This second in a techno-critical review trilogy might seem unrelated to the previous book on ‘The Luddites’; and yet it provides the same kind of criticism from a completely different angle – that of ecopsychology, and the trauma that the modern lifestyle creates for many of those subject to it. I could spend half-an-hour or more reviewing the depths of this book. Here I’ll just touch on its technological criticism:

My Name Is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization (1994)’ series:

‘My Name Is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization’, First Edition, Shambhala Books, 1994. ISBN 9780-8777-3996-8.

‘My Name Is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization’, Second Edition, New Society Publishers, 2007. ISBN 9781-8974-0805-6.

From the late 1980s, much of my work involved acting for poor communities, subjected to polluting developments, or plans to make such. When I read Chellis Glendinning’s‘When Technology Wounds’ (1990), it was reminiscent of the people I was working with. When I got a copy of this new book, I expected something similar, but was surprised by how different it was:

“Healing is a process of rounding up all the fragments and reconciling them. There are among us today people of the most admirable intention who still, naively, fracture the whole – believing that the plastic can still be produced, that the high-tech armies are here forever, that mass technological society is a fait accompli. According to such thinking, healing is a compromise. What healing we need for adjusting to our technological encasement can be accomplished by support groups, through some neo-entrepreneurship, or a New Age workshop.”

In the 1990s the environment movement ‘professionalised’ – tactically ditching its fundamental demands to gain political influence, and corporate largesse, to achieve minor reforms. This was also the reason I worked for communities directly, and not for one of those groups. From this more radical perspective, Glendinning’s ideas rang true:

“Ultimately, authentic recovery from western civilization must include every fragment of our collective shattering – not just our self-esteem and where we dump the garbage, but how we structure our communities, how we speak and make decisions, what artefacts we create and who creates them… and how all these facets of our lives fit together.”

This was one of the first books I read that clearly explained the basis for a ‘non-Western’ world-view: Not in terms of some analgesic ‘spiritual’ practise to be appropriated for the weekend; but of an all-encompassing way of looking a the Earth, which should form the heart of our daily interactions with the world around us:

“Western philosophy teaches us to think of the natural world as a neutral or ‘dead’ background, to the foreground of our all-important human activity. Even environmentalists sometimes perceive the Earth as, ‘that thing out there’, that has to be saved so human existence can go on. In the nature-based world, the Earth is the source of all sustenance, the beginning and end of all life, the whole of which we are a part.”

This is a pretty average part of the eco-dialogue today. But around 1996, it caused me to rethink how modernity’s compartmentalised view of the world was compartmentalising people too – and how that restricted the options for real change. Under this perspective, the environmental movement was not an agent for radical change, but merely a distraction, perpetuating the system it claimed to oppose. To move beyond that we had to stop seeing the world as ‘other’, and instead work to habitually reconnect ourselves to its living processes:

the road

The slower road
(and yes, I was backpacking!)

“The fence was the ultimate symbol of this development. What came to reside within its confines – domesticated cereals, cultivated flowers, permanent housing – was said to be tame; to be valued, controlled, and identified with. What existed outside – ‘weeds’, weather, the woods – was wild, perennially threatening human survival; to be feared, scorned, and kept at bay. This dichotomy has since crystallized, and come to define our lives with the myriad of fences separating us from the wild world, and the myriad of fence-like artefacts and practices we have come to accept as, ‘the way things are’.”

Given my other work in the 1980s and 1990s, many have asked why I didn’t pursue my talents as a computer hacker. My response to that question – well, the answer that makes sense to me – is, “I did far too much backpacking”.

I was raised around garden vegetable patches and allotments; and as I grew older, I spent more time in the countryside. Coming from a family of engineers, I also played with engines and electronics – which meant I became swept-up in the late-70s microcomputer boom at an early age. Perhaps for this reason, I felt ‘the other’ that the book describes – that ‘primal scream’ for natural connection – quite starkly:

“Most of us have known the elliptical connectedness of the natural world, if only for a moment. Most of us have known times of such centeredness that we would dare to declare ourselves whole; and our consciousness has, upon occasion, cracked open to extraordinary perception. But then, typically, we return to the encased isolation our society proposes as reality, and with our date books and digital clocks in hand, we remain there until the next momentary visitation. These elusive twinklings are comparable to the flashbacks that trauma survivors endure: repressed events shrieking for recognition, unexpected and unannounced.”

Front cover of the second edition, 2007.

This was one of the first books to challenge the ‘dichotomy’ of my life within technological society. It made me choose the reality I wanted to exist within – a process best described as, “a work in progress”. When I took time to focus on these ideas, the book didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already perceive; it simply gave those perceptions form, and let me say this out loud.

Almost three decades from its publication this is a book that still needs to be read today. It still has a place within the debate on change; to allow people to look inwards, with a fresh perspective, at how the technological world endures through the trauma it creates – and why letting go of its alienating world-view is the most effective means to shed that pain.