Cowell and Cryonics: A Dream For Our Times

I don’t often find myself thinking about pop impresario Simon Cowell, but last week I came across the news that the reality show star has declared his intention to have himself cryonically preserved when he dies in order to be revived by doctors in the future. Cowell’s intentions were of course met with predictable derision as the typically bizarre behaviour of the senselessly rich and famous, and his press agent quickly moved to say that Cowell had merely been joking. Often what we find amusing are ideas that take conventional attitudes and reveal their absurdity by taking them to their logical conclusion. Cryonics is a perfect case in point – an idea that while bizarre is entirely in keeping with our culture and the dominant values of our age.

In the UK there has lately developed a movement perhaps best described as a sort of militant atheism. With biologist Richard Dawkins as its figurehead this movement has identified religious fundamentalism and the various brands of new age spiritualism as the greatest threats to rationality and progress. I would prefer to argue as others have that there are two other brands of fundamentalism much more pervasive and of far greater threat to humanity – the cryonic dream of a radically lengthened life span being entirely typical of both.

Consumerist Fundamentalism

We live in an age of aggressive state managed capitalism, a system predicated on endless economic growth and the sating of endless desires. Boosted by the PR and advertising industries the ideology of consumerist fundamentalism is near inescapable. Like other brands of fundamentalism, the consumerist variant flies in the face of reason, elementary facts about the world we live in and the realities of human psychology. Based as it is on the expectation of constant economic growth consumerist ideology is obliged to pretend that we live on a planet of infinite resources. So despite the fact that it is now clear that we are endangering the possibility of decent life for ourselves on Earth (much less the other forms of life we “share” the planet with) the ideology is incapable of adapting to reality but instead continues to pretend that unbridled consumption can be sustained in the long run. The academic and activist Robert Jensen puts it this way:

Imagine that you are riding comfortably on a sleek train. You look out the window and see that not too far ahead the tracks end abruptly and that the train will derail if it continues moving ahead. You suggest that the train stop immediately and that the passengers go forward on foot. This will require a major shift in everyone’s way of travelling, of course, but it appears to you to be the only realistic option; to continue barrelling forward is to court catastrophic consequences. But when you propose this course of action, others who have grown comfortable riding on the train say, “Well we like the train and arguing that we should get off is not realistic…

The high priests of consumerist fundamentalism also pretend that the accumulation of consumer products will bring us happiness despite the fact that psychology and simple common sense, (it takes a minutes perusal of the celebrity press to see how miserable, delusional, and quasi psychotic many of the supposed winners of our society are), tell us otherwise. There is by now a substantial body of data showing that once basic survival needs are met extra income and consumer products have minimal effects in terms of long term happiness. Directly comparable to substance addiction – the acquisition of new products provides the consumer with a fleeting feeling of pleasure quickly followed by feelings of deflation and unhappiness – and like the addict the consumer feels compelled to to return to the source again and again in the hope of finally finding lasting happiness. Psychologists and writers such as Oliver James, James Hillman, Erich Fromm, Clive Hamilton and many others have told us what does contribute to human well-being: community, meaningful non-alienated work, relative economic equality, shared goals and values, and an altruistic other-centred orientation. These are all of course values and attitudes that the dominant institutions of our time at best fail to provide, and at worst actually destroy.

Technological Fundamentalism

The ecological precipice we now find ourselves on has been reached because of our arrogant and ignorant application of technology in a fragile ecosystem whose workings we only barely comprehend. Instead of adopting the precautionary principle we have utilised unproven technologies without any acknowledgement of the fact that the effects of those technologies are frequently unpredictable and often disastrous. The results are polluted air and water, massive soil erosion, the destruction of other species and habitats, and now the apocalyptic threat of runaway climate change. Given that reality one might expect that the introduction of new technologies would now be carried out in a far more responsible manner but unfortunately in the grip of technological fundamentalism we appear incapable of changing our practice and instead we barrel ahead in the same arrogant way that has brought us to this parlous state. Amongst the more striking examples of this arrogance are the various techno-fixes currently being proposed to solve global warming. Those proposals include trying to boost the albedo effect of the earth by methods such as hanging mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away from the planet or lofting sulphur into the atmosphere in order to create a “global dimming” effect. Regarding the latter the authors of the Corporate Watch report ‘Technofixes: A Critical Guide to Climate Change Technologies’ note that:

[T]here are a number of significant issues with this particular approach. It is essentially fighting pollution with more pollution. Sulphate pollution causes a thinning of the earth’s ozone layer. The sulphates will eventually come back down to earth, with an unknown impact on ecosystems. Governments have been working to reduce emissions of sulphates because they cause acid rain. Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen, who advocated research into sulphate aerosols as a last ditch solution to global warming, predicted around half a million deaths as a result of particulate pollution. New studies have shown that the historic droughts in the Sahel region of Africa that caused widespread famine in the 1970s and 80s were caused in part by industrial emissions of sulphates in the West.

Given that many of the effects of the industrial/technological revolution were wholly unpredicted, there may be vastly worse consequences of such proposals that we simply cannot envisage. The authors of the Corporate Watch report warn us of the literal insanity of advocating such leaps in the dark when we have already demonstrated how our monumental hubris can endanger future life on earth:

Humanity is already conducting an uncontrolled planetary scale experiment with the planet’s climate through greenhouse gas emissions. Is it really sensible to start another one which could have equally disastrous and unpredictable consequences?

Cryonics – A “Science” For Our Times

The idea of cryonics is of course entirely typical of the two modern forms of fundamentalism, and the Cowell story was likely taken seriously because a desire for more life is a logical denouement of the celebrity lifestyle. Cowell is estimated to earn upwards of fifty million pounds a year. He owns several sports cars and a helicopter. He has changed his physical appearance with botox and dated various models and socialites. It would be absolutely consistent with consumerist fundamentalism that having acquired more or less everything money can buy Cowell would then attempt to get more of what is inherently finite – life.

In his book The Way of Ignorance, the essayist, novelist, small farmer and poet Wendell Berry remarks that dominated by consumerism we have lost all sense of what Erich Fromm called ‘the art of living.’ Without community, meaningful work or any sense of shared goals we no longer have any understanding of form or limits. And the idea of greeting death with a certain degree of equanimity having enriched our community and the lives of those around us is by now an utterly alien idea:

We seem to have lost any such thought of a completed life. We no longer imagine death as an appropriate end or as a welcome deliverance from pain or grief or weariness. Death now apparently is understood, and especially by those who have placed themselves in charge of it, as a punishment for growing old, to be delayed at any cost.1

Typical of consumerist fantasies the cryonic dream is also profoundly anti-social; like many other luxuries it is by definition only possible for a minority – since the earth plainly cannot hold more than one generation at a time. Just as the planet could not long survive were everyone to consume at the level of the average American or Western European it would be impossible for cryonics to be available to all. It is also a dream that imagines a person as a completely detached entity, adrift in space and time, divorced from all community, human solidarity and in this case even family. That is a nightmarish conception of human existence, it is also a conception of human existence that gets closer to reality by the day.

Our techno-fundamentalist age has been characterised by an incredible disrespect and contempt for nature. Consider for instance so-called “terminator technology” – genetically modified plants whose seeds self-destruct thereby forcing farmers to depend on agro-industry rather than saving their seeds for each new season. The conception and implementation of such perversions of nature are representative of what is in effect humanity’s war on the biosphere. The Indian physicist Vandana Shiva makes the comparison between those attempting to live in some kind of balance with nature and those waging war on natural systems for profit and market share:

When we plant a seed there’s a very simple prayer that every peasant in India says: “Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year.” Farmers have such pride in saying “this is the tenth generation seeds that I’m planting,” “this is the fifth generation seed that I’m planting.” Just the other day I had a seed exchange fair in my valley and a farmer brought Basmati aromatic rice seed and he said “this is five generations we’ve been planting this in our family.” So far human beings have treated it as their duty to save seed and ensure its continuity. But that prayer to let the seed be exhaustless seems to be changing into the prayer, “let this seed get terminated so that I can make profits every year.”

The pseudo science of cryonics is similar in its contempt for nature – instead of viewing death as healthy, inevitable and essential for life death is instead re-conceptualised as a mere technical problem that will eventually be solved and the question of whether it is wise or moral to interfere with one of the most fundamental elements of all natural systems is considered irrelevant.
We would be living in a far better world if cryonics were purely an outlandish fantasy but however technically unfeasible it may be, or however bizarre it may seem, cryonics is a perfectly logical extension of our current mode of thinking. It is a mode of thinking that has always threatened the mental and physical well-being of ourselves, it now threatens the existence of the biosphere at anything more than a grossly degraded level.

  1. The Way of Ignorance, Wendell Berry, counterpoint []
Alex Doherty has written for ZNet, Counterpunch, and the New Standard. He can be reached at: alexjamesdoherty@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alex, or visit Alex's website.

24 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Justin Loew said on March 7th, 2009 at 8:41am #

    The society we have is a product of many thousands of years of human desires. Each generation worked to make life better. Better health, more food, longer life, more leisure time, etc… So here we are. Is Alex claiming we should now stop? No more progress? Should the next generation have a lower standard of living, a shorter lifespan, less food? Cryonics is the very natural extension of centuries of human progress and desires. It is one of many possible “next steps” in evolution on this planet.

    New technologies can bring problems – no doubt. Problems that should be addressed, pitfalls that should be avoided, but giving up on progress – giving up on the future – is not an option.

  2. jeff davis said on March 7th, 2009 at 12:12pm #

    Anti-technology hysteria soothing to anti-technologists living, as do others of different ideology/culture, in their own comfy little ideological echo chamber.

    Continuing change, continuing evolution, continuing growth of human knowledge and capability is the one unchanging feature of life on our planet. Technology has delivered all the benefits of modern life — along with, yes, some unanticipated problems, which of course, technology will be called upon to solve. And so it shall.

    Those who find science and technology difficult and intimidating, are not pleased to live in a world dominated by these things, and resent the power of those once derided as nerds and geeks, and who now essentially run the planet. Understandable. Yet the advance of humanity riding the wave of technology is how things are and how they are going to be. So get over it.

    PS: The human nurturance that springs from community is essential to human emotional health. In this the author is correct. The rest is an anti-technology tantrum.

  3. Keith Henson said on March 7th, 2009 at 3:37pm #

    There is no doubt humans face a lot of trouble if we don’t deal with problems like running out of fossil energy and climate change.

    But being an engineer (as well as a signed up for cryonics suspension for 24 years) I have to challenge “it would be impossible for cryonics to be available to all.” Taking “all” as 8 billion people and freezing heads (since any technology up to repairing brains is up to making a new bodies).

    Figure heads at a cubic foot, the cube root of 8 billion is 2000. That means the lot of them could be stacked in a cube 2000 feet on a side.

    Humans currently use around 15 TW of energy. Because heat leaks in from the surface, and this is much larger than anything the cryonics organizations use, the energy cost to keep this volume at low temperature would run well under a watt per person. At most that would be 8 GW out of 15,000 GW or around 1/2000 of what people use today.

    If we had climate disruption from a Tambora scale eruption with certain starvation for 95% of the human race, perhaps cryonics would be seen as an alternative to massive and certain death.

    As to replacing fossil fuels and dealing with climate change, it’s possible to tap the sun for enough energy to turn all the carbon dioxide humans have put into the atmosphere back into oil and put it back in empty oil fields. It’s not even twice as much as we need to replace fossil energy. After all, sunlight is how the oil and coal came to be there in the first place.

    Keith Henson

    http://www.operatingthetan.com/SpaceBasedSolarPower/March18Talk.ppt

  4. Keith Henson said on March 7th, 2009 at 11:15pm #

    Incidentally, if Simon Cowell (rather than his publicity people) reads this, I hope he does sign up. He would be joining some really interesting people, Marvin Minsky, Eric Drexler and substantial number of others, including a few science fiction writers and a number of medical doctors.

    Of course at his age he might well live into the era where people quit dying–a much better outcome than cryonics.

    Keith Henson

  5. Alex Doherty said on March 8th, 2009 at 12:40am #

    Justin writes:

    “Is Alex claiming we should now stop? No more progress? Should the next generation have a lower standard of living, a shorter lifespan, less food?”

    Nope. I am though claiming that there is not always a techno-fix solution to all of our problems – global warming being a classic case in point.

    Jeff writes:

    “Continuing change, continuing evolution, continuing growth of human knowledge and capability is the one unchanging feature of life on our planet. Technology has delivered all the benefits of modern life — along with, yes, some unanticipated problems, which of course, technology will be called upon to solve. And so it shall.”

    I am very happy to benefit from many of the products of the technological age, – a lengthened lifespan, modern medicine and so on these are not things to be ignored or downplayed. However, the “unanticipated problems” that Jeff mentions now include what I described as “apocalyptic runaway climate change” – that is not hyperbole – check any sensible scientific study, the work of the IPCC etc. Therefore if the technological age has brought us to the brink of destroying the biospehere perhaps its time to maybe question the way we have been proceeding thus far. no?

    Jeff also says:

    “the advance of humanity riding the wave of technology is how things are and how they are going to be.”

    Well that is precisely the techno-fundamentalist attitude that I was attempting to desribe. Exactly the kind of attitude that leads to the zany and dangerous plans to loft sulphur into the atmosphere or dump iron filings into the oceans.

    As for my being intimidated by science – Jeff obviously has no way of demonstrating such a claim. All I will say is that these days I spend a lot of my time reading articles on climate change written by…. scientists! Guess I must enjoy feeling intimidated eh.

  6. bozh said on March 8th, 2009 at 8:50am #

    it wld make more sense if we wld avoid harming any human while we progress.
    but in our ‘progress’ we hurt mns of people and much of biota.
    the question to ask wld be, Can we have ‘progress’ [the one controled by plutos] without regress.
    and, of course, ‘progress’ appears to be also causing the warming.

    socalled progress has caused unprecendented rates of cancer, heart problems, breakup of marriages, murder [on intranat’l and internat’l levels], depression, diabetis, etc.

    murdering people now is so easy. fire a missile from ‘better tools’ [thanks to ‘progress’] even brings joy to some ueber- und untermenschen.

    and an unseen war, such as in afgh’n, is not a war at all. this marvel comes from our ‘better tools’ and agencies such as CNN, BBC, CBC.
    tx

  7. russell olausen said on March 8th, 2009 at 12:30pm #

    These scientific types never talk about the specifics of who loses.Life is a fight for dominance.It is a sport played with rules at all levels.Deception and camouflage are tactics.That’s what we do here ,fellow scribblers.Nobody finds their way to paradise by scribbling but with luck it will refine tactics.If you have to change that is good, if I have to, it could be bad.Let me find this guys head, its on the ground.

  8. bozh said on March 8th, 2009 at 1:29pm #

    russel,
    i’m not sure about what is your message, when u say, “Life is a fight for dominance”

    wld it mean that if’d be starving i cld eat a baby to survive? tx

  9. lichen said on March 8th, 2009 at 6:37pm #

    Yes, there is a plague of left-brained (but right wing) techno-fundamentalists (one could even say ‘science fundamentalists’) who reject all human emotion, reject kindness, empathy, try to intimidate and condescend to anyone involved in the humanities, and refuse to look at the very real consequences and inequalities behind their so-called ‘progress,’ in which way they are quite in line with the ‘idealism’ of early british imperialists and christian missionaries. Are the poor peasant children in Russia, reading books by candlelight and wearing hand-sown clothes “riding the wave of technology,” or is that just the domain of the rich multinationals who have given us a toxic earth?

  10. John said on March 9th, 2009 at 5:16am #

    Doherty seems to make a very good case for everyone killing themselves in order to cease to be a burden on civilisation or indeed the planet. Activities such as wearing clothes, living in houses and so on are just as unnatural as cryonics. And what about medicine, surgery etc. Should the state or insurance systems spend thousands on people needing heart surgery? Probably not, according to Doherty’s argument. Unfortunately pro-death movements appear in history invoking logic to exterminate sick people that require resources. They result in enormous destruction and violence to defeat them, but they are defeated.

    But there is something beyond this logic. Many of the great religions value life. Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead and told his followers to do likewise. Even if this is just a myth, it is a very powerful one and accepted by a huge number of people as being “a good thing”.

    What Doherty described as “consumerist fundamentalism” is doing just that thing that Jesus did — healing the sick and making “the (nearly) dead” easier to raise by future technology.

  11. Alex Doherty said on March 9th, 2009 at 7:16am #

    I’m slightly disturbed by the inability of most of the respondents on this board to follow an argument and look at what I actually said in this article. The preferred method appears to be to ignore the substance of what I wrote and to instead make incredibly outlandish assumptions based on little or nothing. So now John claims that I am “pro-death” and that I make a very good argument for “everyone killing themselves”. I say nothing of the sort. In fact what I say here is for the most part utterly uncontroversial – I point out that our short-sighted use of technology has brought the biosphere to the brink of destruction and that we should re-evaluate the way we deploy technology, and that we should attempt to acquire a little bit of humility and recognise that for all our technical know-how we remain profoundly ignorant regarding how the biosphere (and much else) functions and that we should accordingly proceed with a great deal more caution. It does not follow from that argument that we should scrap modern medicine or other products of the industrial age – what it does say is that we should recognise that there is not necessarily a techno-fix for every problem we encounter and that we should proceed with far more caution.

    As for consumerist fundamentalism I pointed out again uncontroversially that unbridled consumerism is incompatible with long term survival, I also pointed out that consumerist values are inimical to human happiness. Again it does not follow from that that all consumer products should cease to be produced. I’m a bit surprised that these trivialities are so hard to understand.

    Lastly it seems rather bizarre to me that advocates of cryonics support spending vast sums of money on what may be a technical impossibility – radically lengthening the lives of rich affluent people – when vast numbers of children around the world are dying from easily treated diseases before they make it to adulthood. And I’m the one who’s pro-death?

  12. Keith Henson said on March 10th, 2009 at 8:32am #

    Alex writes:

    “Nope. I am though claiming that there is not always a techno-fix solution to all of our problems – global warming being a classic case in point.”

    Alex, have you looked to see if anyone is working on a techno-fix to global warming? It’s easy to scope out the problem, takes about 20 minutes with the net. First step, quit burning fossil fuel. That’s easy to do if you have a large enough (30 TW) and cheap enough replacement. There may be more ways, but space based solar power looks to be large enough and, done on a huge scale, cheap enough. You make hydrogen and combine with CO2 out of the air to make liquid fuels. On this scale, dollar a gallon synthetic gasoline looks probable.

    Then you take about 100 ppm (1000 billion tons) of CO2 out of the atmosphere. One TW will do that in 12 years. Storing this much CO2 is a problem, a cube 10 km on a side. But 50 TW is enough in that same 12 year time to convert the CO2 back into oil. We simply refill the old oil fields because we know they didn’t leak over millions of years.

    Global warming over solved and we head into an ice age? No problem, reflectors at L2 will rewarm the planet as much as you want.

    Before saying there is no solution, it’s worth asking the engineers. There probably are situations where techno fixes don’t exist (or we don’t have to tools to solve them yet) but global warming is not one of them.

    Best wishes,

    Keith Henson

  13. Alex Doherty said on March 10th, 2009 at 11:23am #

    Keith you ask:

    “have you looked to see if anyone is working on a techno-fix to global warming?”

    I mentioned two techno-fixes in the article and I referenced a lengthy Corporate Watch report on the topic. Perhaps as other respondents appear to have done you were reading an entirely different article – one that I must have written in my sleep in which I apparently made no references at all to techno-fixes and where I advocated cutting human life span, abolishing all technology and so on.

    As for the technology you mention… what is needed is urgent action that will rapidly reduce CO2 emissions – the methods of doing so are at hand:

    properly insulating buildings
    shifting from a car based transport system.
    radically reducing airplane use
    increasing the use of genuine renewables – (a techno-fix that can take us some of the way to arrest climate change)
    reducing the incredible wastefulness of the global economy.

    There are many more.. I would recommend George Monbiot’s ‘Heat: How we can stop the planet burning’ for many sensible solutions.

    Alternatively we can put our faith in technologies that remain at the experimental stage and that if they ever arrive and if they work as well as claimed will likely arrive much too late to handle the problem they were designed to fix. For instance carbon capture and storage – a technology that is getting a great deal of R & D spending, backing from governments and major energy corporations is estimated by Shell (who have an incentive to overestimate the effectiveness of the technology) not to be in widespread use until 2050. Even if that over-optimistic figure is correct it will likely be too late to prevent runaway warming.

  14. Suthiano said on March 10th, 2009 at 1:23pm #

    The idea of ‘techno-fixes’ are extremely short sited, though they appear as ‘divine answer’ to engineer types.

    Think about previous techno-fixes: uhhh, they’re wearing some sort of body armour, ‘that’s okay, let’s invent depleted uranium and hollow tip ammuniition’.

    uhhh, killing all these whales for oil is unsustainable.. it’s getting harder to find them/make a profit, “don’t worry, we can drill it right out of the ground”.

    uhhhh, the rest of the world is going to challenge our foreign domination of markets, “no worries, we;ll just invent the atomic bomb”

    uhhh, the Soviet’s have the bomb.. “ahhh no problem, we’ll just invent a missile defense shield in space”.

    Those with engineering capabilities lack many other capabilities. Those with capital to invest in “techno-fixes” usually don’t have benevolent intentions.

    Techno-fixes (ddt, pesticides) are foolish. Engineers are foolish. There is no vision, and there is no imput from general population or even critics, and we are advised: “Before saying there is no solution, it’s worth asking the engineers”. Ahh yes, let’s ask those clowns who never ask us anything, but rather work for the government/military and blindly impliment egotistical solutions.

  15. C. J.S. said on March 10th, 2009 at 1:27pm #

    Suthiano, “The idea of ‘techno-fixes’ are extremely short sited, …”

    should be “short sighted…”

  16. Antonio said on March 12th, 2009 at 6:06am #

    Alex, I feel your analysis is fundamentally deficient because you seem to suggest the problems of ecological destruction and “technological fundamentalism” are wholly psychological. In your account, we are suffering from a “mode of thinking” – “technological fundamentalism” – that propells us to perform irrational actions. You say:

    “one might expect that the introduction of new technologies would now be carried out in a far more responsible manner but unfortunately in the grip of technological fundamentalism we appear incapable of changing our practice”

    I would ask two questions of this. Firstly, who is the “we” here and who are those introducing new technologies? Secondly, how do we change “our” practise? We live in complex societies where most people have no economic capital, do not run businesses or innovate in terms of new technology; for most people in the UK, life is still a struggle of competing demands and pressures. What does “changing our practice” mean for the vast majority of people? Merely buying less? Leaving a job on a factory production line? Even for those who do have access to capital and productive mechanisms, it can be quite rational on an individual level to introduce extremely ecologically harmful technology.

    We face systematic problems that cannot be solved by only examining psychology. While this is part of it, I feel your approach reduces these questions to the individual, whereas a better account would take notice of the relationship between ideology, social relations and economics.

    While it is apparent that there is a consumerist “mode of thinking”, the more interesting questions are how this has arisen, and how it can be changed. Why is it that the consumerist ideal is simply “common sense” to many people today whereas it was not previously? Equally, why has the extreme consumerist paradigm intersected neatly with the rise of neoliberalism, falling trade union membership and activity, increases in working hours and decreases in pay, the decline of the welfare state, and the breakdown of communities?

    The conjunction of these factors suggests the power of social structure and ideological production in shaping human consciousness is profound. Unfortunately, there is no rationalistic fix to systematic social problems: we can’t individually think ourselves out of capitalist society. But what we can do is engage in action and promote values that counterpose this way of thinking with a more humane alternative. That practically that means building values of community, solidarity, and mutual support, creating alternative institutions and engaging in positive action based on these values. I understand these are huge tasks for the Left, which by and large is avoiding engaging with ordinary working class communities to build for the future.

    But it is the only way. To change collective psychology, we need to challenge the ruling society’s “common sense” ideology, which means creating new forms of social relations and promoting alternative economies.

  17. Alex Doherty said on March 12th, 2009 at 9:21am #

    Thank you for your response Antonio,

    I don’t think I did suggest such that the dominant modes of thinking that have arisen – consumerism, techno-fundamentalism etc are purely psychological phenomena. For instance I identified the prevailing economic system as “aggressive state managed capitalism” – that’s an institutional description not a psychological one. Moreover again focussing on institutional effects I wrote:

    “Psychologists and writers such as Oliver James, James Hillman, Erich Fromm, Clive Hamilton and many others have told us what does contribute to human well-being: community, meaningful non-alienated work, relative economic equality, shared goals and values, and an altruistic other-centred orientation. These are all of course values and attitudes that the dominant institutions of our time at best fail to provide, and at worst actually destroy.”

    You write:

    “what we can do is engage in action and promote values that counterpose this way of thinking with a more humane alternative. That practically that means building values of community, solidarity, and mutual support, creating alternative institutions and engaging in positive action based on these values”

    I absolutely agree with you, however my focus in this article was identifying the dominant modes of thinking rather than discussing remedies.

    thanks

    Alex

    PS You may find this piece of mine of interest – it focusses on the interplay between psychology and insitutions:

    http://alexdoherty.wordpress.com/2009/01/14/having-and-being-religious-experience-and-the-left/

  18. Keila said on March 12th, 2009 at 9:57am #

    Alex, your article is crystal clear and touches on a variety of incredibly important points.

    Who says progress equals technological advance, necessarily???

    Progress is not linked to amassing wealth/material gain, nor is it linked to attaining further control of the world through technology.
    Therein lies the problem – the perception of progress and success.

    My idea of success is learning to work with what is already available on earth. We can work to enhance nature’s processes, instead of spending so much time and resources on MANIPULATING those processes. For instance, there are cures and medical solutions to MANY of our current ailments growing on trees right under our eyes! Instead, we want to tinker with synthetic chemicals which cause more good than harm, chemicals whose dispensation has become the unrelenting focus of the most sophisticated DRUG CARTEL of our time – the very well lubricated pharmaceutical industry (incredible profit). In fact, many of the diseases alive and well today are the result of our modern way of living. Instead of our digestive systems breaking down what should be organic-untampered with foods, machines that mimic that very natural system now do it for us (hearty whole grains = flour, refined sugar, etc.), thereby robbing our bodies of an essential function that (literally) regulates, harmonizes our bodies. There is a time to burn down certain parts of the forest to make way for other trees, as certain Native American tribes did in the past. There is a time, a season to plant a particular seed that might require the aid of a moonlit sky rather than the rays of the sun. Nature has its own M.O and we are going completely against the grain – no pun intended. Some of the wisest people I’ve met live in rural parts of the world. They are wise, not simply knowledgeable, because they apply their knowledge judiciously injecting into their agricultural practices nature’s temperament, its cyclical flow. They RESPECT the land, an ENTITY onto itself.

    It’s a matter of working in tandem (community, shared goals), in harmony. We can develop best practices agriculturally, medically, etc. But not disregarding and in fact outright scoffing at the planet’s (which includes all living creatures) very ESSENCE. In order to make this work, we really have no choice. We are all in it together, whether we like it or not and it’s not a matter of ideology or religious conviction. NATURE is the ultimate equalizer, it trumps religion and political ideology because its evidence is irrefutable. You can’t deny global warming and its disastrous consequences some of which we are already witnessing (polar bears losing ground, tsunamis, etc.). Nature is TRUTH. Our bodies don’t lie – 30 days of (the very lucrative) McDonald’s WILL cause substantial damage! Endless hours of video games instead of bike rides and good old playing tag WILL reap a penchant for VIOLENCE! The evidence is clear and all around us.

    I am not a religious person in the least, yet when I survey our current world I can’t help but think of the story of BABEL, the desire to erect an edifice as high as to reach God which resulted in bitter fighting and then dissent – the scrambling of language, division. Somehow, a few of those biblical stories I learned in my earlier life resonate with my current thinking. The GREED, the desire to be GOD (and who is God, Nature maybe?). Do we really need cloning? Is that a worthwhile scientific advance? Shouldn’t some things be left alone? Why not live a good life and then pass on, let someone else live?

    Maybe the trick lies – the wisdom – in knowing we have the ability to tap into power, but deciding to live simple, harmonious lives.

    But no, we prefer to indulge in our greed, the pursuit of power and control, the endless quest to sate every desire of the flesh, and come to find now…..”IT’S ALIIIVEEE!!!!!”

  19. bozh said on March 12th, 2009 at 10:30am #

    keila, right
    we’ve been denaturing the nature over couple centuries at very fast rate.
    mind you, we had to, let’s say 20T ago, cut dwn trees and shrubs; which cld be considered also denaturalization of nature.
    however, even 30T yrs ago there may have been just 50mn of us; so, damage was of not much import.

    denaturalists boast of “progress” but always omit to take into account the regress.
    and regression is so huge that we obtain a negative balance. clearly machines killing thousands and swords killing two or several people amounts to enorm regress.
    then there appear to be more cancer, diabetes, heart problems, obesity, madness, hatred, anger than ever before.
    i conclude we have regressed by a lot. yes, some individuals were blessed by new tools and findings but for most people the balance is negative. tnx

  20. Antonio said on March 12th, 2009 at 1:15pm #

    Thank you for your reply, Alex. I’m glad we agree on what needs to be done, at least!

    You say: “my focus in this article was identifying the dominant modes of thinking rather than discussing remedies. ” Naturally our diagnosis of the problem, its nature, inflection, range and extent will have a bearing on any remedies we may propopse. I was trying to bring out two main points in my comment, both pointing to a tendency I perceive in your article to elide the substantive features of capitalist society: the dominant mode of production and class differentiation.

    On the first point, I would suggest you need to include an appreciation how capitalism – of which consumerism is ultimately a mere expression – functions. It is not, as in Jenson’s quote, a situation where people are just too comfortable to “get off”, but a fiercely competitive and dynamic system in which those companies that don’t prosper die. Therefore what might appear at an abstract level to be “barrelling along in the same arrogant way”, is actually the logic of capitalism taken to its natural conclusion. And all those decisions that got the system to that point are perfectly rational and internally consistent – within this mode of production. This is why the “ideology is incapable of adapting to reality” – where reality is defined as the trend towards total environmental degradation. So you need to apply a systematic economic understanding of where this impulse comes from; it is not due to arrogance, ignorance, or comfort (although these are all present).

    On the second point, I feel you ignore the class differences within capitalist society. This is brought out clearly in Jenson’s quote. Life for the vast majority of people even in an industrialised country is not a comfortable ride on a sleek train; for many, it is a difficult grind, with long hours doing often alienating work, totalitarian structures of authority, declining community solidarity, and a host of attendant social problems. You write: “we appear incapable of changing our practice and instead we barrel ahead in the same arrogant way that has brought us to this parlous state.” Is a working class family that buys a highly energy consuming plasma screen TV “too comfortable” or “barrelling ahead in the same arrogant way”? Their actions certainly seems rational from their point of view, and in their particular context.

    How we perceive the problem crucially affects the solutions we propose. I think you need to include these nuances even in a psychological exposition because they critically inform how that mode of thinking is generated.

  21. Alex Doherty said on March 12th, 2009 at 2:14pm #

    Hi again Antonio,

    I don’t disagree with your description of capitalism and I agree that a market economy more or less guarantees devastating and anti-social outcomes. I would however perhaps suggest that what I described as “techno-fundamentalism” may have roots beyond the economy, (most likely in a much older system of domination and control: patriarchy).

    As for class differences, again I don’t really disagree. You write:

    “Life for the vast majority of people even in an industrialised country is not a comfortable ride on a sleek train; for many, it is a difficult grind, with long hours doing often alienating work, totalitarian structures of authority, declining community solidarity, and a host of attendant social problems. You write: “we appear incapable of changing our practice and instead we barrel ahead in the same arrogant way that has brought us to this parlous state.” Is a working class family that buys a highly energy consuming plasma screen TV “too comfortable” or “barrelling ahead in the same arrogant way”?

    I did not suggest that life for people in the western societies was comfy or easy – and I specifically mentioned many of the terrible effects of capitalism even on the relatively privileged: alienation, inequality, absence of community etc.

    As for the Jensen quote, I was referencing it specifically with regard to consumerist ideology and its principal architects in the PR and advertising industries, not with regard to the choices ordinary people make within the economy . And when I wrote that “we appear incapable of changing our practice and instead we barrel ahead in the same arrogant way that has brought us to this parlous state” I was referring to major decisions regarding technology and industry – I was not criticising individual consumption habits.

  22. Antonio said on March 12th, 2009 at 3:23pm #

    Thanks for your response, Alex. I understand your thinking a little better now. Just three points:

    1) Can you give some examples of how you think “techno-fundamentalism” is evident in: a) feudal societies; b) pre-class societies?

    2) I think the thrust of your argument is that the consumerist ideology is pervasive, dominant, and shared by most people in industrialised countries (in virtue of it being both a “mode of thought” an ideology and something that is powerful enough to threaten the planet’s ecology). Therefore, surely Jenson’s argument and your use of it does refer to ordinary people, because one cannot easily separate the popular “mode of thought” from the ideology propagated by PR etc. They seem to me to be reflexive.

    3) In a market economy, can you easily differentiate between individual consumption habits and decisions regarding technology and industry? Capitalists and governments make decisions on production, planning and regulation based on what is most profitable (not always coterminous with what people want to buy, but usually); even non-consumer manufacture and infrastructural works are closely linked to patterns of profit and consumer spending, for example the building of new roads.

    Thanks for the link to your other article; I’ll take a look. And thanks for taking the time to respond.

  23. Antonio said on March 12th, 2009 at 3:32pm #

    An extra thought. It would seem to me that “techno-fundamentalism”, unwavering belief in scientific progress and the mastery of nature, is a product of a strand of post-Enlightenment thought and a feature of modernism that, while clearly not in a determinate relationnship, was nonetheless intimately connected to the rise of mercantilism and early capitalism.

  24. Alex Doherty said on March 16th, 2009 at 6:55am #

    Hi Antonio,

    Sorry for not getting back to you – had a busy few days – will try and respond tomorrow.

    thanks

    Alex