-operate warships, wmd, banks, wmd, cia-fbi-police, judges, media, jobs, etcetc.

    aaand nothing changes except for worse! judging by what most people think or say!
    aaand even if israel disappears tomorrow, nothing get’s better- only worse– till the end of history! and even if all u.s. ‘jews’ get exported to gaza!
    did suleiman, alexander, peter, otto, darius the greats need jews [real and pretenders]?
    how about huns, napoleon, genghis khan, senacherib, pharoah, hitler, mussolini, pilgrims to u.s., papa doc duvallier, henry the 8th, mubarak? tnx

  7. Deadbeat said on January 29th, 2011 at 2:22pm #

    bozh writes (yet another contradiction)

    and knowledge cannot do any of it, either.
    it is people who do that. all we need to know is which people do that and why!

    This is misanthropic because it lets the system off the hook and fails to examine the hierarchical nature of the Capitalism system. Meaning it fails to examine the hierarchy of POWER. It engages in victim blaming rather than analysis.

    This is the problem of Jensen’s rhetoric. I don’t know why submitters like to take this tact of blaming everybody. A tact that I see used especially by “environmentalists” like Jensen. You’d think taking a look at the human “environment” (i.e. social forces) would be the first area of examination.

  8. bozh said on January 29th, 2011 at 3:47pm #

    DB,
    if one wld put my post– which u object to– in the context all i have written thus far about structure of society and governance, one wld know who are the people who do most or even all evil.

    u and readers who read my posts shld remember or shld have noted by now that i leave most important words undefined because, they are undefinable.
    such a word is knowledge.
    knowledge does not do harm– it is an entirely different issue that knowledge is withheld from us pedestrians or we are given false knowledge and many evaluating it as knowledge.
    here, it seems, i must after all define knowledge; it is not false knowledge or lies.

    to say it another way, ignorance [i hate that word] of ignorance is the greatest tool for people who r also ignorant of their ignorance.

    take obama, eg. he’s ignorant of his ignorance; it is knowledge-justice-fairness for him to wage wars and kill innocent people when it is done in name a holy of holies, such as the right of u.s. to defend its interests with all means necessary.
    in truman’s case, even use of wmd had been necessary-just-fair.

    btw, ignorance of ignorance also defies any explaining. it means whatever it means to each individual; let’s just hope the meanings derived from that word are sufficiently similar or exact. tnx

    this knowledge is stored in every cell of truman’s, clinton’s, obama’s body. short of killing them or decondition them of such ‘knowledge’, they wld never ever change.
    i amy have strayed here a bit, but i hope i explained the situation! sometimes no words seem to elucidate what really is going on! tnx

  9. bozh said on January 29th, 2011 at 3:59pm #

    “no tool can even pinch let alone, hurt, kill anyone; drive one outta hisher home, indebt anyone; or fire a shot, drive a tank; belittle-deceive-lead to war or force a person to drink water, etcetc.
    and knowledge cannot do any of it, either.
    it is people who do that. all we need to know is which people do that and why!”

    this quote differ significantly from my partial quote that DB posited. why does he do that? turning a clear utterance into a muddy one? ok, he does like to argue a lot; call people names; fails to acknowledge a response to his personal attacks or twisting of meanings. well, i can’t fix his thinking. i am only replying to his attacks in order to clarify things to other readers. tnx

  10. Deadbeat said on January 29th, 2011 at 6:13pm #

    bozh writes …

    take obama, eg. he’s ignorant of his ignorance; it is knowledge-justice-fairness for him to wage wars and kill innocent people when it is done in name a holy of holies, such as the right of u.s. to defend its interests with all means necessary. in truman’s case, even use of wmd had been necessary-just-fair.

    The problem bozh is the system. Obama and Truman are what the system coughs up. The game on the “Left” is to blame Obama, Truman, and whatever to constantly divert from examining the forces that maintains and keeps us trapped in this hierarchy such as money and debt.

    The Obamas and the Trumans will NEVER become our allies. As previously stated we need to understand WHO our allies are. The game the “Left” plays is to pretend to be our allies when in fact its goal is to subvert solidarity.

  11. mary said on January 31st, 2011 at 6:49am #

    Survival International have written on this site before on the extraction of bauxite at Orissa by Vedanta and the consequent destruction of the land and the disruption to the lives of the indigenous people. That scheme was turned down but now a South Korean company has been given permission to build a massive steel plant there.

    {http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12322280}

    The previous article {http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/12/mining-company%E2%80%99s-scare-tactics-against-human-rights-ngo/}