Twenty Years Ago Today …

… the following words were simultaneously published in both the Washington Post and The New York Times.

1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster
for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of
those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have
destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected
human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological
suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have
inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued
development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly
subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage
on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social
disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased
physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.

2. The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break
down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of
physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a
long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of
permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to
engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine. Furthermore,
if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is
no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from
depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

3. If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very
painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the
results of its breakdown will be …

These were scary words then, and they are scary words now.

They were scary words then because they were the first three paragraphs of the Unabomber‘s manifesto — a former mathematician and Professor who engaged in a nationwide bombing campaign against people involved with modern technology where he planted or mailed numerous homemade bombs that were encased in or disguised as wood as to fool people as to the package’s contents.

And they are scary words now because while much of the manifesto is arguable, these paragraphs have an unnervingly truthful ring to them (which fades as the reader works further into the manifesto, but is there in the beginning).

1. While the industrial revolution has been a great boon for the first world countries, the third world countries have suffered. Consider our recent post on Societal Damnation 48: Worker’s Rights which exemplified the (sometimes abysmally) poor working conditions overseas that often lead to suicide and death on a regular basis. It’s bad enough that people in these poor countries still have to contend with yellow fever and malaria, two pandemics that annually kill hundreds of thousands of people, but they sometimes have to risk their lives everyday just to put food in their mouths and the mouths of their children.

2. Global Warming is increasing. And the occurrence of natural disasters due to the resulting changes in weather patterns is increasing as well. Droughts. Fires. Hurricanes. Tsunamis. They are getting worse and more frequent.

3. Continued development and utilization of technology in an uncontrolled*1 manner will worsen the situation as it has always done.

4. The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. We’ve seen rumblings of failure on a massive scale with recent failures of big automative companies that required big bailouts to prevent what was projected to be even bigger failures. With the return of inflation and a slowdown in global growth, we can see a breaking point. That doesn’t mean we’ll ever hit the breaking point, but it does mean that our system is not perfect.

5. If the system breaks down, the fallout will be severe and painful in first and third world countries. And the bigger a system gets before it fails, the worse the consequences.

As tempted as we are to push aside and forget the ramblings of a serial killer and a terrorist, we have to remember that despite his very misguided views, he was still a very smart man with an IQ of 167 who saw some of the harsh realities of the world for what they were. (Unfortunately, he did not see the right way of addressing them.)

I. Technology on its own is not good (or bad). It is only how it is used that determines whether it is good or bad, so we have to use it wisely.

II. If we do not replace what we take from nature, we will continue to deplete the environment, possibly to a point where it can no longer sustain us.

III. If we continue to harm the environment, it will harm us back. Nature is a delicate balance, and the more we disrupt it, the more it will disrupt us with natural disasters of unprecedented levels.

IV. If we continue to march forward like there is no limit to economic growth, we may push the system over the edge. If population growth is 1% per year, it is foolish to expect that economies can continue to grow at 4%, 6%, 8% or more per year. Simply foolish. And trying to force the system to grow at an unsustainable rate could break it.

V. If the system breaks, we go from being damned to being dead.

We don’t have the answers here at SI, but we do know that the problems will never be solved if they are ignored. And we do know that:

a. We can do our best to make sure that each application of technology is for a greater good (and not just implemented for technology’s sake).

b. We can continue to research and invest in renewable resources and product designs that use renewable resources.

c. We can build factories that use cleaner production processes, trap particulates, and filter wastewater for dangerous contaminants before such water is pumped back into streams and rivers.

d. We can create realistic growth projections and be happy when we reach them, rather than create unrealistic projections that force us to manipulate the books, steal marketshare by any means necessary, or use a supply chain likely powered by slave labour to make the numbers.

e. We can design a sustainable system rather than one with a limited lifespan.

And if we take it one step at a time, there’s no reason that the overall global situation can’t improve over time, leaving future generations to wonder how there could ever have existed a world like the one described by Mr. Kaczynski which pushed him, and other eco-terrorists, over the edge.

*1 This is one thing Mr. Kaczynski got wrong. Not all technology is bad. Most technology is neither good nor bad, it’s whether it is used or abused. Hence his claim that the continued development of technology will worsen the situation is wrong in its unqualified form.