There is a strain of environmental thinking that proposes (with more than a little sense) that we need to learn how to do more with less. Or perhaps we need (yet again?) to discover how less is more. Fewer human beings always seems like a good place to start.
There is of course the problem that biggering (as Dr. Seuss called it) has come to seem essential to our economic “growth” and “health,” and to the health of our pensions, 401Ks, housing prices, Social Security, etc., depends on such growth. As I suggested in a recent piece, our only hope may lie in shifting our biggering from products and services that consume “natural resources” to those that consume only human time and energy—services such as massage, teaching, care for children and the elderly, various kinds of therapy, exercise classes, religious observances.
A reader of an early draft has suggested that this short piece raises two separate questions: Is there a way for an economy to be healthy without it having to keep growing and growing, generating more for more and more voracious consumers? And: Are there technologies—major technologies—that we should be—and indeed might be—rid of, and happier for it? To my eye, these two questions are not so independent, but we need not dwell on this.
As regards technology, I return to a comment Bob Dylan made several decades ago: “There’s enough of everything. There was too much of it with electricity, maybe, some people said that. Some people said the light bulb was going too far.”
I am proposing this as a kind of parlor game. Where would you have stopped? What is the invention that you think went too far? We might imagine a utopian novel in which homo sapiens sapiens sapiens were able to choose an earlier point in human history to which they wished to return, with the idea of then avoiding taking some of the turns that their predecessors had taken, exploring alternative fates.
Not shy, I can go first and propose, for the invention that went too far, the airplane. An extraordinary feat of engineering (and hubris), it allows a seemingly wonderful new behavior—extremely rapid travel to other parts of the world. But, I ask: What are the airplane’s direct contributions to either the global environment or to human well-being? That the airplane facilitates a raft of fun activities—such as temporarily leaving cold weather for warmer, or warm for cold; temporarily wandering away from job and home—of this I am sure. But it does not seem that human existence has been plagued by a lack of fun activities. Certainly examples can be cited of when and how airplanes have saved people’s lives and of when and how (Hiroshima) they have helped kill people. I am simply proposing that, as with many another technological wonder, the overall, direct contributions of the airplane to human or global well-being are hard to identify. (And this, paradoxically, even as we will, at best, struggle to define human well-being!)
And meanwhile the airplane’s contribution to environmental degradation, global warming in particular, is easy to perceive. For example, in June 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency, hardly a radical group, “proposed to find that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from certain classes of engines used in aircraft contribute to the air pollution that causes climate change endangering public health and welfare under section 231(a) of the Clean Air Act.”
In college I was introduced to a romantic view of English history, in which, beginning in the early nineteenth century, the aristocracy agreed to share power with commoners (a class that eventually, in the early twentieth century) included women. The first of the famous “reform acts,” that of 1832, has been called the watershed moment at which the sovereignty of the people was “established in fact, if not in law”. (Or, as Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, put it in a speech to the House of Commons: the principle is “to admit the middle class to a large and direct share in the representation, without any violent shock to the institutions of our country.”)
It is easy enough to take more cynical, realistic, or economic-determinist views of the extension of suffrage (a process which, in the United States, reached its peak in the 1960s). To paraphrase an eminent British historian, the more votes that are created, the more votes there are to be bought and sold. And another bottom line is that the Industrial Revolution so transformed the British economic and political landscape—sooner or later the landed aristocracy was going to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting a political system that made more room for industrialists and cities. And nor did it take long for large industrial and then white-collar employers to realize that expanding political rights could go hand in hand with expanding the labor pool and thus competition for jobs, which helped keep down wages.
Why do I insert this here? I am wondering if the currently deeply entrenched power—capital—could, and notwithstanding that it is not a social class but an impersonal force which acts on human beings, guiding and forcing decisions—could capital, too, agree to or be dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing to share power? As the Industrial Revolution changed political landscapes, could that revolution’s waste products—environmental degradation, resource depletion, overpopulation, and the particular problems and threats that complex, materials-based technologies pose—could they lead capital to accept a less prominent role in a multi-polar politico-economic system?
Most particularly I am asking if capital could end up renouncing, setting aside, doing without some major, seemingly central technology, and this on the grounds that, in the long run, “we” (capital included) would be better off without it? I have proposed the airplane, or flight more generally, as the first thing that might go. A reader of a first draft of this piece proposed starting with—that is, starting by doing away with—fast food. The computer seems an obvious candidate for discussion, if not, finally, for abandoning. I wonder—iconoclastically, of course—if there are basic medical technologies—radiation, for example, or transplanting, cloning, etc.—that a courageous economic system, and a society with sophisticated ideas about life and death, could decide to do away?
— Wm. Eaton
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was recently published by Serving House Books. See Surviving the website. The current piece was intended to be lighter than others of his recent Zeteo pieces, such as:
- Class Warfare Poverty Death
- Inequality, Experts, Krugman, Masks
- Morandi, Relationships, Fascism, Still Life
Credits & Sources
I came across the Dylan quote in a 1999 article (The Wanderer) by Alex Ross, the New Yorker music critic. A transcript of the complete 1991 “Song Talk” interview has become available online. I used this quotation and idea previously in The silence at the end of the tunnel, Zeteo 2014.
- EPA webpage on “providing information about air pollutant emissions from aviation.”
- Center for Biological Diversity website on airplane emissions.
- “Established in fact, if not in law” — G.M. Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century and After (1782–1901) (Longmans, Green, 1922).
- Macaulay’s speech, March 1, 1831. Quote is from an abridged text posted online by Bartleby.com.
- “It was too soon evident, that as more votes had been created, more votes were to be sold.” — Thomas Erskine May, The Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 1760-1860, vol. 1 (A.C Armstrong and Son, 1895).
Dr. Seuss, The Lorax:
business is business!
And business must grow
regardless of crummies in tummies [people going hungry], you know.
I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads. . . .
I went right on biggering . . . selling more Thneeds.
And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.
- Marquis d’Equevilly’s multiplane, 1908.
- Thomas Edison exhibits a replica of his first successful incandescent lamp, which gave 16 candlepower of illumination. One hundred and thirty years later, in 2009, there was a 50,000-watt, 150,000-candlepower lamp. Photo credit: Bettman/Corbis.
- The Balance of Power in 1831, cartoon, found on website of BBC Radio 4; illustration for radio program: In Our Time, The Great Reform Act.
- Lots of airplanes: Flughafen [Airport], 2005, composite photo created by Korean artist Ho-Yeol Ryu. One might see also a video that this photo inspired: filmmaker and photographer Cy Kuckenbaker’s 25-second time-lapse/composite video that shows every airplane that landed at San Diego International Airport on Black Friday, 2012, between 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.
I read the Dylan interview referred to. It’s interesting that he says we have enough of everything as a follow-up to his dictum that we have enough poetry. With regard to poetry, he says, “The world don’t need any more poems, it’s got Shakespeare.” He’s just being Dylan, of course. (Later in the interview he says we can never have enough beautiful melodies.)
I like the idea of doing away with the airplane. In a few weeks I’m leaving Buenos Aires on a month-long cruise to San Diego. It’s the most relaxing way to travel. Unfortunately, I will fly home from the States, so my relaxing vacation will be annulled.
We could go back further still and, as our friend Henry Thoreau suggested, do away with the telegraph, the grand-daddy of Snapchat.
Or back even further and do away with Shakespeare, who, according to Harold Bloom, invented “the human.” Without Shakespeare’s invention of the human in the 16th century, we might evolve into something better.
A month-long cruise from Buenos Aires to San Diego, that sounds great! Just steer clear of Sir Francis Drake and other silver stealers.
As for “the human,” for a month or so I’ve had in mind a comment made by a man in an exercise class I was attending: “Human beings, what a concept!” The sentiment behind this was along the lines of your “something better.”