What is it with (some) environmentalists and technology?

Just got back from seeing Avatar (great movie btw), and was talking with some friends about it over some serious drinking, and the question came up…what is it with certain greens/environmentalists and technology? I don’t want to spoil the movie here, but one of the major themes (the others being an anti-military mindset and the evils of Big Business™…but lets not go there) is the evils of Human technology vs the noble savage (with green powered magic pixie dust tech that can trump said evil Human tech. To see how it works out I recommend, highly…GO SEE THE MOVIE!).

Since I was a kid there has been a recurring theme in some environmental circles about the evils of technology and this concept of the noble savage…of how it’s better (or imperative!) to go back to some earlier, low tech era. Better for The Planet(ARR), better for Nature™, and most of all better for We, The People. I think that part of the knee jerk reaction towards Global Warming (from the non-mustache twirling capitalist types) is because some of us old fogies have heard all this before…over and over again. And it SEEMS that this might just be the same old same old, but with a new End of the World(!!) type twist. Personally, I think there is more to it than that…but I can definitely see the other side of this as well, having lived through the last 5 (and a bit ;)) decades.

I’m not trying to paint all environmentalists or greens with a broad brush here. I KNOW that many don’t buy into the anti-tech and noble savage with Wicca crystal new age earth mother power, blah blah blah…but some do. And I’m curious as to where this comes from. WHY this concept that all tech is evil? Where does the idea that things were better in bygone ages come from?? How is the level of tech evaluated by such people to be just right, but not too much? Isn’t saying that human technology is evil just another way of saying that humans are evil? After all, our tech is us…we have always been a technology driven species, and always will be IMHO.


I don’t know of any environmentalists that are against technology for its own sake. They might want to return to natural products to clean with, for example, so that certain harmful chemicals don’t get into the water system. That doesn’t mean that they are against technology in general. They would support the technology that allows the development of the use of bamboo in clothing and flooring, for example.

Could you provide a cite where a group of environmentalists claim that technology is evil?

I would consider myself liberal (and I just, JUST came from seeing Avatar). That being said, I don’t think it’s technology I have a problem with, I have a problem with not using your brain with it. I think movies tend to be more black and white in order to make it simple for the viewing audience (good vs. evil), however, I think in the real world, it’s more muddled and complicated.

When “tree huggers” are out trying to save the forests and the environment, ultimately, it’s NOT the planet they’re trying to save. What they are really doing is trying to maintain an environment that is friendly to human life. Even though that might not be their stated or subliminal goal. “Saving the Planet” and “Saving the environment” really translates into “keeping the world the way that humans need in order to survive.” Otherwise, the world took care of itself for billions of years before humans came around.

As an example, say a fish has a limit on how many you can catch. Fishermen complain because they can’t make as much money selling the lower amount. I think what they fail to realize is that in the long term, if they overfish anyway, and use up all the fish, there won’t be any fish to sell and they wouldn’t have ANY money. So, to me, it’s not technology I am opposed to, it’s the failure to think long term.

In the movie, actually, the scientists (who are all about research and technology) are the ones who realize the importance of what is happening and how it’s happening. However, the military are short-sighted and are only thinking short-term immediate goals. Again, I don’t think it’s technology, it’s the short-term reward vs. the long term sustainability.

Guys, guys. The OP didn’t ask for a justification of environmentalism itself. He asked specifically about irrational vilification of technology in the name of environmentalism.

Here is my answer: Technology is vilified in “some environmental circles” because technology is what makes the destruction of the environment possible in the first place. Native Americans didn’t live in harmony with nature because they valued it more than modern Americans; they lived in harmony with nature because they lacked bulldozers. They “respected” nature in the same sense that you should respect fire- as something powerful and dangerous.

Shawn1767 makes a good point in that in the same “circles” science does tend to get a free pass despite being the primary source of technology. This is because science generally backs up the underlying tenets of environmentalism, and is usually the best way to prove that damage is indeed being done. You can get into really frustrating arguments with such people where they will denounce something like tree farming, which produces wood and pulp without the need to clear old growth forest, by citing statistics about habitat destruction while ignoring that it is the exact same math that proved the benefits of farming trees and provided the means to plan it effectively.

There is an interesting parallel among some right-wing religious nuts who will denounce science (because it is what shows that their beliefs are flawed) while simultaneously embracing technology, because it’s what allows them to live lives of comfort, find others like themselves, and spread their messages. If you try to explain to them that technology is a product of science and validates its accuracy, you’ll get a bunch of gobbledygook about how electronics isn’t based on science and is instead the result of God’s grace blessing us with fortune, the practical experience of electronicists, and good-old-fashioned American know-how, which are all totally different from carefully arrived at conclusion found using the scientific method.

Some people just believe whatever they find most convenient.

I don’t think being a luddite is limited to environmentalists. I know people who say with pride that they do not take any medications or drugs. That is fine and good if you are healthy, but they seem to feel that as long as you are ‘living well’ you do not need medical science. In some ways the people I know who feel that way seem to feel that medicine is a crutch used to compensate for some personal weakness, and/or that the bodies natural state is one of pristine-ness and health. Personally I don’t agree with that.

Ted Kaczynski wrote his Op-ed about ludditism. His view was that technology would rob us of Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” and make us dependent and isolated. When we became mentally ill because of this dependence and isolation, we would be given technologically invented drugs and therapies to make us happy with our serfdom.

However I do not think that is the motive of environmental luddites. I would assume their motive is some kind of assumption that the ‘natural’ order is somehow superior or pristine, and that any attempt to escape it is violating the laws of human nature the same way expecting a round peg to fit into a square hole will cause problems.

Oh I do. One said that the request for proof of any given alternative medical treatment was putting it through “the sausage-maker of western science”.

And I once had an argument with a hippy roommate of my brother’s, who said that vitamin C from a factory was different from vitamin C from a plant. I allowed that there may be other trace elements in, say, an orange, that are indeed beneficial to humans, but ascorbic acid is ascorbic acid, wherever it’s from. The discussion got really heated and ended up with me yelling “a plant is just a little factory” and him yelling “a factory doesn’t have a soul”.

He was an anarcho-environmentalist who reckoned nobody should ever work and we should all subsistence farm instead. (Ironically he was also in the middle of a PhD on robotics.)

We romanticise the past and the traditional - not that tradition itself is a bad thing, but we don’t necessarily have a very objective view of it.

And the ‘Modern world’ - including technology and the cultural changes enabled or imposed by it can be perceived as being in opposition to tradition (i.e. letter-writing being superseded by text messaging or email, craftsman-made items being supplanted by mass-produced alternatives).

So on an emotional level, it’s quite easy to perceive technology as an entity that wants to strip us of our essential humanity. Occasionally, that may even be as good as true - I don’t think it needs to be, but I think it’s easy to think it, especially if you as an individual have immersed yourself in the traditional.

I did laugh out loud at this.

Obviously, his plan is to build robots to do the subsistence farming for him.

I thought I had talked to this same guy, until you revealed his PhD study area. :slight_smile:

In 2004, a book came out that was called something like, “Three Mile Island: a 25-year Perspective.” I was volunteering at a shelter/soup kitchen, which tends to attract about an equal mix of right-wing religious folks and left-wing …er… folks. I got into a heated discussion with this tall, bearded, hemp-shirt-wearing guy who would have us believe that the Three Mile Island incident proved that we should all be farming our own plots, because industry was soulless and would destroy us all.

I tried to point out that if he was planning on using a steel plow to cultivate his plot, that sort of implied that SOMEWHERE there was iron mining, a refinery, electrical power, and a transportation system. But he was having none of it. His view, which he never really fully developed in our discussion, was that existing steel would serve all our future needs, especially when all the handguns were melted into plowshares. He was a little vague about how that melting would actually happen without a supply of electricity and foundry equipment.

But he was most certainly NOT a candidate for a robotics degree, although he claimed to have a PhD in philosophy.

I withdraw this, as the discussion was nothing to do with the environment.

It is possible to smelt and/or or forge steel entirely without electricity - it’s really hard work, and not possible on industrial scales of demand without actually resorting to industrial methods.

But your friend’s steel plough could be made that way - it worked in the iron age, without electricity.

The problem (IMO) is really: we (nearly all) want technology and industry, but sometimes it seems like technology and industry want to overstep the bounds of their usefulness to us.
That’s largely because we can’t easily perceive how joined-up and interdependent it all is in the middle of the processes - we want the end product (say, a metal fork), but we don’t always grasp why that has to mean strip-mining and huge energy expenditure - after all, we only wanted a fork.

But I think it’s also because industry (or companies, or organisations) have to do certain things just to stay in existence, and these things may involve harsh decisions imposed on individual humans (the majority of other humans unaffected by these decisions either explicitly benefitting, or just not noticing at all).

In my experience, the people who are the most vocal about Mother Nature know next to nothing about it in any practical sense (example; releasing fur-animals into the wild is bloody stupid - you’d be better off killing them), and also know fuck all about science & technology.

But this is not restricted to environmentalists. As noted above, the same kind of reasoning can be found among the more rabid evangelicals who think that everything bad that comes to you is due either to God or The Devil and trying to interfere with that is against The Great Plan.

It’s easy to think the way indiginous tribes live balance with nature is praiseworthy. Especially when you don’t realize the way that balance is maintained is by starvation, disease, murder and the occasional extinction when the balance can’t be maintained. Nature is a horrible example to live by.

Again, I think the main reason is pure ignorance. When you’re ignorant enough, and you think society is too complex to understand (and it very well could be) it’s easy to believe that living as a hunter-gatherer or subsistance farmer would be easy and comfortable. I know a few professional farmers. None of THEM think that way. It seems to me that those kinds of ideas mainly look attractive to people who already lead fairly comfortable lives.

Same thing as with the insurance companies who refuse to give me Civil Responsibility Insurance because I work in IT: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic and those who wield it must perforce be evil.

IOW, they don’t understand it, therefore they reject it.

Off topic:

That’s not the same thing at all. A refusal to insure you does not mean that they consider your line of work evil, it just means that they don’t know the odds, and so don’t know how much they’d need to charge to cover their risk.

When I see the people who make the movies living like the beings they promote in the movies, I’ll be worried. Until then they are simply catering to what they think the masses will buy into.

Avatar was spectacular from a technology standpoint–the CGI technology was terrific. The story was past stupid, essentially letting primitive spiritism compete on par with modern warfare technology (in addition to presenting the military white man demon meme so comically). Yeah; sure. We’d mock the “science” behind the jungle crowd in any other thread on this board; the movie makes the primitives noble voodoo worshipers. In real life they’d be uneducated twits.

This is not to say it’s OK to rape the earth–that’s a different thread. But the idea that Avatar represents a workable paradigm for anything but backwardness is silly.

They may have read some John Zerzan?

Chief Pedant, I think there’s a difference though with Avatar.

In the real world, there are no scientific explanations for voodoo or new age crystal power or anything else like that. In Avatar, the scientists discovered a reason behind it. The natives may have not known the mechanism behind the abilities of the lifeforms and the trees, but it wasn’t all mystical hoodoo. It may seem like magic, but it’s not magic. They may be primitive, but there was a reason for their beliefs (and it turned out to be a scientifically backed reason.

The “evil” part was an exageration, excuse me. But the not wanting to give me insurance when my kind of business is actually as low-risk as it gets and there is data saying so (there has never been an IT-related claim in Spain) is directly linked to not understanding what I do. They insure people whose industries produce thousands of claims every year, but won’t insure anybody who works in IT. I had to spend almost one hour explaining “IT consulting” to the agent, she spent several weeks going over it with insurers. Several of them heard “IT” and said “a hacker?”… which brings us back to the “evil.” No, not hacker: the person who set up the computer you’re sitting at right now works in IT!

The claims I’d be protected against are filed with the government, not with the insurers: the insurance is to protect from expenses linked to those claims. So the lack of insurance doesn’t cause a lack of claims.

I’ve met several thousand enviromentalists, have had longer conversations with a few hundred, and know about 50 to the extent that I have semi-regular discussions with them. I’ve never met any of the sentiments described in the OP from them. In fact, my experience is that Greens compared to other political leanings are much more interested in science and technology, and very much more science-based in their opinions.

When discussing an issue with a Green, that person will often talk about what this or that scientist says, or what this or that scientific report concludes. I rarely, if ever, encounter that from other politically active people.

Regarding technology the view tends to be balanced, that there are benefits AND drawbacks. Not a religious or mystical belief in technology, but in general a very positive attitude towards technological advances, especially those that show promise of being beneficial to the enviroment.

So I’d instead like to re-phrase the OP question into “What is it about non-Greens and science?”.

While agreeing with you I will slide towards a different path. Native Americans used what tech they had to alter and control nature; they burned off trees to create croplands and drove buffalo over cliffs in numbers so great they could not have used them all as we like to imagine. In other words they could “waste resources” just as we do, and do it with a form of tech. They just did what we do now in limiting waste when possible.

I would say the extremist environmentalist the OP asks about believes as he does as much from ignorance as anything else. That there was a “good old days” when man lived in harmony with nature rather than using it to his advantage. Maybe before Eve bit the apple there was such a place -------- but I doubt its existed since then.

Industry was a threat (in terms of global survival of our species) for a while MAYBE. But most in the “green movement” and conservation realized that technology was the way out. IMHO that realization was true and implementation is ongoing so its all working out. I will cite the progress made with various endangered species as an example; using the technology available on/with captive animals to be able to reintroduce them into the wild.