What is the Ideal Toolkit for Humanity?
Homo sapiens cannot survive without some technology, but the mad race to mindlessly invent, mass-produce and consume more and more of the stuff is perhaps the greatest threat to our continued existence as a species. We need to take stock of what we do need, what we sincerely desire and what the limits of nature can afford us, if we are to avoid the end of days for humans on this planet.
What we need to survive
It appears that when modern humans first appeared in the evolutionary history of earth, we came already equipped with some technology, courtesy of our ancestors. For example, there is evidence to hand that Homo heidelbergensis possessed stone-tipped spears. Even earlier, Homo erectus possessed the technology to control and use fire. In addition, it has been suggested that the cooking of food by our ancestors resulted in an evolutionary increase in brain size that forever more dictated the continuation of this technology as part of our survival tool kit.
Fire, stone tools and string are essential technologies for our most basic existence and they themselves became the springboard for further technologies that propelled Homo sapiens to become the successful species, in terms of abundance and distribution, on the contemporary land masses of the planet. An interesting question to ponder is would our species still exist if we did not advance technology beyond fire control, stone-shaping and string-making.
Since that is not our history though, it is more pertinent to perhaps explore at what point of technological advancement did our species move beyond being in balance with nature and onto a trajectory of unsustainabilty that today seems so unstoppable. It can be noted at this point that some people believe that the arrival of Homo sapiens with the ability to control fire, shape stone and make string was a doomed evolutionary experiment from the very start, and that our extinction is inevitable and likely imminent.
What we desire to thrive
There may be some of us who do desire a return to the early stone age hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the very first humans. And it is highly probable, despite our current beliefs, that our ancestors did enjoy happy, fulfilling and meaningful lives. But the history of technology cannot be changed, and along that path we have created such technologies as ceramics, the loom and woven clothing, paper and the printing press, metallurgy and plumbing. In recent times electricity, industrial scale fossil-fuelled machinery, antibiotics, computers, and flight have added to the smorgasbord of technologies that supposedly lift the standards of living for human beings. There is no doubt that some of the outcomes and creature comforts afforded by technology do improve important aspects of our lives and therefore are legitimate desires for our overall wellbeing.
But, the growth of technology is exponential – just like human population, energy consumption, deforestation, extinction rates, fossil fuel depletion and so on and so on. It could be argued that the exponential growth of technology is the cause of all of these other booming but alarming impacts of human existence. Any debate about which technological development has been most responsible, or pivotal, for the impending slide towards collapse would have to hinge on: the tools associated with the advent of agriculture, such as the plough; the tools to record and disseminate human knowledge, such as paper and the printing press; or the machines that facilitated the industrial revolution. Putting aside those developments of the past, there are those who are convinced that the development of artificial intelligence will lead us to a point in the future – named “the singularity” – that will spell the end of days for humans.
Of course there is a very strong and predominant belief that technology has solved, and will continue to solve, all the problems of existence that we humans face. The overwhelming evidence that technological progress cannot forever solve an endless chain of problems (ironically most problems we face have been caused by technology in the first place) is largely denied. We continue to see the future as an endless unfolding of human ingenuity to not only further control and dominate nature, but to clean up all the mess we are making as we mindlessly indulge in the wonders of both old and new technology. The dire economic, environmental and social predicament that is the present reality dictates that our technological growth not only needs to stop, but will actually need to be downshifted.
What ought to be rejected to avoid our demise
Without advocating a return to the technology of 200,000 years ago, there is a humongous list of technologies that should be ditched. Let’s consider just one: the leaf blower. It is noisy, polluting and unnecessary – especially since users of this and other such labour-saving machinery are having to take up meaningless exercise because their fitness and core body strength have withered away. Manual work is quickly dismissed when we have machines and gadgets to do it for us. The argument that machines like leaf blowers make our lives easier, or more productive or efficient is laughable. What’s wrong with a broom or rake? Imagine the money that could be saved by not having to join a gym or have a personal trainer. Leaf blowers are not needed, nor desirable, and the proliferation of such technologies is harming the planet. The same can be said for nail guns, chainsaws, high pressure water blasters, food processors, hair dryers, air-conditioners – the list goes on. These machines are speeding us to collapse.
Moving on from the domestic front, a much more serious technological threat is the current, and crazy, amount of killing machinery sitting around the planet – aka military hardware. Jet fighters, missiles, drones, chemical weapons, nuclear devices and so on are all unnecessary, horrific in their intended effect, and so clearly threaten peace that the pessimistic belief in our inevitable demise is suddenly, upon reflection, not so incomprehensible. De-militarisation is unquestionably needed to avoid an apocalypse that could easily occur with one psychological error and the push of one button.
Some technologies are a little harder, or more uncomfortable, to brand as undesirable for humanity. Though after serious contemplation one could argue that their continued existence and/or development is detrimental or at least unsustainable. Medical technologies, information technologies and transport technologies come to mind. Vaccination and antibiotics, for example, are lauded by the statistics showing the number of deaths prevented, but with 7 billion-plus people eating and shitting on one planet, has the outcome been desirable in terms of the big picture? The wonders of the internet are often expressed in terms of connecting people and democratising the power of information, but is such advanced and costly technology absolutely necessary, or sustainable, for the flourishing of humanity? And what real human connection and community has been lost in the mad rush to digitise everything into the virtual cloud? Finally, everyone wants and demands the freedom of movement, but again, with seven billion of us wanting to live or holiday wherever we choose, and to be able to fly or drive there, what will be the ultimate effect of such human movement and tourism?
The current level of technology and its exponential growth are pretty daunting to think about, and a broad-based downshifting looks essential in the near future if catastrophic collapse is to be avoided or minimised. What technologies we can and should keep, and what we will need to reject needs to be carefully and thoroughly considered. Similarly, why and what we should be developing in the future also needs to be very carefully contemplated and planned. But before that can happen, humans need to reassess the whole notion of progress.
Why do we think we need perpetual technological advancement?
The virtually ubiquitous belief that we are clever beings who can invent solutions to all our future problems is a mask for a deep-seated self-loathing. The continual striving to improve our lives and selves, primarily by the technological control of nature, is irrefutable evidence that we are not content with who and what we actually are. The denial of our own true nature as legitimate members of the earth’s complex web of life is a vestige of our cultural evolution that is proving very difficult to wake up from.
We mostly look back at all humans who lived before us as being worse off than we are today and this is primarily based on the perceived lower level of technology available to our ancestors. Looking back fondly on a more simple and less technological past is dismissed as being sentimental or nostalgic. It is arrogant, but all too easy, to argue that life without electricity, for example, was harder and less enjoyable than the current pleasures and comfort delivered by an unlimited and uninterrupted supply of energy available, at the flick of a switch in the family home.
This misunderstanding is the real tragedy that underpinned the comment by the current Prime Minister of Australia when he defended the proposed massive export of coal to India by saying “Coal is good for humanity.” The fact that he wasn’t immediately lynched by a mob of humans who can foresee the massive environmental disaster that looms over continued and expanded coal burning is proof that generally we do not disagree that life for Indians will improve, and that they have a basic right to have electricity in their homes. The delusion that continued technological advances and the distribution of technologies to all peoples is good for humanity needs to be seriously challenged.
This is a call to all downshifters to sing the joy of a less technological life. Ironically, I invite you to do it on the SHIFT facebook page. Even better, do it by word of mouth and with the smile on your face that naturally comes from living a simpler life.
Fire, stone and string may be the bare minimum to get by and meet your basic needs. Books, arts and crafts, music and maybe some simple plumbing may be perfectly acceptable technologies to meet our higher human desires. But the mindless accumulation of stuff, for the sake of more and more stuff – because let’s face it, technology is basically just stuff – will not make you a better human. It will, though, make you, for the mere sake of endless progress, just one of the many billions participating in the demise of Homo sapiens.