Technology, ecology, and the real sin of Dr. Frankenstein
I first read Lewis Thomas’s wonderful Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Sympthony as an undergraduate communication major (philosophy minor) at the University of Missouri. In more than one of the essays contained therein, Thomas expresses the belief that many or most of humanity’s basic problems, including environmental and ecological ones, can only be solved by the application of science and technology. In “Making Science Work,” for example — first published in 1981, right on the heels of the two great U.S. energy crises of the 1970s — he states flatly that “We will solve our energy problems by the use of science, and in no other way.” In “Basic Science and the Pentagon,” he claims that if the money being channeled into nuclear weapons research were to be more productively redirected toward other fields of “basic science,” “We could be gardening out in the galaxy. We could free ourselves, our animals, and all our vegetation from disease. We could solve our energy problems and learn how to clean up after ourselves on our own suburban planet.”
It was circa 1990 when I first grappled with all of this, and I instantly noticed the clash between Lewis’s viewpoint and that of the vocal and prominent environmentalists whose ideas I was also reading and hearing at the time. Solve our problems with technology? But isn’t technology, with its wastefulness and pollution and inbuilt, inhuman, anti-life logic, part of the problem itself?
The point was sharpened when, as a part of the intensive extracurricular self-education that I was also undertaking, I fell in love with many writers and books that collectively expressed this same conflict or contradiction. Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends, for instance, became a master text in my philosophical maturation and worldview, and Roszak was all about exposing the evils of scientism and technocratic civilization a la Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society while reclaiming the lost worldview and existential experience of spiritually charged Romantic imagination a la the likes of William Blake (although he did take pains to specify that any sustainable future as he saw it would retain the benefits of a restrained and purified empirical science and technology, shorn of its pernicious, soul-killing materialism). But I also “turned on” explosively to Robert Anton Wilson, who was all about the full-bore pursuit of everything that ever higher and higher levels of technology can give us (although he did heap scorn on dogmatic materialism and skepticism; see his The New Inquisition), and who in his Schrödinger’s Cat trilogy made direct — and satirical, and dismissive — mention of Roszak and Where the Wasteland Ends.
So I was caught on the horns of a dilemma. My growing army of primary philosophical influences tore me in two different directions, and I wasn’t mature or confident enough to do my own thinking about the matter.
A couple of days ago, Orion magazine published an essay at their website, drawn from their September/October 2011 print issue, that brings this whole issue roaring back from my distant intellectual past. Below is a summary version of the argument mounted by the authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, which is self-described as “a paradigm-shifting think tank committed to modernizing liberal thought for the 21st Century.” The essay repays full reading and careful reflection, because it’s still talking about a live issue, and Shellenberger and Nordhaus are savvy and articulate. Note especially the references to the Frankenstein myth at the end of the piece. I’ve pasted them below in full. Significantly, the young Mary Shelley’s vision, born amid the cultural inception of science itself, is still very much alive as well.
Many environmentally concerned people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural. Our animal skins, our fire, our farms, our windmills, our nuclear plants, and our solar panels—all 100 percent natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth…None of this changes the reality and risks of the ecological crises humans have created…But the difference between the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind. Humans have long been cocreators of the environment they inhabit. Any proposal to fix environmental problems by turning away from technology risks worsening them, by attempting to deny the ongoing coevolution of humans and nature…Though it poses as a solution, today’s nihilistic ecotheology is actually a significant obstacle to dealing with ecological problems created by modernization—one that must be replaced by a new, creative, and life-affirming worldview…There’s no question that humans are radically remaking the Earth, but fears of ecological apocalypse — of condemning this world to fiery destruction — are unsupported by the sciences…The apocalyptic vision of ecotheology warns that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization, but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich…Putting faith in modernization will require a new secular theology consistent with the reality of human creation and life on Earth, not with some imagined dystopia or utopia. It will require a worldview that sees technology as humane and sacred, rather than inhumane and profane.
According to [the French anthropologist Bruno] Latour, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not a cautionary tale against hubris, but rather a cautionary tale against irrational fears of imperfection. Dr. Frankenstein is an antihero not because he created life, but rather because he fled in horror when he mistook his creation for a monster—a self-fulfilling prophecy. The moral of the story, where saving the planet is concerned, is that we should treat our technological creations as we would treat our children, with care and love, lest our abandonment of them turn them into monsters.
“The sin is not to wish to have dominion over nature,” Latour writes, “but to believe that this dominion means emancipation and not attachment.” In other words, the term “ecological hubris” should not be used to describe the human desire to remake the world, but rather the faith that we can end the cycle of creation and destruction.
Full article at the Orion website: “Evolve: A case for modernization as the road to salvation“