Never prophesy, especially about the future. —Sam Goldwyn
I am not a Luddite. Like most reasonable people, I welcome technical progress. As Stephen Marglin has reminded us, “It is worth remembering that the followers of the original General Ludd, whose name became synonymous with irrational resistance to progress, did not oppose the spinning jenny but jennies in factories. Luddite resistance was not to technical progress but to the application of progress in ways which would destroy the birthright of ordinary folk to labor in their own cottages.”  Ned Ludd, or King Ludd, was a mysterious and mythical figure. He was an English laborer who was supposed to have destroyed weaving machinery around 1779. His followers, the Luddites, destroyed power looms between 1811 and 1816. The movement shook the North of England in 1811 and 1812. Hand weavers and combers rose up against the new machines that were displacing them. They smashed power looms and burned down textile mills. The authorities made the destruction of machinery a capital crime. By 1813, 24 of the Luddites had been hanged.
Luddites are still with us. In the 1970s there existed in Cambridge, England, a society called the George Corrie Society. Its purpose was to put obstacles in the way of technical progress. And in the USA the Unabomber had pathological objections to technical progress.
The indictment of the opponents of technical progress consisted not only in pointing to technological unemployment but also to the depersonalization and regimentation of work, the despoliation of nature, and the indiscriminate slaughter of total war. Since the 1970s this indictment has been widened to encompass the technologies of information and of life, including the cutting edge of computer science and molecular biology. Technology is blamed not only for its dramatic disasters—such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Exxon Valdez—but also for the insidious, alienating replacement of conversation and community by television watching and net surfing.
The ancient Maya creation epic, the Popol Vuh contains a “Rebellion of the Tools” in which people are attacked by their farm implements and held over the fire by their pots and pans. The story can be regarded as an early warning of the threat of machines. Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) pictures a society in which a Luddite revolution had overthrown technology. Parties called the machinists and the anti-machinists fought each other and the latter won. The objection, Butler emphasizes repeatedly, was not so much to the machines as to the rapid speed at which they were evolving.
One person’s technological outrage is another’s miraculous salvation. Stripped of the gauzy romanticism of myth, the pre-industrial village was for most people a place for exhausting and unremitting subsistence labor, harnessing men, women, and children to the mind-numbing tasks of farm and household.
I am fully aware of the great benefits technical progress has brought. It has raised productivity and wages and has not necessarily caused longterm unemployment. New and improved goods and services have replaced older ones and have created new employment opportunities. Half the things we spend our money on were not available in 1870, from air travel to zip fasteners. The reduction in household drudgery greatly benefited working class women. But technology has brought not only higher productivity and incomes, but also better education and the enjoyment of a longer life in good health.
I do not believe that technical progress inevitably leads to more pollution, greater raw material exhaustion, degradation of the environment, or generally gloom and doom. Cassandras like Paul Ehrlich have been shown to be false prophets of doom. But I do have some concerns or worries. They are not those commonly discussed by the prophets of gloom. I shall discuss them below after some introductory remarks.
I shall not be concerned here with the hair-raising stories by journalists that attempt to make our flesh creep. The first Club of Rome report entitled Limits to Growth (1972) was shown to be entirely wrong. Neither the fears about predicted excess pollution, nor about raw material exhaustion, nor population growth turned out to be justified. There may well be dangers from global greenhouse warming (the result of the burning of fossil fuels), though some have predicted a new ice age. There may be an ozone threat resulting from ultraviolet radiation. It causes skin cancer, cataracts, and other health problems. A hole in the ozone layer is caused by chlorofluorocarbons. Deforestation in the Himalayas increases flooding in Bangladesh. Forty to fifty million acres of tropical forest disappear every year. Deforestation proceeds at the rate of the destruction of one football field every second, or one Tennessee every year. Soil erosion and desertification are widespread. Ultraviolet radiation may lower the harvest of soybeans, the world’s leading protein crop. The destruction of living species such as whales and dolphins and the over-fishing in the Pacific proceed unchecked. More than half of the now-living species may disappear within our lifetimes; besieged creatures include the beluga whale, the eastern spinner dolphin, and the Steller sea lion. The red squirrel, the snail darter, the northern spotted owl, and the dusky seaside sparrow are all endangered. The search for ivory will make elephants extinct in 20 years at the present rate of killing of 200–300 per day. The international trade ban on rhino horn drove up its price and increased the killing. Chemical waste seeps downward to poison groundwater and upward to destroy the atmosphere’s delicate balance; acid rain ruins forests; incinerator ships burn toxic wastes; DDT, though banned in the USA, is found in the mud of Lake Siskiwit near Lake Superior. There are three forms of air pollution. First, there is acid rain. Twenty million tons of sulfur dioxide are emitted from coal-fired power plants. Second, there is smog caused by barbecues, dry cleaners, petrochemical plants, and motor cars. Third, there are toxic chemicals. Paper that is chlorine bleached contains dioxin and other organochlorines, which are among the most hazardous substances in the world. Seven hundred million pounds are released each year.
These are much-discussed problems, although I shall not talk about them. Vice President Al Gore compared them to Kristallnacht. But economic progress does not have to take the form of pollution and raw material exhaustion. Some people have sought the solution in zero growth. But this is nonsense. If sustainable growth is interpreted as maintaining all ingredients of growth, including the total stock of exhaustible raw materials, what is sometimes called “hard sustainability,” zero growth is not the solution. Capital would have to be maintained by replacement, which calls for the raw materials. It would merely postpone the day of reckoning. We would have to opt for zero consumption. But zero consumption means the extinction of the human race.
We have four options. First, we can opt for less growth, with fewer goods and services, and therefore fewer “bads.” Second, we can opt for the production of more anti-bads (such as scrubbers) made with the resources reallocated. Whether this is counted as more or less growth depends on our accounting conventions: whether the anti-bads are counted as necessary inputs for goods or as final products. Third, we can choose even more goods and faster growth, to compensate for the growing amount of bads. Finally, we can produce different kinds of goods, with fewer of the characteristics causing bads: for example slower, less polluting cars such as hydrogen fuel cell-driven or bioethanol driven cars. This fourth option would be my preferred one.
It is sometimes forgotten that much technical progress can be and has been entirely benign. There are many entirely innocuous innovations that neither exhaust raw materials nor pollute. They represent a switch from energy-intensive to knowledge-intensive innovations. The first Club of Rome Report was entitled “Limits to Growth”; a later Club of Rome Report was called “No Limits to Learning.”
The most dramatic engine of current economic growth—information technology—is environmentally benign. One could draw up a long list of innovations that have none or few of the detrimental effects usually attributed to technology such as pollution. There is a long list of such benign innovations, among them micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), the technology of the first decade of the 21st century (as it was microprocessors in the 1980s and lasers in the 1990s) which constructs buildings to adjust to earthquakes and biomedical testing; heart bypass surgery; anti-polio vaccine; painless dentistry; valium; prozac; Smith- Kline Beckman’s anti-ulcer drug Tagament; the compact disk; microchips; HYVs of wheat and rice; CAT scan; Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI); Ultrasound; Sony’s Walkman; EMI’s body scanner; Federal Express overnight delivery; the word processor; TV, cable and VCRs; Kurzweil’s voice system (in which you dictate to a machine that types); in vitro fertilization; the fax machine; high definition TV; the fuel cell; and many others.
Conditions that carried a death sentence only thirty years ago, such as leukemia, are now routinely treatable with a mixture of high-tech drugs and surgery. Cochlear implants now allow the deaf to hear; retinal transplants restore sight to the blind; new anti-inflammatory drugs allow the lame to walk; and sophisticated tests can find a cancer in the body even when only a few cells have gone awry.
- ^ Stephen Marglin, “Towards the Decolonization of the Mind,” Dominating Knowledge, edited by Federique Apffel Marglin and Stephen A. Marglin (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 25.
- ^ Ronald Wright, “All hooked up to monkey brains,” Times Literary Supplement, May 16, 2003, p. 19.
This is a chapter from Technological Nightmares (Lecture).
Previous: Biography of Paul Streeten | Table of Contents | Next: Nanatechnology