Technological Utopianism – Why bad ideas cause very real environmental problems

“Nothing so obstinately stands in the way of all sorts of progress as pride of opinion. While nothing is so foolish and baseless.”

– J. G. Holland

Is science going to solve all the world’s problems? Can we continue engaging in practices which cause environmental damage and disregard our impact on the planet because ‘one day in the future’, through our technological brilliance, someone else will be able to fix it and all other problems? This is what the ideology of Technological Utopianism proposes, and it’s a more commonly held belief than many people would imagine. What do you think?

In my previous article “Do People Really Care about the Environment?” I identified various reasons why people don’t care about the environment and provided brief descriptions of each as an overview for basic understanding. One of the reasons identified why people don’t care for the environment is technological utopianism. In this article, we’ll look at this ideology in detail in the context of a cultural critique.

Will more knowledge lead to better decisions that will save the planet?

One of the main underlying assumptions of the ideology of technological utopianism, which is also a common assumption among scientists today, is that with an increase in knowledge (through science), people will be able to make the right decisions, and therefore engage in correct behaviour. Even if people don’t manage to do this in an absolute sense, the assumption is that they’ll move closer to that ideal, making better decisions and engaging in more positive behaviour.

That supposedly is the secret formula to a utopian society in some people’s minds. While this sounds really nice, it’s as idealistically puerile and naïve as a child’s imagined solution that if we all held hands and threw away all weapons, we’d automatically have permanent world peace.

Nothing is as unacademic as arguing from unstated and unproven assumptions, and unfortunately, the ideology of technological utopianism is loaded with them! It makes the mistake of oversimplifying human behaviour to something simplistic, predictable, and machine-like, which is consistent with the beliefs of secular materialists who basically see living things as mere machines. Ironically, when we look away from science-fiction to science-fact and look at what real world scientific research shows about how humans really behave, we actually see quite the opposite to these false assumptions.

The reality is that facts have no bearing on what people believe. Psychologists and cognitive scientists have identified the phenomenon of confirmation bias – people have the tendency to search for, interpret, recall, favour and assign more weight to information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs, preconceptions, prejudices and hypothesis, and they ignore or play down information that conflicts with their worldview.

Confirmation bias is more pronounced with deeply entrenched beliefs and emotionally charged issues, as was clearly shown in the research where the people’s ability to solve a mathematical problem declined significantly when the context of the mathematical calculation task was changed from ‘the effectiveness of skin cream’ to ‘the effectiveness of gun control’, while the underlying mathematical problem stayed the same in both cases.

This study was conducted In 2013, by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues Ellen Peters, Erica Cantrell Dawson, and Paul Slovic. They set out to address the question that has puzzled scientists – why isn’t good evidence more effective in resolving political debates? They found that when a question is framed in an emotionally charged political context, it clearly affected people’s reasoning ability in a negative way. [1]

Supporting these findings, research by the University of Alberta similarly found that people generally do not act on information on the effects of oil on the environment [2],

A study from the University of Iowa in 2015 found that once people reach a conclusion, they aren’t likely to change their minds, even when new information shows their initial belief is likely wrong and clinging to that belief costs real money. [3] Doesn’t this actually sound more familiar with our real-world experience?

Simply put, more facts will not cause people to change their minds, let alone their behaviour. More information, and therefore more science, will clearly not solve the world’s ecological and environmental problems. It hasn’t so far, and there’s no valid reason to believe that more of the same, a quantitative change, will produce a different outcome, a distinct qualitative change. This is clearly an unjustified logical leap in reasoning.

Are we really that civilised, objective and free of biased beliefs?

“Arrogance really comes from insecurity, and in the end, our feeling that we are bigger than others is really the flip side of our feeling that we are smaller than others.”
– Desmond Tutu

It’s amusing to hear modern day westerners claim “We’re intelligent, logical, rational modern people, we don’t believe in…blah blah blah… these days” We’ve probably heard it all before, and honestly, the western cultural mindset is a haughty, arrogant one indeed. This attitude goes hand-in-hand with the notion that we’re so brilliant that our superior intellects will save use through science and technology, as the old line goes, some day in the future.

This is a cultural critique, so I won’t beat around the bush here, let’s not delude ourselves about the kind of society we live in. In the Anglosphere, people of other cultures are looked down upon as stupid, ignorant, less intelligent and inferior – if that were not the case, then where does the inflated sense of cultural superiority come from? Rhetorical question maybe, an inconvenient truth, most definitely! As a case in point, consider the First People of America and Canada and Indigenous Australians. How have they been treated in the past, and how are they regarded in the present. Do we even consider their philosophies? How do we regard their spirituality? Let’s not deceive ourselves here.

Our societies are deeply troubled socially and psychologically, and this bias and prejudice is endemic within the Anglosphere even amongst each other. To those in denial, just take a look closer to home. We even see this phenomenon within our own societies’ subcultures, we don’t see a people united under any common belief, cause or alliance, what we do see is division and subdivision, ingroups and outgroups. Proof? One hard-to-accept example which won’t sit comfortably with those who identify with the ‘enlightened political left’ is how the middle-class supposedly political left-wing groups (worker’s parties anyone?) look down upon working class people with disdain and contempt.

We’ve seen this first hand in the US and Australian elections and ironically it is this action of the political left that has alienated a lot of the common working class and fuelled the rise of the new right in these nations. The simple lesson here is that bias creates ingroups and outgroups, and if you relegate a people to an outgroup, their support will also go elsewhere. This doesn’t quite fit the image our supposedly modern, clinically objective and rational society likes to prop up.

The tricks the human mind can play and the veil of deception that it can erect in spite of clear evidence is unbelievable. We now know that Indigenous Australians are the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth, which has been backed by the first extensive study of their DNA, which dates their origins to more than 50,000 years ago. [4]

According to Professor Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen, “Aboriginal Australians descend from the first human explorers. While the ancestors of Europeans and Asians were sitting somewhere in Africa or the Middle East, yet to explore their world further, the ancestors of Aboriginal Australians spread rapidly; the first modern humans traversing unknown territory in Asia and finally crossing the sea into Australia. It was a truly amazing journey that must have demanded exceptional survival skills and bravery.” [5]

The fact that indigenous Australians have had such a long-running society, shown exceptional survival skills, and have lived in a sustainable and harmonious way with their environment for tens of thousands of years, would suggest that they might know something useful and that we can learn from them. But no, we’re deluded into thinking we’re clearly superior because we have technology!

It’s a logical error to assume that technological progress equates with social progress, and ultimately wisdom. That’s really shaky ground to base intellectual pride and arrogance on.

Hank Wesselman, in his article which discussed Aboriginal philosophy [6] shares a passage from an anthology called “Shamanism: Expanded Views of Reality” edited by Shirley Nicholson (1987) and refers to a paper within it titled “The Dreamtime, Mysticism, and Liberation: Shamanism in Australia” authored by the Venerable E. Nandisvara Nayake Thero PhD, then the Chief Sanghanayaka of the Theravada Order of Buddhist monks in India, former professor of comparative religion at Madras University, as well as director of the Maha Bodhi Society of Sri Lanka and secretary general of the World Sangha Council.

In the paper, Dr. Nandisvara is reported as having returned from a research expedition with an anthropological team in Australia, where he had lived for some time with a native Aboriginal community, which he described as an extremely ancient race whose way of life of hunting and gathering had not substantially changed for perhaps 35,000 years.

In his report, he makes an extraordinary statement. “To those who judge the degree of (a) culture by the degree of (its) technological sophistication, the fact that the Australian natives live in the same fashion now as they did thousands of years ago may imply that they are uncivilized or uncultured. However, I would suggest that if (a) civilization be defined (by) the degree of polishing of an individual’s mind and the building of his or her character, and if that culture (reflects) the measure of our self-discipline as well as our level of consciousness, then the Australian Aboriginals are actually one of the most civilized and highly cultured peoples in the world today.”

If we measure our degree of civilization by our level of consciousness, the type of people and society that we are, things stack up quite differently. How do we treat members of our societies? What are our obligations to each other, our communities and the planet? Are the beliefs, values, and ideals that underpin modern western society inherently flawed? Is our technological progress gained at the expense of our social progress and the well-being of the planet? Can our societies survive for 50,000 years too like the indigenous Australian, or are the problems we’re seeing in our 200-year-old industrial societies the tip of the iceberg? So many questions, so little evidence for thinking we’re somehow better, let alone civilised.

Maybe, considering how we devalue life and people, and destroy our planet, it could be that we’re really just uncivilised savages with fancy machines… Not everyone sees things the way we do. They say that when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied that he thought it might be a good idea.

Do you see what I see?

Humans have the capacity to see only what they want to see, and the problem is even worse when they deny their subjectivity and pretend to be above their humanity, all so scientific and objective.

The notion that people have a ‘bias blind spot’, that they are less likely to detect bias in themselves than others, is well established. Research from Carnegie Mellon University into the phenomenon has revealed that believing that you are less biased than your peers has detrimental consequences on judgments and behaviours, such as accurately judging whether advice is useful. [7]

According to Irene Scopelliti, the lead author of the study and lecturer in marketing at City University London “Our research found that the extent to which one is blind to her own bias has important consequences for the quality of decision-making. People more prone to think they are less biased than others are less accurate at evaluating their abilities relative to the abilities of others, they listen less to others’ advice, and are less likely to learn from training that would help them make less biased judgments.”

Our society may engage in the collective delusions that we’re a culturally fair, proper, egalitarian modern society of logical rational beings supremely guided by pure reason, and not subject to the ‘superstitions and ignorance’ of our ancestors, but this is pure bunkum! The real science shows that we as humans are inherently subjective and biased, clinging to our deeply held belief, whatever they may be, and not listening or learning because of our biases.

What does this mean? Looking the ideology of technological utopianism from an evidence-based, objective, scientific perspective, all evidence emphatically suggests that the belief which this ideology rests on, that more knowledge will somehow save us, is a clearly false assumption, because people don’t change their minds or behaviour when presented with factual information, human nature is what it’s always been – subjective. The underlying error is that this ideology presupposes a model of human behaviour is which is plainly incorrect, and unsupported by science.

Let’s be reasonable here, if we already have all the information we need to know what’s damaging to the planet (which we do) and are capable of making decisions and acting on our knowledge to avoid destroying the planet, then the lack of information can’t be what’s holding us back, can it?
Maybe the solutions to the problems of our society are more likely to be found if we search for them, here and now, in the present. Ironically, we may never find the solutions we seek if we keep looking for them in the future!

Creating problems for the next generation to fix

Technological utopianism is very future oriented. “Sometime in the future, science will cure all diseases, solve world hunger, eliminate pollution…” and all other manner of miracles. Technological utopianism is a belief that future advances in science and technology will one day bring about a utopia, or at least help to fulfill one or another utopian ideal.

Based on this assumption, the ideology would have us believe that the current generation can carry on as they choose, causing all manner of damage to the environment and the planet, absolving themselves of any responsibility of cleaning up the mess they’re making – because someone else will fix it all up at some future time!

If we follow this ideology through to its logical conclusion, we find that this really just amounts to nothing more than a reckless plan for leaving future generations the legacy of irresponsibility, greed and overconsumption, which is basically a trashed, depleted and polluted planet.

Apart from being a poor excuse for not caring for our planet, technological utopianism is nothing more than a false belief, an irrational narrative that science and technology will solve all of our environmental issues, and all of our other problems too. It is also a very dangerous belief which suggests that for now, we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility for our planet because someone else will fix the problem at some unspecified point in the future, a point in time which never arrives because “sometime in the future” is always going to be out there somewhere, and never arrives. All this does is push an ever-growing problem further down the line to future generations until either a catastrophe occurs on a scientifically improbable miracle finally arrives.

A misplaced faith in the future

I introduced the concepts of confirmation bias and bias blind spot earlier for a reason. Cultural hypocrisy is an amusing concept. If we as a society pretend to be so logical, rational and objective, then why are we buying into the narrative of technological utopianism which is not only illogical, but it is also a faith-based secular belief unsupported by evidence? Critics rightfully claim that techno-utopianism wrongly equates social progress with scientific progress, and this irrational ‘belief in science’ is nothing more than the substitute pseudo-religion of scientism.

University of Alberta researcher Imre Szeman, who wrote “System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster” made the comment that “Technological utopianism is a very bizarre narrative because there’s no evidence of this fact… What it shows is the extent to which we place a lot of faith in narratives of progress and technology overcoming things, despite all evidence to the contrary.” [8]

When someone sits there claiming that science will solve this and that at some unspecified future date, the ‘science as saviour’ narrative as I call it, I might as well just be listening to a religious fanatic extolling their faith because that is all it is.

As the eminent scientist Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Obviously, we need to approach the problem with a different mindset to that which led to the creation of the problem in the first place.

Hubris and worship of the human intellect

There’s nothing magical about science and technology, technology is the understanding of how to do something, and science is an explanation of a physical world phenomenon, which may or may not help us do something. Miracles aren’t part of this scheme.

If we apply knowledge to bettering society, things may get better, but this is just human problem solving that existed long before ’science’ was created. It’s nothing special, most higher organisms are capable of solving problems to ensure the survival of their species. We’ve been laying on the hubris a bit too thick and indulging in a bit too much self-importance as a species. Exalting the human intellect to god=like status is folly, as is believing that the products of human intellect, that is, more technology equals a better society.

It is perfectly possibly to have technological progress and complete social collapse, as progress in one does not necessarily equate with progress in the other. This scenario is almost a cliché in the high-tech dystopias portrayed in science-fiction, and it makes you wonder why this theme is so prevalent. Is this a case of art imitating life, where storytellers are extrapolating the current activities, problems, and trends of the present and envisioning the likely future we’ll end up creating if we keep going down the same path?

An evidence-based look at what technology is really bringing to the modern world

Empty promises that science and technology will one day solve all our human ails and worries are faith-based statements to soothe the concerned minds of the secular devout and faithful who are in denial about their religiosity.

If we take an evidence-based look at the health trends in the most technologically advanced countries, what do we see?

In the draft paper by Richard Lear, “The Root Cause in the Dramatic Rise of Chronic Disease” we see some dramatic figures in regards to the rise of chronic diseases in the US.

According to the figures stated, we have seen unprecedented growth in a new class of chronic diseases in the US since 1990, these have virtually exploded in a single generation and fall into four categories – autoimmune, neurological, metabolic and inflammatory. Along with these, we’ve also witnessed a similar rise in psychiatric disorders and reproductive conditions such as infertility.

To quote the author directly: “While the major health threats of the 20th century: cardiovascular disease, infectious disease, and cancer, are barely growing, at least forty chronic diseases and disorders have more than doubled in the past generation. Many of these new age diseases weren’t even on our radar until the 1980’s.

In a single generation, there has been a dramatic acceleration* in the prevalence of diseases and disorders like autism (2094%), Alzheimer’s (299%), COPD (148%), diabetes (305%), sleep apnea (430%), celiac disease (1111%), ADHD (819%), asthma (142%), depression (280%), bipolar disease in youth (10833%), osteoarthritis (449%), lupus (787%), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD – 120%), chronic fatigue syndrome (11027%), fibromyalgia (7727%), multiple sclerosis (117%) and hypothyroidism (702%).

The values for these increases were derived from scientific literature; that they are over-precise is a given. These generational increases in prevalence are offered to convey a clearer picture of the spectacular increase in chronic disease.” [9]

The evidence here would suggest that matters aren’t under control at all, in fact, things may be getting worse, and the unprecedented explosion of autoimmune, neurological, metabolic and inflammatory diseases in a single generation may have something to do with the prevalence of and exposure to developmental neurotoxicant chemicals.

In a recent research paper “Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity” published in the medical journal, The Lancet Neurology, by Grandjean, Philippe et al. we find that industrial chemicals which injure the developing brain are among the known causes for this rise in prevalence of neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other cognitive impairments, which affect millions of children worldwide.

In 2006, the researchers identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene, and in further epidemiological studies since 2006, have documented six additional developmental neurotoxicants—manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

In case you’re wondering, fluoride is what is added to drinking water, and other studies have shown strong correlations between drinking water fluoride levels and the IQ of children. Chlorpyrifos is a common pesticide and polybrominated diphenyl ethers are flame retardants used in many consumer products.

The conclusion that the scientists drew from their research was that that even more neurotoxicants remain undiscovered, and to control the pandemic of developmental neurotoxicity, they proposed a global prevention strategy, where “Untested chemicals should not be presumed to be safe to brain development, and chemicals in existing use and all new chemicals must, therefore, be tested for developmental neurotoxicity.” [10] It may be important to point out that in the US, laws favour the chemical companies and their profits over the health of the general public, chemicals are presumed safe before testing!

The problems contain the seeds of the solutions

If we consider all the man-made threats to the planet and all the human activities that damage it, we realise that they have a single source of origin, the human mind, or more precisely, the destructive ideas that it spawns. It takes particular human mindset, that doesn’t respect life, to engage in irresponsible global destruction. Adding technology to the equation is not a solution as it does not change the nature of the human mind. Looking to technology to solve all our problems in the future is merely an excuse to carry on in the same way, on the path of destruction, deferring all responsibility to some mythical technological saviour.

Seeing the seeds of the solution in the problem, we realize that human thoughts can range from irresponsibly destructive to life-affirmingly constructive, and that we choose what we think, and how we act on our thoughts. If we want to change outcomes, we must change our mindset to one which seeks to live harmoniously with our fellow human beings, all other life and the planet itself.

Technological utopianism ignores the real problem by creating a pseudo-religion out of science, and offers empty faith in secular miracles. This is delusional at best, and a recipe for destruction at worst. What the evidence does show is that more technology without ethics and responsibility equates with more of the same, more problems. When our society is poisoning the developing brains of our children for corporate profits, it says a lot about the kind of society we are, and what values we hold.

Are we really civilised or just savages with fancy machines? Maybe those indigenous people knew something after all along about long-lasting, sustainable communities that exist in harmony with Nature and support their people’s welfare. If only we had the humility, we could ask them how.

References

1. Kahan, Dan M. and Peters, Ellen and Dawson, Erica Cantrell and Slovic, Paul, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government (September 3, 2013). Behavioural Public Policy, Forthcoming; Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2319992 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2319992

2. University of Alberta. “People generally do not act on information on the effects of oil on the environment.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 May 2010. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100528150833.htm

3. Michael Cipriano, Thomas S Gruca. The Power of Priors: How Confirmation Bias Impacts Market Prices. The Journal of Prediction Markets, November 2015 DOI: 10.5750/jpm.v8i3.974

University of Iowa. “See! I was right: people are reluctant to change their minds, even when facts don’t match what they believe.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 November 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151116143602.htm

4. Anders Bergström, Nano Nagle, Yuan Chen, Shane McCarthy, Martin O. Pollard, Qasim Ayub, Stephen Wilcox, Leah Wilcox, Roland A.H. van Oorschot, Peter McAllister, Lesley Williams, Yali Xue, R. John Mitchell, Chris Tyler-Smith. Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes. Current Biology, 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.01.028

5. 1.M. Rasmussen, X. Guo, Y. Wang, K. E. Lohmueller, S. Rasmussen, A. Albrechtsen, L. Skotte, S. Lindgreen, M. Metspalu, T. Jombart, T. Kivisild, W. Zhai, A. Eriksson, A. Manica, L. Orlando, F. De La Vega, S. Tridico, E. Metspalu, K. Nielsen, M. C. Avila-Arcos, J. V. Moreno-Mayar, C. Muller, J. Dortch, M. T. P. Gilbert, O. Lund, A. Wesolowska, M. Karmin, L. A. Weinert, B. Wang, J. Li, S. Tai, F. Xiao, T. Hanihara, G. van Driem, A. R. Jha, F.-X. Ricaut, P. de Knijff, A. B. Migliano, I. Gallego-Romero, K. Kristiansen, D. M. Lambert, S. Brunak, P. Forster, B. Brinkmann, O. Nehlich, M. Bunce, M. Richards, R. Gupta, C. D. Bustamante, A. Krogh, R. A. Foley, M. M. Lahr, F. Balloux, T. Sicheritz-Ponten, R. Villems, R. Nielsen, W. Jun, E. Willerslev. An Aboriginal Australian Genome Reveals Separate Human Dispersals into Asia. Science, 2011; DOI: 10.1126/science.1211177

6. Australian Aboriginal Wisdom, Hank Wesselman PhD. – April 6th, 2010

7. Irene Scopelliti, Carey K. Morewedge, Erin McCormick, H. Lauren Min, Sophie Lebrecht, Karim S. Kassam. Bias Blind Spot: Structure, Measurement, and Consequences. Management Science, 2015; 150424060229007 DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.2014.2096

8. Szeman et al. System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster. South Atlantic Quarterly, 2007; 106 (4): 805 DOI: 10.1215/00382876-2007-047

9. Richard Lear – The Root Cause in the Dramatic Rise of Chronic Disease, May 2016 (draft)

10. Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity, Grandjean, Philippe et al. The Lancet Neurology, Volume 13 , Issue 3 , 330 – 338

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2 thoughts on “Technological Utopianism – Why bad ideas cause very real environmental problems

  1. Very poorly written. Though interesting ideas. Good example of the emotional biases that said article is railjng against.

  2. Humans are strange and illogical creatures indeed…

    Whenever we see articles written from an emotive perspective, we hear critics complaining about a “lack of science” and journal references.

    When an article such as this, which is logically structured, and progresses in a step-wise fashion, unfolding scientific facts with ample research references, if it disagrees with the beliefs of some readers, we get an emotive response not backed up with facts. Oh well, that’s expected…

    Here’s a fact to ponder, no person, organisation, political affiliation or group has a complete monopoly on the truth. That being said, it follows that there is a chance that everyone holds some false beliefs.

    Only weak minds which are unable to accept the inherent uncertainty of life crave false security by desperately clinging to some unsubstantiated worldview which serves as a pathetic psychological crutch. They crave this flimsy guarantee to give them a sense of control over their environment, surroundings, fate and destiny, and it’s this same mindset that seeks to control and ‘improve’ Nature. How’s that working out for the Anglo world in terms of physical and psychological health, and the state of the environment? Check the latest research, it’s an eye opener!

    The evidence is clearly stated in this article, but then again, humans have a propensity to ignore the facts, cherry pick the science that agrees with their personal beliefs, and construct their own realities. Ultimately, the universe is entirely causal (otherwise science would be invalidated), and as such it follows that what people do now will determine what the planet will look like in the future. Time tests all human worldviews, and humanity builds a world from its beliefs, but there’s a catch – they get to make their bed, but they then must lie in it. Sweet dreams!

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