modern technology is a death cult

Industrial Technology is a Death Cult

Does modern technology serve us? Or do we serve it? Ben Warner asks who is in charge: the machines or us. For more on different types of their relation to the society, read this.

Industrial Technology is a Death Cult

by Ben Warner

Once upon a time our activities and our technology were available to all with almost no cost or negative impact. Starting a fire, moving from one place to another, making a place to live, were things every human could do without causing long term harm to living communities. Now they are restricted, expensive and life destroying. What was once human centred has become system centred.

Once upon a time we walked on Earth. Our feet were bare. We walked across the globe. Some of us made canoes and crossed the ocean. Now we use trains, cars, boats, and planes.

Once upon a time we told stories around the fire. Anyone could speak. Everyone could participate. Now we silently watch films, TV and Netflix.

What happened in between is the story of one group of humans, not the story of humanity. For thousands of years and for most of our brief time on Earth we walked and talked. We made bows, fire drills and baskets. These activities were things a human would learn how to do before they became an adult. They were made from local materials by the people who used them. When they were no longer useful, they were returned to Earth. We had a land-based existence. Everything and every being that helped to sustain us came from our local environment and was eventually, returned to it.

After thousands of years a new type of technology began to emerge.

Matches, transportation devices, concrete and steel are not freely available to every human and they destroy life. Now this type of technology dominates and is in the process of destroying Earth and life. Its strength will only last, as long as we believe its lies. It seems impenetrable but the things that make it strong are also its weaknesses. This technology appeared around the same time as cities and agriculture. The dominant narrative told us that it would make our lives better and easier, so we would have more time to do the things that made our life more fulfilling. Never mind that we were already doing them. It lied.

We do not have more spare time now, we have less. Our lives are not more fulfilling in fact there is an epidemic of suicide and depression. We can turn on the light with a flick of a switch. But first someone must mine, poison and destroy living communities to make electricity, lightbulbs and copper wire. The system creates infrastructure, builds houses, with all the social and environmental impacts that these things entail. Then individuals work for most of the day to pay for it all. With each level of convenience comes another layer of complexity.

With every bit of ‘freedom’ comes a new restriction.

The writer Lewis Mumford called this new type of technology Authoritarian. He distinguished it from Democratic technologies. This Authoritarian Technology said “I will be your servant. Your benevolent tool. I will make you the lords of nature.” But we are its slave. We are the tool of our own technology. The machines have taken over. Any human can learn how to make and use a fire drill with only the resources they might find in a living unmanaged forest. To make a box of matches you would need to mine the steel for an axe, make charcoal, make a forge, forge the axe, chop down a tree, cut the tree into matches, get ammonium phosphate, get paraffin, make card, turn the card into the box and you would still not be finished. Yet this type of technology emerged, and began to dictate the way we lived.

Without forced labour, mechanization, mass production, the work arm, the military army, the bureaucracy and specialized, standardized, replaceable, interdependent parts we could not have modern technology. Worse than this, it inevitably leads to the utterly insane and deplorable notion that the system itself must expand at whatever the eventual cost to life. It cannot exist without a hierarchy to control it and it never stops growing. But the elite will only remain in power while the system functions and you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet.

Walking Earth and telling stories requires only human energy, human skills and human direction.

They are fulfilling small scale, freely available activities that do not require bureaucracy, coercion or any kind of centralised system. Cars and films cannot be produced without physical coercion, machine energy and centralized political control. Given a real choice no human would work in a mine for the benefit of others in a distant culture. Films and cars cannot be made without mines. Yet they are made and their production turns living communities into dead commodities. Humans have become like dead machine too disconnected, driving, working, watching a screen.

Our activities used to take place in the same living communities as we derived our sustenance and resources from. The land we shared with others. Now we get our resources from heavily ‘managed ecosystems’ that are often many miles away from where we live. Most of us, especially white Western males, do not see the devastating consequences of our way of life. We do not directly experience the grief, death, and devastation it causes daily. This is an inevitable consequence of living in cities. It is a fundamental component of the Authoritarian technique. It does not have to be this way.

The system based on authoritarian technology is unstable, with no inner coherence.

One break in communication or in the chain of command and the machines fall apart. We make these links. We can unmake them too. A miner can strike and leave the coal in the ground. A train driver can refuse to drive the coal to the power station. An aboveground activist could block the gates to the power station. An underground activist could scale the fence and shutdown the power station. All it takes, all it has ever taken, is organisation and collective refusal or collective action. The system attempts to prohibit local autonomy, but we can and do create it. We have no reason at all to obey the elite. Their power is an irrational paranoid myth. They have no divinity and the only authority they have to govern is that which we give them. The truth is they are utterly corrupt and self-serving. The system functions because of our collective obedience. It will collapse the moment we all stop doing what it tells us to do.

When we all remember this, its power dissolves and we become free human beings once again. We can choose to serve this system or we can choose to serve each other and life. Our lives need not be uniformed, drilled and regimented. The Authoritarian technique tries to eliminate the whole human personality. Eventually it will exterminate the human race. This will only happen, if we allow it. Complete control over physical nature is impossible and should not be a purpose of existence.

Life on earth is being destroyed so humans can use, own and hoard technology that fails to make our lives more fulfilling. This is not the way it has to be or the way it should be. We should not have to apologise for being human. We need simply return to a land centred way of life and begin the regeneration of the living communities that sustain us. Our connections with each other, with land and with the living communities that sustain each other must be remembered, refreshed and cherished once again.

We just have to bring down industrial civilization first.

Ben Warner is a longtime guardian with DGR, a teacher, and an activist.

11 thoughts on “Industrial Technology is a Death Cult”

  1. Everything Warner says is true, but not convincing. And I came to it already convinced. And therein lies the problem. So long as technology causes more conveniences than hardships, the majority won’t accept the truth.

    Fifty or 60 years ago, I read that there was a tribe in Africa that sold fire to another tribe, which had never learned how to make fire. And we all know that long ago, there was a tribe that learned how to forge steel with fire, and sold that technology, too. Another tribe invented the wheel. And so on and so on.

    Today, we could not disseminate Warner’s ideas (nor yours or mine) widely enough to undermine the industrial system without technology. Pen and paper was a start. The printing press and wagon was a quantum leap beyond that. And now electricity, satellites, and the silicon chip make it possible for us to disseminate our ideas globally and instantaneously.

    I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. We know way too much to go back to the time when we didn’t know that what we know now will soon kill us and most of the life around us.

    Given that the brains of indigenous, non-tech peoples are about the same size as ours, I often wondered why one culture discovered the wheel and gunpowder, domesticated horses, and conquered the world (or believed it did), while the technology of others never got beyond flint arrowheads, bow strings, and the domestication of dogs. Both Thomas Jefferson and Chief Seattle had phenomenal brains. And yet one was a conqueror, while the other minded his own business, and remained true to the Earth.

    What limited the technology of one, but not the other? And why — when the wheel and gunpowder and horse people confronted the fire and arrowhead and dog people — did most of the latter fall in love with guns and horses, too, and use them to fight back against the former? And why did a few tribes resist technology almost totally?

    The answer appears to be the animist myth. When one band of enslaved West Africans was brought to the Americas to work for the Spanish, they rebelled, won their freedom, and returned entirely to their indigenous ways. Today those people (the Maroons) retain their beautifully primitive way of life in the nation of Suriname, where they and a handful of indigenous locals control the interior of the country to this day.

    They resisted technology to the point that ethnologists who want to study the lifestyle of pre-colonial West Africa do not study in West Africa, but in Suriname — the only place on Earth where that tranquil culture survives.

    The Maroons are animists, who believe that animals, plants, soil, rocks, and water have the same rights that we have. And if they violate those rights, they forfeit their own.

    It is a beautiful myth, and it obviously rests on firmer ground than the myth of our ancestors, who believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and that they, as its dominant species, must have been created by a man-like god, who gave them dominion over the Earth.

    Thus, the difference between President Jefferson’s culture and Chief Seattle’s comes down to arrogance and hubris versus acceptance and interdepend-ence. One of them believed the Earth belonged to him, while the other understood that he belonged to the Earth.

    The problem we are left with is that we can’t uninvent the wheel. The argument that a few of us have used Western knowledge and technology to figure out that Western knowledge and technology are wrong, almost certainly will not convince the majority until they learn the hard way that Western technology is killing us.

    Short of a cataclysm that wipes out most of humanity and forcibly returns us to hunting and gathering, the human majority is not going to concede that we’re just another animal, and live accordingly. We won’t abandon the wheel, eyeglasses, hammers and nails any more than the Lakota will give up spears and tipis, and the domestication of horses they adopted from the Spanish.

    Realistically speaking, the most primitive life I can imagine us returning to is one that retains such things as bicycles, eyeglasses, and oil lamps, where permaculture replaces industrial agriculture, and globalism gives way to whatever trade can be accomplished with horse-drawn wagons and sailboats.

    If climate change and a mass extinction make it apparent to a majority that industrial civilization isn’t the answer, we might accept that motors and electricity were the culprits, and stop there. But as Paul Ehrlich noted, that was a world of 700 million people, and Earth could not support more without turning to the industrial use of fossil fuels.

    And 700 million is a world we won’t get back to without our techno-madness triggering a die-off of more than 90% of the current population. Even if we accepted a global one-child policy, it would take 200 years to reach that level. And that’s 200 years we don’t have.

    As a result, I believe we’re preaching to the choir by arguing that we have to return to the Stone Age. We can’t show the way to a sustainable future by pointing to a prehistoric lifestyle that is only attainable by killing off 90% of humanity.

    Our best chance (and it’s a slim one) is not to argue for a Stone Age existence that requires a mass die-off, but to point back to the village lifestyles of 300 years ago, when books were at least being written, and there were people living to whom we have some historical relationship. And then demonstrate the necessity for creating an interdepend-ent culture, where one-child families are both necessary and desirable.

    Admittedly, modern concepts of elder care would be impossible to maintain in a culture with a declining population. And we would also have to accept the notion that when people become too old to take care of themselves, it’s time to die.

    Unthinkable as this seems, it was the norm among pre-industrial peoples in the Arctic, where elders accepted that when they could no longer participate in the acquisition or preparation of food, they were no longer members of the community, and were left on the ice to die. Today there are more loving ways to pass from this world. And most people would accept it gracefully, once it came to be see as a necessary part of the culture.

    In short, there’s no rosy scenario for going from unsustainable industries and an industrially-dependent population to one that is technically and numerically sustainable. But as our quickly ap-proaching disasters of climate change and mass starvation become realities, there are scenarios that are infinitely preferable to going down in flames, in a holocaust of our own making.

  2. @Mark Behrend
    There is no reason we can’t take actions that lead to both short-term solutions and long-term ones. I agree that we can’t see the changes we’d like anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean they can’t happen. Whether humans will wake up and grow up is the issue, and there’s no way to know whether that will happen.

    Your assessment that we don’t have 200 years to stop living so destructively seems correct. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a global one-child-family policy, and not just to reduce human population to 700 million, which is still far too many. Agriculture must also eventually be eliminated, but with incremental change this will almost certainly take thousands of years. However, it should remain our goal.

    Of course there are less harmful ways to live than the totally harmful ways that we live now, and I fully support the changes you advocate. But our goal must be to get down to a human population that lives in balance with the Earth and its ecosystems (how many people could live on Earth if they could only live on surface water and by hunting and gathering, for example?). Mining and killing of trees needs to be stopped ASAP, but those things aren’t going to happen in anywhere near our lifetimes.

    Just because things look difficult doesn’t mean they can’t be accomplished. Keep advocating for what’s needed, and don’t lower your demands just because things look so bleak.

  3. I am grateful for this exchange of ideas among like minded folks. Like you folks, I see all of the inherent problems of technology ruling us, and us thinking we rule the world.

    Like you I keep coming back to the fundamentals mentioned above. Nobody is volunteering to die off, not me either. The vast amount of humanity wants more not less. The pathways to sustainability aren’t going to be followed except by some indigenous folks and a few hard headed, like minded folks. As such we are the Cassandras shouting about the fire that we see that the vast majority would rather ignore in favor of their own comfort. And nobody is interested in going back to time where we don’t have some control of disease. I get it. I would be dead twice over if not for emergency medical services.

    So….. then what can we do that is constructive and not crazy making to ourselves? I know some personal answers, and I’m not seeing big answers any better than the “Green New Deal” (which we know isn’t really a sustainable answer) that more than a few people will ascribe to.

  4. @Andy Weatherly
    No one here advocated killing anyone. Population is lowered by birth control, not by killing people. Yours is a typical knee-jerk response to anyone sanely and correctly advocating for lower human population.

    As to not being willing to live a lot more simply and naturally: THAT’s the problem, and that’s what needs to change. If humans are unwilling to live within natural limits, which they have temporarily managed to circumvent (starting with agriculture 10-12,000 years ago), then they don’t deserve to be here and they won’t eventually. The average lifetime of a species is 1-2 million years, and humans will die out well before that if they don’t greatly lower their population and return to living a lot more simply and naturally. Even more important is that humans are wrecking habitats and even entire ecosystems, killing other entire species, and polluting every inch of the planet, destroying the natural climate balance, and acidifying the oceans, just to name some human-caused harms off the top of my head.

    A much better way to look at this is to stop obsessing on things like unnaturally and very harmfully manipulating the physical/natural world and on how long you live — we all live the same amount: one lifetime — and instead focus on wisdom, empathy (for the Earth and everything natural on it, not just humans), and expanding our consciousness. The latter is the only legitimate role for humans on this planet, but I don’t just mean sitting around and meditating, though people should do that too. There are many ways to expand consciousness in addition to mental exercises like meditation and astral projection: music, poetry, all art in any form, reading, playing sports, etc. But that’s where human focus should be, and a few cultures have done that (see some of the Aboriginal cultures in Australia, which contain the most advanced people on Earth, for example, ).

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Modern humans need to grow up and deal with this fact. Either lower the population by a lot and start living a lot more simply and naturally, or continue destroying the planet with your overpopulation, overconsumption, and living out of balance with the Earth and everything else here. There is no magical technological solution that would allow any other choice. It’s too bad that humans have such a highly developed sense of self-consciousness, because that sense caused them to obsess on themselves instead of living in balance with everything else. We need to overcome this great defect in our personalities!

    To be clear, I’m talking about very long-term goals here. I don’t expect most people to be heroes or martyrs, because they’re not. But everyone can make an effort and make incremental changes, like limiting one’s family to one child, organizing one’s life so that one doesn’t have to drive regularly and giving up one’s car, buying only local organic produce, etc. We could eliminate industrial living in 150-200 years, and agriculture in about 5,000 years if people were to make an effort and make incremental changes. If they don’t, humans will continue their destruction of the planet until it becomes unlivable for the majority of life now here.

  5. Thank you, Jeff. Yeah, those are all conclusions, answers, and results that I have reached while continuing to scope for answers. Which is to say that it looks like humans are choosing for our species to mosey on. I keep looking around to see if somebody else sees something I missed in this equation. Meanwhile I’ll keep on school teaching, writing poetry, and digging deeper into my connections with the natural world. Best!

  6. I’ve tried for a couple of years to get some of our radical thinking into mainstream newspapers, and have been predictably and consistently ignored.

    As an experiment, I tried dialing it back this week, writing something only a bit more radical than the Green New Deal, and submitting it to an editor who’s already well aware of my radical views. And, to my surprise, he bought it enthusiastically.

    I was responding to a columnist who’s pushing high-speed trains, as a way to reduce domestic flights and automobile use. My suggestions went well beyond hers, but nothing at all radical:
    • personal mileage quotas that would sharply limit auto and airline use,
    • a 50% duty on the import and export of anything that could be produced in the country of end use,
    • and a global push to plant four trillion trees within two years.

    That kind of success is both frustrating and encouraging — frustrating, because it doesn’t address the root problem of long-term sustainability; encouraging, because it could limit climate change, and because it reflects a mainstream willingness to at least consider limiting globalization, and having less instead of more.

    Anyway, it forced me to ask myself this question:
    Do we achieve more by pushing for true sustainability and being ignored?
    Or should we introduce the concept of having less in a way that at least opens people to the concept, and hope to lead them toward more radical thinking from there — i.e., “If this works, wouldn’t that work even better?”

  7. @Mark Behrend
    Good question Mark. I suppose that less radical that people are willing to at least consider is fine as long as you always keep the ultimate goal in mind and keep pushing for it also. The danger in advocating the less radical actions is that you’ll lose sight of the ultimate goal.

  8. @Mark and @Jeff Another danger is that you’ll advocate for things that continue to harm the natural world, and give us the illusion we’re actually doing something real when we’re not, which may prevent us from taking the action we really need to take to stop the destruction. Reducing travel is great; but does success at limiting your travel by 50% keep you from stopping travel completely? Planting four trillion trees is hugely problematic if it’s not done right; most tree planting schemes are not done right. People go out and plant trees, thinking they are making a positive difference, and don’t realize they’ve actually done more harm than good in many cases.

    This is the big problem I have with renewables; the false promise of renewables is preventing people from taking more real and dramatic action to reduce consumption, travel, and work towards completely changing our lives. I have a friend who travels 2-4 times per year internationally to work with renewable energy projects in Thailand. How does this solve the problem? It doesn’t, but it gives the illusion that she’s working on a solution.

  9. @Elisabeth
    I agree, which is why I said that we always need to keep our goals in mind an never stop advocating for them, even if we advocate for minor changes now. Keep in mind that my goals — I don’t want to ascribe them to anyone else, though I firmly believe that the Earth and all that live here would agree with me — are very long term, because it’s neither realistic nor logistically possible to achieve them now or even in the near future. Humans didn’t cause this mess overnight (in human terms, geologically it WAS overnight), and we’re not getting out of it overnight either. Incremental changes are all we can hope for, because people are not going to voluntarily give up modern conveniences and lifestyles all at once — it’s very difficult to convince them to even make small/incremental positive changes — and because, despite DGR’s fantasy, it’s simply not possible for a tiny army of us to take down industrial society.

    Notice that neither Mark nor I advocated for a Green New Deal. Less harm is always not as bad as more harm, even though it’s not good enough. But as to whether changing technologies would cause more or less destruction, or would not substantially change things at all, is unknown because no one has studied this.

    While I agree with Planet of the Humans and DGR that without greatly reducing consumption (and population, which DGR refuses to acknowledge is a fundamental and major problem) all else is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, no one knows for a fact whether a switch from, say, coal, natural gas, and nukes, to rooftop solar panels would be more harmful, less harmful, or the same. No studies have been done regarding this issue, and there is a lot to consider here (mining for solar panels and all the other harms associated with them, compared to mining for coal, fracking for gas, and all the problems with nukes, added to the emissions and spills from those sources in addition to other problems like refining and creating plutonium from uranium). Making an unsubstantiated claim that a Green New Deal would cause more harm doesn’t make it so, you need a major study to know the truth about this, and I therefore have no opinion on it one way or the other. We all agree that it won’t solve the problem, the issue is would that change buy us some time.

  10. One big problem with that approach is that so far renewables are not replacing fossil fuels but rather adding more energy that gets used in addition to, not instead of fossil fuels, and growth in energy demand is far outstripping renewables added to the mix. As long as we focus on technologies rather than on reduction we will continue to exacerbate the problem, and avoid doing the hard work of changing how we live on this planet. I think it should be obvious at this point that “buying time” will fail. We’ve known since the mid 20th century where this was all heading and we did nothing. Why would it be any different now?

  11. @Elisabeth
    I agree. You seem to think that I’m advocating for things for which I’m not. For example, I said that in order to have a chance at buying time, we need to “switch” from fossil fuels to things like rooftop solar. I saw Planet of the Humans too, and I fully realize that we are NOT switching, just adding more power, which is not helpful at all. But that’s not what I said and not what I’m talking about. Another example is that you seem to think that I’m focused on technologies, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I hate technology, it’s the tool that humans use to destroy the planet and all life on it (I’m not talking about the very broad definition of “technology,” but instead about human technology that’s been created since the start of agriculture).

    Read my posts here: I always say that the roots of these problems are overpopulation and overconsumption, the latter including consuming things we should not be like fossil fuels, trees, and farmed meat. My goal is for humans to eventually return to living as pre-industrial hunter-gatherers in much smaller numbers. Anyone who thinks that ANY technology would do anything positive for the natural environment or anything living there is delusional or totally misinformed. But that said, some technologies are worse than others, and while we transition away from all technology, we should focus on eliminating the most harmful ones. The issue is, considering the infrastructure already in place, which technologies are more harmful at this point?

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