Against the Megamachine – David Watson

“Industrialism is, I am afraid, going to be a curse for mankind … To change to industrialism is to court disaster. The present distress is undoubtedly insufferable. Pauperism must go. But industrialism is no remedy. . . .” — Gandhi

How do we begin to discuss something as immense and pervasive as technology? It means to describe the totality of modern civilization—not only its massive industrial vistas, its structural apparatus; not only its hierarchy of command and specialization, the imprint of this apparatus on human relations; not only  the “humble objects,” which “in their aggregate … have shaken our mode of living to its very roots,” as Siegfried Giedion has written; but also in that internalized  country of our thoughts, dreams and desires, in the way we consciously and unconsciously see ourselves and our world.

Questioning technology seems incoherent in the modern world because, invisible and ubiquitous, it defines our terrain, our idea of reason. You cannot “get rid of technology,” you cannot “destroy all machines”; we are dependent upon them for our survival. In any case, the story goes, technology has always been with us. When an ape pries termites out of a tree with a twig, that, too, is supposed to be technology. Everything changes, and yet stays the same. Plugging into a computer is no more than an improvement on prying termites out of bark. Therefore, one is expected never to discuss technology as a totality but only specific styles or components of technology, which are to be embraced or discarded according to the criteria of the technological religion: efficiency, velocity, compatibility with the entirety of the aggregate.

No one denies that different modes of life existed; but they have been, or are rapidly being, forgotten. Hence the idea they must have been defective, backward, underdeveloped, and eventually surpassed by progress. You can’t “go back,” “return to the past”—“you can’t stop progress.” When mercantile capitalism emerged, the individualistic, entrepreneurial spirit was thought the essence of human nature. Even non-western and indigenous societies came to be judged mere preparatory stages of modern market society. As mechanization took command, humanity was seen fundamentally as the “tool user,” Homo faber. So ingrained was this notion of human nature that when the paleolithic cave paintings at Altamira were discovered in 1879, archaeologists considered them a hoax; Ice Age hunters would have had neither the leisure (due to the “struggle for existence”) nor the mental capacity (since sophistication is demonstrated first of all by complex technical apparatus) to create such graceful, visually sophisticated art.

Taking the part for the whole—ignoring the complex languages, symbolic exchange, rituals, and dreamwork of diverse peoples, while fetishizing their technics—this ruling idea continues to see all cultural evolution as only a series of advances in technical activities. There is never any suspicion of qualitative difference; the mathematics, techniques, and technical implements of early peoples are seen only as incipient versions of modern cybernetics, rational mastery, and industrial apparatus.


Technology is a way of life


To define technology as any and every technical endeavor or artifact, to think of it as the means by which human beings do everything from picking fruit to firing missiles into space, is to render the word meaningless. This ideology can make no sense of the dramatic changes that have occurred in life; it conceals the fact that technology has become a way of life, a specific kind of society. It assumes that a society in which nearly every sphere of human endeavor is shaped by technology is essentially the same as a society with a limited, balanced technics embedded in the larger constellation of life.

Just as capital has been reductively confused with industrial apparatus and accumulated wealth, when it is more importantly a set of social relations, so has technology been reduced to the image of machines and tools, when it, too, has become a complex of social relations—a “web of instrumentality,” and thus a qualitatively different form of domination. Technology is capital, the triumph of the inorganic—humanity separated from its tools and universally dependent upon the technological apparatus. It is the regimentation and mechanization of life, the universal proletarianization of humanity and the destruction of community. It is not simply machines, not even mechanization or regimentation alone. As Lewis Mumford pointed out in Technics and Civilization, these phenomena are not new in history; “what is new is the fact that these functions have been projected and embodied in organized forms which dominate every aspect of our existence.” (Thus critics of technology are commonly accused of being opposed to tools, when in reality modern industrial technology destroyed human-scale tools, and in this way degraded human labor.)

The constellation of terms related to the Greek root techne (meaning art, craft or skill) has changed over time. Words such as techniquetechnics, andtechnology tend to overlap in meaning. They are not static, universal, neutral terms, as a simple dictionary definition might suggest; they reflect actual social relations as well as a process of historical development.

In his Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, Langdon Winner observes that the once limited, specific meaning of the word technology as “a ‘practical art,’ ‘the study of the practical arts,’ or ‘the practical arts collectively,’” has in the twentieth century come to refer to an unprecedented, diverse array of phenomena. The word now “has expanded rapidly in both its denotative and connotative meanings” to mean “tools, instruments, machines, organizations, methods, techniques, systems, and the totality of these and similar things in our experience”—a shift in meaning that can be traced chronologically through successive dictionary definitions.

There is no clean division between what constitutes technique (which in its earliest usage in French meant generally a certain manner of doing something, a method of procedure), a technics which is limited and culture-bound, and a technological system which tends to swallow up every activity of society. A provisional definition of terms might be useful, describing ­technique as that procedural instrumentality or manner in which something is done, whether spontaneous, or methodical, which is shared by all human societies but which is not necessarily identical in its motives or its role in those societies; technicsas technical operations or the ensemble of such operations using tools or machines—again, not necessarily identical from society to society, and not necessarily either methodical or spontaneous; and technology as the rationalization or science of techniques, an idea close to the dictionary definitions—the geometric linking together, systematization and universalization of technical instrumentality and applied science within society. This last definition underscores technology’s emergence as a system, hence as an autonomous power and social body. While such definitions may not be perfect, they make it possible to explore better the complex nature of the technological phenomenon and modern civilization’s intrinsically technological codes.

A certain procedural instrumentality is shared by a painter applying paint to a canvas (or cave wall), a farmer planting seeds, and an electronics technician testing the strength of some metal in a nuclear device. That doesn’t make the character of their activities identical. As Jacques Ellul observes in The Technological Society, “It is not … the intrinsic characteristics of techniques which reveal whether there have been real changes, but the characteristics of the relation between the technical phenomenon and society.” Ellul uses the French word technique in a way which overlaps with the use of “technics” and “technology” in this essay, and which he defines as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”

Whereas previously limited, diversified, local technics bore the stamp of the culture and the individuals from which they emerged, technology now changes all local and individual conditions to its own image. It is gradually creating a single, vast, homogenous technological civilization which smashes down “every Chinese wall,” and generating a dispossessed, atomized and de-skilled human subject more and more identical from Greenland to Taiwan.


A world of means

The wide diversity of primal and archaic societies is evidence that though these societies can be said to share a basic level or repertoire of techniques and tools (containers, horticultural and gathering techniques, food preparation, weaving, etc.), each manifestation is unique, independent, culture-bound, kinship bound. Neither technique in general nor specific technical activities or objects entirely determines how these societies live.

“Because we judge in modern terms,” argues Ellul, “we believe that production and consumption coincided with the whole of life.” But in traditional societies “technique was applied only in certain narrow, limited areas … Even in activities we consider technical, it was not always that aspect which was uppermost. In the achievement of a small economic goal, for example, the technical effort became secondary to the pleasure of gathering together … The activity of sustaining social relations and human contacts predominated over the technical scheme of things and the obligation to work, which were secondary causes.” Technical activity played a role in these societies, he argues, “but it had none of the characteristics of instrumental technique. Everything varied from man to man according to his gifts, whereas technique in the modern sense seeks to eliminate such variability.”

As society changed, the notion of applied science emerged as a central motivating value, along with an unquestioning allegiance to quantification, time-keeping, progressive mechanization and ever increasing, ever accelerating production—reflecting not simply a change in technical means but an entire new world of meaning and means. The accompanying religious impulse—the worship of technical prowess, the fascination with technical magic linked to the crude, materialist pragmatism of efficiency of means—tended to conceal the meaning of technology as a system. Ellul: “The techniques which result from applied science date from the eighteenth century and characterize our own civilization. The new factor is that the multiplicity of these techniques has caused them literally to change their character. Certainly, they derive from old principles and appear to be the fruit of normal and logical evolution. However, they no longer represent the same phenomenon. In fact technique has taken substance, has become a reality in itself. It is no longer merely a means and an intermediary. It is an object in itself, an independent reality with which we must reckon.”

According to the official religion, technology, rooted in a universal and innate human identity, is paradoxically somehow no more than a simple tool or technique like all previous tools and techniques, a static object which we can manipulate like a hammer. But society has become more and more the sum of its own technical organization (notwithstanding the dysfunctional imbalances which are the residues of the collapse of archaic societies and of uneven development). People have lost their traditional techniques and become dependent upon an apparatus: mass production produces masses. Technology is not a tool but an environment—a totality of means enclosing us in its automatism of need, production and exponential development.

As Langdon Winner argues, “Shielded by the conviction that technology is neutral and tool-like, a whole new order is built piecemeal, step by step, with the parts and pieces linked together in novel ways—without the slightest public awareness or opportunity to dispute the character of the changes underway.” What results is a form of social organization—an interconnection and stratification of tasks and authoritarian command necessitated by the enormity and complexity of the modern technological system in all of its activities. Winner observes, “The direction of governance flows from the technical conditions to people and their social arrangements, not the other way around. What we find, then, is not a tool waiting passively to be used but a technical ensemble that demands routinized behavior.”

No single machine, no specific aspect of technology is solely responsible for this transformation. Rather, as Ellul puts it, it is the “convergence … of a plurality, not of techniques, but of systems or complexes of techniques. The result is an operational totalitarianism; no longer is any part of man free and independent of these techniques.” A process of synergism, a “necessary linking together of techniques,” eventually encompasses the whole system. One realm of technology combines with another to create whole new systems at a rapid rate. The many previously unanticipated “spin-off” developments, for example in fields like cybernetics and genetics, make this description of synergy clear.


A depopulated world of matter and motion

Technology has replaced the natural landscape with the dead, suffocating surfaces of a modern technopolis, a cemetery of “bounded horizons and reduced dimensions.” Space has undergone an “inverse revolution.” Time, too, since the rise in the use of the weight-driven clock, is bounded and quantified. “The clock, not the steam engine,” writes Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization, “is the key machine of the modern industrial age.” With the clock, “Time took on the character of an enclosed space.”

The quantification of knowledge and experience takes place on several levels—in the rise of standardized weights and measures, which accompanies the rise of the centralized state; in the spread of clocks and time-keeping; in the “romanticism of numbers,” which accompanies the rise of the money economy and its abstract symbols of wealth; in the new scientific methods foreseen by Galileo, confining the physical sciences to the so-called “primary qualities” of size, shape, quantity and motion; and in the methods of capitalist book-keeping and the reduction of everything to exchange value. “The power that was science and the power that was money,” writes Mumford, “were, in the final analysis, the same kind of power: the power of abstraction, measurement, quantification.”

“But the first effect of this advance in clarity and sobriety of thought,” he continues, “was to devaluate every department of experience except that which lent itself to mathematical investigation … With this gain in accuracy went a deformation of experience as a whole. The instruments of science were helpless in the realm of qualities. The qualitative was reduced to the subjective: the subjective was dismissed as unreal, and the unseen and unmeasurable non-existent … What was left was the bare, depopulated world of matter and motion: a wasteland.”

Did new technologies and time-keeping spur early capitalist mercantilism, or was the reverse the case? In fact, technical growth and capitalism went hand in hand, bringing about the technological civilization of today. This system expands both by the impulse of economic accumulation and by the mechanization and “rationalization” of all life according to normative, technical criteria. Both processes reduce a complex of human activities to a series of quantifiable procedures. Neither formal, juridical ownership of the apparatus, nor the characteristics of specific machinery or particular materials used in production, is determinative. Rather, modern urban-industrial civilization is a socially regimented network of people and machines—an industrialized production-commodity culture which tends toward the absolute destruction of local communities and technics, and the penetration of the megatechnic system into every aspect of life.

Ellul writes, “When André Leroi-Gourhan tabulates the efficiency of Zulu swords and arrows in term of the most up-to-date knowledge of weaponry, he is doing work that is obviously different from that of the swordsmith of Bechuanaland who created the form of the sword. The swordsmith’s choice of form was unconscious and spontaneous; although it can now be justified by numerical calculations, such calculations had no place whatsoever in the technical operation he performed.” Technology transforms swordmaking into a more efficient, more rationalized industrial process (or dispenses with it altogether for more “advanced” modes), and all the swordsmiths into factory hands.

In the factory we see the process of mechanization at its height. Siegfried Giedion comments in Mechanization Takes Command, “Mechanization could not become a reality in the age of guilds. But social institutions change as soon as the orientation changes. The guilds became obsolete as soon as the rationalistic view became dominant and moved continually toward utilitarian goals. This was the predestined hour for mechanization.” Similarly, Murray Bookchin argues in Toward an Ecological Society, “Of the technical changes that separate our own era form past ones, no single ‘device’ was more important than … the simple process of rationalizing labor into an industrial engine for the production of commodities. Machinery, in the conventional sense of the term, heightened this process greatly, but the systematic rationalization of labor in ever-specialized tasks totally demolished the technical structure of self-managed societies and ultimately of workmanship, the self-hood of the economic realm … The distinction between artisan and worker hardly requires elucidation. But two significant facts stand out that turn the transformation from craft to factory into a social and characterological disaster. The first fact is the dehumanization of the worker into a mass being; the second is the worker’s reduction into a hierarchical being.” (The process was hardly “simple,” but Bookchin’s description of the emerging factory suggests the possibility of critiquing technology without opposing tools or technics altogether.)


Technology is not “neutral”

The common notion of technology’s “neutrality” does not recognize that all tools have powerful symbolic content, are suggestive models for thought and action which affect their users. More importantly, the idea of neutrality fails to see that massification and accelerated, synergistic integration of technology would engender corresponding human structures and modes of thought and experience. Culture and technology interact dynamically, each spurring transformations in the other.

Technology is not neutral because it brings with it its own rationality and method of being used. A network of computers or a steel mill cannot be used variously like a simple tool; one must use them as they are designed, and in coordinated combination with a network of complex support processes without which their operation is impossible. But design and interrelated dependencies bring manifold unforeseen results; every development in technology, even technical development which seeks to curb deleterious technological effects, brings with it other unpredictable, sometimes even more disastrous effects. The automobile, for example, was seen as simply a replacement for the horse and carriage, but mass production techniques combined with Ford’s new conception of mass distribution gave the automobile a significance no one could foresee. Ford’s revolution actually came at the end of a long period of technical preparation. Mass assembly line production and interchangeability of parts dated back to the end of the eighteenth century; by the end of the nineteenth century the process of mechanization was relatively stabilized, and produced a rise in expectations (reflected in the popularity of the great international expositions on industry) which created the terrain for the automobile’s enthusiastic reception as an object of mass consumption. The expanding role of the state was also critical, since it was only the state which would have the means to create a national automobile transportation system.

The automobile is thus hardly a tool; it is the totality of the system (and culture) of production and consumption which it implies: a way of life. Its use alone makes its own demands apart from the necessities inherent in production. Nor could a highway system be considered a neutral instrument; it is a form of technical giantism and massification. Considering the automobile, who can deny that technology creates its own inertia, its own direction, its own cultural milieu? Think how this one invention transformed our world, our thoughts, images, dreams, forms of association in just a few generations. It has uprooted communities, undermined farmlands, contributed to vast changes in our dietary habits, shifted our values, contaminated our sexual lives, polluted our air both in its manufacture and use, and created a generalized ritual of sacrifice on the assembly line and on the road.

But the automobile is only one invention, if a key one, of thousands. Who would have thought that within just a few decades of the invention of television millions of human beings would spend more time in from of the cathode ray tube than in almost any other waking activity, deriving their very sense of reality from it? Who would have thought that the world would become a radioactive nightmare “wired for destruction” within a few years of the Manhattan Project? And who can say what emergent technologies have in store for us?

In this light, it is much more important to analyze the distinctions between, say a spear and a missile, than to concentrate on their common traits. It is important to ask what kind of society they reflect—and help to bring about. In the first case we see a hand tool made locally with a specific, unique and limited technique, and that technique embedded in a culture. Each tool is unique and reflects the individuality of its user or maker. In the latter case we see an entire social hierarchy, with an extremely complex division of labor. In such an alienated, compartmentalized, instrumental system, each functioning member is isolated by complex social and procedural opacity, and thus blind to the overall process and its results.

In the first case the creator works directly with the materials, which is to say, in nature. In the second case, the worker is alienated from the materials of nature. Nature is not only depleted and destroyed by exploitation and objectification, by the inevitable destruction to be unleashed by the instrument, but, as Ellul observes, “by the very establishment of technology as man’s milieu.” In the case of the spear, human limits are implied (though human beings could choose to organize themselves as a machine to do greater destruction, as they did in the ancient state military machines). In the case of the missile, however, the organization of human beings as a machine, as a network of production and destruction, is fundamental to what is produced, and the only limit implied is that attained with the ultimate annihilation of the human race by its technology. If there is an underlying perversity in all instruments of violence or war, whether primitive or technological, we can see that in the former the kind of war which takes places is a limited, personal, sporadic activity, which, along with peace-making, gift exchange and intermarriage, is a moment in a network of reciprocity tending toward the resolution of conflicts. The missile production—which begins at the point where community dissolves and the military phalanx is first organized—is an unlimited, depersonalized, institutional system which now magnifies human destructiveness to the point of omnicide.

The convergence of social hierarchies and their ever more powerful and all-encompassing tools renders the distinction between capital and technology at least problematic. Both terms are metaphors—partial descriptions which represent the modern organization of life. The state is an apparatus of administrative technique which cannot be separated from the corporate organizations of centralized, technological hierarchy. Economic planning and the market are submerged in technique, technique in both bureaucratic planning and the chaos of the market. Technological automatism and remote control, standardization and mass propaganda are leaving classical bourgeois society behind; it has therefore become crucial to look at the nature of the mass society which only mass technics could have generated.

The myth of a technology separate from its use assumes that means are simply instruments—factories, supertankers, computer networks, mass agrosystems—and not that universe of means: the daily activities of the people who participate in these systems. It fails to understand that such ubiquitous means themselves eventually become ends, requiring their inevitable characterological internalization in human beings—in other words, that human beings must obey and thus become the slaves of their mechanical slaves. As Lewis Mumford warned in The Pentagon of Power, “It is the system itself that, once set up, gives orders.” This “self-inflicted impotence” is “the other side of ‘total control.’”

Technology—systematized, “rationalized” mass technics—is more than the sum of its parts; this totality undermines human independence, community and freedom, creating mass beings who are creatures of the universal apparatus, standardized subjects who derive their meaning from the gigantic networks of “mass communication”: a one-way barrage of mystification and control. Even those ostensibly directing the machines are themselves its creatures, each one isolated in a compartment of the giant, opaque hive, so such “control” is ambiguous. The conspiratorial notion of “technocracy” is inadequate, if not entirely outmoded. The blind, centrifugal complexity of the system defies conscious control, coming more and more to resemble a locomotive with no throttle hurtling toward an abyss.

A fundamental mutation has occurred


It is now a familiar truism that modern technologies diversify experience. But mechanization has in many ways narrowed our horizons by standardizing our cultures into a global techno-monoculture. This is evident in the mechanization of agriculture, one example being the cultivation of fruit trees. As Giedion points out, “The influence of mechanization … leads to standardization of the fruit into new varieties … We have seen an orchard of 42,000 Macintosh trees; and the apples were so uniform that they might have been stamped out by machine.”

Such standardization was not always the case. Giedion mentions a noted landscape architect of the first half of the nineteenth century who lists 186 varieties of apple and 233 varieties of pear for planting by arborists, and who for the keeper of a small orchard recommends thirty different kinds of apple “to ripen in succession.” He adds, “the large red apple, which attracts the customer’s eye, is especially favored, and bred less for bouquet than for a resistant skin and stamina in transit. The flavor is neutralized, deliberately, it would seem.” Giedion’s example seems quaint today as transnational corporations maneuver to take control of world seed and genetic material, and a multitude of localized varieties are replaced by agricultural monoculture.

With modern communications technology, another fundamental mutation has occurred or is occurring. The media have usurped reality itself. After Jorge Luis Borges, Jean Baudrillard takes as his metaphor for this state of affairs the fable of a map “so detailed that it ends up covering the territory.” Whereas with the decline of the Empire comes the deterioration of the map, tattered but still discernible in some remote places, “this fable has come full circle for us,” writes Baudrillard, “and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own.” (Simulations)

Since the emergence of mechanization, with the invention of the telegraph perhaps as a representative point of departure, communication has been degraded from a multifaceted, ambivalent, contextually unique and reciprocal relationship between human beings to an abstract, repetitive and homogenized “message” passing between a unilateral transmitter and a passive receiver. It is this one-dimensional transmission which is the starting point of the mass media and computers. The simulated, ostensibly “interactive” response that such technology allows has little or nothing in common with genuine human communication.

But the discourse has shifted—reality has come to resemble this model. As Ellul remarks in The Technological System, “It is the technological coherence that now makes up the social coherence.” Previously the forces of domination were never able to gain hegemony over all of society; people maintained forms of solidarity and communal discourse which resisted and excluded power (village, religious and neighborhood communities, proletarian culture, bohemianism, for example, which continue to exist in pockets only in extremely attenuated form). The preeminence of technology, particularly meaning-creating “communication” technology, changes this, and all of human intercourse tends to be restructured along the lines of this petrified information and its communication. Seven hundred and fifty million people now watch the same televised sporting event one evening and spend the next day talking about it.

According to the disciplines of mechanization, the exponentially expanding volume of artistic, intellectual, and scientific production—of films, recordings, books, magazines, gadgets, scientific discoveries, art, web sites, all of it—implies that subtle human values and a plenitude of meaning and well-being are accumulating at a tremendous rate, that we can now experience life more rapidly, in greater depth, and at a greater range. As a journalist comments, “If the average person can have access to information that would fill the Library of Congress or can control as much computing power as a university has today, why should he be shallower than before?” (Paul Delany, “Socrates, Foust, Univac,” New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1984) Electronic communications are even said to enhance human values based on family, community and culture. Writes Marshall McLuhan in The Medium is the Message: “Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.”

Of course, such computer power is not available in any significant way to most people. But this is secondary. More importantly, two realities—human meaning and mediatization, the territory and the map—are incommensurable, and cannot long coexist. The media undermine and destroy meaning by simulating it. We are no longer merely victims of a powerful, centralized media; we are that and more. We are in a sense becoming the media. Baudrillard writes inSimulations that we are “doomed not to invasion, to pressure, to violence and to blackmail by the media and the models, but to their induction, to their infiltration, to their illegible violence.” In such a world, choice is not much different from switching tv channels. The formative experience of using information will tend to be the same everywhere.

A person participates in this structure by parroting the code. Only the Machine, the Master’s Voice, actually speaks. The parasite must finally consume its host, the model be imposed once and for all. When computer enthusiasts brag that communications technology has increased the density of human contact, they turn the world on its head, describing an artificial world in which human contact has no density at all. Individuality itself becomes a commodity or function, manufactured and programmed by the system. One participates in mass society the way a computer relay participates in the machine; the option remains to malfunction, but even rebellion tends to be shaped by the forms technology imposes. This is the individuality toward which computerized life drifts: a narcissistic, privatized, passive-aggressive, alienated rage, engaging in a sado-masochistic play far removed from the consequences of its unfocused, destructive impulses.


Meaning has been reshaped

Information, now emerging as a new form of capital and wealth, is central to the new “hyperreality.” While the demand for information, the “democratic” distribution of “facts” is the battle cry of those outsiders who struggle to recapture the machinery of media from the centralized institutions of power, it is at least in part the nature of the fact—and finally of masses of facts transmitted on a mass scale as information—which lies behind the problem of the media.

Not that facts have no reality at all, but they have no intrinsic relation to anything: they are weightless. The fact is a selection, hence an exclusion. Its simplification mutilates a subtle reality which refuses to be efficiently packaged. One set of facts confronts another, orchestrated as propaganda and advertising. The fact achieves its ultimate manifestation in trivia and in statistics, to which society is now addicted. Ellul writes in Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, “Excessive data do not enlighten the reader or listener, they drown him.” People are “caught in a web of facts.” Whatever specific message is transmitted by the media, the central code is affirmed: meaning must be designed and delivered. “Everywhere,” writes Ellul in language evocative of Orwell or Wilhelm Reich, “we find men who pronounce as highly personal truths what they have read in the papers only an hour before… .” The result is an amputated being—“nothing except what propaganda has taught him.”

The information in which industrial capitalism trades is not neutral; meaning itself has been reshaped. The scope of thought is bounded by the computer and its clarity can only be of a certain kind—what a fluorescent lamp is, say, to the entire light spectrum. Rather than increasing choices, the technology imposes its own limited range of choice, and with it the diminishing capacity to recognize the difference. (Thus a person staring at a computer screen is thought to be engaged in an activity as valuable as, even perhaps superior to, walking in the woods or gardening. Both are thought to be gathering or making use of “information.”)

Equally naive is the idea that the “information field” is a contested terrain. The field itself is in reality a web of abstract, instrumentalized social relations in which information expands through alienated human activity, just as the system of value reproduces itself through the false reciprocity of commodity exchange. It therefore constitutes subtle relations of domination. Be they critics or promoters, most writers on technology see this information field as an emerging environment of human discourse.

Even the desire to transform society through “democratic” access and “rational” selection tends to be colonized as a media message, one competing set of facts among many. In a world dominated by loudspeakers, where political action is reduced to the pulling of lever A or lever B, nuance is lost. In the media, what moves the receiver is not so much truth, or nuance, or ambivalence, but technique. And technique is the domain of power, gravitating naturally toward established ideology—the domain of simulated meaning. Real meaning—irreducible to a broadcast—disintegrates under such an onslaught. As Nazi leader Goebbels remarked, “We do not talk to say something, but to obtain a certain effect.” People predisposed to accept such counterfeit as reality will follow the lead of the organization with the biggest and best loudspeakers, or succumb, resigned, to the suspicion that nothing can be knowable, and nothing can be done.

The media: capital’s global village

The alienated being who is the target of Goebbels’ machinery can now most of all be found in front of a television set—that reality-conjuring apparatus which is the centerpiece of every modern household, the emblem of and key to universality from Shanghai to Brooklyn. Everywhere people now receive television’s simulated meaning, which everywhere duplicates and undermines, and finally colonizes what was formerly human meaning in all its culture-bound manifestations.

People and events captured by communications media, and especially by television, lose what Walter Benjamin called their aura, their internal, intersubjective vitality, the specificity and autonomous significance of the experience—in a sense, their spirit. Only the external aspects of the event can be conveyed by communications media, not meaning or experiential context. In his useful book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander describes how nature is rendered boring and two-dimensional by television, how subtle expressions of emotions become incoherent—for example, how the ceremonies of a group of tribal people, or their subtle motives for protecting a sacred place, are lost when captured by the camera and embedded in a context of televised images.

Although television, through its illusion if immediacy and transparency, seems to represent the most glaringly destructive example of the media, the same can be said of all other forms. The cinema, for example, generates social meaning through the so-called content of the film (as manipulation) and through the act of film-going itself (as alienation)—a spectacularized social interaction mediated by technology. In a movie theater, modern isolation is transposed by the passive reception of images into the false collectivity of the theater audience (which can also be said of modern mass sporting events). As in modern social life itself, like all media, film-going is “a social relation mediated by images,” as Guy Debord described modern spectacular society inThe Society of the Spectacle. (Nowadays the sheer quantity of films, the act of frequent film-viewing, either on videos or in movie theaters, also has its troubling effect on human sensibilities.)

But it is no longer a question of the loss of aura in art and drama. Modes of being are expanded and imploded by their constant surveillance. Today one can experience emotions and drama every day for the price of a ticket. But how can these emotions and human values resist trivialization and ironic inversion when they are not grounded in anything but the mechanical transmission of images exchanged as a commodity? When hundreds of media outlets provide any image, any titillation, any pseudo-experience to the point of utter boredom? We surveil ourselves, luridly, as on a screen.

And isn’t it also obvious that electronic media works best at duplicating high contrast, rapid, superficial and fragmentary images—which is precisely why the new cultural milieu is overwhelmingly dominated by rapid channel-switching, frenetic computer games, the speed of machines, violence and weapons, and the hard-edged, indifferent nihilism of a degraded, artificial environment? The technofascist style prevalent today, with its fascination with machines, force and speed, works well in the media, until there is no separation between brutalization by power and an internalized, “self-managed” brutalization.

A sky reminds us of a film; witnessing the death of a human being finds meaning in a media episode, replete with musical score. An irreal experience becomes our measure of the real: the circle is completed. The formation of subjectivity, once the result of complex interaction between human beings participating in a symbolic order, has been replaced by media. Some argue that this makes us free to create our own reality—a naive surrender to the solipsism of a mirrored cage. Rather, we are becoming machine-like, more and more determined by technological necessities beyond our control. We now make our covenant with commodities, demand miracles of computers, see our world through a manufactured lens rather than the mind’s eye. One eye blinds the other—they are incommensurable. I think of a photograph I saw once of a New Guinea tribesman in traditional dress, taking a photograph with an instamatic camera. What is he becoming, if not another cloned copy of what we are all becoming?

The fact that everyone may someday get “access” to media, that we have all to some degree or another become carriers of media, could be the final logic of centralization spinning out of orbit—the final reduction of the prisoners to the realization that, yes, they truly do love Big Brother. Or the realization that nature does not exist but is only what we arbitrarily decide to organize, or that we do not experience a place until we have the photograph. The age of thegenuine imitation. The paleolithic cave walls are redone to protect the originals which themselves are shut forever—these imitations are “authentic,” of course, but the spirit of the cave has fled. Even the copies will inevitably become historical artifacts to be preserved; this is “art,” do you have your ticket, sir? There is no aura. For an aboriginal tribal person, the mountain speaks, and a communication is established. For the tourist, it is domesticated, desiccated—a dead image for the photo album.

Though print media are being eclipsed by television and computers, they now function similarly, with their spurious claim to “objectivity,” their mutilating process of selection and editing, their automatic reinforcement of the status quo, their absolute accumulation. The greater the scope, the more frequent the publication, the more newspapers and magazines in particular impose their model of fragmented, ideologized reality. While the corporate (and in some places the state) press functions as part of a Big Lie apparatus, it distorts the information it transmits both in the content and in the context in which it presents it. Newspaper-reading and addiction to news in general have become another version of the imperial circus, a kind of illiteracy which makes people as much the creatures of rumor and manipulation (through advertising and public relations) as they were prior to modernization and the rise of a public education system which was supposed to make informed citizens of them. In fact, as the techniques and scope of media have expanded, people have tended to become more manipulated than ever.

Ellul writes, “Let us not say: ‘If one gave them good things to read … if these people received a better education …’ Such an argument has no validity because things just are not that way. Let us not say, either: ‘This is only the first stage’; in France, the first stage was reached half a century ago, and we still are very far from attaining the second … Actually, the most obvious result of primary education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to make the individual susceptible to propaganda.”

But how do people confront centralized power, with its machinery of deceit, without resorting to media? Even those who oppose totalitarianism need to marshal information to spread their ideas, win and inform their allies. Yet people’s capacity to resist the structures of domination is undermined by the overall effect of media. Can we possibly defeat the empire in a penny-ante game of facts when a single pronouncement by that media image called a “President”—say, this week’s enemy nation is “terrorist” and must be destroyed—drowns out the truth? If people can be moved to resist domination only by means of mass media, if they can only be directed to resist as they are now to obey, what can this portend for human freedom? The “global village” is capital’s village; it is antithetical to any genuine village, community or communication.

A revolution in human response

Technology transmutes our experience—won’t it also result in undermining our very organism, rather than continually improving upon it, as it promises? In a wisecracking, hucksterish tone, one celebratory popularization of the new technologies, The Techno/Peasant Survival Manual, describes an electrode helmet hooked up to a microcomputer capable of analyzing and measuring the activity of the human brain, “studying its electrical output in units of 500 milliseconds … With this ability to quantify human thought, the technocrats are not only learning how we think, they are in the process of challenging our very definitions of intelligence.”

Of course, computers say little or nothing about how people think, because human thought is not quantifiable or reducible to computer operations. What ishappening is that fundamental attitudes are changing, and with them, a definition of something the technocratic structure cannot really comprehend without transmuting its very nature. New communications environments socialize people in ways far different from age-old customs and modes in which they once learned to think, feel and behave like human beings; thus, technological structures are “revolutionizing” human response by forcing life to conform to the parameters of the machines. This quantification will reshape thought, which is potentially mutable; it will become “true” by force, as the railroad became more true than the buffalo, and the sheep enclosure more true than the commons.

Even the shape of the child’s developing brain is said to be changing. Children were formerly socialized through conversation in an intimate milieu; now, in the typical family living room with its television shrine, the areas of the child’s brain once stimulated by conversation are increasingly developed by passively consuming the visually exciting (but kinesthetically debilitating or distorting) images of tv and video games. No one can say exactly what this means, though at a minimum, increased hyper-activity and decreased attention span may be two consequences. (Instead of urging caution, the education philosopher I heard relate this disturbing story went on to propose morecomputer- and video-based “interactive” technology in schools to teach this changing child.)

What can conform to the computer, what can be transmitted by the technology, will remain; what cannot will vanish. That which remains will also be transformed by its isolation from that which is eliminated, and we will be changed irrevocably in the process. As language is reshaped, language will reshape everyday life. Certain modes of thinking will simply atrophy and disappear, like rare, specialized species of birds. Later generations will not miss what they never had; the domain of language and meaning will be the domain of the screen. History will be the history on the screens; any subtlety, any memory which does not fit will be undecipherable, incoherent.

Our total dependence on technology parallels our dependence on the political state. New technologies, “interfaced” with the technical-bureaucratic, nuclear-cybernetic police state, are creating a qualitatively new form of domination. We are only a step away from the universal computerized identification system. Technology is already preparing the ground for more pervasive forms of control than simple data files on individuals. As forms of control such as total computerization, polygraph tests, psychological conditioning, subliminal suggestion, and electronic and video eavesdropping become part of the given environment, they will be perceived as natural as superhighways and shopping malls are today.

But while there is reason for concern about computerized threats to privacy, a deepening privatization, with a computerized television in every room as its apotheosis, makes police almost superfluous. Eventually computer technology may have no need of the methods it employs today. According to Lewis M. Branscomb, Vice President and Chief Scientist of IBM, the “ultimate computer” will be biological, patterned on DNA and cultivated in a petri dish. “If such a computer could be integrated with memory of comparable speed and compactness, implanted inside the skull and interfaced with the brain,” the Diagram Group authors of The Techno/Peasant Survival Manual enthuse, “human beings would have more computing power than exists in the world today.” Genetic engineering, cloning, integrating the human brain into cybernetic systems—is there any doubt that these developments will render human beings obsolete just as industrial technology undermined earlier human communities? There may be no longer any need to monitor an anarchic, unruly mass, since all the controls will be built in from the start. The “irrational” aspects of culture, of love, of death will be suppressed.

Mechanization penetrates every province


If technology is effective in creating, directly or indirectly, ever more powerful modes of domination in its wake, it is not nearly as successful when used to curb its own development and the conflicts, devastations and crises which ensue. It suppresses “irrationality,” which then takes its revenge in the greater irrationalities of mass technics. (One can only imagine what manner of disaster would follow an absurd attempt to “interface” a computer with a human brain.) According to the technocrats, technology can be curbed and made to serve human needs through “technology assessment.” “Futurist” Alvin Toffler (futurist being a euphemism for high-paid consulting huckster) argues, for example, that it is “sometimes possible to test new technology in limited areas, among limited groups, studying its secondary impacts before releasing it for diffusion.”

Toffler’s reification of technology into a simple system used in an isolated area, at the discretion of experts and managers, fails to understand how technology transforms the environment, and most importantly, how it is already trapped within its own procedural inertia. Clearly, the new technologies appearing everywhere simultaneously cannot be isolated to study their effects—the effects of the whole system must be taken into account, not the laboratory effects of an isolated component. Laboratory experiments on a given geographical area or social group performed by a powerful bureaucratic hierarchy of technicians and managers are themselves technology and carry its social implications within them.

Discussing the mechanization of bread baking, Giedeon shows how technology, becoming trapped within its own instrumentality and centered on the hyperrationality of procedure, not only shifts an activity beyond the control of individuals, but ultimately undermines the very ends it started out to accomplish. He asks, how did bread, which was successfully produced locally and on a small scale, succumb to large mechanization? More importantly, how was it that public taste was altered regarding the nature of the “stuff of life,” which had changed little over the course of centuries, and which “among foodstuffs … has always held a status bordering on the symbolic”?

Mechanization began to penetrate every province of life after 1900, including agriculture and food. Since technology demands increasing outlays and sophisticated machinery, new modes of distribution and consumption are devised which eclipse the local baker. Massification demands uniformity, but uniformity undermines bread. “The complicated machinery of full mechanization has altered its structure and converted it into a body that is neither bread nor cake, but something half-way between the two. Whatever new enrichments can be devised, nothing can really help as long as this sweetish softness continues to haunt its structure.”

How taste was adulterated, how “ancient instincts were warped,” cannot be easily explained. Again, what is important is not a specific moment in the transformation of techniques, nor that specific forms of technology were employed, but the overall process of massification by which simple, organic activities are wrested from the community and the household and appropriated by the megamachine. Bread is the product of a large cycle beginning with the planting of wheat. Mechanization invades every sector of the organic and undermines it, forever altering the structure of agriculture, of the farmer, of food. Not only is bread undermined by mechanization; the farmer is driven from the land. Giedeion asks, “Does the changing farmer reflect, but more conspicuously, a process that is everywhere at work? … Does the transformation into wandering unemployed of people who for centuries had tilled the soil correspond to what is happening in each of us?”

The Diagram Group gushes, “Technology … will change the quality, if not the nature, of everything. Your job and your worklife will not be the same. Your home will not be the same. Your thoughts will not be the same … We are talking about an increase in the rate of innovation unprecedented in human history, what some scientists are now calling spiral evolution.” Says Robert Jastrow, Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Institute: “In another 15 years or so we will see the computer as an emergent form of life.”

Over a hundred years ago, Samuel Butler expressed the same idea as satire in his ironical utopian novel Erewhon, lampooning the positivist popularization of Darwinism and the widespread belief that mechanization would usher in paradise, and suggesting that the theory of evolution was also applicable to machines. “It appears to us that we are creating our own successors,” he wrote. “We are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organization; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race.” No longer does Butler’s humor seem so humorous or far-fetched. What begins as farce ends in tragedy. Perhaps humanity will find itself even further reduced from being a mere appendage to the machine to a hindrance.

Only the circuitry acts

Nowhere do we see this possibility more clearly than in the emerging biotechnology, the latest frontier for capital, which reduces the natural world to a single monolithic “logic”—capital’s logic of accumulation and control. As Baudrillard puts it in Simulations, “that delirious illusion of uniting the world under the aegis of a single principle” unites totalitarianism and the “fascination of the biological … From a capitalist-productivist society to a neo-capitalist cybernetic order that aims now at total control. This is the mutation for which the biological theorization of the code prepares to ground.”

“We must think of the media as if they were … a sort of genetic code which controls the mutation of the real into the hyperreal,” writes Baudrillard. The destruction of meaning in the media foreshadows the cannibalization by capital of the sources of life itself. The “operational configuration,” “the correct strategic model,” are the same: life defined by information, information as “genetic code,” no longer necessarily “centralized” but molecular, no longer exactly imposed but implanted—a “genesis of simulacra,” as in photography, in which the original, with its human aura, its peculiar irreducibility to this technocratic-rationalist model, vanishes—or is vanquished.

In another context, Frederick Turner (not to be confused with the author ofBeyond Geography) writes in what can only be described as a techno-spiritualist/fascist manifesto (“Technology and the Future of the Imagination,”Harper’s, November 1984), that “our silicon photograph [or circuit] doesn’t merely represent something; it does what it is a photograph of—in a sense it is a miraculous picture, like that of Our Lady of Guadalupe: it not only depicts, but does; it is not just a representation, but reality; it is not just a piece of knowledge, but a piece of being; it is not just epistemology but ontology.”

What the Great Chain of Being was for medieval society, and the clock-like universe for the mechanical-industrial revolution, the genetic code, the molecular cell, and the clone or simulacrum are for the Brave New World looming today. The invasion by capital into the fundamental structures of life can only result in dangerous homogenization in the service of “total control,” and, inevitably, the collapse of complex life systems on this planet. Once more the enemy hides behind a “humane” cloak—this time not religious salvation, nor simply progress or democracy, but the conquest of disease and famine. To challenge this further manifestation of progress, according to the ruling paradigm, is to oppose curing disease, to turn away from the hungry. Once again only technology and its promise—a totally administered world—can supposedly save us. And once more, it all makes “perfect sense” because it corresponds to the operational configurations of the culture as a whole.

If engineered genetic material corresponds to the silicon photograph, a proper response might be learned from Crazy Horse, the Oglala mystic of whom no photograph was ever taken, who answered requests to photograph him by saying, “My friend, why should you wish to shorten my life by taking from me my shadow?” Now all our shadows are in grave danger from more ferocious “soul catchers,” sorcerers and golem-manufacturers, ready to unleash a final paroxysm of plagues.

Or is the ultimate plague a nuclear war? Modern technological development has always been embedded most deeply in expanding war and competing war machines. As propagandists lull us to sleep with promises of cybernetic technotopia, other technicians study readouts for their attack scenarios. Ultimately, it makes no difference whether a final war (or series of wars) is initiated by system errors or by the system’s proper functioning; these two possible modalities of the machinery represent its entire range. No computer warns of impending annihilation—the life force is not, and cannot be programmed into them. And just as human society is tending to be reduced to the circulation of reified information, so is it falling under the sway of a bureaucratic apparatus which has turned the “unthinkable”—nuclear megacide, ecological collapse—into business-as-usual. No human considerations influence its imperative or momentum; no dramatic descriptions of the consequences of its unremarkable, everyday acts appear in the readouts. No passion moves the technicians from their course. As the archetypical nuclear bureaucrat Herman Kahn once wrote (in Thinking the Unthinkable), “To mention such things [as nuclear holocaust] may be important. To dwell on them is morbid, and gets in the way of the information.” Where the discourse is curtailed to less than a shadow, so too are human beings. Only the circuitry acts; human response is suffocated.

Technology refused


Skepticism toward progress is typically dismissed as dangerous, atavistic and irrational. In The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, one professional apologist for technology, Samuel C. Florman, writes, “[F]rightened and dismayed by the unfolding of the human drama in our time, yearning for simple solutions where there can be none, and refusing to acknowledge that the true source or our problems is nothing other than the irrepressible human will,” people who express luddite worries “have deluded themselves with the doctrine of anti-technology.” The increasing popularity of such views, he insists, “adds the dangers inherent in self deception to all of the other dangers we already face.”

While indirectly acknowledging the significant dangers of mass technics, Florman apparently feels that declining technological optimism is responsible for technology’s ravages, rather than being a symptom or consequence of them. The “other dangers we already face”—dangers which of course are in no way to be blamed on technology—are simply the result of “the type of creature man is.” Of course, the “type of creature man is” has made this dangerous technology. Furthermore, Florman’s reasoning coincides with the attitudes and interests of this society’s political, corporate and military elites. “So fast do times change, because of technology,” intones a United Technologies advertisement, “that some people, disoriented by the pace, express yearning for simpler times. They’d like to turn back the technological clock. But longing for the primitive is utter folly. It is fantasy. Life was no simpler for early people than it is for us. Actually, it was far crueler. Turning backward would not expunge any of today’s problems. With technological development curtailed, the problems would fester even as the means for solving them were blunted. To curb technology would be to squelch innovation, stifle imagination, and cap the human spirit.”

It doesn’t occur to these publicists that curbing technology might itself be an innovative strategy of human imagination and spirit. But to doubt the ideology of scientific progress does not necessarily signify abandoning science altogether. Nor does a scientifically sophisticated outlook automatically endorse technological development. As another possibility, Ellul points to the ancient Greeks. Though they were technically and scientifically sophisticated, the Greeks

were suspicious of technical activity because it represented an aspect of brute force and implied a want of moderation … In Greece a conscious effort was made to economize on means and to reduce the sphere of influence of technique. No one sought to apply scientific thought technically, because scientific thought corresponded to a conception of life, to wisdom. The great preoccupation of the Greeks was balance, harmony and moderation; hence, they fiercely resisted the unrestrained force inherent in technique, and rejected it because of its potentialities.

One could argue that the convenience of slavery explains the anti-technological and anti-utilitarian attitudes of the Greeks. While slavery as a system was certainly related—among a multitude of factors—to the low regard in Greek culture for manual labor and the lack of utilitarian values among its elites, to reduce a cultural outlook to a single factor is absurd. One could just as easily claim that the philosophical quest, the notion of tragedy, and other cultural aspects were the results of slavery. But slavery has existed in many societies and cultures, including the expanding industrial civilization of the United States. That the Greeks could have a scientific outlook without a technological-utilitarian basis proves, rather, that such a conception of life is possible, and therefore a science without slavery and without mass technics is also possible.

Defenders of scientific rationality usually paint themselves in Voltairian hues, but it is they who rely in outmoded formulas which no longer (and perhaps never did) correspond to reality. The contemporary scientism of the great majority, with its mantra that progress is unstoppable and its weird mix of mastery and submission, is  little more than an accumulation of unsubstantiated platitudes—the general theory of this world, its logic in a popular form, its moral sanction, its universal ground for consolation and justification. As technological optimism erodes, its defenders invoke a caricature of the Enlightenment to ward off the evil spirits of unsanctioned “irrationality.”

Yet what modern ideology stigmatizes as irrational might be better thought of as an alternative rationality or reason. In the eighteenth century, a Delaware Indian who came to be known as the Delaware Prophet, and whose influence on the Indians who fought with Pontiac during the uprising in 1763 is documented in Howard Peckham’s Pontiac and the Indian Uprising, “decried the baneful influence of all white men because it had brought the Indians to their present unhappy plight. He was an evangelist, a revivalist, preaching a new religion. He was trying to change the personal habits of the Indians in order to free them from imported vices and make them entirely self-dependent. He gave his hearers faith and hope that they could live without the manufactures of the white men.”

This critic of technology wasn’t worrying about possible future effects of the manufactured products bestowed by traders on his people, he was announcing the actual decline of native communal solidarity and independence. Pontiac quoted the Delaware Prophet to his followers in April 1763 as saying, “I know that those whom ye call the children of your Great Father supply your needs, but if ye were not evil, as ye are, ye could surely do without them. Ye could live as ye did live before knowing them … Did ye not live by the bow and arrow? Ye had no need of gun or powder, or anything else, and nevertheless ye caught animals to live upon and to dress yourself with their skins. . . .”


“Primitive fears”

Such insights, and particularly any reference to them now, are usually dismissed as romantic nostalgia. “It took time and experience,” writes that well-known devotee of industrialism, Marx, “before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.” (Capital) But despite the historical justifications of marxist and capitalist alike, both the mode and the increasingly ubiquitous machinery managed in time to domesticate the “workpeople” even further, transforming them as a class into an integral component of industrialism.

Perhaps they should have been good marxists and gone willingly into the satanic mills with the idea of developing these “means of production” to inherit them later, but their own practical wisdom told them otherwise. As E.P. Thompson writes in his classic study, The Making of the English Working Class, “despite all the homilies … (then and subsequently) as to the beneficial consequences” of industrialization—“arguments which, in any case, the Luddites were intelligent enough to weigh in their minds for themselves—the machine-breakers, and not the tract-writers, made the most realistic assessment of the short-term effects … The later history of the stockingers and cotton-weavers [two crafts destroyed by industrialization] provides scarcely more evidence for the ‘progressive’ view of the advantages of the breakdown of custom and of restrictive practices. . . .”

Thompson is correct in assessing the basic rational practicality of the luddites, who resisted so fiercely because they had a clear understanding of their immediate prospects. But it’s clearer now that they also anticipated, as well as anyone could in their time and place, the eventual, tragic demise not only of vernacular and village society but of the classical workers movement itself, along with its urban context—to be replaced by an atomized servitude completely subject to the centrifugal logic and the pernicious whims of contemporary urban-industrial, market-dominated, mass society. The romantic reaction against mechanization and industrialism has also been maligned, and must be reappraised and reaffirmed in light of what has come since. No one, in any case, seriously argues a literal return to the life of ancient Greeks or eighteenth century Indians. But the Greek emphasis on harmony, balance and moderation, and the Indians’ stubborn desire to resist dependence, are worthy models in elaborating our own response to these fundamental questions. At a minimum, they make it reasonable for us to challenge the next wave, and the next, and the next—something the ideologies of scientism and progress have little prepared us to do.

If some tend to look to previous modes of life for insights into the changes brought about by modern technology and possible alternatives to it, others dismiss the insights of tribal and traditional societies altogether by bringing up those societies’ injustices, conflicts and practices incomprehensible to us. No society is perfect, and all have conflicts. Yet modernization has in fact superseded few age-old problems; for the most part it has suppressed without resolving them, intensified them, or replaced them with even greater ones.

Traditional societies might have resolved their own injustices or done so through interaction with others without causing vast harm to deeply rooted subsistence patterns; after all, ancient injustices have social and ethical bases and are not a function of the relative level of technical development. But modernizing missionaries have for the most part only succeeded in bursting traditional societies and laying the basis for dependency on mass technics. In the end the natives are “converted” to democracy, or to socialism, at the point of a gun. When the process is completed—no democracy, no socialism, and no natives. The impulse to dissect and improve small, idiosyncratic, subsistence societies, to turn them into modern, secular, industrial nation-states—be it from the optic of universal (western) reason, or the dialectic, or “historical necessity”—results in monocultural conquest and integration into global industrial capitalism.

The related dogma that “underdeveloped” societies were in any case fatally flawed, and therefore poised to succumb not only derives its strength from a pervasive sense of powerlessness to preserve former modes of life and communities, no matter what their merits; it also provides ongoing justification for the obliteration of small societies still coming into contact with urban-industrial expansion. It is a species of blaming the victim. But their demise is more readily explained by the technical, economic and military might of the invading civilization and its power to impose relations of dependence. As Francis Jennings observes in The Invasion of America (to provide one example), it was not the defects in indigenous North American societies that caused them to be undermined by European mercantile civilization, but (at least in part) their virtues. Their gift economy, Jennings writes, made it impossible for them to understand or conform to European business practices. Their culture allowed them to become traders, but they could never become capitalists. “[I]n a sense one can say that the Indians universally failed to acquire capital because they did not want it.”

The indigenous refusal of economic relations—neither wholly rational nor irrational, neither wholly conscious nor unconscious, but a dialectical interaction between these polarities—parallels the ancient Greeks’ refusal of technology. Their notions of life were utterly foreign to the economic-instrumental obsession by which modern civilization measures all things. And in the case of the Indians, because of the overwhelming power of the invaders, they succumbed—as societies, cultures, languages, innumerable subsistence skills and subtle ecological relationships continue to crumble. Thus in a sense the luddites remain the contemporaries of ranchers in Minnesota who felled power line pylons built across their land in the 1970s, and the anti-development, anti-toxics and anti-nuclear movements that have flourished at the end of the twentieth century. The Delaware Prophet is the contemporary of the Waimiri Atroari people in Brazil, who consistently fought invasions by missionaries, Indian agents, and road-building crews in the 1960s and 1970s, and of Indians in Quebec fighting the Canadian government for their lands since the increase of oil and gas exploration there.

In Quebec, a Montagnais Indian, speaking for all, testified, “Our way of life is being taken away from us.” The Montagnais had been “promised that with houses and schools and clinics and welfare we could be happy.” But the promise was not fulfilled. “Now we know it was all lies. We were happier when we lived in tents.” No cheerful bromide about the ultimate benefits of progress can respond adequately to this somber recognition.


Technology out of control

Devouring the otherness of the past has not saved modern civilization from deepening crisis. The civilization that promised to abolish all previous forms of irrationality has created a suicidal, trip-wire, exterminist system. Technological runaway is evident; we do not know if we will be destroyed altogether in some technologically induced eco-spasm, or transmuted into an unrecognizable entity shaped by genetic, cybernetic and pharmacological techniques. The managerial notion of “technology assessment” by which technocrats try to rationalize technological growth is comparable to attempting to stop a car careening out of control by referring to the driver’s manual. Technology’s efficiency is inefficient, its engineering obtuse and myopic.

The highly divided, centrifugal nature of the technical-bureaucratic apparatus undermines its own planning, making it chaotic. Each technical sector pursues its own ends separate from the totality, while each bureaucracy and corporate pyramid, each rival racket, pursues its own narrow social interest. There is never enough information to make proper decisions; the megamachine’s complicated, multiple inputs undermine its own controls and methods. A computer coughs in some air-conditioned sanctum, and thousands, perhaps millions, die. Knowledge is undermined by its own over-rationalization, quantification and accumulation, just as bread is negated by its own standardization. Who can truly say, for example, that they are in control of nuclear technology? Meanwhile the system speeds along at an ever faster pace.

Even defenders of technology admit that it tends to move beyond human control. Most counter that technology is not the problem, but rather humanity’s inability to “master” itself. But humanity has always grappled with its darker side; how could complex techniques and dependence on enormously complicated, dangerous technological systems make the psychic and social challenge easier? Even the question of “self-mastery” becomes problematic in the face of the changes wrought in human character by technology. What will define humanity in a hundred years if technology holds sway?

In The Conquest of Nature: Technology and Its Consequences, R.J. Forbes argues that while “it is possible to see a tendency in the political-technological combination to take on a gestalt of its own and to follow its own ‘laws,’” we should rely on “the inner faith of the men who make the basic inventions.” That scientific-technological rationality must finally rely on an undemonstrated faith in its ability to harness demons it wantonly unleashes—a faith in technicians already completely enclosed in their organizations and practices—is an irony lost on Forbes. We have relied on their “inner faith” for too long; even their best intentions work against us.

“There are no easy answers,” announces an oil company advertisement. “Without question, we must find more oil. And we must learn to use the oil we have more efficiently. So where do we start?” Without question—such propaganda promotes the anxiety that we are trapped in technology, with no way out. Better to follow the program to the end. An IBM ad says, “Most of us can’t help feeling nostalgic for an earlier, simpler era when most of life’s dealings were face-to-face. But chaos would surely result if we tried to conduct all of our dealings that way today. There are just too many of us. We are too mobile. The things we do are too complex—and the pace of life is too fast.”

A technological culture and its demands serve to justify the technology which imposes them. Those who doubt are cranks, while the calm, reasoned logic of military strategists, technical experts, bureaucrats and scientists is passed off as wisdom. Thus, during the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, at the moment in which it was unclear what was going to happen to the bubble in the reactor container, a typical headline read, “Experts optimistic.” Aren’t they always? “Without question, we must find more oil,” and create more energy, mine more minerals, cut more trees, build more roads and factories, cultivate more land, computerize more schools, accumulate more information … If we accept the premises, we are stuck with the conclusions. In the end, technology is legitimated by its search for solutions to the very destruction it has caused. What is to be done with chemical and nuclear wastes, ruined soils and contaminated seas? Here the technicians insist, “You need us.” But their “solutions” not only naturalize and prolong the original causes of the disaster, they tend to aggravate it further. To decline to join the chorus is to seek “easy answers.”

True, there are no easy answers. But we can at least begin by questioning the idea of technology as sacred and irrevocable, and start looking at the world once more with human eyes and articulating its promise in human terms.  We must begin to envision the radical deconstruction of mass society.


Toward an epistemological luddism

I recognize the contradictions in even publishing this essay. I am not sure how to move beyond the code; in order to do so, with tremendous ambivalence and doubt, I partake in it in a limited, awkward, conditional way. It is an act of desperation. Perhaps to some degree it is a question of orientation; I think it fair to distinguish between using established technical means to communicate out of pragmatic necessity, and volunteering to help construct the latest means. We need the courage to explore a process of change in our thinking and practice—to learn how we might become less dependent on machines, less linked to “world communications,” not more.

Of course, one can’t wish mass society away; a simplistic, monolithic response to the daunting technical problems confronting us, added to the social crisis we are experiencing, would be pointless and impossible. But it is the technological system which offers “easy answers”—starting with unquestioning surrender to whatever sorcery it dishes up next. We can respond without accepting its terms. We can swim against capital’s current. Abolishing mass technics meanslearning to live in a different way—something societies have done in the past, and which they can learn to do again. We have to nurture trust, not in experts, but in our own innate capacity to find our way.

In Autonomous Technology, Langdon Winner suggests that a possible way to halt the decaying juggernaut would be to begin dismantling problematic technological structures and to refuse to repair systems that are breaking down. This would also imply rejecting newly devised technological systems meant to fix or replace the old. “This I would propose not as a solution in itself,” he writes, “but as a method of inquiry.” In this way we could investigate dependency and the pathways to autonomy and self-sufficiency. Such an “epistemological luddism,” to use Winner’s term, could help us to break up the structures of daily life, and to take meaning back from the meaning-manufacturing apparatus of the mass media, renew a human discourse based on community, solidarity and reciprocity, and destroy the universal deference to machines, experts and information. Otherwise, we face either machine-induced cataclysm or mutilation beyond recognition of the human spirit. For human beings, the practical result will be the same.

For now, let us attend to first things first—by considering the possibility of a conscious break with urban-industrial civilization, a break which does not attempt to return to prior modes of refusal (which would be impossible anyway), but which surpasses them by elaborating its own, at the far limits of a modernity already in decay. We begin by annunciating the possibility of such a decision—a very small step, but we begin where we can. A new culture can arise from that small step, from our first awkward acts of refusal to become mere instruments. Of course, such a culture wouldn’t be entirely new, but would derive its strength from an old yet contemporary wisdom, as ancient and as contemporary as the Delaware prophet and the Chinese philosopher Chuangtse, who said: “Whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them.” When we begin listening to the heart, we will be ashamed to use such things, or to be used by them.


= = =

from David Watson, Against the Megamachine (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1997), pp 117-145.

RADICAL ARCHIVES NOTE: The original, much shorter version of this article originally appeared under the pen name “T. Fulano” in Fifth Estate #306 (vol. 15, #5), July 1981, pp 4–8. According to Watson, the revised version (presented above) was reworked in 1997. He removed some parts from the original version, and also added in selections from other articles (published between 1981 to 1985) which he had written.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | anti-endustriyalizm, anti-kapitalizm, sistem karsitligi | Leave a comment

Why “Green Technology” is Not Sustainable

At this time many people are at least generally aware that environmentally harmful human activities have caused a number of serious ecological problems, amounting to a kind of crisis. The phenomena of global warming is probably the best known example, although there is also some awareness around issues like deforestation and the dangers of nuclear energy.

Several decades ago environmental groups were able to push the motto “reduce, reuse, recycle” into the public consciousness, although in actual practice the concepts “reducing” and also to some extent “reusing” were largely ignored. Today a new answer to environmental problems has been offered, one that goes a step beyond simply forgetting to reduce and reuse, going so far as to suggest that consumption itself is the solution. “Green” consumption has taken the day. Whereas in 1985 the “environmentally conscious” thing to do might have been to turn off the lights in your house for more of the day, now consumers are led to believe that simply buying energy-efficient light bulbs will instead do the trick. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that mainstream environmental movements were actually better informed in the 1980s, or that the solutions offered in that day would have actually worked better than those of today. That having been said, the current obsession with “buying green” is uniquely absurd.

Plenty of other pieces have been written explaining some of the problems with what has been called today’s “greenwashing.” Excellent points have been raised concerning its deeply consumeristic character, the fact that it actually bolsters the capitalist economic model which in and of itself cannot be sustainable, and the fact that it places the burden of fixing the ecological crisis on individual consumers, rather than on the industries who are actually to blame for creating this mess in the first place. My intention is not to go against what these other pieces have said, but rather to shine some light on one area of the debate that has often been left too shadowy. That is, the technical sustainability of green technology itself, which often is not explored to the degree required.

Again, there is something of a broad awareness that much of today’s technology is not sustainable. Somehow, this non-sustainability has contributed to various ecological problems. Since it is assumed that we must continue receiving the “benefits” of all of this technology, the obvious solution is to replace non-sustainable technology with roughly equivalent sustainable technology, rather then simply reducing its use or scrapping it altogether.

It’s fairly well assumed that green technology is in fact sustainable to use. Many take it on “good faith” that switching to various green technologies will in some way fix or at least mitigate the ecological crisis, getting it under control and allowing environmental integrity to be maintained or returned to more appropriate levels. In the US it is commonly believed that much of the responsibility for accomplishing this “switch over” falls on individual consumers, by way of their purchasing decisions. I must stress, however, that many who are otherwise critical of today’s capitalist “greenwashing” scam still ultimately believe the larger promise of green technology to be true. They may simply feel that other actors, potentially the state or in some cases revolutionary movements, should be responsible for ensuring this “progress.” Since most people lack a working definition of “sustainability” themselves, they are individually unable to critically determine whether or not this larger concept is in fact true.

Allow me then to provide a definition of sustainability.

An activity is sustainable when it doesn’t deplete or harm its environment in such a way that would make that activity impossible to continue. Sustainable activities can continue for as long as their environments remain and don’t change or disappear for other reasons. To be more specific, a sustainable activity replaces, to the greatest degree possible, everything it uses with material that’s just as good or better than what it took, according to how surrounding plants, animals, insects, etc. can make use of the byproduct. If what’s given to the environment is severely depleted, toxic or harmful to surrounding organisms, then that activity is not sustainable.

Most people are familiar with the concept of nonrenewable resources, and are aware that an activity dependent on the use of such resources (a depletive activity) will eventually become unworkable. Most depletive activities are also destructive activities, however; burning fossil fuels depletes that resource, but also pollutes and harms the environment. If a destructive activity continues for long enough, it will effectively obliterate the environment surrounding it, and all of the life forms that depended on that environment, stopping that activity just as effectively as if the original needed resource had simply run out. Any human activity, then, stops being sustainable when it becomes more depletive or destructive than the surrounding ecosystem can afford.

We can now, figuratively speaking, run various green technologies through the filter of this definition, sifting out what is and is not sustainable.

A little bit of research into various green technologies and particularly how they are manufactured reveals some surprising results. Mainly, all green technology has some basic things in common with all other industrial technology. That is, from solar panels to wind mills, from low-draw light bulbs to energy efficient washing machines, from the US army’s new earth-friendly “green bullet” to hybrid vehicles, all of these things require metals, and in most cases plastics to manufacture. And what’s so bad about that? Metals and plastics are practically the building blocks of today’s modern industrial civilization!

Let’s look at how we actually get these things out of the ground. Industrial metals are refined from ore, or rock that has usable minerals or metals in it. The process of separating ore into it’s usable and non-usable components leaves behind a lot of waste. These mining wastes are known as tailings, and they often contain the following:

  • Arsenic — An especially potent poison, used at various times to make insecticides, herbicides, and military chemical weapons.
  • Barite — Contains elemental barium, all soluble salts of which are very toxic.
  • Cadmium — Extremely toxic even in low concentrations. Inhaling cadmium-laden dust quickly leads to respiratory tract and kidney problems which can be fatal. Ingestion of any significant amount of cadmium causes immediate poisoning and damage to the liver and the kidneys. Compounds containing cadmium are also carcinogenic.
  • Calcite — Dust of the calcite mineral has been found to cause lung damage.
  • Fluorite — Composed of calcium fluoride. The 1984 issue of Clinical Toxicology of Commercial Products lists fluoride as more poisonous than lead and just slightly less poisonous than arsenic. It has been used as a pesticide for mice, rats and other small pests.
  • Lead — Infamously toxic and otherwise harmful.
  • Manganese — Manganese poisoning has been linked to impaired motor skills and cognitive disorders.
  • Radioactive materials — `Nuf said.
  • Sulfur (and sulfide compounds) — Hydrogen sulfide is toxic. Although very pungent at first, it quickly deadens the sense of smell, so potential victims may be unaware of its presence until death or other symptoms occur. Sulfur trioxide, a volatile liquid at standard temperature and pressure, is extremely dangerous, especially in contact with water, which reacts with it to form sulfuric acid with the generation of much heat. Sulfuric acid poses extreme hazards to many objects and substances.
  • Zinc — The free zinc ion in solution is highly toxic to plants, invertebrates, and even vertebrate fish.

As we can see, all of these things are toxic, caustic or otherwise harmful. In addition, sulfuric acid is created when certain of the above mentioned materials enter the waters of nearby streams and then oxidize. This wipes out all life in the effected stream sections, which can be many miles long. Use of the notoriously lethal substance cyanide is also increasingly necessary for the separation of gold and other metals from ore. Mines commonly utilize a number of other toxic substances in this process as well, including sodium ethyl xanthate, which easily forms a dangerous gas that is readily absorbed through the skin, or potassium amyl xanthate, which is deadly to certain fish, or, yet again, even more sulfuric acid, simply adding to that which already forms in streams because of nearby mines. Mining, or rather digging really big holes in the ground, is a dirty process. Even the most tightly regulated, “clean” mines leak these harmful substances into the surrounding environment. The “ponds” constructed to store most wet mine tailings are also somewhat prone to constant leaking and catastrophic failure. As such, small streams, huge rivers, underground water sources, animals, and the people that depend on all these things continually suffer the ravages of mine-related disasters. When these toxic tailings aren’t held in ponds, however, they are sometimes left in dry dust form, strewn around mining sites, where they simply blow away in the wind. Even if such “accidental” disasters and careless practices were effectively minimizeable or preventable, the disaster of intentionally tearing up huge patches of the earth, sites often ecologically important and sacred to local indigenous peoples, would still remain a necessary precondition.

As was previously mentioned, most green technology also requires plastics to manufacture. Whether this particular technology actually has plastic components or is manufactured with machines and tools that use plastics doesn’t matter much, either way plastics are necessary. Plastics are made with, among other things, petroleum, which is (as many people now understand) nonrenewable and immensely harmful to extract and refine. One of the most common plastics that we encounter is polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. The production of PVC (and most all plastic or chemical production) creates dioxins, and after production more dioxins leach out of the PVC that surrounds us. This is a very bad thing because dioxins, as a class of chemicals, are some of the most hazardous and deadly substances known, “dangerous at doses of several parts per trillion.” In addition to being “highly carcinogenic and poisonous,” dioxins also alter the function and structure of living cells in disastrous ways. Once accumulated, (either directly through the environment or by consuming the flesh of a contaminated organism) dioxins stay active in human bodies for between four and twenty years.

Many industrially produced items, products like carpet and paint, also utilize flame retardant chemicals called poly-brominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These also coincidentally help give cars (yes, even green hybrid cars) that “new car smell.” In addition to liver and thyroid toxicity, exposure to PBDEs has been proven to cause problems in reproductive organs and with memory loss. A veritable laundry list of health problems caused by exposure to various other plastics could be drawn up, but a complete one would be too long for this brief piece. This list would, however, include cancer, birth defects, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, and blindness, to name just a few.

Remember that part about “If what’s given to the environment is severely depleted, toxic or harmful to surrounding organisms, then that activity is not sustainable?” As it turns out, the processes required for producing industrial technologies, whether green or not, are both depletive and massively destructive.

But these things don’t happen right in most of our backyards, right? If these processes just happen far enough away from us, if they only destroy those habitats way over there, then won’t our environments be ok? Well, no, as a matter of fact. Any and all environmental damage eventually comes back around, affecting those who started the damage as well as those who did not, because everything in nature is ultimately connected. Because of this connectedness, the loss of habitat, or a specific environment, anywhere, also harms habitats everywhere. This understanding undoubtedly motivated the saying attributed to Chief Seattle, paraphrased here, that “humanity did not weave the web of life, humanity is merely a strand in it. Whatever humans do to the web, they do to themselves.”

Many have already learned that burning fossil fuels for energy is not sustainable, and that it must stop soon. Some are learning that other energy sources, like dams, are also having serious negative effects, such as destroying those waterways that act like the life-giving veins of this land. But if we really look at the proposed green alternatives, it turns out that these sources of energy are also far from sustainable. The various industrial devices that we would ideally power with this energy are likewise not sustainable to produce.

Unfortunately for us, the ecological crisis we are in as actually much more severe than most realize. Many have ignored or forgotten what such widely recognized and regarded sources as the American Museum of Natural History and the United Nations agree upon, namely that “we are in the midst of a mass extinction of living things, and that this dramatic loss of species poses a major threat to human existence in the next century”. To be more specific: “we are in the middle of a sixth major mass extinction… The last great extinction event occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period, about 65 million years ago, when an estimated two-thirds of all species, including all the dinosaur groups except the birds, were obliterated.”

We have manufactured a comparable extinction event. “Over the next few decades, we could lose about 50,000 species per year, a rate 20,000 times the [average natural] rate. By the year 2100, perhaps two-thirds of the Earth’s current species will have disappeared or be on the way to extinction.” “Perhaps three species an hour, nearly 30,000 species a year, are currently being lost.”

Considering what we now know about how life systems work on this planet, that is, how tightly interwoven and connected they are, it is very unlikely that Homo Sapiens Sapiens (modern humans) will survive such an extreme downsizing of biodiversity on this planet.

Furthermore, in this latest stage of what is now called the Holocene extinction event (named for the geological period of time we are now in), the activities of industrial, “civilized” humans are solidly to blame. The industrial economy has been around for less than 1% of the time that humans have existed, and in that short period it’s already facilitated our delivery into this sorry state of affairs.

Many people have come to view non-sustainable technologies as “less preferable, but still an option.” That is, many do not take issues of sustainability vs. non-sustainability seriously. They see the whole problem as a regrettable, messy inconvenience, rather than as an immediately life-threatening issue. Simply put, we have to snap out of it. We are running out of time.

So what are we supposed to do then instead of adopting green technology?

Well, this might come as a shock to many, but the vast majority of human life has been lived without industrial technology. Also, before going any farther, do yourself a favor and forget the racist hubris of past historians and social scientists. Life before industrial technology was not necessarily “nasty, brutish and short.” As many anthropologists have recently begun to point out, starting with the (now slightly outdated but still significant) example of Marshall Sahlins, non-industrial peoples actually created the “original affluent society.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that those of us currently living in highly industrialized modern societies must adopt the exact practices of any specific non-industrial people. Rather, we should learn from the numerous examples of actually existing sustainable societies and draw our inspiration from there. I’m confident that, if we put our minds to the task, we will figure something out.

* * *

Most of the content of this piece was shamelessly stolen from various sources: namely this zine ( which in turn got a lot of its points from Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay’s book, “What We Leave Behind.” Content was also stolen from Wikipedia and other nerdy websites.

January 20, 2011 Posted by | anti-otoriter / anarşizan, ekolojist akımlar | Leave a comment

Stopping The Industrial Hydra: Revolution Against The Megamachine – George Bradford

This article was first published in the American radical ecological journal ‘Fifth Estate’ after the Exxon Valdez Oil spill. It describes first the spill itself before moving on to a wider analysis of the way that industrial interests can exploit even the disasters that might seem to undermine them and warns that in many cases environmentalists are acting as mere salesreps for industry. This incisive and rather scary analysis is backed up heavily. It also explains how industry creates needs for itself and looks at the limits of both environmentalism and leftism. Its impressive explanation of petrochemical civilisation and its often false oppositions is especially relevant considering this years west Wales oil spill — which released around twice as much oil as the Valdez.

1. Autopsy of a Petrochemical disaster

Remember the Exxon Valdez? The ship was the source of the worst oil spill to date in US history, spilling 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where it ran aground in March 1989. By the time it had limped into San Diego Harbour in July, it also left at least one other slick some eighteen miles long off the California coast.

The spill at Prince William Sound was the grand prize in a season of spills. In December 1988, 230,000 gallons of oil were spilled, fouling 300 miles of coast in the Canadian-US Pacific Northwest.[1] In January 1989, an Argentine ship broke apart, spilling 250,000 gallons of oil off Antarctica’s Palmer Peninsula near penguin, seal and seabird colonies. In the four months prior to the Valdez disaster, Alaska suffered several spills, including a 52,000 gallon spill at a Kenai refinery, a city pipeline rupture that spilled jet fuel into a creek in Anchorage, and a ship grounding in Dutch Harbour that closed down fish plants temporarily and killed more than 500 birds. In January alone, the environmental organisation Greenpeace recorded six ship, barge and boat wrecks in Alaskan waters “that released or threatened to release large quantities of oil.” One accident dumped 2 million gallons of diesel fuel into the ocean. [2] Then, in February, Exxon leaked 117,000 gallons of oil in Hawaii. Again, in April, another 10,000 gallons of oil from a mystery spill fouled beaches on the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Lanai. Later in the spring, over 300,000 gallons were spilled in the Delaware River, another 420,000 gallons were spilled in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, and the collision of a tanker and a barge in Texas’s Houston Channel dumped 252,000 gallons of oil.

Still remember the Valdez? In a petrochemical civilization, oil and chemical spills go with the territory. Nevertheless, life — or rather, organised death — goes on as usual. The refineries, mines and factories continue to operate, and the traffic continues to roar relentlessly. Oil spills have now — with only sporadic exceptions — dropped out of the mass media, replaced by “crime” and “drugs” America’s number 1 problem.” As the apparatus turns, its media machine churns. The oil spill in Prince William Sound has become yesterday’s newspapers, entering the exterminist Hall of Fame, along with others, such jewels as the Santa Barbara off-shore oil rig spill in 1968, the sinking of the Amoco Cadiz off of Brittany in 1978, and the Ixtoc oil well spill off Mexico’s Caribbean coast in 1979, as well as Bhopal, Love Canal, the Rhine River, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and on and on — a toponymy of extinction. As the hustlers say, pick a card, any card.

Survival, increasingly diminished and constrained, goes on, leaving an array of victims in its wake to pick up what little they can salvage. Everyone else adjusts to the increasing velocity of Progress, putting the wrenching and infuriating media images of dying animals behind them. They still have to get to work, to play, and to Grandma’s house, which is invariably on the other side of Hell six dozen freeway interchanges away. A few pious calls to drive less are heard, but in the absence of a mass strike today against the Machine, everyone keeps driving. The tyranny of mechanized daily life remains intact, and, in fact, is extended by the disasters it unleashes.

Not Just Another Accident

Nevertheless, the Valdez spill should not be denied its uniqueness. In magnitude and in terms of the rich ecosystem in which it occurred, it was exceptional. It occurred in an area containing one of the richest concentrations of animals in North America; 219 separate species of birds alone have been recorded in the Sound. Situated at an important point in the Pacific migratory route of Northern latitude breeders, the spill happened just in time to greet millions of birds on their way back north.

From late April to mid-May, the nearby Copper River delta is the world’s largest resting area for shore birds, many on their way to nest in the Canadian Arctic. Flocks of as many as a hundred thousand birds stop two or three days to feed, foraging in shallows and at the water’s edge, where much of the oil accumulates.

Almost the entire population of certain species pass through the area, for example, 20 million western sandpipers and dunlins alone. It is also rich with hundreds of thousands of black turnstones, tens of thousands of lesser golden plovers, redknots and whimbrels, and thousands of oystercatchers, ruddy turnstones, puffins, tundra swans, Canada geese, snow geese, gulls, cormorants, fifteen species of ducks, peregrine falcons and other birds. Some five thousand bald eagles — the largest concentration in the world — are found in the area. As of September, some 146 eagles were found dead; as many as 70% of mothering eagles abandoned their nests, leaving behind oil-soaked eggs and dead chicks.

The world’s largest concentration of northern sea otters, some ten to twelve thousand, were also found in the Sound. Probably half died from the spill, but many more are at risk.The effects on seals, whales and walruses are not clear, although they have not been affected as dramatically as the otters. While many animals have been killed by asphyxiation and freezing (one drop is enough to destroy protective coverings on birds and otters and kill them), not much is known about the toxicity of seawater contaminated by oil. Sitka black — tailed deer, feeding on the kelp along the beach, and bears feeding on carrion left by the spill, have died. Deadly chemicals found in oil such as xylene, benzene and toluene not only damage the intestines of large animals and kill them, but threaten the entire food chain by killing and disrupting the zoo-plankton on which it rests.

Fish such as herring, salmon and shellfish will be adversely affected as well. All in all, some 400,000 animals may have been affected. About 33,000 birds and 980 otters were found dead by official counts, but biologists consider such a number to be only ten to thirty percent of animals poisoned by the spill.

The long-term consequences on the marine ecology are, as is to be expected, also disastrous. Little has been known until fairly recently, but a study by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, describing the biological consequences of a major oil spill in the Caribbean Sea off Panama in 1986, found “dramatic effects” both more severe and longer lasting than previously thought. Judging from laboratory tests, scientists once had considered coral relatively immune from oil residues, but this has turned out not to be true. Organisms affected are more susceptible to epidemic disease and are likely to grow and reproduce more slowly than unaffected colonies.

Recent reports on the aftermath of the Amoco Cadiz spill off France’s Brittany coast in 1978 also show that oil remains a serious problem for marine life long after a spill. In this case, the massive elimination of bottom dwellers such as urchins, razor clams and tiny crustaceans called amphipods brought about the decline and disappearance of fish species that feed on them. According to a New York Times report on the study, “On exposed mudflats that are continually covered and uncovered by the tides, almost all animal life was wiped out.” (2 April 1989).

Figures vary on how much of an area was contaminated by the Exxon Valdez, but it was, at a bare minimum, 3,000 square miles, including at least 1,000 to perhaps 1,600 miles of shoreline. The long-term effects are particularly hard to determine given the cold waters and rough seas characteristic of the area. Recovery rates, if such a term can even be used meaningfully, vary widely as well. (“Recovery” can only signify a relative biological stability at a diminished level for a given ecosystem, since none can ever return to the pre-spill state with its full panoply of species diversity.) Furthermore, scientists judge “recovery” based on the ocean’s ability to disperse and wash away oil, a view that implies that dilution of contaminants in the larger ecosystem is recovery. But the oil always goes somewhere, and with it, a steady, generalised contamination of the whole living planet. While the consequence of the overall contamination can never be precisely measured by scientists, the silent pall over inlets and coves around the Sound, once teeming and noisy with wildlife, should serve as an indication.[3]

The Failure of Technology

Even “cleanup” represents one of those cruel jokes of language that mask a grim reality. Not only do many containment and cleaning techniques prove ineffective, they are often worse than the oil itself on the environment. Chemical dispersants, which are considered to be only ten to thirty percent effective under ideal conditions, are themselves highly toxic. High-pressure water treatment on beaches is very destructive to beach organisms, and the fertilizer used to clean beaches is also toxic. Traffic from workers doing clean-up weakens bottom sediment and destroys habitat. Rescue efforts only save a minute fraction, perhaps ten percent, of animals found, and many tend to return to the same area to be fouled once again. Birds cleaned and returned to the environment rarely, if ever, reproduce, and so are,in ecological terms, already dead.

Recent work, by American ornithologist Brian Sharp, has turned up some depressing findings. He examined US bird-ringing files for the period 1969 to 1994 (which included the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez), and his grim conclusion was that cleaning of birds was largely pointless. The “life expectancy of oiled and cleaned guillemots after their release is only 9.6 days … Unoiled birds survived between 20 and 100 times as long as oiled birds … modern methods of cleaning and rehabilitating birds had not noticeably improved their survival rate … a “negligible” number of oiled birds survive long enough to breed.”

Figures provided by Arthur Lindley, head of wildlife at the RSPCA, tend to confirm Sharp’s conclusions — of “some 2000 guillemots ringed in Britain after being cleaned of oil … [most died] within a year of ringing … but so far, six have shown up later than that — and one bird was found 11 years later.” While Lindley acknowledges that “very many die within a few weeks of being released” he still, inexplicably, sees the survival of a tiny fraction of the original number of birds as “encouraging”.

In any other field, a ‘success’ rate of 6 out of 2000 would be seen as intolerably low, calling into question the efficacy of the energy expended on it — which is why Lindley’s comments on the figures seem remarkably weak, not to say self-deluding. It reinforces the suspicion that such clean-up efforts are intended less for the benefit of the birds than as a form of therapy for us — the expiation of our guilt and disquiet at the consequences of our lifestyle by doing something , even if that “something” is understood to be largely useless. (All quotes, New Scientist 9/3/96.)

— Dead Trees EF!

One great irony is the utter uselessness of the complex technological apparatus that has been developed to respond to oil spills. As Eugene Schwartz has written in “Overskill: The Decline of Technology in Modern Civilisation” (1971), technological ingenuity came to nothing in the Santa Barbara spill; the only relatively effective response ended up being the “low tech” strategy of spreading straw as an absorbent and collecting it with rakes and pitchforks.

The immense failure of mass technics is vividly illustrated by Schwartz’s description of two oil spills that took place during another season of spills — during February 1970, when in a period of sixteen days four major oil spills occurred in North America: a 3.8 million gallon oil spill in Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia; an oil platform fire in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, fed by crude oil and gas escaping from wells drilled into the seabed; a spill in Tampa Bay from a grounded ship that eventually covered a hundred square miles of ocean before washing ashore and killing thousands of birds; and the spilling of 84,000 gallons of gas and diesel fuel when a barge collided with a jetty in California’s Humboldt Bay. Such accidents are “powerful reminders” of the helplessness of human ingenuity in disasters, Schwartz writes:

“The Gulf of Mexico accident unfolded like a Greek tragedy… After the fire had been extinguished with the help of dynamite on March 10, oil began to pour from the wells and to form a heavy slick. On the same day, the National Wildlife Refuge on Breton Island was menaced when an oil-collecting boom broke.The clean-up was reported to be ‘going well’ as the boom of heavy mesh fence covered with vinyl was repaired — only to break again. On March 11 the vinyl and plywood dams collapsed in heavy seas and over 1,500 barrels of crude oil began to move toward the oyster beds. The skimmer boats could not operate because of wind and high seas. On March 12 the incident was officially termed a ‘disaster’ as oil slicks covering fifty square miles of the Gulf neared the oyster beds.

“If necessary, it was planned to set off fireworks to startle a quarter-million geese to begin an earlier migration northward. On March 13 officials considered setting the oil on fire. An oil slick moved into the marshes of a wildlife refuge the next day while officials scanned wind notices to determine the course of the oil slicks. A well head used to cap a spouting well blew off on March 15, and the escaping oil added to the fifty-two-square-mile slick. Faced with a growing oil slick, the oil well’s owners smothered the spouting wells with tons of mud and dynamite. They poured dispersant chemicals on the slicks though the effects of these chemicals on the marine life threatened by the oil had not been established…

“The Chedabucto Bay spill transformed the bay into a cold-water laboratory — with primitive measures taking precedence over scientific ones. Efforts were made to burn the spilled oil, but low sea temperatures frustrated ignition efforts with benzine, magnesium and flame-throwers. Old tires filled with napalm burned doughnut-shaped holes in the congealed oil and sank to the bottom. Chemical dispersants were halted by the government as being harmful to marine life. As at Santa Barbara, sawdust and peat moss were used to soak up the oil on the beaches, and bulldozers scraped up the contamination.”

While some of capital’s advanced technology may have improved slightly since the 1970s, no equipment is capable of responding to spills in heavy seas. Oil starts sliding under booms in currents of only seven-tenths of a knot, and goes over the top in wind and waves. Even large skimmers can only pick up small amounts and can only be used in calm seas. When gale force winds came up in Prince William Sound, the booms just blew away. And in the December 1988 spill along the northwest Pacific coast, high seas thwarted any response. Said a Canadian official, “It was simply a matter of waiting for the oil to hit the beach and clean it up manually.” (Toronto Globe and Mail, 1 April 1989).

Ultimately efforts were to prove so ineffectual that the term “clean up” was replaced with that of “treatment” and “stabilization” of shorelines. Even though, after Exxon workers had cleaned up only half a mile of beach, an Exxon spokesman claimed that the beach had been left “cleaner than we’ve found it”, the Times reported that “ some of the painstaking cleanup is only spreading the oil around, moving from the high-tide mark down to the water’s edge.” A state official in charge of an inquiry into the spill remarked, “The cleanup is just not working. It’s like trying to get the toothpaste back into the tube.” By September, when Exxon announced that it was going to cease the cleanup, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reported that more than 300 miles of “treated” shoreline were still coated with oily muck as much as three feet deep.[4]

2. The Earth is a Company Town

For the institutions that administer and benefit from the petrochemical megamachine, the spill was a “terrible disaster” too, if only a temporary one. The spill indicated, contrary to corporate reassurances of infallibility, that not everything went exactly according to plan, and that can make the natives restless.

Exxon and the oil company pipeline consortium Aleyska, along with the usual government and corporate allies, immediately followed the strategy always employed in the wake of a toxic accident — managing appearances with the appearance of management. Thus the reassurances and declarations of concern came rolling off production lines along with slick photos of Exxon workers holding cleaned up, healthy looking otters and ducks.

The model for capitalist crisis management of such disasters remains the toxic chemical gas leak at a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, in 1984. As Tara Jones has written in a recent book, “Corporate Killing: Bhopals Will Happen” (Free Association Books, 1988): “The crisis Bhopal created was one which required both immediate and long-term management. In the management of this crisis, the victims’ needs were totally neglected: the predominant priorities were the economic interests of [Union Carbide] and the Indian state. In the ensuing macabre dance of death, the dead and walking wounded were left by the wayside, while the main protagonists acted to minimise damage to their interests.” For the continuance of industrial capitalism, the accident at Bhopal was not an ecological or even a technological crisis (accidents being inevitable) but rather a public relations crisis, and thus, potentially, a social crisis if people began to take the lessons of the gas leak seriously. Hence, the entire chemical industry worked “to reassure the general public that Bhopal was a rare, chance occurrence that would not be repeated,” rather than a dramatic example of a continuous process of toxic contamination.

As soon as the news hit about the oil spill in Prince William Sound, Exxon followed Union Carbide’s strategy of cleaning up … the propaganda environment. By hiring nearly every boat in Valdez and Cordova harbours, and with the stipulation that no media would be allowed on them without permission from the company, Exxon prevented most environmental groups and critical journalists from even getting to Bligh Reef to survey the damages. The crew of fishing boat nicknamed “the Hearse”, which brought garbage bags filled with dead animals into Valdez harbour every few days, was told not to bring in animals that had been dead more than two weeks to avoid stirring up reporters.

Exxon’s body counts varied wildly from all others. “The numbers just don’t match,” one disgusted worker told George Michaels of The Animals’ Agenda. “The [Exxon] press release says that 500 otters have been brought in dead in the past six weeks. I’ve counted 600 myself in the past week.” Exxon continued to release regular notices that the spill had been contained and cleaned up even as it continued to grow in size and severity, and produced a slick video entitled “Progress in Alaska”, wich extolled the corporation’s environmental commitment and the success of its response to Valdez, as well as the benefits the industry has brought to a state which receives 85% of its revenues from oil. Full-page ads in newspapers across the country were bought by Exxon to defend its role in the affair, and Exxon maintained tight control of emergency response efforts, much in the same way, say, that a mass murderer might be hired to head up the forensics study of the massacre.

The propaganda blitz was intense because the stakes were high. Suddenly, off-shore drilling and exploration of sensitive wilderness areas (policies contested even before the spill) were getting the spotlight along with information about oil company practices — leaks of far greater concern to capital than a few million gallons of oil.

Speaking before the National Ocean Industries Association, an organisation of companies linked to off-shore oil extraction, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan warned his corporate cronies, “If the image of an uncareful and uncaring industry prevails among the US public, then we can kiss goodbye to domestic oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, off-shore and in the public lands.” For Lujan, the Valdez spill might hinder oil exploitation much in the same way that the accident at Three Mile Island stalled the construction of nuclear power projects. And he did not hesitate to call further exploration and extraction, including in wilderness areas, a matter of “national security”, even though the coveted Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is estimated to have enough oil for a mere six months supply for US cars and trucks. To the industrialists, the oil must keep flowing at all costs, and one terrifying question — when will society begin to do without oil — is not even allowed. It is a matter of state security: capitalism, certainly, cannot exist without oil.

Meanwhile the image of a “caring” corporation is disseminated for the gullible. One Exxon publicist called a boycott of the company “unjust”, adding that the spill “was an accident — a bad one. But accidents can happen to anyone.” This was the accident, of course, that such publicists had formerly claimed would never happen.

Economic Boom = Ecologic Bust

Ever since the construction of the Prudhoe Bay oil field on the Arctic Ocean (the largest contiguous industrial complex in the world), the oil industry provided every assurance of safety to those uneasy with oil development in Alaska’s pristine waters and wilderness. Flush with petrochemical plunder, the State of Alaska and the corporations that had staked it out rode a giddy wave of technological hubris and gold-rush corruption. Alaska became a Boom state, providing one quarter of all US domestic oil. In exchange for Prudhoe Bay, the state doubled its budget on public services, repealed personal income taxes, and created a trust fund out of which it pays an annual dividend to all Alaska residents.

Some Alaskans resisted oil development in the beginning, but Big Oil swept all opposition aside, both by using the law to further its own interests and by circumventing it whenever necessary. In the 1970s, fishing communities and environmentalists fought the Aleyska pipeline all the way to the Supreme Court and won, but Congress simply declared the project exempt from environmental laws. State laws were also overrun and modified to accomodate the nine-company consortium seeking to build the pipeline across 800 miles of Alaska wilderness to the port at Valdez.

Oil development came accompanied by promises of the “best technology”, safety reviews, and an upgrading of facilities as volumes rose. Not even these dubious promises materialised. Instead of cleaning up toxic pits left in drilling, it is cheaper for oil companies to pay penalties for abandoning them, and even the inadequate environmental protection laws are routinely ignored. As John Greely notes in The Nation, Port Valdez was already considered one of North America’s most “chronically polluted marine environments” by scientific agencies. Small spills — some 400 before the Valdez spill — were a continuous problem.

Big Oil built itself not just a few company towns but a company state. The wave of new immigrants brought by an expanding economy continued to erode opposition to development and the corporations. Housing, schools, roads, power projects — the whole infrastructure of the modern capital-energy-commodity-intensive society — were constructed with the revenues. And when society-wide corruption and collusion didn’t work, Aleyska used a mix of cover-up, publicity campaigns and legal maneuvers to continue operations unimpeded, for example going into court in May, after the spill, to block more stringent pollution controls at Valdez. Greely quotes a toxicologist: “If Aleyska is an example of how these oil companies operate in an environmentally sound manner, what are the companies doing in more remote wilderness areas with even less supervision?”

A good question. If the idea of a “third world” suggests a plundered colony where brute force, super-exploitation, and a veil of secrecy prevail, then Prudhoe Bay is a kind of third world colony. The complex, encompassing a 900 square mile wasteland of prefab buildings, drilling pads, pipelines, roads and airstrips, matches any nightmare in the industrialised world. Burning fuels blacken the Arctic sky, causing air pollution that rivals the city of Chicago. According to the March-April 1988 Greenpeace Magazine, “ Some 64 million gallons of waste water containing varying amounts of hydrocarbons, chemical additives, lead and arsenic have been released directly into the environment. Regulators report up to 600 oil spills a year, and five hazardous waste sites at Prudhoe are already candidates for clean-up under Federal Superfund law. In addition, the oil companies have been cited for numerous violations of federal and state environmental laws,” which does not reveal how bad things are, since many violations obviously go unreported. Road and building construction has thawed the permafrost and caused flooding; this has spread toxic chemicals, and affected an area much greater than the actual development itself.

Hundreds of waste pits overflow during the late spring thaw, killing off small freshwater animals low on the food chain, but also causing dramatic poisoning incidents. Last year, for example, a polar bear was found dead, stained pink from drinking industrial poisons not even normally found together. Other wildlife has been affected. The oil companies are quick to point out that the caribou population is up, but that is largely due to the mass extermination of wolves during 1977-78 by hunting guides when road construction created more access to remote areas. In reality, many questions remain about the caribou and how they will be affected in the long run.

In a letter to the New York Times, two people who had been weathered in at Deadhorse (at the heart of the Prudhoe complex) on their way to the wildlife refuge to the east, describe seeing “thousands of vehicles in use and abandoned, ranging from pickup trucks to massive mobile drilling equipment, stacks of discarded oil drums, small ponds with greasy slicks and general debris.” Dozens of abandoned structures stand in and around the development at Deadhorse, with no indication that any is to be re-used or removed as oil exploitation (which has already reached its peak) starts to wind down. “Merely to remove the accumulated vehicles, buildings and drilling equipment,” they continue, “not to mention detoxifying the polluted tundra and dismantling the roads, airstrips and pipelines, would take years and hundreds of millions of dollars. Who will pay?” (4 April 1989)

Another good question. Yet when one considers what the actual energy expense of building and operating such a vast and remote complex might be, even before an attempt at any kind of “stabilization” of the environment, the realisation sinks in that this development is representative of the entirety of industrialism: a massive pyramid scheme that will collapse somewhere down the line when all the major players have already retired from the game. Of course, when the last of these hustlers cash in their chips, there won’t be any place left to retire to.

The Greenhouse Effect: Capital’s Business Climate

It should go without saying that Exxon and its allies don’t try their best to protect the environment or human health. Capitalist institutions produce to accumulate power and wealth, not for any social “good”. Thus, predictably, in order to cut costs, Exxon steadily dismantled what emergency safeguards it had throughout the 1980s, pointing to environmental studies showing a major spill as so unlikely that preparation was unnecessary. So when the inevitable came crashing down, the response was complete impotence and negligence.

Yet to focus on disasters as aberrations resulting from corporate greed is to mystify the real operational character of an entire social and technological system. The unmitigated disaster of daily, undramatic activities in places like Prudhoe Bay and Bhopal — even before they enter the vocabulary of doom — is irrefutable proof that Valdez was no accident but the norm. Modern industrialism cannot exist without its Prudhoe Bays. Capital must always have a super-exploited colony, a “sacrifice area” of some kind — the sky, a human community, a watershed, the soil, the gene pool, and so on — to expand and extend its lifeless tentacles.

The real spillage goes on every day, every minute, when capitalism and mass technics appear to be working more or less according to the Plan. The Exxon Valdez contained some 1.2 million barrels of oil; at any given time 750 million barrels are floating on the world’s waters. In 1979 the amount of oil lost worldwide on land and sea through spillage, fire and sinkings reached a peak of 328 million gallons; since then it has dropped to between 24 and 55 million a year, except for 1983, when tanker accidents and oil blowouts in the Iran-Iraq War brought the total up to 242 million gallons. Most of the oil in the oceans comes not from accidents but municipal and industrial runoff, the cleaning of ship bilges and other routine activity. Industry analysts say that major oil spills have declined, but that “smaller” spills continue to take place all the time, a phenomenon paralleled in the chemical industry by focussing on major leaks to conceal the reality of a slow-moving, low-level, daily Bhopal. And no matter how carefully industry tries to prevent accidents, they are going to occur; the larger and more complicated the system, the more certain the breakdown. As the head of the Cambridge-based Centre for Short-lived Phenomena (!), which keeps track of oil spills, commented after the Valdez spill, because such an event “takes place so infrequently, and the resources are never available in a single location to deal effectively with it” (meaning because booms can’t be stationed every hundred yards along the route, etc.) major spills are inevitable.

In any case, mass society is a continuous oil spill just as it is a constant chemical leak. The 11 million gallons lost by the Valdez on Bligh Reef is matched every year in the state of Michigan alone by citizens pouring waste oil down sewers or on the ground. (See related story in box.) And while it is true that more safety measures could be taken through institutional or technological means (or even by revolutionary workers councils or assemblies), industrialism brings inherent consequences of spills, leaks, inadequate response, inadequate “treatment”, and ecological Bust. As petrochemicals are necessary to industrialism whatever the form of management, spills are also integral to petrochemicals. And what chemicals and oil spills are to a society addicted to industrialism, industrialism is to the living fabric of the planet. This observation was raised by writer Bill McKibben in an essay published on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times on April 7. McKibben asked what would have been the result had the Exxon Valdez gotten through without a hitch? If ten million gallons had gotten through to be consumed, they would have released about 60 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is the major component gas causing the greenhouse effect, in which gases emitted in enormous quantities by industrial civilisation will trap heat in the atmosphere and raise global temperatures, disrupting and profoundly transforming the planet’s ecology — capitalism’s 21st century Global Business Climate, so to speak. McKibben writes that in the next century, “There will be twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as there was before the Industrial Revolution.” The effects are unclear to scientists, but nearly all agree that the burning of fossil fuels combined with the release of chemicals that destroy the planet’s ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, the generation of heat from all sources, deforestation and other factors will bring about massive species extinctions, climate and weather changes, flooding and other havoc.

The average car reproduces its own body weight in carbons each year. This is “another oil slick”, McKibben notes, being released every day. And while technological modifications to make “clean-burning” cars may reduce pollutants such as carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons by as much as 96%, such cars will emit as much carbon dioxide as a Model T. Electric cars will pose a similar problem if their energy comes from fossil fuel sources. (See related box insert ‘Never Trust a Techno-Fix’).The production of automobiles, and the production of anti-pollution technology itself, are not even taken into account by this analysis, but the inherent failure of technological reason can be seen.

The rate of climate change over the next hundred years may dwarf by thirty times the rate of global warming that followed the last Ice Age. Reducing what comes out of tail pipes won’t even put a slight dent in that problem.

“The greenhouse effect,” McKibben observes, “is not the result of something going wrong. It doesn’t stem from drunken sailors, inadequate emergency planning or a reef in the wrong place. It’s harder to deal with than that because it’s just a result of normal life.” Leaving aside the question of whether or not the phrase “normal life” appropriately describes industrial capitalism, if McKibben’s recommendation that “less energy” be used is to meaningfully confront the looming greenhouse crisis, such a reduction in industrial activity will have to be far more dramatic than almost any sectors of society have been willing to ponder so far. It would signal a deconstruction process more profound than any revolutionary transformation of society ever seen previously. Whether or not this prospect is possible is an open question.

Whether or not it is necessary is a question that must include the recognition that present environmental effects are the results of activities several decades ago. And since modern science cannot understand thresholds, there is no telling how much time is left, only a certainty that it is running out.

3. Disaster Fuels the Machine: The Hydra

Warnings of the inevitable crash of urban-industrialism’s house of cards now appear often in the leading capitalist newspapers. The ruling classes cannot help but suspect that their system is drawing the world toward a cataclysm. Yet they cannot respond and grimly go about their business like distracted Ahabs trying to maintain control of their foundering ship. The entropy inherent in their system overwhelms them as they grapple for a helm that does not exist. In this respect they resemble any ruling class near the end of its historic journey.

French president Mitterand seemed to sense as much when at summit discussions on the environment last summer he remarked that there was “no political authority capable of making decisions on a global scale.” The authority of the modern state cannot find a solution, of course, because it has come to encompass every aspect of the problem itself. Only a planetary revolutionary transformation from the ground up — a revolution now fragmentarily glimpsed in aspects of the radical fringe of the ecology movement, in the indigenous-primitive revival, in anti-authoritarian movements and the new social movements against mass technics, toxics and development — could bring the death train to a halt before it disintegrates and finally explodes under its own inertia.

That revolution remains beyond our reach. Our revolutionary desire must squarely face the fact that disaster itself tends to fuel the system that generates it, which means that we must abandon the pathetic hope that perhaps this latest horror will be the signal that turns the tide (as Chernobyl was supposed to be, and Bhopal). In ‘Where the Wasteland Ends’ (1972), Theodore Roszak points to “the great paradox of the technological mystique: its remarkable ability to grow strong by virtue of chronic failure. While the treachery of our technology may provide many occasions for disenchantment, the sum total of failures has the effect of increasing our dependence on technical expertise.”

That economic and technological spheres are one is confirmed in the way capital rushes into the vacuum momentarily caused by its own crisis, renewing operations and finding new ways to expand and reinforce its global work machine. Thus even the oil spill became good for business once crisis management was functioning, as Exxon took tax breaks, raised prices, and took charge of the “cleanup”. Valdez and other towns boomed again as thousands of people and hundreds of vessels and aircraft were hired. (Boom towns quickly folded into a shambles when the company closed its operations, but by then investment had already moved on.) San Diego, where the ship was moved for repairs, also enjoyed its 25 million dollar mini-boom. Other spin-offs included the companies developing new cleanup techniques, scientific organisations doing new studies on the after-effects, and public relations.

And extraction continues, with exploration now underway in Alaska’s Bristol Bay and Chukchi Sea, and drilling platforms operating just off the coast of the ostensibly “protected” Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.[5] After the repair, the Valdez will even be given a new name, according to an Exxon executive, so that the ship can “start a new career”. The natural world reels, but the business of business marches on.

Because they are isolated, localised events, or because they are generalised, global ones, the calamities of industrialism erode the common conditions of life without necessarily posing any alternatives. Local communities affected by disasters are forced into rearguard, defensive struggles while having to survive under severely deteriorated conditions. Other communities, not directly affected, go on with “normal life”, holding out the faint hope that the oil, toxic cloud, contaminated water, etc, won’t drift in their direction.

The growing awareness of widening catastrophic conditions is insufficient to bring about a response as long as the structures of daily urban-industrial-commodity life are not materially challenged. When they separately confront the various manifestations of the crisis, communities are left on the terrain of emergency response, demands for technological and regulatory reform, and ultimately, “treatment” of an increasingly denuded world. That is to say, we remain on the terrain of a system that thrives on disaster, grasping at measures that may at best only achieve the same diminished stability in the social sphere that they do ecologically in places like Prince William Sound.

Roszak observes, “If modern society originally embraced industrialism with hope and pride, we seem to have little alternative at this advanced stage but to cling on with desperation.” Of course, this is to cling on to a sinking ship, but cling we do. Mass society has taken its predictable revenge on those forced to inhabit it, eroding the inner strength and visionary impulses of human beings as ruinously as it has degraded and simplified the natural world. Disaster being a permanent condition of life, so quickly is one horror followed by the next, we have been disciplined to focus on the mediatized version of this season’s industrial plague while all around us the hundred hydra heads flourish.

The image of the hydra occurred to me while driving my car to an event organised to show opposition to one of the hydra’s local manifestations — the world’s largest trash incinerator, which burns about a mile from where I live. Hearing the news of Prince William Sound, I saw the whole series of misfortunes originating in Prudhoe Bay (or rather, in some boardroom), and running through Prince William Sound down to me filling my gas tank in Detroit.

While I was gassing up to get to some modest attempt to oppose a piece of the monster, it had hiccupped and knocked off a whole section of the planet. Every day, in fact, it is the same concatenation of misery, a tidal wave of desolation and ruin that does not in any meaningful way, ultimately serve the long-term interests of even those who administer it. It’s exterminism in action: the hydra. In the myth, Hercules was at least able to cut off a head before two appeared in its place; we don’t even have that small satisfaction before a hundred more appear.

The profound break necessary to contest this horror and create a liberatory ecological society in its place clearly reveals the limitations of two currents of fragmented opposition to it, environmentalism and leftism.

Limits of environmentalism

Environmentalism emerged as an ethical reassessment of humanity’s relation to, and thus as a protest against, the wanton exploitation and destruction of the natural world. As a social movement it has sought to set aside and protect nature preserves, while trying to institutionalise, within modern capitalism and through the state, various safeguards and an ethic of responsibility toward the land. Despite its appeal to a non-anthropocentric ethical perspective and its often vigorous and courageous battles to defend nature, environmentalism has lacked an acute critique of key social forces that propel ecological destruction: capitalism, empire and the state. Even where it has elaborated a partial critique of industrialism and mass society, it has generally failed to recognize the close connection between urban-industrialism and capital. Rather, it has attempted to reform the existing system by rationalising and humanising it.

This perspective is illustrated by a comment made by David Brower, an indefatigable environmental crusader who inspired many of the radical environmental activists today. Speaking to author John McPhee, Brower remarked, “Roughly ninety percent of the earth has felt man’s hand already, sometimes brutally, sometimes gently. Now let’s say, ‘That’s the limit.’ We should go back over the ninety and not touch the remaining ten percent. We should go back, and do better, with ingenuity. Recycle things. Loop the system.” (‘Encounters with the Archdruid’, 1971). Even if Brower’s figures are true (and even if the ten percent could remain unaffected by the activities in the other ninety), his statement provides little in the way of a critique of the world of the ninety percent and says nothing about the forces and institutions that determine “normal life” there.

As for those institutions, they have in many cases recognised the benefits of conservation and have preserved areas and natural objects, but they have always chosen to exploit such preserves when it was decided that the “benefits” outweighed the “costs”. (One cannot help but be reminded of the remark of an oil company executive, in the manner of a vampire, “The day you see gas lines in the Lower 48, the Alaskan wildlife refuge will open to us.”) The environmental movement has been, from the beginning, one of retrenchment, temporary stalemate, defeat and retreat. As Brower comments, “All a conservation group can do is defer something. There’s no such thing as a permanent victory. After we win a battle, the wilderness is still there, and still vulnerable. When a conservation group loses a battle, the wilderness is dead.” The same holds true for communities defending themselves from corporations seeking to site landfills and toxic production facilities. In his painful and often extremely enlightening study of such communities, “Contaminated Communities: The Social and Psychological Impacts of Residential Toxic Exposure” (1988), Michael R. Edelstein describes a successful fight in Richton, Mississippi, to stop a nuclear waste repository. “Even with the project now abandoned,” he writes, “there remains a feeling of ‘perpetual jeopardy’ in Richton resulting from the likelihood that so visible a site will attract some other hazardous waste proposal.”

Lacking a perspective that challenges the capitalist order, environmentalists have seen their rhetoric captured and employed by the contaminating corporations and the state. The bureaucrats administering hazardous waste and garbage incinerators can be found parroting the environmental slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and conservation is touted as a patriotic duty. All such rhetoric on the part of the contaminators amounts to an enormous scam, since capitalism — at least in its present configuration, which could not be abolished without a civil war — is based on extractive-exploitive industries such as mining and metals, petrochemicals, forest products,etc. [Perhaps modern ‘industrial agriculture’ is an example of another such industry — figures for soil loss would certainly tend to suggest this.] No matter how assiduously the average person recycles household waste, these industries will continue to operate,and there is a direct correlation between the economic wellbeing of these industries and destruction of the environment. Economic growth demands ecological bust. If capitalist concerns do not grow, they will collapse and die. The priviledged functionaries of such institutions have already clearly expressed their preference that everything else die first.

As for municipal recycling, that pet panacea of liberal environmentalism, not only is capitalism capable of rationalising its production through such piecemeal reform, it will soon do so in North America once the waste management industry has created technical and economic infrastructures to make it profitable. (Until that time, recycling will, for the most part, fail, which is what is already happening in many municipalities that now find themselves sitting on tons of recyclable materials that can find no market.) In places such as Japan and Western Europe, where materials recycling can sometimes reach more than half of the municipal waste stream, widespread contamination continues. Factories, energy facilities, airports, mines and the rest remain. As it becomes profitable and necessary, recycling will certainly be institutionalised within the system, but it will not significantly alter the suicidal trajectory of a civilisation based on urban-industrial-energy development and the production and circulation of commodities. [6]

Limitations of leftism

Despite numerous insights into commodities and the market economy, the left historically has always embraced the industrial, energy-intensive system originally generated by private capitalism as a “progressive” force that would lay the basis for a free and abundant society. According to this schema, humanity has always lacked the technological basis for freedom that industrial capitalism, for all its negative aspects, would create. Once that basis was laid, a revolution would usher in communism (or a “post-scarcity” society) using many of the wonders of technology that were capitalism’s “progressive” legacy. Presently, capitalism has allegedly outlived its progressive role and now functions as a brake on genuine development. Hence it is the role of the left to rationalise, modernize, and ultimately humanise the industrial environment through socialisation, collectivisation and participatory management of mass technics. In fact, in societies where the bourgeois class was incapable of creating the basic structures of capitalism — urban-industrial-energy development, mass production of consumer goods, mass communications, state centralisation, etc — the left, through national revolution and state-managed economies, fulfilled the historic mission of the bourgeoisie.

In the leftist model (shared by leninist and social democratic marxists, as well as by anarcho-syndicalists and even social ecologists), the real progressive promise of industrialisation and mechanisation is being thwarted by private capitalism and state socialism. But under the collective management of the workers, the industrial apparatus and the entire society can be administered safely and democratically. According to this view, present dangers and disasters do not flow from contradictions inherent in mass technics (a view considered to reflect the mistake of “technological determinism”), but rather from capitalist greed or bourgeois mismanagement — not from the “forces of production” (to use the marxist terminology) but from the separate “relations of production”.

The left, blinded by a focus on what are seen as purely economic relations, challenges only the forms and not the material, cultural and subjective content of modern industrialism. It fails to examine the view — one it shares with bourgeois liberalism — that human freedom is based necessarily on a material plenitude of goods and services. Parroting their prophet, marxists argue that the “appropriation” by the workers of the “instruments of production” represents “the development of a totality of capacities in the individuals themselves.” Conquest of the “realm of necessity” (read: conquest of nature) will usher in the “realm of freedom”. In this view, the material development of industrial society (the “productive forces”) will make possible the abolition of the division of labour; “the domination of circumstances and chance over individuals” will be replaced “by the domination of individuals over chance and necessity.” (Marx and Engels, “The German Ideology”) Mastery of nature by means of workers’ councils and scientific management will put an end to oil spills. Thus, if mass technics confront the workers as an alien power, it is because the apparatus is controlled by the capitalist ruling class, not because such technics are themselves uncontrollable.

This ideology, accompanied usually by fantasies of global computer networks and the complete automation of all onerous tasks (machines making machines making machines to strip-mine the coal and drill the oil and manufacture the plastics, etc.), cannot understand either the necessity for strict and vast compartmentalisation of tasks and expertise, or the resulting social opacity and stratification and the impossibility of making coherent decisions in such a context. Unforeseen consequences, be they local or global, social or ecological, are discounted along with the inevitable errors, miscalculations, and disasters. Technological decisions implying massive intervention into nature are treated as mere logic problems or technical puzzles which workers can solve through their computer networks.

Such a view, rooted in the nineteenth century technological and scientific optimism that the workers’ movement shared with the bourgeoisie, does not recognise the matrix of forces that has now come to characterise modern civilisation — the convergence of commodity relations, mass communications, urbanisation and mass technics, along with the rise of interlocking, rival nuclear-cybernetic states into a global megamachine. Technology is not an isolated project, or even an accumulation of technical knowledge, that is determined by a somehow separate and more fundamental sphere of “social relations”. Mass technics have become, in the words of Langdon Winner, “structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environments” (’Autonomous Technology’, 1977), and thus of the very social relations that brought them about.

Mass technics — a product of earlier forms and archaic hierarchies — have now outgrown the conditions that engendered them, taking on an autonomous life (though overlapping with and never completely nullifying these earlier forms). They furnish, or have become, a kind of total environment and social system, both in their general and individual, subjective aspects.For the most part, the left never grasped Marx’s acute insight that as human beings express their lives, so they themselves are. When the “means of production” are in actuality interlocking elements of a dangerously complex, interdependent global system, made up not only of technological apparatus and human operatives as working parts in that apparatus, but of forms of culture and communication and even the landscape itself, it makes no sense to speak of “relations of production” as a separate sphere.

In such a mechanised pyramid, in which instrumental relations and social relations are one and the same, accidents are endemic. No risk analysis can predict or avoid them all, or their consequences, which will become increasingly great and far-reaching. Workers councils will be no more able to avert accidents than the regulatory reforms proposed by liberal environmentalists and the social-democratic left, unless their central task is to begin immediately to dismantle the machine altogether.[7]

The left also fails to recognise what is in a sense a deeper problem for those desiring revolutionary change, that of the cultural context and content of mass society — the addiction to capitalist-defined “comforts” and a vision of material plenitude that are so destructive ecologically. The result is an incapacity to confront not just the ruling class, but the grid itself — on the land, in society, in the character of each person — of mass technics, mass mobility, mass pseudo-communications, mass energy-use, mass consumption of mass-produced goods.

As Jacques Ellul writes in ‘The Technological System’ (1980), “ It is the technological coherence that now makes up the social coherence … Technology is in itself not only a means, but a universe of means — in the original sense of Universum: both exclusive and total. “ This universe degrades and colonises the social and natural world, making their dwindling vestiges ever more perilously dependent on the technological environment that has supplanted them. The ecological implications are evident. As Ellul argues, “Technology can become an environment only if the old environment stops being one. But that implies destructuring it to such an extreme that nothing is left of it.” We are obviously reaching that point, as capital begins to pose its ultimate technology, bioengineering and the illusion of total biological control, as the only solution to the ecological crisis it has created. Thus, the important insights that come from a class analysis are incomplete. It won’t be enough to get rid of the rulers who have turned the earth into a company town; a way of life must end and an entirely new, post-industrial culture must also emerge.

4. Revolution or Death: Against the Megamachine

A new kind of thinking presently haunts the despair and bad faith that now rule the world. It recognises that a whole order must be abolished, that we must retrace our steps, that the machine must stop once and for all, if we are to avoid going over an abyss. Yet this vision for the most part remains hidden; the necessary shift in thinking and the practical strategies that it suggests have not generally occurred even in many of those human communities most adversely affected by growing social and ecological degradation.

Michael Edelstein’s discussion of the impact of contamination on communities takes up this problem. Edelstein has studied several communities reeling from the consequences of contamination or in the process of trying to stop industrial projects that are proposed, and describes how these experiences can dramatically radicalise people, creating the basis for communities of resistance (if only temporarily), and ultimately, inspire people to begin to “challenge core assumptions of the overall society.” Any doubts about the far-reaching radical, even revolutionary, potential of the anti-toxics and anti-development movements will be dispelled by this book.

Nevertheless, as Edelstein points out, it is the failure to recognise and confront the context and social content of mass contamination that finally leaves these communities powerless to halt it. Society as a whole engages in “denial and rationalisation” in thinking that a single accident or problem can be resolved in isolation from the total fabric, in thinking that the mass urban-industrial society can continue to operate without contamination and ecological destruction. “We no longer deny the existence of pollution,” he writes; “instead we adopt the engineering fallacy — that pollution simply needs to be ‘cleaned up.’

Capitalism needs to create demands for itself, making it and its products indispensable, and life without its supply mechanisms unthinkable, thus justifying its existence. In a Faustian pact, its attendant misery and ubiquitous desolation come to be seen as a price worth paying if the goods and services it offers us are to be obtained. “In the 1920s the birth of mass advertising signalled a transformation of capitalism from a system of the production of goods to one of creating needs for new goods. In the words of one business executive of the time, US capitalism had to engender the ‘organised creation of dissatisfaction’.” [8] Two good examples of manufactured, spurious ‘needs’ are the market for garden peat, and the use of (over-priced) disposable nappies in place of terry-cloths; the appearance of markets for these two products is a very recent phenomenon, with demand for them being practically non-existent before the 1960s. As with most products, there is a serious environmental corollary involved — one requires the strip-mining of British peat bogs, while the other contributes to the clearcutting of temperate rainforests worldwide.

In a similar vein, calls for environmental protection usually spring from a sense of revulsion (conscious or otherwise) at capitalism and its works. But this revulsion can be twisted against itself and to capital’s advantage; the way in which the environmental debate is framed, and that revulsion expressed, is all important — it can be used to reinforce capitalism, as the analysis that is eventually adopted gives rise to solutions that create enormous opportunities for expansion, creating new goods and services, new ‘needs’. George Bradford highlights this process at work in the wake of Exxon Valdez, with a temporary boom ensuing from the clean-up operations, and everybody clamouring for a piece of the toxic action. Properly managed, what looks like an image crisis for the companies concerned, and by extension, for all companies, can turn into a growth bonanza.

Exxon Valdez — and other disasters — are, as Bradford points out, just spectacular manifestations of a much bigger, all pervasive and insidious syndrome. Their business is disaster — both because its routine functioning involves contamination the like of which Exxon Valdez is just a time-lapse image, and because they thrive on the crises they create. This is exemplified by the lucrative ‘environment industry’, which has developed to such an extent over the last twenty years that it now represents nearly 2% of the US GNP.[9] As pollution started to become a political issue, companies pushed for an ‘end-of-pipe’ technofix approach to the problem — rather than preventive measures involving changes to the production process itself. (Or how about the ultimate preventive measure — an end to industrial capitalism and to the bulk of its production processes?) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the companies’ preferred option won out, and the end-of pipe approach was installed as society’s answer to the threat of pollution. This has resulted in an amazingly cynical situation whereby many of the greatest polluters (eg. old friends such as General Electric, Du Pont and Westinghouse) also snap up contracts to mitigate pollution.They are ‘market leaders in pollution’, profiting at both ends of the chain — one might say that they, like the rest of the capitalist economy — are in a constant state of devouring their own entrails. What is more, as Third World nations begin to face an environmental crisis of their own brought on by the Western development model, these ‘pollution specialists’ are poised to go global, exporting expertise and technology, and thereby embarking on a brand new profit cycle. [10] The polluters portray themselves as the only people who can rescue us from the fine mess they’ve gotten us into — in this set up, environmentalists must beware of functioning as little more than company sales reps.

As I said, the critical question is how the debate is framed — it determines whether capitalism will be able to assimilate our concerns and thus make financial and ideological use of them. Capitalism depends on the process of enclosure — put crudely, the way in which something is quantified as a finite commodity (eg.the introduction of the concept of ‘scarcity’ and the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’) and then privatised. The privatisation is then supposed to regulate a rational distribution and use of the thing in question, thereby preventing a ‘tragedy of the commons’ from developing. The new discipline of ‘environmental economics’ is a reframing of the environmental debate — it is an attempt to enclose environmentalism and its irksome thesis. Such progressive economists seek to assign a value to an item (such as a rainforest — eg. the studies done on how much more income the forest could yield if left uncut), in order that its ‘true’ worth be more adequately reflected in a cost-benefit analysis. For them, as their leading light David Pearce says, “Every decision implies a monetary valuation”. [11] For the sake, ostensibly, of environmental protection, they wish to make the equation more accurate, to leave nothing out. Even aside from the insoluble practical conundrum of what criteria are used to determine an object’s value, on a philosophical level this model plays straight into the hands of capitalism. Instead of asserting that nothing has a price, it seeks to barcode everything, to leave nothing free of the stranglehold of market values.

Hence “Air is being enclosed as economists seek to transform it into a marketable ‘waste sink’” [12] — safe maximum emission limits are calculated, and tradeable pollution permits issued (as in the US recently) “which award corporations property rights in atmospheric waste sinks.”[13] While it caused much controversy at the time, within this sort of paradigm it made perfect sense for World Bank Vice-President Lawrence Summers to remark in December 1991 that the Bank should “be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the less-developed countries … underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted … Their air quality is vastly inefficiently low [in pollutants] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City”. [14] After all, everyone has a pollution quota to meet — what is a ‘sink’ for, if not to be filled?

Some familiar British companies are in on this act -there is a nice ironic logic to the fact that our old friend Tarmac, champion of car culture, was awarded a contract to run an ‘air quality monitoring service’ a couple of years ago. This combines elements of the opportunistic environment industry with the dynamic of enclosure — Tarmac, one of the agents of enclosure (in the sense that they have partial responsibility for transforming good quality air into more of a ‘finite commodity’), could be seen as positioning themselves as purveyors in the new market for ‘pure air’. Another good exaple is the rise of bottled water in tandem with the decline in public water quality, a recent and previously unimaginable phenomenon that anticipates the advent of ‘bottled air’: “ Canisters containing about 10 minutes worth of 99.5% pure oxygen are sold in Britain as an ‘aid to healthier living, countering the effects of smog and pollution’ “. [15] Similarly, “the government of the Solomon Islands … plans to bottle and sell … oxygen” [16] — no doubt this could be marketed as green, ethically traded ‘rainforest’ air — a la guarana, brazil nuts, et al.

Their business is to sell right back to us what was once ours. There are few examples that illustrate this principle as clearly (and as bizarrely) as the trade in frogs’ legs from Bangladesh, which was finally brought to a (legal) end in 1989 after it boomed throughout the 1980s. “Taking frogs from the wild, it was pointed out, could have devastating consequences. Frogs are insectivorous and each one can eat more than its weight … in waterborne pests every day. Fewer than 50 frogs are needed to keep an acre of paddy field free of insects; they keep malaria and other illnesses at bay; they protect crops and are a natural biological control agent. Frog waste,too, is a fine organic fertiliser. Remove the frogs, said the scientists, and the only way Bangladeshi farmers could protect their crops and livelihoods was with pesticides. Indeed, from 1977-1989, Bangladesh imported more than $89 million of some of the world’s worst quality chemicals … By 1989 Bangladesh was importing an extra 25% of pesticides a year to cope with its frog loss … There was a further twist in the tale. Who should be exporting the frogs’ legs to the west but, Friends of the Earth Bangladesh discovered, some of the very same companies that were importing the chemicals.” [17] (Within a year of instituting a ban on the export of frogs’ legs, “Bangladeshi pesticide imports had declined 30-40%”.)

— Dead Trees EF!

* * *

Landfills or other technological systems can be designed to securely contain hazards; pollution is merely a technological problem waiting to be solved. This is societal denial! “Without an authentically alternative perspective”, Edelstein argues, even the victims of direct contamination “are left to deal with toxic exposure in ways that force them to continue participating in the system that caused the pollution. Toxic activists seek ‘cleanup’ and other engineering solutions,” pressing for health testing and compensation for victims. While Edelstein does not discount the necessity for such defensive strategies, he maintains that they nevertheless “serve to institutionalise and legitimate as a problem what might otherwise be viewed as a fundamental crisis and, thus, a challenge to our modern, industrial way of life.” As for people not directly affected, even if they express a strong desire (in polls) to defend the environment, they do not recognise their own personal participation in the machine or what will be required to make changes. “Their lives are so compartmentalised that they live a lifestyle that supports the pollution habit, without even seeing the contradiction.” The life-or-death biological crisis facing the earth becomes just one more abstract issue rather than a life-or-death crisis for the individual and community that demands immediate and radical response. To paraphrase an old adage, everyone talks about the crisis, but no one does anything about it. The masses, a product of the mass society they have produced, continue on in their domesticated lives, suiciding themselves, future generations, and the land.

Even the militant responses are limited by the uncanny ability of the system to overcome and grow from its crises. After the Exxon spill, for example, thousands of credit cards were returned and gas stations felt the impact of a consumer boycott. The petrochemical industry, of course, continued operating. For a brief moment, Exxon served as the media “bad guy” and contributed a small share of its business to other oil companies, while managing to be consoled by its other sources of profit — plastics, paints, textiles, detergents, and services to the pulp and paper industry. Boycotts, demonstrations and other forms of militant response focus on some of the real culprits who benefit from ecocide, yet fall short of an adequate challenge to the system as a whole. On the other hand, to call for a boycott of all oil and gas as a strategy is the same as calling for an immediate mass strike against industrialism. It is provocative, but few are listening; even those who are listening are also trapped in the machinery, burning gas to stay alive.

Halt Production, Destroy the Economy

Such a commentary should not be interpreted as a call to abandon practical struggles in local communities and workplaces or around specific problems. For many, these battles are desperate measures, and when the house is on fire one tends to save whatever is in reach. It would be a grave error to simply give up such struggles on the basis of a more abstract image of a larger totality, for it is in such experiences where many people learn to fight and where the possibility of a larger perspective begins to present itself. We are also talking about peoples’ communities and their deepest loyalties, in any case. But now that industrial capitalism is fast burning down the entire ecosphere the problem has become now more than ever how to link local and partial struggles to a larger vision that can assert itself as a movement and a cultural transformation carried out by millions of people. We must begin to talk openly and defiantly of the mass strike and revolutionary uprising that it will take to stop the megamachine from grinding up the planet. We must begin to consider what it will mean to “put ourselves out of work”, to halt production and destroy the economy, creating a free society based on social and ecological cooperation in place of the work pyramid.

Those who might tremble at the idea of disemploying the working class and dismantling mass technics and the economy of industrial dependence should know that this prospect was raised by revolutionaries a century ago. Kropotkin, for example, took up the question of the fate of thousands of workers involved in producing luxury and export commodities during a revolutionary period, when there would suddenly be no use and no market for them. To tell the labourers to become the masters of such factories “would be cruel mockery”, Kropotkin wrote. Instead, facing the inevitable breakdown of the system, workers must learn to provide themselves with the basic necessities of life, food and shelter. Such facilities would simply be abandoned. [18] When petrochemical workers and the rest of us working at meaningless jobs to prop up urban-industrialism confront our daily activities, won’t our choices be the same? The idea of a revolution against urban-industrialism may seem far-fetched today. But in the future this idea may prove to have come so late as to be insufficient and not radical enough, given the conditions in which we find ourselves. While the question of violence remains an open one, no image of revolutionary uprisings of the past will serve us well in articulating the idea. Yet they may indicate to us what they proved to revolutionaries of the past, that a population that at one moment appears defeated and quiescent can rapidly transform itself and create sweeping changes. As Rudolph Bahro has written in his book ‘Socialism and Survival’ (1982), “The tendency is growing, and it is a tendency inherent in every human being, to entrust ourselves to an extreme alternative, however uncertain — because there is nothing left to do. The decision can suddenly take hold of millions — tomorrow or the day after — and expand the horizon of political possibility overnight.” Such a process would not be motivated by a vision of negation only, but rather affirms the idea of restoration of human community and the integrity of the land organism, affirms a natural world and a social world renewed unto themselves and reconciled to one another.

The critical luddite sensibility that underlies it would make society as a whole a kind of philosophical school, through which deconstructing or unbuilding the megamachine — on the land and in our social relations — a form of inquiry making up its foremost spiritual, critical and practical project. By exploring this vision, we can perhaps begin to break out of our conditioning and domestication and create an entirely new life that combines the deep wisdom of primal animism with humility that the harsh lessons of history and modernity have brought.

Last spring, a fisherman told a journalist that when he was done working on the Exxon fiasco, he would load his boat and take his family away. When asked where, he replied, “Someplace where the water’s still clean.” One can only wish him luck. But like the birds that once more headed south through Prince William Sound only to face poisoning again, we’ve all run out of places to hide. If the anti-industrial perspective now seems too radical, too visionary, too impractical, future generations, if there are any, will wonder why it took so much time and anguish to recognise it and to make it a practical reality. It remains as yet only a weak approximation of the road that lies ahead of us if we are to save some remnant of ourselves and this planet from the catastrophe whose engines were set in motion long ago. Let us begin to throw off our chains and win back the world while there is still something left of it to win.

— George Bradford, September 1989

* * *

The following were not part of the original article.

Never Trust A Techno-Fix!

With the “Great car economy” currently under attack on all sides, a colossal hoax is being perpetrated in order to ensure its survival. We are being encouraged to believethat it is the choice of fuel (i.e. petrol) that is the root cause of the ecological and social havoc wreaked by the car. Simply replace the internal combustion engine with batteries and hey presto, a problem that goes to the very heart of our society disappears. This is a deeply dubious proposition, for a number of important reasons.

Firstly, and most obviously, as Fifth Estate suggest, without a shift away from fossil fuels as a source of energy, electric cars will only exacerbate global warming. CO2 production will only be centralised and increased. (However, it is worth remembering that the various non-fossil fuels that are mooted often still have damaging impacts themselves — for a preliminary outline of such impacts, see the Mundi Club’s “The Geophysiological Threats Posed by Green Cars”.)

Secondly, in the unlikely event of what Greenpeace call the ‘fossil free energy scenario’ (ffes) coming about, this takes no account of the historic ‘carbon debt’ owed by humanity to nature — we urgently need to balance the historic carbon budget. This would require remedial action (e.g. perhaps, wide-ranging reforestation) far beyond simply stopping future emissions. [19]

Thirdly, there is the related, and usually overlooked, question of the ‘demand side’ of the earth’s carbon cycle. All attention is focussed on the supply side — e.g. on exhaust fumes. Simply put, there is no acknowledgement of the fact that by physically covering the planet with roads, car parks, refineries, mines, etc, you erode its photosynthetic capacity, its ability to absorb the CO2 that is created. In England alone, “Since the war 705,000 hectares of countryside have gone — more than the combined area of Greater London, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire … At the present rate of loss, a fifth of England would be urban by the middle of the next century.” [20] These trends on a global level have meant that: “Before World War Two, photosynthesizers on dry land produced perhaps 150 billion tons of dry weight of organic matter each year. Now … the annual production of organic matter in terrestrial ecosystems (both natural and human controlled) has fallen to only about 130 billion tons. Some of the reasons for the decline in productivity are fairly simple and obvious; photosynthesis cannot occur on or under buildings, parking lots, airports, streets or highways.” [21] ‘Green’ cars will require an almost identical infrastructure, meaning that this assault on the earth’s photosynthetic capacity will continue unabated — indeed , might even step up a gear, as a perceived cleaning up of its act would buy more time for the continued existence of the car. (Tarmac, and other such substances used for paving,are, as the Mundi Club point out,little more than coagulated oil slicks. These substances are products of levels of the catalytic cracker process in the same way that oil is. They underwrite oil production — make it an economically viable enterprise when otherwise it would not be; for while “The oil industry is mainly interested in gasoline production and profits … refineries must run at high utilisation of capacity to be efficient and profitable. Refineries must produce great quantities of asphalt and various chemicals which must go somewhere … thus asphalt and herbicides are spread about the land making it possible for refineries to function…near full throttle.” [22] The advocates of a ‘fossil free energy strategy’ unfortunately do not accept an accompanying end to paving, one of the logical consequences of that strategy. The production of tarmac, etc, and the production of oil are interdependent parts of refinery operations, and of the petrochemical economy — without one, you cannot have the other. So how will they square this circle — do their proposals actually require a continuation of that petrochemical economy that we’ve come to know and love?)

Fourth, the car’s contribution to the supply side of the carbon cycle is not even examined properly — looking no further than the exhaust pipe obscures other, more significant impacts. The Heidelberg Environment and Forecasting Institute, in the first ever ‘cradle to the grave’ assessment of the car, concluded that its ‘birth’ (production) and ‘death’ (disposal) incurred far more ecological costs than its working life. “It is ownership as well as use that is the problem of the car and a car used sensitively (if that is possible) is still a problem for energy, pollution, space and waste.” [23]

The accuracy of this assessment becomes abundantly clear when you consider the sheer variety and volume of materials involved in car production — “ 20% of all steel, 10% of all aluminium, 7% of all copper, 13% of all nickel, 35% of all zinc, 50% of all lead, 60% of all natural rubber” [24] and “10% of OECD plastics production” [25] — all major manufacturing processes, all with attendant environmental costs. Such costs would continue to arise from electric vehicles (EVs) , with some new ones thrown in: “Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh warn … that the production and recycling of large numbers of batteries for the vehicles would release dangerous levels of lead into the environment [ironic, given the outcry over the need to reduce lead in fuel] … the mining and smelting required to manufacture their batteries produce lead emissions which can cause brain damage to young children, and coma and death at high levels of exposure. The researchers argue that even with efficient batteries an electric vehicle would indirectly produce six times more lead emissions than a small car using leaded petrol.” [26]

Since EVs require more batteries than conventional vehicles [27], and their batteries have a shorter lifespan [28], the issue of disposal becomes even more pressing. Given that the introduction of EVs is not envisaged as taking place in tandem with a change to the world economic order, the need to dispose of their batteries will only lead to an intensification of ‘toxic waste imperialism’, an already serious problem. It will mean an expansion of plants such as IMLI, Indonesia’s largest importer of lead acid batteries, which “burns 60,000 tonnes [of them] each year, sending clouds of smoke and ash over adjacent ricefields. The local people say that ash from the factory often falls into their wells and onto their food. The effluent from the plant is highly acidic. The waste from the IMLI furnace, a mixture of lead and plastic, is dumped outside the factory gates and taken home by villagers who melt it down in woks over open fires in their backyards to sell the extracted lead. Half of the villagers cough blood. Lead levels in IMLI workers and local villagers are between two and three times greater than the acceptable Indonesian occupational health standards.” [29]

The more general objections to the proposition that a move away from fossil fuels will serve as a panacea for the problem of the car are outlined above — but there are a whole host of other, more specific rammifications of car use that will not be alleviated in the slightest by a simple change in fuel type. Some of these are listed below:

  1. The grim statistics of roadkill (both human and animal) would pile on, as before. [30].
  2. Habitat fragmentation — “Roads [and related developments] can divide habitats creating a size that is below an acceptable threshold for survival of particular species, and can form an ecological barrier preventing movement between areas.” [31]
  3. What might be termed ‘social pollution’, or ‘(human) habitat fragmentation’ — as aptly described in Donald Appleyard’s excellent research [32] Cars also serve to divide people, accentuating, and in some cases creating, the social inequalities between them. Helena Norberg-Hodge was in a unique position to observe the impact of development — in this case, on the remote region of Ladakh — since she was present both before and after the area began to be opened up to the world economy in 1975. The car was foremost among the trappings of ‘modernisation’ that began to make an appearance — and in her opinion, “The Ladakhi who goes zooming past in a car leaves the pedestrian behind in the dust, both physically and psychologically … Lobzang was a government driver. When he retired, he bought a jeep and brought it back with him to his village. In the summer he used it to ferry tourists to the monasteries, and the rest of the year he drove his neighbours to and from Leh, for a fee. As a result, his relationship with the other villagers began to change — he now had something the others did not, and was no longer quite one of them.” [33] A similar situation pertains with the carless in our society — perhaps even more so, since the car is far more the ‘norm’ for us.
  4. In a related point to 3), the car exercises a tyranny over space, displacing people and preventing the area that it monopolises from being put to other, more productive and convivial uses. “Germany’s cars, if one includes driving and parking requirements, commandeer 3,700sq. km of land — 60% more than is allocated to housing.” [34]
  5. The car and roads help to consolidate the territories of the nation state: binding remote regions on the periphery firmly to the core, facilitating the suppression of troublesome separatist movements or feeling, and locking the many disparate parts of the country into a national and international economic/cultural entity. Roads are one of the main vectors for what former Brazilian Environment Secretary Jose Lutzenberger called ‘the virus of industrialism’. Examples abound — the TransAmerican Highway [35], the TransIrian Highway [36], Europe’s TERNs [37] and the “7300-kilometre motorway hugging the coast from Tobruk to Senegal … planned for North Africa, with a fixed link across the Strait of Gibraltar to connect Europe to a new African motorway system.” [38] It is also instructive to note that in the US “there are eight times as many roads in [the] National Forests as there are in the Interstate Highway System.” [39] While these areas have been singled out for special attention partly to bring them into the realm of the economy (by commoditising them into timber), there also seems to be some psychological imperative at work, to ‘tame the wild’, to leave the stamp of civilisation upon it — to properly assimilate it into the territory of the nation state in question.Until it is commoditised or developed it is still ‘terra incognita’, the domain of ‘here be dragons’. (” The word ‘forest’ in its original and most extended sense, implied a tract of land lying out (foras), that is, rejected, as of no value, in the first distribution of property.” [40].)
  6. Roads interfere with the water table and drainage patterns. “ Because water runs immediately off pavement rather than soaking into the ground, roads often lower groundwater tables and destablilise nearby waterways. In heavily paved areas, streams fluctuate between extreme drought and flood and, in the process, scour away stream banks and fish habitats such as pools and drowned logs. Studies in the Seattle area show that stream channel stability, fish habitat quality, and salmon and amphibian populations all decline if even 10-15% of a watershed is covered by impervious surfaces.” [41]
  7. The knock-on effects of road building must also be considered — foremost of which is quarrying for roadstone — “ 43% of the rock aggregates quarried in England and Wales is used for road construction and maintenance.” [42] In the UK there is the related issue of over 650 loose ‘Interim Development Orders’ for quarrying, granted just after the Second World War and threatening some of the best wildlife sites in the country — including 56 SSSIs.[43]
  8. Noise pollution: in much of the British countryside it is becoming increasingly difficult to find areas free of the incessant background hum of traffic noise. According to the CPRE, “The southeast has fared the worst. Over two-thirds of the region was [defined as] tranquil in 1960, but by 1992 these areas had become fragmented by motorways and increasingly noisy roads, and reduced to under half the area.” [44] This can have serious implications for non-human species as well — for example, “Road traffic noise has been found to reduce the breeding success of lapwings and redshank for distances of up to 1.5km from large highways”. [45] As usual, it would appear that this picture is going to get worse, because increases in traffic are expected to hit the countryside hardest — “The Transport Studies Unit predicts that, while overall traffic may grow by between 83% and 142% by the year 2025 [the DoT’s standard figures], the traffic on rural roads may grow by between 127% and 267%”. [46] In urban areas, peoples’ hearing is worse at age 30 than the hearing of those who live in a car-free environment at age 70. [47]
  9. Run-off from roads of heavy metals such as cadmium, zinc, copper, and other substances contaminates soil and groundwater. [48] Tyre rubber abrasion products have a wide range of effects on human health [49],and are similar to, although probably not as lethal as, the tiny PM-10 particles given off by diesel vehicles (which are estimated to kill around 10,000 people per year in the UK). [50]
  10. I referred earlier to the way in which the (often very significant) impacts of the infrastructure required by cars are usually overlooked. A prime example — and one that flies in the face of the ‘fossil free energy strategy’’s aim of reducing CO2 emissions — is cement production. Road construction (and other car-related development) is obviously responsible for a great deal of the demand for cement — the manufacture of which “drives off enormous quantities of [CO2] … This happens as limestone, CaCO3, is converted to calcium oxide, CaO, and its dreaded CO2 escapes. Heat 1000kilograms of limestone and you release 440 kg of CO2. Assuming that 500 million tonnes of limestone are used for this purpose each year, then more than 220 million tonnes of CO2 are spewing out into the atmosphere from cement works alone.” [51] This example demonstrates the futility of restricting one’s analysis tothe single question of ‘Which car fuel?’, in isolation from the whole complex of other carbon-belching industrial processes of which that fuel is a part. The system evidently requires a thorough overhaul, not the type of palliative measures presented by the proponents of a ‘fossil free’ energy strategy (ffes).
  11. Likewise, “One of the major sources of CFCs in the atmosphere is motor vehicle air conditioning. In 1987 approximately 48% of all new cars, trucks and coaches worldwide were equipped with air conditioners. Annually, about 120,000 tonnes of CFCs are used in new vehicles and in servicing air conditioners in older ones. In all these account for around 30% of global demand for CFC11 and CFC12.” [52] CFCs, as well as being one of the main culprits for ozone damage, are also a more poweful greenhouse gas than CO2 — consequently, according to the Mundi Club, they may well “constitute the biggest single contribution cars make to global warming”. [53] Again, what price the ‘ffes’?
  12. It may seem odd to suggest that cars and their disposal [54] potentially pose a bigger threat to the survival of whales than whaling. However, it illustrates the far-reaching and often unexpected ways in which a technology such as the car impinges on the global ecology — and the need for a suitably fundamental and incisive response to the crisis that it has unleashed. The problem comes from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), sometimes described as “the favourite chemical of the postwar age” [55] and now known to be highly toxic for most living beings. “Environmental PCB pollution has been most frequently associated with the manufacture of such electrical equipment as transformers and capacitors, and with automobile manufacture.” [56] While production of PCBs is now declining, “65% of the total volume … ever produced worldwide [is] either still in use, in storage or [has] been deposited into landfills.” [57]. If this vast stockpile, or even a portion of it were “permitted to leak into the marine environment, then the extinction of marine mammals is inevitable.” [58] This kind of information would tend to reinforce the Heidelberg Institute’s concern for the often neglected issues of production and disposal of cars, as opposed to questions of exhaust emissions during their working lives.

As André Gorz says, “Above all, never make transportation an issue by itself. Always connect it to the problem of the city, of the social division of labour, and to the way this compartmentalises the many dimensions of life.” (41) According to Gorz, “in order for people to be able to give up their cars, it won’t be enough to offer them more comfortable mass transportation. They will have to be able to do without transportation altogether because they’ll feel at home in their neighbourhoods, their community, their human-sized cities … The car would no longer be a necessity. Everything will have changed: the world, life, people.” [59] To take any other approach to the problem of the car, to treat it in isolation from the social forces it produces, and is produced by, is to play into the hands of those with a vested interest in the survival of the present, ecocidal, social order, letting them off the hook.

While there is some resistance from the car manufacturers to a shift from petrol as a fuel [60], at heart most of them recognise that electric vehicles and the like represent the last, best hope for the continuance of the car and its economy. Jurgen Hubbert, chief of Mercedes-Benz’s passenger car division, says that “Entering the electric car scene is an absolute necessity. We cannot afford not to be present if electric vehicles suddenly take off.” [61] This is why “at a time when thousands of people in the car industry have been laid off, annual expenditure on developing electric vehicles (EVs) exceeds £5 billion worldwide.” [62]

The pitfalls of the single issue emphasis are illustrated by Greenpeace Germany’s efforts to design their own fuel-efficient vehicle. [63]. Here, because of a failure to challenge the ‘dominant paradigm’, they end up acting as auxiliaries to the car industry, supplementing the huge research & development programme described above for free, thereby assisting the industry in its bid to ensure its own survival.

Postscript — Sea Empress west Wales oil spill

This pamphlet starts with a description of the sheer weight of death resulting from the Exxon Valdez spill and the even greater weight of company propaganda that followed quickly after.

The West Wales oil spill from the Sea Empress (!) in February released at lest 72,500 tonnes compare that against 38,000 tonnes spilt in Alaska in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez. Yet to hear the PR men talk you would believe the disaster hadn’t happened- one even went as far as to say so on channel four news. No fundamental questioning of petrochemicals was allowed to grace tv screens merely experts arguing about the validity of double hulls. One journalist who tried to research a piece properly- a task that took days rather than hours — shock! — was told by the Times only a week after the spill that it just wasn’t news anymore. Meanwhile death continued.

Six weeks after the tanker ran aground the wildlife toll was still mounting, and oil in one form or another was still covering the beaches and drifting at sea- affecting 180km of coastline from Skomer Island to the Burry inlet. A spell of mainly easterly winds pushed much of the oil well offshore, with oiled seabirds, tar balls and debris reaching parts of south eastern Ireland. It is estimated that at least 70,000 birds have died. [64] In many peoples mind the disaster didn’t happen. Beyond the media friendly pictures of oiled seabirds is a greater disaster. Much of the base of the area’s oceanic food chain simply no longer exists. As one wildlife trust worker replied when a BBC news reporter asked what the situation on the ground was he said ‘Everythings dead’, after being accused of exaggeration he replied ‘OK, not everyhings dead, but everything that isn’t is in the process of dying’.

However as this pamphlet argues it is not these spectacular disasters that are the real ecological threat- but the daily continuance of normal life. This idea was recently brought up by John Vidal who stated ‘Up to 50,000 barrels are deliberately spilt a year round the world by ships cleaning out their bilges. Accidents, say industry watchers, account for only 10 % of oil spills’ [65].

It is every aspect of daily life that we have to question and challenge if we are to truly create a livable future. This pamphlet has been published as part of that process.


[1]^ For an excellent essay on the Pacific Northwest spill, see Mikal Jakubal’s “With Enough Toothbrushes” in ‘Live Wild or Die’ No.1.

[2]^ See “What’s Behind the Spills”, Greenpeace Magazine, June 1989, and “The Spills and Spoils of Big Oil”, by John Greely, The Nation, May 29 1989.

[3]^ For a chilling eyewitness account of the spill’s effects, see “The Dead Zone: Disaster in Alaska”, by George Michaels, in the September 1989 issue of ‘The Animals’ Agenda’.

[4]^ The New York Times, April 23 and September 10, 1989. “Exxon Reneges on Cleanup”, The Guardian, August 30 1989. In one report on the disaster originally done for the Chicago Reader, Jill C. Kunka writes, “What about the waste from the cleanup? Waste disposal may be the climax of Exxon’s cleanup nightmare. According to the Anchorage Daily News, one ton of spilled crude turns into ten tons of toxic garbage — bags of oily gravel, mountains of synthetic absorbent booms and pads, discarded coveralls and the assorted refuse of 10,000 cleanup workers … Service barges are collecting about 250 tons of waste per day. Much of this will be burned; the rest will be sent to hazardous-waste landfills, probably in Oregon.” A friend from Detroit also reported after a trip last summer to Alaska that several temporary incinerators were working around the clock in Valdez harbour. As Kunka writes, “With almost any environmental cleanup … the problem just gets moved around.” “Report from Alaska”, Detroit Metro Times, Sept. 27-Oct.3 1989.
In his 1987 book ‘The Toxic Cloud’, Michael Brown reports that one exploratory drillship alone “can produce as much smog as 25,000 cars each travelling 18,000 miles.”

[5]^ The capitalist state has previously implemented recycling as public policy in time of war to gather materials at home in order to more effectively blow them to smithereens overseas.

[6]^ Tara Jones quotes C. Perrow’s ‘Natural Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technology’ (1984): “Systems that transform explosive or toxic raw materials or that exist in hostile environments appear to require designs that entail a great many interactions which are not visible and in expected production sequence. Since nothing is perfect — neither designs, equipment, operating procedures, materials and supplies, nor the environment — there will be failures… These accidents then are caused initially by component failures, but become accidents rather than incidents because of the nature of the system itself; they are system accidents, and are inevitable, or ‘normal’ for these systems.” While this passage brings to mind dramatic, local accidents like Bhopal or Chernobyl, we must also consider the systemic failure on an ecospheric scale as the result of industrialism as a totality on the living system of the earth.

[7]^ See “Revolution and Famine” in ‘Act for Yourselves’, Freedom Press. Presumably many anarcho-syndicalist defenders of industrialism will object, furnishing quotes from Kropotkin in which the anarchist prince reveals the optimism towards technology so common in his time. There will always be those who insist on overlooking what is most visionary and far-seeing in writers like Kropotkin while clinging to what has not withstood the test of historical experience. The myth of progress has become the real “dead weight of the past” weighing like a nightmare on the imagination of the present.

[8]^ ‘Scenes from a California Maul’, Fifth Estate, Autumn 1992.

[9]^ ‘The Environment Industry — Profiting from Pollution’, Joshua Karliner, The Ecologist, March/April 1994.

[10]^ Ibid.

[11]^ The Ecologist July/August 1992, p.178. See the chapter on ‘Economy and Economics’ here for an exploration of environmental economics — see the whole of this ‘Whose Common Future?’ issue for more on enclosure.

[12]^ Ibid, p.149.

[13]^ Ibid,p.176.

[14]^ Quoted in ibid, p.174.

[15]^ ‘Wisdom of the Solomons’, New Scientist, 27/1/96.

[16]^ Ibid.

[17]^ ‘Trade marks’, Guardian 17/6/94.

[18]^ ‘Wisdom of the Solomons’, New Scientist 27/1/96.

[19]^ For an elucidation of the concept of the carbon debt, and the role that it played in the deliberations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), see The Terra Firm no.5, ‘The Great Carbon Emissions Fraud’, Mundi Club, undated.

[20]^ Council for the Protection of Rural England in The Times, 16/10/92.

[21]^ ‘Earth’, the Ehrlichs, quoted in ‘Ban Cars’.

[22]^ ‘Dear Caltrans’, Jan Lundberg, quoted in ibid.

[23]^ The Guardian, 30/8/93.

[24]^ Ian Breach, quoted in ‘Ban Cars’.

[25]^ ‘The Environmental Impact of the Car’, Greenpeace, quoted in ibid.

[26]^ Guardian, 10/5/95. There is little likelihood of a more advanced, non-lead battery emerging in the foreseeable future — see ‘Paler Shade of Green’, Guardian 18/1/94. Even if there were, any battery would still be composed of highly toxic elements.

[27]^ ‘Flat out for the Car of the Future’, New Scientist, 7/11/92.

[28]^ ‘Getting From Here to There’, David Morris, quoted in ‘The Geophysical Threats Posed by Green Cars’, Mundi Club Special Publications no.8, Mundi Club, undated.

[29]^ ‘Disposing of the Waste Trade’, The Ecologist, March/April 1994.

[30]^ For some recent figures on animal casualties, see The Times, 6/1/96.

[31]^ ‘Trends in Transport and the Countryside’, Countryside Commission Technical Report 1992. See: ‘The Eternal Threat: Biodiversity Loss and the Fragmentation of the Wild’ in Do or Die no.5, September 1995. See also the research by English Nature on the effects of fragmentation on populations of stonechats and Dartford warblers, quoted in “Transport and Biodiversity”, RSPB Report 1994. One would have thought that birds have a greater capacity to transcend the effects of fragmentation than most animals, so if it has this kind of impact on them …

[32]^ ’Livable Streets’, Donald Appleyard, University of California Press 1981, quoted in The Guardian 5/11/93, and ‘Critical Mass — Reclaiming Space and Combatting the Car’, Do or Die no.5

[33]^ ‘Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh’, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Rider 1992.

[34]^ ‘Dirty From the Cradle to the Grave’, Guardian 30/8/93.

[35]^ Snapping at the heels of the Darien Gap rainforest in Panama, and, presumably, connected to NAFTA and the ultimate vision of a trading bloc of the Americas. See also the Trans-Amazon Highway, Northern Brazil’s road to the Atlantic coast via Guyana, and the BR364 through Chico Mendes’ state of Acre, Brazil. (New Statesman & Society, 23/11/90.)

[36]^ In Indonesia’s occupied province of Irian Jaya/West Papua — in part, intended to strengthen Indonesia’s campaign against the OPM guerillas.

[37]^ Helping to construct Europe as a single market for production, distribution and consumption — e.g see the plans of the European Round Table of industrialists in various ASEED reports.

[38]^ New Scientist, 30/4/94 — presumably presaging an expansion of the EU trading bloc to encompass North Africa.

[39]^ ‘Dear Caltrans’, Jan Lundberg, quoted in ‘Ban Cars’.

[40]^ ‘A Short History of the Wolf in Britain’, James Harting, Pryor Publications facsimlie 1994, p.21.

[41]^ ’Roads Take Toll’, EF! Journal, Brigid 1996.

[42]^ National Collation of the 1989 Aggregate Minerals Survey, DoE 1991, quoted in ‘Wheeling Out of Control’, CPRE Sept. 1992.

[43]^ See ‘Blasts from the Past’, RSNC report, November 1992 and ‘Old rights threaten ancient landscapes’, Observer 14/2/93. The fate of Carmel Woods in Dyfed is an important test case for IDOs — and hopefully its future may have been secured.

[44]^ ‘Breaking The Silence’, Geographical Magazine October 1993.

[45]^ Zande et al, 1980, quoted in ‘Trends in Transport and the Countryside’, Countryside Commission 1992. See also Reijen et al, in the Journal of Applied Ecology, 1995 — their research identified road noise as probably the most important cause of a reduction in the breeding densities of a variety of woodland bird species adjacent to main roads.

[46]^ ’Road Traffic and the Countryside’, Countryside Commission Position Statement July 1992. See also ‘Trends in Transport and the Countryside’ for more detailed workings.

[47]^ From ‘Autogeddon’, Heathcote Williams, Jonathon Cape 1991.

[48]^ See (e.g): ‘Roads Take Toll’, EF! Journal Brigid 1996; ‘Dirty From the Cradle to the Grave’, Guardian 30/7/93; ‘Wrong Side of the Tracks’, TEST, quoted in ‘Ban Cars’; and Dr. Neil Ward’s (Surrey University) research into run-off from the M25.

[49]^ See ‘Tire Dust Kills’, Paving Moratorium Update Summer 1995.

[50]^ ‘Dying From Too Much Dust’, New Scientist 12/3/94.

[51]^ John Emsley, quoted in ‘Ban Cars’.

[52]^ ‘The Environmental Impact of the Car’, Do or Die no.1, Jan.1993. See also ‘The Practical Science’, James Lovelock, p.179. Presumably, if these CFCs have been phased out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, they have been replaced (as has typically been the case) with HCFCs, different ozone-destroyers.

[53]^ ‘Ban Cars’, p.17.

[54]^ See ‘Dirty from the Cradle to the Grave”, Guardian 30/7/93.

[55]^ ‘Under Fire: Environmental Threats and the Extinction of the World’s Cetaceans’, Environmental Investigation Agency May 1994, p.8.

[56]^ ‘Extinction: The PCB Threat to Marine Mammals’, Cummins, The Ecologist vol.18, no.6 1988, p.194.

[57]^ ‘Under Fire’, p.8.

[58]^ The Ecologist, p.193. Marine mammals are especially susceptible to PCBs because of the process of ‘biomagnification’.

[59]^ ‘Dear Motorist — The Social Ideology of the Motorcar’, André Gorz, reprinted from ‘Le Sauvage’, Sept-Oct. 1973.

[60]^ Eg. Detroit dragging its heels over compliance with California’s zero-emission programme.

[61]^ ‘Flat Out for the Car of the Future’, New Scientist 7/11/92.

[62]^ Ibid.

[63]^ New Scientist 25/11/95.

[64]^ BBC Wildlife, May 1996

[65]^ Guardian, ‘Crude Claims the Blur the picture’, Feb 21 1996

January 20, 2011 Posted by | anti-endustriyalizm, anti-kapitalizm, anti-otoriter / anarşizan, isyan, sistem karsitligi, somuru / tahakkum | Leave a comment


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