Rage Against the Machines

Witnessing the birth of the neo-Luddite movement

The global, organized neo-Luddite movement was born this February 24th, on New York City’s tony upper East Side, of all places. That’s when a group called the International Forum on Globalization held a "Teach-In on Technology and Globalization" at Hunter College. The goal of the event, announced IFG head Jerry Mander, was to "bring together the protest movement born in Seattle with the leading critics of technologies -- Luddites, if you will." If the reported attendance by 1,400 people is any indication, then the IFG succeeded in its goal -- a fact the world may some day come to rue.

The opening day of the Teach-In was devoted to a non-stop series of plenary sessions held in a cavernous and cheerless auditorium. The sessions started at 9 a.m. on Saturday and ran until 11 p.m.; they were followed by scores of workshops on Sunday. The list of speakers was a veritable Who’s Who of anti-technology and anti-free market activists from around the globe. The lineup included such heavy hitters as Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution; Jeremy Rifkin, head of the Foundation on Economic Trends; Stephanie Mills, from the Great Lakes Bioregional Congress; Andrew Kimbrell, head of the International Center for Technological Assessment; and Vandana Shiva, head of Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy.

The attendees were mostly "progressives" who have long been involved with the civil rights, peace, and environmental movements. (One guest confided to me that it has all been downhill since Henry Wallace ran for president.) Though there was a smattering of earnest youngsters hailing from too-cool college campuses located in places such as Vermont, Massachusetts, and Oregon, most of the participants were clearly over 45 years old. But their years have not mellowed the neo-Luddites.

Jerry Mander, a white-haired, humorless man still best known for his 1977 anti-TV diatribe Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, opened the event by explaining why the Teach-In focused on globalization and technology. The IFG and allied groups are concerned about "technology’s symbiotic relationship with corporate power," said Mander. Far from dispersing knowledge and empowering traditionally marginalized individuals and groups, argued Mander, the Internet "is facilitating the greatest centralization of unregulated corporate power in history." But we’re up against something far bigger than just the Internet. "Now we have biotechnology and its younger sibling nanotechnology, which can potentially redesign nature from the atomic level up," he declared. "With these technologies, nothing will be outside of corporate control."

For Mander and other neo-Luddites, "globalization" refers to what they claim is a self-evident centralization and expansion of "corporate power" (a loose term that seems to cover just about all for-profit economic activity). Stopping globalization requires overlapping and related strategies, which is why the Teach-In brought together a disparate collection of labor, environmental, indigenous, anti-trade, and civil rights activists. The first step in halting globalization, say the neo-Luddites, is to slow or stop the development and adoption of all new technologies. The primary tool for this is universal implementation of the so-called precautionary principle, which has been acerbically summarized as "regulate first, ask questions later." At rock bottom, the precautionary principle would require that all new technologies be approved by regulators using subjective criteria like whether the technologies are "needed" or are "too socially disruptive" before they could be offered to the public.

The second step in slowing globalization is to block the increase of free -- or, at any rate, freer -- trade. The neo-Luddites believe that trade does more than simply spread technology throughout the world; trade also empowers corporations while destroying the livelihoods of workers in both developed and developing countries. They are, of course, right that trade facilitates the spread of technology and the mixing of cultures; they are wrong, however, to assert that "the corporations" are the primary beneficiaries of such exchange, or that such exchange, on balance, immiserates workers and destroys the environment.

In place of a globally integrated, "corporatized" economy based on high technology, the neo-Luddites offer a vision of mandatory, small-scale, economically self-sufficient autarkies inspired by traditional and indigenous cultures. They draw their name and their animating spirit from the original Luddites, the infamous "machine breakers" in early 19th century England who protested the nascent Industrial Revolution by stealing into factories and smashing equipment. Like their forerunners, the neo-Luddites also want to break machines (sometimes literally) -- especially those that further biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computing.

In some ways, it is easy -- and tempting -- to write off the neo-Luddites as sad-sack ’60s refugees, aging hippies who pine away for a romantic, preindustrial idyll that never existed in the first place or, to the extent it did, was actually characterized by large-scale human deprivation. But in the wake of demonstrations in Seattle over the World Trade Organization and, more recently, in Quebec over the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, it is clear the neo-Luddite mentality is not only widespread, but a powerful motivating force in attacks on free trade and technological innovation.

Those of us who believe that markets and technology offer the best hope for reducing human poverty and misery -- and for increasing human opportunity and flourishing -- would do well to examine the basic premises of the neo-Luddite movement and engage its underlying fallacies. Because it drew together so many of the intellectual architects of the neo-Luddite movement, the IFG Teach-In provides a perfect occasion for such an exercise.

Technophobia Deluxe

Many of the speakers at the Teach-In repeated the mantra that "technology is not neutral" as though it were an incredibly deep and original insight. The slogan is hardly that, but its constant repetition offers insight into neo-Luddite thought processes and values.

"Technologies have consequences," explained neo-Luddite Kirkpatrick Sale. In a long interview with the Web site primitivism.com -- ah, the irony of a Web site that promotes primitivism! -- Sale elaborated on the notion: "Once we understand that technologies are not either accidental or neutral we will understand that they inevitably express the values and beliefs of the powers in society that introduce and adopt them; a progressive nation-state capitalism will produce one kind of technology, a decentralized tribal anarchocommunalism an entirely different kind."

Sale and the other neo-Luddites are without question correct that technology is not neutral. Then again, it’s not exactly clear who said that it was. The relevant question is not whether technology is neutral, but by what process is it adopted and whose interests does it serve?

Technology creates new possibilities. Inventing ways to make fire and clothing allowed human beings to leave the African savannas and inhabit new areas with harsher climates. Bows and arrows permitted our ancestors to become more efficient hunters. Learning how to plant and harvest grass seeds dramatically transformed the human prospect, as did taming goats, sheep, horses, cows, and pigs. Writing utterly changed the world. Smelting metals, building boats, carts with wheels, wine-making, stonemasonry -- the list of transformative technological breakthroughs is endless even if one only considers advances that happened before the birth of Christ.

The neo-Luddites point out that human beings change what they do and how they do things in response to new technologies. Again, that isn’t a blazing insight -- the point of technologies is precisely to change the way people do things, especially in ways that tend to benefit more people. Though -- or perhaps because -- the adoption process is decentralized and constantly under revision, technologies that benefit large numbers of people are the ones that generally succeed over the long haul, e.g., canning, cars, television, weaving, pottery, electricity, computers.

Car Talk

The neo-Luddites’ general attitude toward technology is evident in their treatment of cars. Unsurprisingly, automobiles come in for a lot of opprobrium. In many ways, they remain the ultimate example for neo-Luddites of everything that is wrong with the modern world. As Jerry Mander put it in the 1991 neo-Luddite anthology Questioning Technology: Tool, Toy or Tyrant?, "If you accept the existence of automobiles, you also accept the existence of roads laid upon the landscape, oil to run the cars, and huge institutions to find the oil, pump it and distribute it. In addition, you accept a sped-up style of life and the movement of humans through the terrain at speeds that make it impossible to pay attention to whatever is growing there." Kirkpatrick Sale, in the primitivism .com interview, lays out the raw bone of contention regarding not just autos, but all technologies: "Only someone ignorant of industrialism and the Enlightenment mind-set would have thought the automobile ‘emancipating.’ It was intended to increase consumerism, individualism, anomie, community disintegration, and the power of markets, and it did."

Leaving aside the important issue of whether consumerism might itself be emancipating, it’s more than a tad unconvincing to argue that Henry Ford plotted to increase "consumerism, individualism, anomie, community disintegration and the power of markets." To be sure, Ford wanted to make a buck by providing people with cheap, convenient private transportation, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. In 1900, there were a few thousand automobiles in use worldwide, and they were toys for the very rich. By 1950, there were 70 million vehicles worldwide and by 2000, the number had risen to over 500 million. Of course, there are downsides to automobiles, but as their burgeoning numbers show, people the world over clearly regard cars as emancipating, or at least worth owning. This is no small point, as it goes directly to the heart of the neo-Luddite enterprise: Does technology use humans or do humans use technology? Cars may not be the hypothetically perfect form of transportation, but they clearly enhance the quality of life of people who own them.

Certainly, most people prefer them to other available forms of transportation, which have their own downsides as well. Set aside for the moment questions of relative reliability and usefulness and just focus on environmental costs: Before the automobile became widespread, tens of millions of acres of land were dedicated as pasture for horses and mules. While cars do cause pollution, compare that to city streets clotted with horse manure and urine, which were breeding grounds for disease. Railroads, the 19th century’s "modern" form of transportation, consumed nearly 25 percent of all the wood used in America, for both track ties and fuel.

Neo-Luddites are right that any given technology implies many others, but they always seem to undersell the implications of the simpler, "purer" forms of technology they themselves prefer. They also insist, in the absence of convincing data, that technologies are foisted on unwilling users.

Colonial Technologies

If autos set the gold standard for neo-Luddite contempt, then computers and the Internet are not far behind. "Films, radio, computers, TV, [and] the Internet are imprinting a unified pattern of thought and a single pattern on our way of life," declared Mander, brushing aside any thought that recent technological innovations have allowed millions of new voices to be heard on the Internet and elsewhere. "We are in the terrifying situation in which a few billionaires colonize the minds of millions of people, teach people to hate where they live, worship McDonald’s, and trust corporations."

"Computers are a colonizing technology," pronounced Chet Bowers, an adjunct professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Oregon. "Computers profoundly alter how we think and inevitably reduce our ability to understand nature and cultures other than our own." (The obligation other cultures might have to try to understand our culture went unexplored.)

And over at primitivism.com, Sale put it this way: "The computer, particularly the PC, will bring unmitigated disaster, simply because it enables the powers of this society to do faster and more efficiently the kinds of things it likes to do, with resulting social disintegration, economic polarization, and environmental devastation."

Colonizing? This claim can be made about any communicative activity, but for neo-Luddites, it’s an all-purpose pejorative deployed to describe an activity that one dislikes. Langdon Winner, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, summed it up thus: "Everything and everyone is colonized." That amounts to little more than the observation that everyone learns involuntarily from the social and cultural environment in which he finds himself.

"The point is the way new technologies are introduced to us without a full discussion of how they are going to affect the planet, social relationships, political relationships, human health, nature, our conceptions of nature, and our conceptions of ourselves," says Mander. The neo-Luddites have a tool which they believe will force this "full discussion": the precautionary principle. According to Stephanie Mills, the precautionary principle embodies the "sensible idea that new chemicals and new technologies should be presumed guilty until proven innocent."

But it’s clear that neo-Luddites invoke the precautionary principle not to evaluate new technologies, but to stack the deck against them. Martin Teitel, a philosopher who directs the anti-biotech activist group the Council for Responsible Genetics, was quite explicit about what the precautionary principle could do to stop technological progress. When asked how any scientist could prove that a biotech crop was completely safe without the field trials that the precautionary principle would simultaneously require and ban, Teitel replied that that’s just fine. "Politically," he explained, "it’s difficult for me to go around saying that I want to shut this science down, so it’s safer for me to say something like ‘it needs to be done safely before releasing it.’" Requiring biotechnologists to prove a negative under the guise of implementing the precautionary principle means that "they don’t get to do it period," Teitel noted.

If they feel that the world is going to hell in a high-tech hand basket, the neo-Luddites can at least console themselves with this: The precautionary principle has already been incorporated into a number of international treaties, including the new Biosafety Protocol and the Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty, which the Bush administration recently agreed to sign.

Corporate Punishment

According to neo-Luddite analysis, the force behind technological innovation -- and the only beneficiary of that innovation -- are "the corporations," a vast and vague abstraction covering virtually all for-profit activity. Neo-Luddites have two basic bones to pick with corporations. First, they object that companies offer ever more goods or services to customers who are simultaneously enticed and forced into buying extravagant, destructive junk -- a car, say, or a computer, or movie tickets, or whatever. For neo-Luddites, this is a revolting state of affairs and not only because the purchases themselves are inevitably misguided: Exchange also inevitably encompasses wider and wider networks -- the local economic scene becomes enmeshed in the global one.

This, in turn, is terrible because global markets create a despised "monoculture" in which "all countries are meant to develop in the same way, with the same hamburgers, the same shoes, the same cars, and the same urban landscapes," as Mander put it at the Teach-In. He summed his comments up by saying that we’re "cloning cultures to be like ours."

As a particularly pernicious example of technological intrusion into happy traditional life, Helena Norberg-Hodge, head of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, complained that Tibetan and Mongolian children are spurning traditional clothing and now crave Levi’s and running shoes. She is also displeased by the fact that after the introduction of the transistor radio in traditional Ladakhi society in India, people no longer sat around the fires and fields singing communal songs because they could now listen to professionally produced music from the cities.

Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi, warned the Teach-In participants that the technologies wielded by corporations threaten "liberation from our cultures, our communities, our rootedness." Which of course explains precisely why many people, especially in parts of the world that offer relatively few opportunities, embrace new technology -- the stuff is one way of possibly increasing their quality of life.

As much as the neo-Luddites might wish it otherwise, there simply is no other social and economic model of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty than what might be called democratic, technological capitalism. If one wants effective sanitation, improved medicine, a steady food supply, convenient transport, and cheap and easy communications, there is no alternative to technologically robust, market-based societies. To the arguable extent that countries worldwide are becoming more similar, it is not because corporations are imposing some uniform set of goods and services, but because human beings share a similar set of needs and wants.

Cultural diversity and cultural identity are routinely invoked by neo-Luddites, who insist that we must respect different cultures. That’s a view that proceeds directly from a belief in a universal set of human rights, including a right to self-determination. Yet, neo-Luddites deploy their ideas about diversity and identity in such a way that undermines respect for those rights, at least as they apply to individuals. People, they suggest, should not be able to "disrupt" their cultures through the adoption of new technologies that challenge the status quo.

As the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has written, the neo-Luddite insistence on maintaining or even exacerbating "authentic" cultural differences inevitably endangers liberty. "The notion of ‘cultural identity’ is dangerous," writes Vargas Llosa in the January/February 2001 issue of Foreign Policy. "From a social point of view, it represents merely a doubtful, artificial concept, but from a political point of view it threatens humanity’s most precious achievement: freedom." Why? "The concept of identity, when not employed on an exclusively individual scale, is inherently reductionist and dehumanizing, a collectivist and ideological abstraction of all that is original and creative in the human being, of all that has not been imposed by inheritance, geography, or social pressure," concludes Vargas Llosa.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that democracies tend to be technologically advanced, just as it is no accident that the end of slavery, universal suffrage, universal education, and women’s liberation all arose in highly technological societies. There have been precious few low-tech democracies since ancient Greece (and even Athens was a slaveholding society).

Despite neo-Luddite fears, the rise to near-ubiquity of tech-heavy democracies has been a boon to the people of the world. It is unquestionable that in political and material terms, life is a lot better for a lot more people than it was just a century ago. Universal suffrage, nonexistent at the beginning of the 20th century, is now the norm in 120 of the world’s 192 countries. Democracy, in other words, is now the norm for human societies for the first time in history. While the connections are complicated, technological progress and the wealth it creates help make political advances possible.

The same forces have also been driving up global life expectancies, that most basic indicator of well-being. Average global life expectancy in 1900 was just 30 years, today it has more than doubled to 66 years. Infant mortality rates are at historic lows in the developed world and continue to decline even in poor countries such as Bangladesh and Kenya. While average annual per capita income in those countries remains dreadfully low by U.S. standards -- in Bangladesh it’s $370 and in Kenya only $360, compared to $31,190 in the U.S. -- the trajectory of technology has indeed not been neutral. It has been an enormous gain for most of humanity.

The Teach-In progressives do make a salient point about one aspect of "corporate power" -- corporations are skillful players in whatever political system they find themselves. They typically evince little shame in supporting politicians who favor their interests. This fact annoys other interest groups in a democracy -- labor, say, or environmentalists, or even neo-Luddites -- because they would prefer not to have to compete for political favors. The problem is that all interest groups, whether farmers, corporations, or unions, seek to use a government’s power (and taxes) to further their goals at the expense of other people’s goals.

Of course, when corporations try to use the political process to obtain subsidies, or enact protectionist measures that harm consumers, they should be relentlessly opposed. But in the long run, if one wants to diminish corporate power, the easiest way to do it is to reduce government power, which is something definitely not on the neo-Luddites’ agenda. Indeed, their plans are predicated upon governments with far more sweeping powers than current ones possess.

Primal Scenes

As an alternative to what they see as a disastrous technological market culture, neo-Luddites turn to traditional and indigenous cultures as models for emulation. Jerry Mander asserted in a 1991 interview in The Sun, "Life really is better when you get off the technological-industrial wheel and conceive of some other way. It makes people happier." He more extensively propounded this idea in his 1992 book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations.

In 1995, Mander told an interviewer, "A little investigation of traditional native economies shows that people were able to survive in most parts of the world, certainly in the temperate zones, but even in the extreme zones, with very little work, maximum pleasure and fun, and minimum technology. ...They hung out. They flirted. They played a lot of music. They slept. They seemed to have a good time. They related. There was a lot of community life."

"As a species, human beings have more experience living wild, in hunter-gatherer bands, embedded in healthy ecosystems," agreed Stephanie Mills, an environmental activist and editor of Turning Away from Technology: A New Vision for the 21st Century.

Modern anthropologists have long been split down ideological lines between the Rousseauan and Hobbesian interpretation of primitive/indigenous lives. If one chooses to focus on how indigenous people spent their time, some traditional societies did not have to use a lot of effort to find and prepare food and shelter when times were good. However, they were not very resilient when things went wrong. When droughts occurred or the meat herds moved on or a neighboring group attacked, starvation and disease and rape and death were immediate prospects. Even during "good times" if one looks at the level of material existence, many traditional peoples lived in unimaginable squalor and filth, and were assaulted by disease, insects, and violence. They were embedded in rigid kin hierarchies and subject to enormous rates of infant mortality and death in childbirth. Their intellectual lives were restricted to their immediate landscapes, families, and neighbors. Archeologists believe that life expectancy at birth for primitive hunter-gatherers was 26 years. For early agricultural communities, it was even worse, just 19 years.

The neo-Luddite version of the cheerful primitive has more than a few echoes of earlier Romantic myths of the Noble Savage and the Happy Peasant. Hence, Mander claims, "Native societies sustained themselves successfully for thousands of years because they had developed a philosophical system rooted in their relationship to nature."

In fact, they just barely "sustained" themselves at all -- most people lived on the thin edge of poverty and one bad drought or bout of disease could wipe them and their families out. For most of our species’ existence, human beings realistically regarded nature as the source of great dangers and an uncertain livelihood.

As for the curious notion that primitive people were "embedded in healthy ecosystems," what do the neo-Luddites think happened to the big animals of Australia, North and South America, and New Zealand? The mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, giant armadillos, giant kangaroos, giant lizards, and giant moas all went extinct when primitive people showed up and started hunting them. It would be silly to hold our early ancestors responsible for the disappearance of hundreds of species just after the end of the last Ice Age -- after all, they were hungry. But surely it’s just as ridiculous to impose modern deep-ecology values on them and celebrate their supposed sensitivity to nature, much less laud them for "a philosophical system rooted in their relationship to nature."

The neo-Luddite commitment to a radical cultural relativism that privileges primitive, native, traditional, and indigenous cultures puts them in an awkward position because many such cultures practice -- or continue to practice -- customs which even the most sympathetic neo-Luddite must find odious.

Consider just the three great pre-Columbian civilizations. For the Aztecs, war was a way of life; they also annually ripped the hearts out of more than 50,000 victims in sacrifices to their bloody gods. Mayan city-states were governed by aristocratic warlords and priests who not only mutilated themselves in public ceremonies but who so devastated their natural environments that their whole civilization collapsed. The Incas assimilated conquered peoples into their culture and language by forcing them to resettle far from their native lands; in addition, their emperors awarded themselves 750 wives.

Today there are plenty of traditional practices that shock the conscience, such as female circumcision in Africa or India’s caste system that, according to Human Rights Watch, still oppresses some 160 million untouchables, one sixth of the country’s population. It’s hardly the case, as the neo-Luddites tend to assume, that indigenous cultures embody some form of pure morality lacking in more developed societies.

Local Yokels

A number of speakers at the Teach-In advocated intense "localism" as the best alternative to a cosmopolitan world. John Cavanagh of the leftist Institute for Policy Studies told participants that they should champion "small-scale activities, local markets, local communities, [and] livelihoods connected to local economic production," and fight for "rules that favor the local." Another speaker claimed that "localization and community building" would result in "an almost instantaneous cultural shift toward a richer and more joyous life."

The most extreme version of localism championed by neo-Luddites is a form of ecological feudalism called "bioregionalism." "Bioregionalism is the most sensible, natural framework for how to organize resources, economy and society. In my view that’s very workable," Jerry Mander said in a 1997 interview with the Webzine Cascadia Planet.

Teach-In speaker Kirkpatrick Sale is the godfather of bioregionalism. Sale defined a bioregion in a 1993 pamphlet based on a 1983 speech titled Mother of All: An Introduction to Bioregionalism. For him a bioregion is a "part of the earth’s surface whose rough boundaries are determined by natural rather than human dictates, distinguishable from other areas by attributes of flora, fauna, water, climate, soils and land forms, and the human settlements and cultures those attributes have given rise to."

The crucial feature of bioregional localism is that each bioregion must be completely self-sufficient, with no inter-regional trade allowed. "Just as nature does not depend on trade, does not create elaborate networks of continental dependency, so the bioregion would find all its needed resources -- for energy, food, shelter, clothing, craft, manufacture, luxury -- within its own environment."

Sale adds that a bioregional economy "would adapt its systems to the given bioregional resources: energy based on wind, for example, where nature called for that, or on wood, where that was appropriate, and food based on what the region itself -- particularly in its native, pre-agricultural state -- could grow." Again, no trade, not even in food.

The Pacific Northwest is a hotbed of bioregional thinking. Bioregionalists refer to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia as "Cascadia." What would happen if Cascadians were forced to subsist only on food native to the region? Wheat is not native to that bioregion, nor are apples, nor are potatoes (wheat comes from Mesopotamia, apples from central Asia, and potatoes from the Andes). Surely all those Microsoft and Boeing wage-slaves could not live off of the native salmon, whales, and roots and berries that supported the Northwest Pacific Coastal Indians before the coming of Europeans.

Neo-Luddites claim to celebrate cultural diversity. Sale explained what this means in a bioregional context. Rejecting Enlightenment dogmas such as political equality and democratic government, Sale writes in Mother of All, "Bioregional diversity means exactly that. It does not mean that every region of the Northeast or of North America or of the globe will build upon the values of democracy, equality, liberty, freedom, justice, and other suchlike ‘desiderata.’...It means rather that truly autonomous bioregions will likely go their own separate ways and end up with quite disparate political systems -- some democracies, no doubt, some direct, some representative, some federative, but undoubtedly all kinds of aristocracies, oligarchies, theocracies, principalities, margravates, duchies, and palatinates as well." In other words: Forward into the Past! And notice the one type of cultural diversity that is apparently not tolerated is a liberal commercial republic.

The appeal of bioregionalism helps explain why trade and free markets are anathema to neo-Luddites: Trade, after all, brings far-flung goods and people together, across "natural" boundaries. In his Teach-In comments, Sale referred to the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, as setting up the "next round of world rape." Protectionism is a priority item on the neo-Luddite agenda. Tom Clarke, the chair of the IFG Committee on Corporations, insists on the "right of any country to regulate inflow and outflow of goods and services." Vandana Shiva asserts, "A healthy society decides what it will export and import, just like healthy plants decide what they will take up and what they will release."

Neo-Luddites believe that if trade can be halted, then low-tech jobs in the developing world will not be threatened and there will be less ecological damage. They’re wrong on both counts.

In terms of jobs, they embrace wholeheartedly what’s known as the candlemaker fallacy: One must oppose electric lighting because it will put candlemakers out of business. The neo-Luddites point to chronic "underemployment" in the developing world. It’s true that many people there are "underemployed" in the sense that they do not have access to the machinery, the infrastructure, or even basic sanitation that would allow them to build better lives for themselves and their families. The causes for this sorry state of affairs are many, and corrupt authoritarian governments pursuing bad social and economic policies are at the top of the list. But it is certainly not the result of globalization or modernization of traditional methods of production.

To neo-Luddites, inefficiency creates more jobs -- just think how many more jobs there would be if bricks were still made by hand, clothes sewn by hand, coal mined by hand, and on and on. Neo-Luddites also believe that one has an unconditional right to continue one’s "livelihood" regardless of changed economic circumstances. Vandana Shiva is an especially strong proponent of protecting livelihoods from competition, arguing that if you were once a farmer, you have a right to remain one for your entire life. Similarly, if one’s family has produced cooking oil through small press mills for generations, then no one (especially not a corporation) should be allowed to sell cheaper, competing cooking oils.

There’s no question that technological progress and the expansion of markets do oblige people to change jobs and professions on a regular basis. But the result is hardly bleak: In the developed world, overall employment continues to go up, as do average wage rates and standards of living.

When it comes to sparing the natural world from human disturbance, trade and technology are in fact the environment’s best friends. In high-tech countries, forests are expanding, air and water pollution are abating, less land is being used for agriculture, and fertility rates are falling. It is in low-tech countries where poor people continue to cut down their forests for farmland, can’t afford pollution control measures, and have high fertility rates. Why? Poor people have more important things to worry about than environmental amenities. (Getting enough to eat is at the top of the list.)

The neo-Luddites are similarly mistaken when they implicate modern notions of private property in the destruction of the natural environment. What neo-Luddites fail to understand is that much of the ecological destruction they see occurs in open-access commons. Fisheries, tropical forests, airsheds, rivers, and lakes effectively belong to no one and are open to anyone. This means that everyone has incentive to take as much as possible of the common resource before others beat him to it. Yet neo-Luddites want to expand the commons.

"Air, genes, bulk water belong to the earth and no one has a right to profit from them," said the Institute for Policy Studies’ John Cavanagh. Vandana Shiva expresses a similar notion when she argues that property rights cause the "conversion from the abundance of life to the scarcity of the marketplace." This line of thinking descends from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality that, "You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!"

Yet if the global commons is expanded as the neo-Luddites hope, much more of the earth will look like the blasted, barren landscape of the Sahel. The Sahel is the once-productive savanna region south of the Sahara that has been devastated by overgrazing herds of the indigenous peoples who hold its pasturages in common. As troubling, trying to manage a commons via political means requires centralized authority administering increasingly detailed regulations, with a cadre of bureaucrats to monitor and enforce them. True decentralization is possible only by abolishing the commons, enclosing it, and assigning property rights to people. This harnesses the incentives of private property, which encourages people to protect and preserve their property. This has been done in the case of fisheries in New Zealand and Iceland. And private temperate forests are expanding in developed countries. Even the half-hearted sulfur dioxide emissions market in the United States has achieved remarkable reductions in air pollution. Between 1995 and 1999, for instance, emissions have fallen some 22 percent below federally set targets -- and at a cost more than 40 percent below the initial projections.

Inaction Plan

From what wellspring does the neo-Luddite hatred of modern technology flow? Though thoroughly secularized, neo-Luddites evince a yearning for a world filled with self-evident revelation. They imagine such a world existed in traditional cultures before they came in contact with the West. They hanker after a contemporary version of the medieval Great Chain of Being, in which everyone -- from the king to the meanest peasant -- had his or her place and did not doubt the rightness of the cosmic order.

Neo-Luddites believe that traditional, primitive cultures were more egalitarian. They’re generally right about that, but history shows that the truly egalitarian cultures are desperately impoverished ones. The neo-Luddites would evidently exchange what they regard as the tyranny of corporations and technology for the more amenable tyrannies of small-town life and of kinship obligations that low-tech living necessarily imposes.

To achieve those ends, the neo-Luddite movement is pursuing particular political action. First, they are organizing to stall any and all international negotiations over free trade agreements. "We must lobby for a moratorium or freeze on any new trade agreements or trade deregulation," declared Helena Norberg-Hodge of the International Society for Ecology and Culture.

Second, they are organizing to stop new technologies in their tracks, especially biotechnology and nanotechnology. Many speakers at the Teach-In wholeheartedly endorsed Sun Microsystem’s chief scientist Bill Joy’s call for humanity to relinquish biotech, nanotech, and robotics as simply too dangerous to use. Rich Hayes, coordinator of the Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies, demanded "an immediate global ban on human reproductive cloning, an immediate global ban on manipulating genes that we pass on to our children, and accountable and effective regulation of all other human genetic technologies."

Longtime anti-biotech fanatic Jeremy Rifkin called for "a strict global moratorium, no release of GMOs [genetically modified organisms] into the environment." Rifkin argued that "the gene pool is a shared commons which should be administered as a trust for all humanity." He would "prohibit any patents on genes, tissues, cells, organs, organisms," and advocates a global tax on human gene therapies and biotech drugs, the proceeds of which would be distributed to the developing world.

The neo-Luddites would like countries to adopt domestic bans on biotechnology and other suspect technologies. And they want countries to incorporate similar bans into international treaties. Already, in 1997, the General Conference of UNESCO adopted, unanimously and by acclamation, the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights which prohibits human reproductive cloning. Global taxes would be distributed by appropriate United Nations agencies. And as noted earlier, the neo-Luddites have already been successful in getting the precautionary principle incorporated in both the United Nations Biosafety Protocol and its new Persistent Organics Pollution Treaty.

"This is the big wrestling match of the 21st century," declared Rifkin. For once, the man who predicted in 1979 that the world was entering a "new age of scarcity" in which we would run out of resources such as oil and timber, and who in 1995 predicted that technological innovation would soon cause massive unemployment, is indisputably correct. The hopeful future of humanity freed from disease, disability, hunger, ignorance, poverty, and inequity depends on beating back the forces of neo-Luddite reaction that were assembled so successfully at the International Forum on Globalization’s Teach-In. The struggle for that future begins now.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • nfl jerseys||

    jckyhj

  • Labann||

    Commented on these issues several years ago in my book, Bike&Chain;, free on-line at...
    http://bike-n-chain.blogspot.com/

    Humanity wants neither frankensteins nor science moratoriums, rather a balanced approach to progress, which, in fact, demands even greater dedication than corporate profit motives.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement