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In the end, sometimes giving things up *IS* the answer

About five years ago a colleague of mine, Dale Allen Pfeiffer wrote an essay I can no longer locate. At the time, Colony Collapse Disorder was just being diagnosed in bees, and one of the discussed potential causes of the problem was cell phones and cell phone towers. Pfeiffer didn’t, as I remember, take a stand on this question as a cause, but what he did do was interview people and ask “If it was true that cell phones caused CCD, and knowing that we depend on bees for a large portion of our food, would you give up your cell phone to save the bees?”

The answer, overwhelmingly, was no.

Now CCD is not caused by cell phones, but what interested me was the thought experiment. While Einstein’s claim that if bees died out the human race would die out in probably overstated, the list of crops that depend wholly or partially on honeybees is pretty long, and pretty much includes all foods that make life worth living – you’d be eating a lot of porridge with not much on it, sans bees. And since this makes substantive contribution to a food security that is already pretty globally stretched, a whole lot of people would die of hunger, not to mention the economic and social costs.

So those are pretty big issues. Now it is also possible that some of the people Pfeiffer interviewed didn’t fully grasp what was at stake, and a clear laying out of the issues would have changed their claims. I’m not so sure, though.

Some years ago when George Monbiot’s _Heat_ came out, with its analysis of what nations would have to do in order to reduce their impact enough to control the worst outcomes of climate change (and for the record, _Heat_ came out BEFORE the Climate Equity analysis and the idea of 350ppm as a “safe” number), I proposed that a group of people model those changes at the personal level, in a project that later became The Riot for Austerity. While a surprising number of people volunteered to participate, the vast majority of people presented with the reality that you’d have to cut emissions by 90% just responded with “Well, that’s not going to happen….”

And they were right. It isn’t – even though the potential outcomes of unchecked climate change (still the only kind we’ve got) are the death of millions, hunger, poverty (the Stern Report makes very clear that eventually the costs of climate change will send the world into an inalterable global depressive spiral we can NEVER get out of, because we’re spending so much money trying to ameliorate the disasters we’ve caused). But most people, presented with the idea that this requires a total transformation in lifestyle – even to save their children and grandchildren terrible suffering say “Nope.”

So I guess it didn’t surprised me when, in the middle of a rather good interview by Sara Ayech of Transition with Toby Miller about the environmental costs of technology, we the interviewer’s rather rapid insistence that no one should give up their laptop or cell phone despite these costs, and a shift of the discussion away from how to do without:

Sara: How do we respond to this in a Transition context? Clearly, an individual giving up their computer or mobile phone has little impact on such great problems – the server factories run on fossil fuels, working conditions in China, mining of minerals etc. Transition is a community level response so what can we do locally?

Toby: There are several things you can do without giving up mobile phones, you can connect to social movements around the world where people are trying to protect the workers.

Sara: In terms of big picture, do you think the Cuban model of repairing everything and making products last as long as possible, or the Peruvian model of self-assembly computers is the way to go?

Toby: Yes, but the limitation is two things: firstly, software upgrades are created by corporations with the idea of eventually requiring hardware upgrades for the software to work. Secondly, you still have to find ways of recycling the material, and in Peru for example there is no satisfactory system of recycling the components.

Sara: In the context of practical community action, is it useful to push councils for a disposal and mobile phone recycling policy?

Toby: Well yes, that’s useful for the end of life of these products, but the raw materials and production are so globalised, and by such giant companies, that all you can do is urge manufacturers to be transparent and vigorous about monitoring life on the production line.

You can also talk to local government about where and how recycling is done. The problem is that they often don’t have the resources to check whether companies recycle in a responsible way. A lot of the time, products which are supposedly going to less affluent consumers in, say, Africa, are not arriving in a usable condition and are just dumped.

Sara: For most people there will also be the balance against the benefits of technology – social movements like Transition have grown globally, in part because of the democratisation of communication. We don’t need to rely on traditional media, we can create our own media with our own websites, blogs like this one, and through social networking like Facebook and Twitter.

Toby: These technologies and genres offer a fascinating blend of privacy and publicness. The problem is that in the rush to embrace the new cybertarian world, a cornucopia of meaning, we forget harsh material realities. E-waste is the largest growing category of municipal waste in the world, but our awareness has not kept up with this trend.

What’s interesting about this interview is how the parts of it that focus on the costs of technology seem to be leading in the direction of an honest discussion of whether we can support these technologies and their environmental and social costs, but the interviewer immediate sheers off that much harder question, and shifts to the conventional answer that these technologies are so useful that the best we can hope for is mitigation – improve worker treatment, recycle, but don’t consider giving them up, because that choice doesn’t matter.

And in a literal sense that’s true – if you silently refuse to buy an IPhone and make no comment about it, and are the only one, it doesn’t matter. Of course, that’s not how social trends operate – and opposition to social trends begins precisely from people refusing to participate, explaining why they don’t participate and offering pleasant alternatives – which anyone who engages in Transition or who mentions permaculture in her opening statement should grasp.

The issue, of course, is that once we are accustomed to it, ALL technologies are too useful to give up, except the salad shooter. If you want to piss people off, suggest they can live without a technological device, even thrive that way. Nothing enrages people more, because the benefits of technology are ALWAYS presumed to be self-evident – it is self-evident that anything that saves human labor (even though with 7 billion humans and a chronic global unemployment problem human labor is one of the most abundant things on the planet, we feel we must husband it as though it were platinum) or makes life work even a little better must be something we can’t do without.

Note that I am NOT claiming here that everyone should give up cell phones or laptops, or any particular technology – what strikes me as interesting and important, however, is the fact that we shy so strongly away from any claim that we ought give up the technologies to which we have become accustomed, no matter how enormous the potential cost to all of us. The article in question begins by asking whether the internet and related communications technologies are really as harmful to the environment as flying – one of the big luxury drivers of climate change. It ends, however, by shutting down any real discussion of what we ought to do about harmful things. It ends by suggesting that we don’t have to ever give anything up, we can just mitigate the damage.

The difficulty is that all our mitigation strategies, all of our hedging against things that have environmental consequences has been totally inadequate to significantly slow the rate of degradation, which is only growing. That is, we have amply demonstrated that it is NOT sufficient to simply recycle and try and improve worker conditions – that at some point we will have to bear some real cost if we are intent in cutting our longer term losses – but even those who best understand this issue refuse to enter into a real discussion of which losses we might want to bear and how to begin taking them. This is a kind of cowardice, and one with real and serious consequences, because it extends even deeper cuts and deeper suffering to the next generation and the one after that.

I have often pointed out that in some measure, our present predicament is a grammatical problem – we have the problem if having constructed our sentences in such a way as to leave unspoken the logical end-statements of our thinking. Implicit in “Our technologies do so much good we couldn’t possibly consider living without them, so…” is “So if they have heavy costs, we need to be credited with having done the best we can and future generations just need to suck it up.” But, of course, it would be a lot harder to actually SAY that.

Note that this post is being written on the internet. This is not an accusation of hypocrisy for anyone, and for all I know cell phones or the internet will turn out to be, in a world where we have to use dramatically less, the one thing that we should save. But the problem is that we never begin ANY conversation with the assumption that we should give a lot of things up in order to make things better for the future – we always assume that the cost of sacrifice is unbearable – which means we never think much about whether it is or not. From such a beginning, no functional endings can come.

Which is just another reason why I focus on the way-of-life problem, rather than on what I think of as “the extraction problem” – that is, why I don’t spend a lot of time here on any one particular bad method of getting fossil fuels. Ultimately, transforming our way of life, and creating a space in which it is actually possible to speak of what we could do without begins from the idea that our way of life is not fully a product of our technologies, of articulating what is the hidden influences of cheap energy and environmental externalization, and what is really ours – that is, what we truly need and what we do not. It isn’t a solo project – I can never and would never choose for others, but I can at least begin talking about the question of choosing, making the space in which it is possible to imagine choice. In a recent post I wrote:

Second, I’m a realist – as I’ve always said, we would shovel live baby harp seals into our furnaces by hand, while convincing ourselves that live baby harp seals enjoy it, as long as we feel ourselves without alternatives – the moment we say BUT I NEED IT we are addicts, jonesing for a fix and we’ll do anything to keep warm, keep the lights on, keep the plate full, whatever. In the great scheme of things, I think digging in ANWR and deepwater drilling, or local fracking suck, but the truth is that what is most urgently required is not to NEED them. Rapier gets right to the point.

Addicts lack clarity about their choices. They make bad choices over and over again because they can’t do anything else. I’m not picking on Sara Avech here, because this is a cultural, not a personal problem – I’m just fascinated by the ways that even people that SHOULD be able to begin to have this conversation shut it down for fear of opening up the can of worms where we must do without.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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