Will technology save us? Can you envision a future that does not include perpetual economic and industrial growth, that does not include the exploitation of humans?
In the debate about whether to abolish slavery in Britain two centuries ago, even people who recognized the evil of enslaving other human beings had a hard time imagining economic prosperity without it. English mills needed the cheap cotton picked by enslaved people in the United States (not to mention sugar, rice and all the wealth that not paying enslaved people created). Though slavery was destroying their souls, many continued to argue for the continuation of buying and selling humans as if they were workhorses. Doubly so, here in the USA, and indeed slavery continued in this country for another 50 years. It took a very bloody war to end it as a legally justifiable practice, though, virtual slavery for African Americans continued under the convict leasing programs of the South, along with share-cropping and enforced by the terrorization of the KKK.
Currently we are now facing a seemingly unrelated, but similar situation. The Enlightenment, which lead to the many wonders of scientific discovery, technology and industrialization also produced a vision, a millennial vision, proclaiming in quite religious terms that the combination of science and industry would bring prosperity beyond imagining and freedom for all. First the Europeans and the former colonies of European countries became entranced by this vision, and it seemed to be true. More recently just about every people/nation-state has fallen under this vision’s spell. The technological advances have been mind-bogglingly swift and the growth rates of economies and the accumulation of wealth astounding.
There is just one problem (well more than one, but…) Basically we have enslaved the earth. We have made up that the earth is not a being, not alive, not sacred and that it is possible and desirable to work her harder and harder and take more and more from her, and dump more and more refuse and pollution in her water and air without end! We believe that these things will not cause us any harm because we are somehow “magically” outside of what we call nature, (which can be defined as all the processes of the earth’s functioning; sustaining and regenerating life). We deny that we are totally dependent on the earth, that in actuality we belong to earth. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that there will be some new technology/ies (think robots!) that will make it possible to go on doing so, ad infinitum.
A new vision has been emerging and many are needed to articulate it; make it accessible now, more than ever. Artists, poets, playwrights, directors street performers, musicians… are called to create the songs, poems, plays, movies, videos, TV shows, mini series, paintings, murals… to inspire confidence in this emerging vision. In his book DREAM OF THE EARTH, Thomas Berry has this to say, “The ideal of a human habitat within a natural setting of trees and fields and flowering plants, of flowing streams and seacoasts and those living forms that swim through the waters and move over the land and fly through the air- a world of nontoxic rain and noncontaminated wells, of unpolluted seacoasts and their fertile wetlands- the ideal of a human community integral with such a setting , if properly understood with all the severity of its demands on its human occupants, would seem to be our only way into a sustainable and humanly satisfying future.
“This is, of course, a mythic vision, highly romanticized if it is taken too literally. Yet it is considerably less idealized than the wonderworld vision that supports our present industrial system. In both cases we recognize that the mythic vision is what evokes the energies needed to sustain the human effort involved.” p. 30
“We are returning to our native place after a long absence, meeting once again with our kin in the earth community. For too long we have been away somewhere, entranced with our industrial world…
“The world of life, of spontaneity, the world of dawn and sunset and glittering stars in the dark night heavens, the world of wind and rain, of meadow and flowers and flowing streams, of hickory and oak and maple and spruce and pineland forests, the world of dessert sands and prairie grasses, and within all this the eagle and hawk, the mockingbird and chickadee, the deer and the wolf and the bear, and the coyote, the raccoon, the whale and the seal, the salmon returning upstream to spawn- recently rediscovered with heightened sensitivity, is an experience not far from that of Dante meeting Beatrice at the end of Purgatorio…” or of the return of the prodigal son.
“Something of this feeling of intimacy we now experience as we recover our presence within the earth community…” What he leaves out, is very important: the world of Indigenous peoples, the beautiful and diverse world of people of all colors, of wide-ranging and various cultures and languages and all the marvelous forms of cultural expression that make up the human family, and this human family taking its place in the Earth family, taking our place with our relatives, our kin; the four leggeds, the flyers the swimmers , the crawlers…
The above references to Dante and Beatrice, and my own referencing the prodigal son- are icons for people my age (65) or older. We need references that speak to my children and others their age and younger. This is a time of great danger, great hope and great opportunity; we need all the creativity we possess to enliven and illuminate the vision that will evoke the human and other than human energy to get us there.
Like those who made the decisions to abolish modern slavery, we are faced with a situation that seems unresolvable. How shall we live, how can we produce what we need for living without enslaving the earth, without destroying the very thing that we depend on? We humans have made this kind of enormous change before, most notably when we went from being gatherer-hunter societies to farmer-town dwellers. It is nearly impossible to imagine the immensity of that change, so looking back to the time of modern slavery and its abolition, may be helpful, at least noting that one aspect of the dilemma was quite similar, not being able to image a future that is not dependent on an obvious evil.
What we need to do, perhaps is start by acknowledging that we cannot control the situation, that is to say we do not have ultimate control. We are members of the earth community whether we act like it or not and what we do, how we treat the earth, including how we treat each other as humans has an outsized effect on the outcome. Wendall Berry says,”The earth is what we have in common, it is what we are made of and what we live from, and we cannot damage it without damaging those with whom we share it. There is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth. By some connection we do not recognize, the willingness to exploit the one becomes the willingness to exploit the other… It is impossible to care for each other more or differently that we care for the earth.”