In the July/August 2013 edition of the Resurgence & Ecologist magazine Charles Eisenstein outlines his view concerning the relationship between environmental problems, technology and the healing of the planet (Latent Healing, pp. 36-8). Eisenstein has many interesting things to say; however, the central premise of his view is fundamentally flawed. In this post my aim is two-fold. Firstly, I will explain why the central premise of Eisenstein’s view is grounded in a false dichotomy. Secondly, I will comment on the positive aspects of Eisenstein’s view and relate it to the more comprehensive philosophical worldview that I have been developing over the past decade. My hope is to show that Eisenstein’s view is valuable and insightful, yet also partial and limited.
So, let us start by identifying the false dichotomy that exists at the heart of Eisenstein’s view. Eisenstein states that:
We can assume that by now the environmentally conscious person has seen through the delusion of applying technology to remedy the problems that have been caused by previous technology. (p. 36).
The technological fix addresses the symptom while ignoring the illness, because it cannot see an integral entity that can become ill. I don’t want to gloss over the profundity of the paradigm shift we are accepting if we are to see Nature as intelligent and purposive (p. 37).
Furthermore, Eisenstein claims that anyone who believes in a “technological fix” to environmental problems is constrained by a “mythology” which causes them to exist in a “disconnected state of being that is blind to the indwelling purpose and intelligence of Nature” (p. 37).
Whereas, according to Eisenstein, he isn’t stuck in such a “mythology”. Apparently he has “seen through this delusion” and is therefore an “environmentally conscious person” who can see that we live in “an inherently purposeful universe”. He claims that: “The technological fix is based on linear thinking. The alternative is to develop sensitivity to the emergent order and intelligence that wants to unfold, so that we might bow into its service.” (p.38).
So, in short, Eisenstein attempts to persuade us that these two things are sharply antithetical:
1 A purposeful intelligent universe
2 A technological fix to environmental problems
He really seems to believe that this is so. However, this is completely and utterly wrong; he has simply set up a false dichotomy based on his own mythology. The question of whether there is a technological fix to environmental problems is very plausibly influenced by the question of whether the universe is purposeful and intelligent. However, it is just as plausible to believe that it is precisely because the universe is purposeful and intelligent that an environmental ‘technological fix’ is required. Eisenstein doesn’t even appear to realise that this is a possibility. So, it will surely be helpful if I relate what Eisenstein has to say to the philosophical worldview which I have been developing over the past decade. There are some interesting commonalities between Eisenstein’s view and my philosophical worldview. However, I believe my view to be deeper and more comprehensive. In other words, Eisenstein is on the right track but he hasn’t had the deeper insight which would have enabled him to put the pieces of the jigsaw together to form a more complete cosmic picture (he is missing several pieces).
Both Eisenstein and I support the idea of a purposeful intelligent universe, the unfolding of which includes the bringing forth of the human species. The main difference in our views is that I have seen how technology, and in particular the application of human technology in the environmental arena, is a fundamental part of a purposeful intelligent unfolding universe. Indeed, it is obvious to me that our purpose as a species is to utilise technology in order to regulate the temperature of the atmosphere; this outcome being for the benefit not just of humans, but for life on Earth. Eisenstein hasn’t come to appreciate this, but unlike most people, he is pondering closely related questions, such as (p. 38):
What is the purpose of technology on a healed planet?
What is the purpose of this unique species [humans] to which Gaia has given birth?
The first question Eisenstein poses actually makes no sense to me because it is obvious to me that the purpose of technology is to heal the planet; it would have no purpose on a healed planet. Of course, technology would have uses on a healed planet, but uses and cosmic purpose are two very different things.
A central component of my philosophical worldview, a component that is lacking in Eisenstein’s view, is the realisation that the planet was ill/required healing before it gave birth to humans. In other words, it is not the case that technology created a problem (and that even more technology cannot provide the solution to this problem). Einstein’s view is seemingly grounded in the belief that if technology creates a problem then it cannot simultaneously solve that problem. This seems highly dubious to me as a blanket view, but even if it were true then it doesn’t apply to what we are talking about here. For, the need for technological regulation of the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere is ultimately a non-technological problem; a non-technological problem to which technology is the solution. Of course, this simplifies what is a complex situation, because the deployment of human technology has exacerbated the pre-existing problem/illness. The key point to realise is that humans, and human technology, are not the cause of planetary illness. Exacerbating a pre-existing illness is a very different kettle of fish from creating an illness. Indeed, exacerbating a pre-existing illness can be a necessity if that illness is to be cured.
I presume that you can see what I am saying here. For the sake of argument, let us grant Eisenstein his claim that technology cannot be the solution to a problem created by technology. This means that all of the environmental problems which have been caused by human technology will have no technological solution. Nevertheless, if there is an environmental problem which has its roots in a non-human pre-human cause then, even if human technology exacerbates that problem, it can still be the solution to that problem. Indeed, the exacerbation can be the sign that the cure is imminent. In the rest of the article I am hoping to get you to see that the stability of the temperature of the atmosphere is such a problem, and that human technology is the solution.
At the heart of Gaia Theory is a vision of the Earth as a self-regulating but ageing whole. Another way of putting this is to say that the Earth attempts to maintain the conditions suitable for life despite the ageing of the Earth-Solar System. The Earth needs to maintain a Global Mean Surface Temperature (GMST) which is neither too cold nor too hot if complex life (plants and animals) is to exist; this ‘habitable’ temperature range is between 10oC and 20oC. The Earth has managed to achieve this GMST throughout the history of life on Earth despite an increase in incoming solar radiation of 25% since life arose. As Sir James Lovelock puts it:
We may at first think that there is nothing particularly odd about this picture of a stable climate over the past three and a half eons [3,500 million years]… Yet it is odd, and for this reason: our sun, being a typical star, has evolved according to a standard and well established pattern. A consequence of this is that during the three and a half aeons of life’s existence on the Earth, the sun’s output of energy will have increased by twenty-five per cent.
(Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, OUP, 2000, p. 18)
As the Earth-Solar System ages a forever increasing amount of solar radiation is sent from the Sun to the Earth; this is obviously a force for global atmospheric warming. The Earth-Solar System is now at the age where the Earth is struggling to maintain its atmospheric temperature within a range in which complex life can survive. The increasing solar radiation is putting immense upwards pressure on the Earth’s atmospheric temperature which could lead to an increase to a level which is too hot for complex life to survive. This struggle is a sign of planetary illness. Lovelock has realised this:
The brief interglacials, like now, are, I think, examples of temporary failures of ice-age regulation.
(The Revenge of Gaia, Penguin Books Ltd, 2006, p. 45)
[Gaia] is old and has not very long to live. As the sun grows ever hotter it will, in Gaia’s terms, soon become too hot for animals and plants and many of the microbial forms of life.
(The Revenge of Gaia, Penguin Books Ltd., 2006, p. 46)
So, the transitions between ice ages and interglacial periods are an indication of planetary illness which is caused by the increasing output of the Sun. We are now approaching the time when the Earth requires technological regulation of the temperature of its atmosphere. The Sun will continue to send more and more solar radiation to the Earth; the deployment of technology is the only way that the temperature of the atmosphere can be kept suitably low for complex life to survive. Such a use of technology is the only way that the Earth can be healed.
In other words, the Earth has brought forth a technological species precisely at the moment in its evolution when it requires technological regulation of its atmosphere. This is surely a sign that we live in a purposeful unfolding universe; a universe which contains humans as the healers of the Earth. What a wonderful vision. The development of the healing technology is itself a painful process, it entails the bringing forth of a range of environmental problems and also the transitory human exacerbation of the illness for which human technology is the cure. However, this era of human separation, of suffering, of environmental problems, of technological development, is a transitory era which results in the healing of the Earth and ultimately the healing of humanity too.
So, in contradiction to what Eisenstein claims, a purposeful intelligent universe can be one in which there is a need for technological geoengineering of the atmosphere (Eisenstein rejects this and claims that it “will likely cause horrific unanticipated consequences”, p. 36). Whilst Eisenstein is wrong when he denies that a purposeful intelligent universe can entail the need for geoengineering, he is surely right to assert that many of the environmental problems that we face are caused by technology and have no technological solutions.
The vision I have presented of humans as the technological healers of the Earth clearly does not deny that humans have caused environmental problems which need to be addressed. Technology has caused many environmental problems and I believe that there is a space for both technological and non-technological solutions to these problems. The human role as technological healers of the Earth is a specific role: regulating the temperature of the atmosphere to keep the planet habitable for life despite the increasing output of the Sun.