Rebels Against the Future

Witnessing the birth of the global anti-technology movement


Two weeks ago at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, made a disturbing claim about the future. "Major anti-technology movements will be active in the U.S. and elsewhere by 2030," he predicted Unfortunately, Collins is off by 3 decades.

Indeed, I may have witnessed the birth of the global anti-technology movement at this past weekend's International Forum on Globalization's Teach-In on Technology and Globalization in New York City. Held at Hunter College on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the organizers said some 1,400 registrants attended the two-day meeting. The speakers included an all-star cast of technophobes and other rebels against the future, featuring proud self-declared luddites such as Kirkpatrick Sale, Jeremy Rifkin, Jerry Mander, Andrew Kimbrell, Paul Hawken, Pat Roy Mooney, Mae-Wan Ho, and Vandana Shiva.

If it's new, they hate it. What they fear and loathe most is biotechnology, but now some are beginning to train their sights on nanotechnology as well. The audience consisted mostly of grizzled veterans of the civil rights, peace, and environmental movements from the 1960s and 1970s with a smattering of earnest youngsters hailing from too-cool college campuses located in places like Vermont, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Whenever one of speakers revealed shocking truths about corporations (always invoked simply as they), the audience would murmur in horrified dismay: "They can move genes between species!" or "They are patenting genes!" or "They have 1,200 nanotech patents!" It seems that few of the attendees had bothered to read a paper for the past few years, so all this was news to them. "Progressives" they may call themselves, but they certainly haven't been keeping up with progress.

The goal of the Teach-In, according to conference organizer and IFG head Jerry Mander (best known for his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), is to "bring together the protest movement born in Seattle with the leading critics of technologies, luddites if you will." In this, Mander certainly succeeded.

So what are they afraid of? They generally fear "technology's symbiotic relationship with corporate power," according to Mander. He doesn't much care for the Internet because he thinks "it's facilitating the greatest centralization of unregulated corporate power in history." Besides the Internet, "now we have biotechnology and its younger sibling nanotechnology, which can potentially redesign nature from the atomic level up," declared Mander. "With these technologies, nothing will be outside of corporate control. They will achieve the full realization of a bionic society."

Neo-luddite and bioregionalist Kirkpatrick Sale warned that "electronic and genetic technologies are bound to have earth-shaking, even earth-shattering effects." He continued, "All you have to lose are your boxes—the boxes in your homes, on your desks, on your laps. We now know that they are all Pandora's boxes."

Randy Hayes, head of the Rainforest Action Network, decried biotech as the "most uncontrollable mass experiment the planet as ever seen." Rich Hayes, director of the Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies, fears that "the development and use of genetic technologies will irrevocably change human life and destabilize human identity and function." If that weren't bad enough, "most chillingly, as these technologies are being developed, a political and ideological movement is rising that celebrates the techno-eugenic posthuman future," warned Hayes. He specifically cited REASON magazine as being at the forefront of this pro-biotechnology movement.

"Computers are a colonizing technology," pronounced Chet Bowers, an adjunct professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Oregon. He further warned that "computers profoundly alter how we think and inevitably reduce our ability to understand nature and cultures other than our own." Bowers decried Hans Moravec's vision of the future in which people could download their consciousnesses into computers.

Pat Mooney, head of the Canadian Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) wowed a workshop of earnest "progressives" by painting a vision of the nanotechnological future that would make Eric Drexler, the godfather of nanotech and author The Engines of Creation proud. "Although it's a long way off, they are moving toward creating nano-assemblers that could manufacture anything," explained Mooney. "You could take materials from sewage, air, water, anything to build what you want."
He added, "Just read the White House press release from January 23 last year. It promises that nanotechnology could clean up the environment, end hunger, cure disease, and extend life. It's scary." Scary?

So what do they want to do? First and foremost, they want to organize. Nearly every speaker mentioned how important it was for so-called civil justice, environmental justice, green, peace, and other civil society groups to join together on an action program to control or halt progress in the development of all the derided technologies.

Specifically, Rich Hayes 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."

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.

Activist Stephanie Mills, who became famous when she announced as valedictorian of her class at Mills College in 1969 that the world was in such bad shape that she would not have children, demanded that society broadly adopt the "precautionary principle," the notion that before any new development in science and technology can be used, it must be shown to have no negative impact. Technology proponents "are still arguing against the sensible idea that new chemicals and new technologies should be presumed guilty until proven innocent," declared Mills. "No wonder there are luddites still among us," she added.

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. "How could any scientist prove that a biotech crop was completely safe without field trials which is what the precautionary principle would require?" he was asked. That's just fine, Teitel admitted, because "politically 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 explained. In other words, Lie to the public about what your real intentions are. Is that what he's teaching his philosophy students?

To stop the technological juggernaut they fear, the luddites at the Teach-In know that they must stop the global process of economic integration and the technological progress it encourages. Free trade is, of course, anathema. John Cavanagh, director of the far-left think tank the Institute for Policy Studies, says that economic policies and regulations should favor "small activities, local markets, local communities with livelihoods connected to local economic production." Sarah Anderson, also from IPS, warned that "online shopping is too easy and encourages overconsumption." Anderson worries that "the United States is using the allure of e-commerce to push developing countries into accepting the same old free market ideas." Jerry Mander actually recommended that countries return to the old import substitution model of economic development which bankrupted most of Africa and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.

"This is the big wrestling match of the 21st century," declared Rifkin.

For once, he's right. Whether wilfully or out of sheer ignorance, the congregants in Manhattan this past weekend dismiss any and all evidence that the human race has progressed over the past 100 years, much less the past 1,000; the longer life expectancies, higher standards of living, and cleaner environments that are everywhere becoming the rule and not the exception for the masses have seemingly made no impression (nor have the economic forces that make such things possible). The hopeful future of humanity freed from disease, disability, hunger, ignorance, poverty, and inequity depends on beating back the forces of know-nothing reaction such as those assembled at this weekend's Teach-In. The struggle for the future begins now.