Technological Fundamentalism in Media and Culture
By Robert Jensen
Published in Dissident Voice; Media Development · August, 2008
[This article first appeared in Media Development (journal of the World Association for Christian Communication), No. 3, Summer 2008, pp. 8-12.]
While media watchdogs and bloggers probe contemporary news media for signs of bias — from every angle, on virtually every issue — perhaps the most important of journalists’ biases is ignored: their routine acceptance of society’s technological fundamentalism. This devotion to the industrial world’s core delusion shows up not just in stories about science and technology but in the assumptions about science and technology that underlie virtually all reporting in the corporate commercial news media in the United States.
Let’s start with definitions: While fundamentalism has a specific meaning in Protestant history (an early 20th century movement to promote “The Fundamentals”), more generally the term can be used to describe any intellectual/political/theological position that asserts certainty in the unquestioned truth and/or righteousness of a belief system. Fundamentalism shows up in history often enough, in enough places, that it seems to be a feature not of a particular culture but of human psychology — we humans are prone, though one hopes not doomed, to fundamentalist thinking. The attraction of fundamentalism is not hard to understand; in a maddeningly complex world, such a way of thinking can offer comfort, even if illusory. But fundamentalism is better described as a system of non-thought, for as ecologist Wes Jackson puts it, “fundamentalism takes over where thought leaves off.”1
Journalists are conscious of religious fundamentalism and treat it as a phenomenon to be covered, even if they don’t always explore it in much depth. But other fundamentalisms — which likely are even more dangerous than the religious varieties — are the water in which journalists swim, rarely reported upon and usually taken as an unquestioned state of nature. This includes national fundamentalism (the belief that we owe loyalty to nation-states and that patriotism is a good thing) and market fundamentalism (the belief that market-based corporate capitalism is the only rational way to organize an economy in the contemporary world).
But it may well turn out that the gravest threat to a just and sustainable human presence on the planet is technological fundamentalism — the notion that the increasing use of increasingly more sophisticated high-energy advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. According to David Orr, an environmental studies professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, technological fundamentalists are those “unwilling, perhaps unable, to question our basic assumptions about how our tools relate to our larger purposes and prospects.”2
Our experience with unintended consequences is fairly clear. For example, there’s the case of automobiles and the burning of petroleum in internal-combustion engines, which give us the ability to travel considerable distances with a fair amount of individual autonomy. This technology also has given us traffic jams and road rage, strip malls and the interstate highway system, smog in some places while everywhere contributing to rapid climate change that threatens sustainable life on the planet. We haven’t quite figured out how to cope with these problems, and in retrospect it would have been wise to have gone slower in the development of a transportation system based on the car and to have paid more attention to potential negative consequences. The point is not to look back and condemn John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Dwight Eisenhower, but to ask a simple question: Can we learn from these mistakes?
Those who raise questions about this fundamentalism are often said to be “anti-technology,” which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects — predictable and unpredictable — on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge.
One expression of this view is the “precautionary principle,” which argues that instead of asking sceptics to prove that a new product or process might be harmful, advocates of the proposed new action should have to prove it is safe. A 1998 conference of scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists produced this widely used definition of the principle:
When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.3
This idea is not new. An early challenge to greed-fueled technological fundamentalism came from the Luddites, artisans who resisted the factory system in early 19th century Britain not because they were afraid of machines but because they anticipated the negative effects of a dangerous and dehumanizing system on their communities. The contemporary use of “Luddite” as a synonym for “someone with an irrational fear of anything new” indicates how a fearful culture regards this kind of thoughtful critique. The lesson we should learn from the early Industrial Revolution is that the Luddites were correct — by overvaluing machines we can easily undervalue people and the non-human living world.
Today, some critics of the culture’s technological fundamentalism describe themselves as neo-Luddites, an attempt to connect to the wisdom of that earlier movement. Neo-Luddites recognize that technological scepticism and the adoption of the precautionary principle would slow the introduction of new inventions — unless a compelling need to take a risk could be justified in an open and democratic process — and that would be a good thing. Slowing down a runaway train doesn’t magically take care of all problems, but it usually beneficial both for those in the path of the train and those riding it.
Let’s leave the train metaphor and go back to the issue of the cars on the road. The most common response to the social and ecological pathology of the car culture has not been to rethink the reasons and ways we transport ourselves, but rather to figure out how to replace petroleum so we can continue to drive, leading to the manic quest for “alternative fuels.” This has led to the promotion of corn-based ethanol, which is now widely understood to be a disaster on all fronts: it takes almost as much energy to produce as is recovered, intensifies unsustainable farming practices, and increases costs of food.4 Technological fundamentalism — exacerbated by the greed of private agribusiness corporations that are publicly subsidized — created the climate in which corn-based ethanol emerged, and for years journalists yawned at the larger issues. Now we can see the depth of the technological fundamentalism in the way in which journalists start to critique corn-based ethanol; routinely such discussions come with an implicit or explicit endorsement of other biofuels, such as sugar cane or switch grass.
Recognizing that “[t]he economics of corn ethanol have never made much sense,” the New York Times editorialized in 2007 that:
There is nothing wrong with developing alternative fuels, and there is high hope among environmentalists and even venture capitalists that more advanced biofuels — like cellulosic ethanol — can eventually play a constructive role in reducing oil dependency and greenhouse gases. What’s wrong is letting politics — the kind that leads to unnecessary subsidies, the invasion of natural landscapes best left alone and soaring food prices that hurt the poor — rather than sound science and sound economics drive America’s energy policy.5
To the Times, the belief in technological solutions is unquestioned; the only problem is the interference of politics. But what if “sound science and sound economics” argue for first recognizing the need to radically reshape our landscapes and lives to reduce dramatically our need for large quantities of portable liquid fuels for individualized transportation? What if biofuels are a key component of the fantasy scenario that allows so many to believe we can continue business as usual? When those crucial questions are left out of stories, journalists reinforce technological fundamentalism.
A year later, the Times was still avoiding the limits of biofuels, encouraging Congress to continue subsidies “as an important part of the effort to reduce the country’s dependency on imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”6 Identifying the problem as dependency on imported oil leads away from a focus on the core problem of — to borrow a phrase from the social/ecological analyst James Howard Kunstler — a “living arrangement with no future”7 on which the United States is structured. The Times is hindering, not helping to advance, the conversation needed.
Another example of the technological fundamentalism of journalism is the steady flow of stories about new products that that are little more than free advertising for the gadgets that are central to our dead-end living arrangement. The reviews of this endless flood of products celebrating the culture’s child-like obsession with shiny things — everything from hulking SUVs to tiny electronic devices — are much the same; even when a specific product is criticized for its shortcomings, the assumption is that such products are part of a sensible life and consistent with a sustainable future. The idea that journalists might inquire into “our larger purposes and prospects” — who really needs these things, and what are the costs to the planet of the manufacture and disposal of them — would be seen by most journalists as inappropriate editorializing, while avoiding those questions is a sign of objectivity.
Journalists’ instinct to fall in line with the dominant assumptions of the culture is hardly surprising. In the contemporary United States, the good life is synonymous with consumption and the ability to acquire increasingly sophisticated technology. Those who challenge this dogma are routinely ignored or dismissed as naïve, such as in this story in Wired magazine:
Green-minded activists failed to move the broader public not because they were wrong about the problems, but because the solutions they offered were unappealing to most people. They called for tightening belts and curbing appetites, turning down the thermostat and living lower on the food chain. They rejected technology, business, and prosperity in favor of returning to a simpler way of life. No wonder the movement got so little traction. Asking people in the world’s wealthiest, most advanced societies to turn their backs on the very forces that drove such abundance is naïve at best.8
Naïve, perhaps, but not as naïve as the belief that unsustainable systems can be sustained indefinitely, which is at the heart of the technological fundamentalists’ delusional belief system. With that writer’s limited vision — which is what passes for vision all around this culture — it’s not surprising that he advocates economic and technological fundamentalist solutions:
With climate change hard upon us, a new green movement is taking shape, one that embraces environmentalism’s concerns but rejects its worn-out answers. Technology can be a font of endlessly creative solutions. Business can be a vehicle for change. Prosperity can help us build the kind of world we want. Scientific exploration, innovative design, and cultural evolution are the most powerful tools we have. Entrepreneurial zeal and market forces, guided by sustainable policies, can propel the world into a bright green future.
In other words: The “sophisticated” thinkers ask us to ignore our experience and throw the dice, to take naiveté to new heights, to forget all we should have learned. This is what Kunstler calls the “Jiminy Cricket syndrome,” after the character in “Pinocchio” who believes that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true. “It’s a nice sentiment for children, perhaps, but not really suited to adults who have to live in a reality-based community, especially in difficult times,” says Kunstler.9
An alternative would be to question the technological fundamentalism and think about how we might reorder our world. If one central role of journalism is to raise the difficult questions that citizens should confront in a democratic society, journalists are not doing their jobs.
An honest assessment of the culture’s technological fundamentalism makes it clear why Wes Jackson’s call for an “ignorance-based worldview” is so important. Jackson, a plant geneticist who left conventional academic life to co-found The Land Institute to pursue projects about sustainable agriculture and sustainable culture, suggests that we would be wise to recognize what we don’t know. His point is that whatever the advanced state of our technical and scientific prowess, we are — and always will be — far more ignorant than knowledgeable, and therefore it would be sensible for us to adopt an ignorance-based worldview that could help us work effectively within our limits. Acknowledging our basic ignorance does not mean we should revel in the ways humans can act stupidly, but rather should spur us to recognize that we have an obligation to act intelligently on the basis not only of what we know but what we don’t know.
If we were to step back and confront honestly the technologies we have unleashed — out of that hubris, believing our knowledge is adequate to control the consequences of our science and technology — I doubt any of us would ever get a good night’s sleep. We humans have been overdriving our intellectual headlights for thousands of years, most dramatically in the 20th century when we ventured with reckless abandon into two places where we had no business going — the atom and the cell.
On the former: The deeper we break into the energy package, the greater the risks we take. Building fires with sticks gathered from around the camp is relatively easy to manage, but breaking into increasingly earlier material of the universe — such as fossil fuels and heavy metal uranium — is quite a different project, more complex and far beyond our capacity to control. Likewise, manipulating plants through traditional selective breeding is local and manageable, whereas breaking into the workings of the gene — the foundational material of life — takes us to places we have no way to understand.
These technological endeavours suggest that the Genesis story was prescient; our taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil appears to have been ill-advised, given where it has led us. We live now in the uncomfortable position of realizing we have moved too far and too fast, outstripping our capacity to manage safely the world we have created. The answer is not some naïve return to a romanticized past, but a recognition of what we have created and a systematic evaluation of how to step back from our most dangerous missteps.
As key storytellers in the culture, journalists can either help or hinder the process of coming to terms with living arrangements that are not only profoundly unjust but also unsustainable. Journalists think of themselves as progressive (in a non-partisan sense), helping steer the culture toward a progressive future that improves the lives of ordinary people.
For a lot of people, unfortunately including most journalists, notions about progress have become rooted in this technological fundamentalism. Yet if humans enjoy too much more of this kind of progress in the world, and it’s not clear there will be a world left for humans much longer. Journalists need to start telling the stories that can help us avoid that fate.
Wes Jackson, “From the Margin,” Orion Online, 2001. [↩]
David W. Orr, “Technological Fundamentalism,” Conservation Biology, 8:2 (June 1994): 336. [↩]
Statement on the Precautionary Principle, issued by the Wingspread Conference convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network, January 26, 1998. [↩]
For a succinct summary of lunacy, see “The Many Problems with Ethanol from Corn: Just How Unsustainable Is It?” [↩]
Editorial, “The High Costs of Ethanol,” New York Times, September 19, 2007. [↩]
Editorial, “Rethinking Ethanol ,” New York Times, May 11, 2008. [↩]
Remarks by James Howard Kunstler, Second Vermont Republic meeting, October 28, 2005. [↩]
Alex Nikolai Steffen, “The Next Green Revolution,” Wired, May 2006, p. 139-141. [↩]
Remarks by James Howard Kunstler, PetroCollapse conference, New York, October 5, 2005. [↩]