Technology and progress ― where to from here?

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The way we are living is becoming unsustainable, says Matthew Mitchell, who outlines the 'reindustrialisation' alternative.

SO, here we are. Destroying whole mountain ranges in the US so as to perpetuate our industrial system. One company alone (Massey) has reduced 1.4 million acres to rubble in just 10 years. And these areas are now poisonous, as the process of blowing up mountain tops to extract coal releases a range of deadly toxins (Hedges and Sacco, 2012).

Clearly, this is unsustainable, but what can we do? We now all depend on our industrial system for every aspect of our lives. Also, we believe in it. Without industrialism, we would have missed out on many of the modern benefits of an industrial society, for example antibiotics, the telephone, computers, etc — or so the argument goes.

But perhaps this is not true?

Perhaps we could have made many of the useful discoveries and developments attributed to industrialism in ways that were far less destructive to the environment, human suffering and social justice? Look at the cathedrals of Europe. Look at the roads of the Romans, still in use today. Who knows what we would have been capable of? In any case, just because our industrial system has delivered these benefits in the past does not imply that it should necessarily be continued into the future. Our industrial system is undermining itself.

Antibiotics are becoming less effective, the scale of operations is much larger than ever before, and we are accelerating the decline of eco-systems over and above the damage of the past 200 years.

There is no doubt that we need progress, and our technology must support this progress. But it is clear at this stage that what we need more than ever is social progress. We must progress beyond the destructive practices of the present, and ideally we should do so in a way that avoids the oppression, injustice and class conflicts of the past. Technology and our methods and tools of production should ideally support us in the task of adapting our societies and communities so as to overcome these problems. There seems to be no point in solving our energy supply problems unless we can also learn to use energy in less destructive ways.

Is it not possible that from this point on we could have a new system of production? One that benefits us without all the negatives of the old system?  What might such a system look like? How would it operate?  Perhaps we can begin by considering what would be desirable features of our new system, and we can do this by drawing on the lessons of the old.

Some of these lessons are as follows:

1. Localisation

It is preferable to have research and development of new technologies conducted in many local areas rather than at a few distant, large centralised facilities and institutions. This allows a higher participation rate, as people will not necessarily need to leave their communities and support networks. It also allows a greater diversity of development agendas and priorities, which turn may allow the localised facilities to better address local concerns. A higher participation rate and a wider range of independent institutions would seem to offer a healthy scientific environment with a wide range of views and the ability to accommodate people interested in science, technology and other areas of learning who might currently be excluded. This type of localism would result in a decentralised and distributed system of science and technology.

In relation to communities, a distributed, localised system would substantially reduce the need for travel to and from work. This in turn would reduce our dependence on cars and boost local employment in other ways as each community would need its own services, which would ideally be walkable, such as: cinemas, parks, libraries, hospitals etc. Just reducing car dependence would free up a lot of resources currently used to: extract oil, process and transport fuels, manufacture vehicles, service vehicles, supply parts and tyres, build and maintain roads, provide medical support for road casualties; as well as reducing road deaths and health problems from vehicle emissions and the toxic chemicals associated with all these activities.

2. Durability and repairability

The current industrial system has always suffered from problems associated with overproduction. This is a curious feature, that on one hand we recognise the need to consume fewer resources and produce less waste, yet we have a system which produces vastly more than we need. Much manipulation of markets, legal systems and school systems can be attributed to attempts – which continue today – to create barriers to entry, so as to reduce the destructive effects of overproduction on our industrial systems of finance and society more generally.

If left unchecked overproduction arises when a successful product reaches the market and many competitors rush into producing that item, often flooding the market, driving out big players and resulting in vast waste in terms of closed facilities, lost capital and social dislocation as jobs are lost. The fact is, just by making items more durable and repairable we could potentially reduce production substantially without any loss of lifestyle.

But perhaps we should also look at lifestyles. Currently we produce many devices designed to save time at the expense of using more non-renewable resources. An alternative is to increase the time we have available so as to reduce the need for these devices. We can easily achieve this by elimating many of our false efficiencies (which are explained shortly).  In any case, either of these two options (that is, to decrease the need for devices or make the devices last longer) would vastly reduce our use of rare resources and our waste. The problem is that under our current system this change will result in unemployment and bankruptcies. This leads to our next two lessons.

3. Sharing Opportunities

This means a shift from a focus on efficiencies – which I argue are often false efficiencies in any case – to allowing people opportunities to participate. This may mean job sharing and working fewer hours for many people, so that others can have jobs. To some extent, this is already happening as people realise they can survive with less and thus choose to work part-time.

A likely effect of this is a greater number of people competent in a wider range of areas along with more rewarding work places. It also possible that people will be better educated as more people are trained in a wider variety of occupations and have the time and income to pursue other forms of education (the arts for example).

The success of this approach requires reducing the cost of living so as to ensure that people can participate in society fully on a part-time income. This low cost of living comes from reduced transport costs, higher durability of purchased items, less waste and the more equitable distribution of incomes, achieved by having many localised providers of goods and services such that wealth is retained in local communities and not sent off to a few lucky people in remote privileged enclaves. The success of this depends, in turn, on us having learnt the next lesson.

4. Small solutions over big

We should promote smaller scale operations over larger ones. One example is having many small banks responsible to their local communities. Another is the processing of our sewage.

Currently we rely on large centralised plants that require enormous amounts of expensive infrastructure and energy to both build and maintain. These facilities create significant problems in the areas where they are located ― smell being the most obvious one. Note, this is a common problem in our system where some communities (typically powerless ones) pay a price for the comforts and lifestyles of others (these injustices are usually rationalised as being for the ‘greater good’). In the case of sewage, a day or two of power outages could leave us at risk of major spillage into waterways and possibly back-ups into homes.

An alternative is to have a diversity of local solutions being used. Communities could deal with this as they see fit. Some, for example, may opt for modern composting toilets. Composting offers other savings as it requires no water and results in a product that can applied as a fertilizer for growing food, reducing the need for artificial fertilizers (much of the waste collected on a large scale is too contaminated with industrial pollutants for this purpose).  Ideally, these fertilizers would be used on small farms rather than large ones. Small local farms are more productive and ensure that communities have control over most of their own food production, food quality and food security.

It is not as though I am the first person to suggest these ideas. The same, or similar, ideas have been promoted for decades. They include theorists such as: E.F Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), Ted Trainer (The Simpler Way), Ivan Illich (Tools For Conviviality) as well as practitioners, such as Masanobu Fukuoka (The One Straw Revolution), who demonstrated how prosperous one can be without relying on the false efficiencies of the industrial age.

What are these false efficiencies?

Are streamlined large facilities not efficient? Do they not give us the benefits of economies of scale? Large facilities certainly are efficient, once you have all the materials and people on site. However, this is usually only achievable by consuming significant amounts of unrenewable energy to transport materials and/or people to such a facility. If you consider these energy costs, large, centralised facilities do not appear to be so efficient.

And it is not just the transport of raw production materials that needs to be considered. The supporting infrastructure requires energy to build and maintain. There is the need for extra capacity on roads and ports as well as the construction and maintenance of the vehicles that bring in, and take out, materials and people (cars, trucks and ships), as well as housing and other services that arise to support employees of the facility.

Given even these high costs, large facilities may still look attractive if they are to continuously produce output over a long period of time. But perhaps many do not need to? Many items that are made to replace existing products offer only minor new features that, while useful, are not strictly necessary. They often displace serviceable products which prematurely end-up as waste. If these large production facilities do eventually close down, then whole communities may be displaced with much of the community infrastructure going to waste. The rust belt areas of the USA are a noticable example here, but on smaller scales this happens continuously in our society across many locations.

What might a re-industrialised society look like?

Fortunately, there is at least one example of what our collective future could look like. That example is provided by Cuba. Now, I know that Cuba is not a perfect society (though neither is the U.S.) and many may not want to replicate Cuba exactly ― but there are some important lessons that may be learnt.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s main trading partner) Cuba’s ability to import and export was severely curtailed, along with its access to fossil fuels. Cuba responded by empowering communities to create local solutions to problems. Thus, a vast number of small private farms were created and 80 per cent of the country’s produce is now organic. Even in cities 50 per cent of food is locally grown in urban gardens.

Urban areas were also redesigned so as to build communities and reduce travel in line with its new reliance on bikes and public transport. The university system was decentralised from around three large campuses in Havana to many smaller campuses spread across the country (including seven in Havana). Cuba produces a surplus of medical doctors, many of whom take up practice in other South and Central American countries. Government provided education and health is free for all.  This is documented in the film: “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”.

What can I do?

Without an impetus, our society is highly unlikely to change, even if many of us wanted it to. Well, you can at least prepare yourself for change. For, like it not, our society will eventually face these same problems. We can do it willingly, with preparation, or (more likely), unwillingly in the face of a gradual or sudden change in our circumstances.

Either way, personal acceptance of this and a possible re-orienting of what you consider important will help ― if you are not already oriented this way. This will help you to cope when the changes come, and it will help communities respond if people have a shared understanding of the problem and some strategies and ideas of how to respond to it. Regardless of change, connection with local communities and their ability to provide mutual support in times of need inevitably proves worthwhile and satisfying for all those who participate.


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