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The Four Fundamentalisms and the Threat to Sustainable Democracy (Part 2 of 2)

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Religious, national, and economic fundamentalisms are dangerous. They are systems of thought -or, more accurately, systems of non-thought; as Wes Jackson puts it, “fundamentalism takes over where thought leaves off” http://www.oriononline.org/pages/oo/sidebars/America/Jackson.html- that are at the core of much of the organised violence in the world today.

They are systems that are deployed to constrain real freedom and justify illegitimate authority. But it may turn out that those fundamentalisms are child’s play compared with U.S. society’s technological fundamentalism. Most concisely defined,technological fundamentalism is the assumption that the increasing use of increasingly more 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 emedied 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 it’s 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 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 clear. For example, there’s the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in internal-combustion engines, which gave us the interstate highway system and contributes to global warming. We haven’t quite figuredouthowtocope with these problems, and in retrospect it might have been wise to go slower in the development of a transportation system based on the car and think through the consequences.

Or how about CFCs and the ozone hole? Chlorofluorocarbonshaveavariety 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,andnon-reactivewithother 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, the technological fundamentalists might argue, we 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 world that has become dependent on air conditioning, but instead looked for replacements to keep the air conditioning running. 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.

This technological fundamentalism makes it clear why 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 some time, most dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. Most obviously, there are two places we have gone, with reckless abandon, where we had no business going - into the atom and into the cell.

On the former: The deeper we break into the energy package, the greater the risks we take. 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, heavy metal uranium- is quite a different project, more complex and far beyond our capacity to control. Likewise, manipulating plants through selective breeding is local and manageable, whereas breaking into the workings of the gene -the foundational material of life- takes us to places we have no way to understand.

We live now in the uncomfortable position of realising 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 of how to step back from our most dangerous missteps.


Redefining a GoodLife

Central to that project is realising that we have to learn to live with less, which we can accomplish only when we recognize that living with less is crucial not only to ecological survival but long-term human fulfilment. People in the United States live with an abundance of most everything -except meaning. The people who have the most in material terms seem to spend the most time in therapy, searching for answers to their own alienation. This “blessed lifestyle” -a term Bush’s spokesman used in 2000 to describe the president’s view of U.S. affluence-perhaps is more accurately also seen as a curse.

Let’s return to CFCs and air-conditioning. To someone who lives in Texas, with its miserable heat half the year, it’s reasonable to ask: If not air-conditioning, then what? One possible reasonable response is, of course, to vacate Texas, a strategy I ponder often. More realistic: The “cracker house,” a term from Florida and Georgia to describe houses built before air-conditioning that utilize shade, cross-ventilation, and various building techniques to create a livable space even in the summer in the deep South. Of course, even with all that, there are times when it’s hot in a cracker house -so hot that one doesn’t want to do much of anything but drink iced tea and sit on the porch.

That raises a question: What’s so bad about sitting on the porch drinking iced tea instead of sitting inside in an air-conditioned house? A world that steps back from high-energy/high-technology answers to all questions will no doubt be a harder world in some ways. But the way people cope without such “solutions” can help create and solidify human bonds. In this sense, the high-energy/high-technology world often contributes to impoverished relationships and the destruction of longstanding cultural practices and the information those practices carry.

So, stepping back from this fundamentalism is not simply sacrificebut an exchange of a certain kind of comfort and easy amusement for a different set of rewards. Articulating this is important in a world in which people have come to believe the good life is synonymous with consumption and the ability to acquire increasingly sophisticated technology.
To miss the way in which turning from the high-energy/high-technology can improve our lives, then, supports the techno-fundamentalists, such as this writer in the Wired magazine:

“Green-minded activists failed to move the broader public not because they were wrong about the problems, but because the solutions they offered were unappealing to most people. They called for tightening belts and curbing appetites, turning down the thermostat and living lower on the food chain. They rejected technology, business, and prosperity in favour of returning to a simpler way of life. No wonder the movement got so little traction. Asking people in the world’s wealthiest, most advanced societies to turn their backs on the very forces that drove such abundance is naïve at best.”

Naïve, perhaps, but not as naïve as the belief that unsustainable systems can be sustained indefinitely.
With that writer’s limited vision -which is what passes for vision in this culture- it’s not surprising that he advocates economic and technological fundamentalist solutions:

“With climate change hard upon us, a new green movement is taking shape, one that embraces environmentalism’s concerns but rejects its worn-out answers. Technology can be a font of endlessly creative solutions. Business can be a vehicle for change. Prosperity can help us build the kind of world we want. Scientificexploration,innovativedesign, and cultural evolution are the most powerful tools we have.
Entrepreneurial zeal and market forces, guided by sustainable policies, can propel the world into a bright green future.”

In other words: Let’s ignore our experience and throw the dice. Let’s take naiveté to new heights. Let’s forget all we should have learned.


What’s Next?
So far, it appears my criticism has been of the fundamentalist versions of religion, nation, capitalism, and high-technology. But the problem goes deeper than the most exaggerated versions of these systems. If there is to be a liveable future, religion as we know it, the nation-state, capitalism, and what we think of as advanced technology will have to give way to new ways of understanding the world and organising ourselves.

We still have to find ways to struggle with the mystery of the world through ritual and art; organise ourselves politically; produce and distribute goods and services; and create the tools we need to do all these things. But the existing systems have proven inadequate to the task. On each front, we need major conceptual revolutions.

I don’t pretend to have answers, nor should anyone else. We are at the beginning of a long process of redefining what it means to be humanin relation to others and to the non-human world. We are still formulating questions. Some find this a depressing situation, but we could just as well see it as a time that opens incredible opportunities for creativity.

To live in unsettled times -especially times in which it’s not difficulttoimagine life as we know it becoming increasingly untenable- is both frightening and exhilarating. In that sense, my friend’s acknowledgement of profound grief need not scare us but instead can be a place from which we see clearly and gather the strength to move forward. What is that path? Tracking the four fundamentalisms, we can see some turns we need to make:

  • Technologically: We need to stop talking about progress in terms that reflexivelyglorifyfasterandmorepowerful devices, and instead adopt a standard for judging progress based on the real effects on humans and the wider world of which we are a part;
  • Economically: We need to stop talking about growth in terms of more production and adopt a standard for economic growth and development based on meeting human needs;
  • Nationally: We need to stop talking about national security and the national interest -code words for serving the goals of the powerful- and focus on people’s interests in being secure in the basics: food, shelter, education, and communal solidarity;
  • Religiously: We need to stop trying to pin down God. We can understand God as simply the name we give to that which is beyond our ability to understand, and recognize that the attempt to create rules for how to know God is always a failed project.

I want to end by reinforcing the ultimate importance of that recognition: Most of the world is complex beyond our ability to comprehend. It’s not that there’s nothing we can know through our rational faculties, but that it’s essential we recognise the limits of those faculties.

We need to reject the fundamentalist streak in all of us, religious or secular, whatever our political affiliation.Weneed to stop mistaking cleverness for wisdom. We need to embrace our limits -our ignorance - in the hopes that we can stop being so stupid. When we do that we are coming to terms with the kind of animals we are, in all our glory and all our limitations.

That embrace of our limitations is an embrace of a larger world of which we are a part, more glorious than most of us ever experience. When we do that -if we can findourway clear to do that- I think we make possible love in this world. Not an idealised love, but a real love that recognises the joy that is possible and the grief that is inevitable.

It is my dream to live in that world, to live in that love. There is much work to be done if we want that world. There is enormous struggle that can’t be avoided. When we allow ourselves to face it, we will realise that ahead of us there is suffering beyond description, as well as potential for transcending that suffering.

There is grief and joy.
And there is nothing to do but face it. 

Robert Jensen -

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a founding member of the Nowar Collective.Read More >>

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