John Steinbeck, Ted Kaczynski and the Appeal of Nostalgia

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I disagree with basically everything in this essay, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

I’ve recently been reading the collected writings of Theodore Kaczynski. I’m worried that it may change my life. […]

Here are the four premises with which he begins the book:

1. Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.
2. Only the collapse of modern technological civilization can avert disaster.
3. The political left is technological society’s first line of defense against revolution.
4. What is needed is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society

Kaczynski’s prose is sparse, and his arguments logical and unsentimental, as you might expect from a former mathematics professor with a degree from Harvard. I have a tendency toward sentimentality around these issues, so I appreciate his discipline. I’m about a third of the way through the book at the moment, and the way that the four arguments are being filled out is worryingly convincing.

Kingsnorth’s (and Kaczynski’s) argument is basically that the human species is destroying the planet, and that we as individuals may be powerless to stop it, but we’re obligated not to participate in it.

This is the progress trap. Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight.

Spencer Wells takes up the story in his book Pandora’s Seed, a revisionist history of the development of agriculture. The story we were all taught at school—or I was, anyway—is that humans “developed” or “invented” agriculture, because they were clever enough to see that it would form the basis of a better way of living than hunting and gathering. […]

Hunter-gatherers living during the Paleolithic period, between 30,000 and 9,000 BCE, were on average taller—and thus, by implication, healthier—than any people since, including people living in late twentieth-century America. Their median life span was higher than at any period for the next six thousand years, and their health, as estimated by measuring the pelvic inlet depth of their skeletons, appears to have been better, again, than at any period since—including the present day. This collapse in individual well-being was likely due to the fact that settled agricultural life is physically harder and more disease-ridden than the life of a shifting hunter-gatherer community.

So much for progress. But why in this case, Wells asks, would any community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The answer seems to be: not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had spelled the end of their hunting and gathering lifestyle by getting too good at it. They had killed off most of their prey and expanded their numbers beyond the point at which they could all survive. They had fallen into a progress trap.

We have been falling into them ever since.

I have such a kneejerk rejection of these kinds of arguments it’s practically an allergy. I happened to read Kingsnorth’s essay the same week I was read John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley‘, his road-trip diary from 1962, and this passage suddenly got relevant.

It is life at a peak of some kind of civilization. The restaurant accommodations, great scallops of counters with simulated leather stools, are as spotless as and not unlike the lavatories. Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic. The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands.[…]

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, that that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance.

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us.

The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.

I see Steinbeck as an example that even in the ‘Golden Era’ our current technophobes harken back to, critics at the time were harkening back even further. I want to snark that 10,000 years ago there was probably a middle-aged nomad complaining that things were better 10,030 years ago.

But Kingsnorth and his essay are smarter than that.

A scythe is an old tool, but it has changed through its millennia of existence, changed and adapted as surely as have the humans who wield it and the grasses it is designed to mow. Like a microchip or a combustion engine, it is a technology that has allowed us to manipulate and control our environment, and to accelerate the rate of that manipulation and control. A scythe, too, is a progress trap. But it is limited enough in its speed and application to allow that control to be exercised in a way that is understandable by, and accountable to, individual human beings. It is a compromise we can control, as much as we can ever control anything; a stage on the journey we can still understand.

There is always change, as a neo-environmentalist would happily tell you; but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and there is industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans. There is a manageable rate of evolution, and there is a chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine, flashing and scrolling like sirens in the gathering dusk.

Kingsnorth uses these observations as an excuse to withdraw, live off the soil, mow the grass with a scythe, unplug. For him, that’s living at a human scale.

But for other people, maybe living at human scale is spending more time plugged in. Maybe it’s making music and sharing it with your friends, maybe it’s using social media to organize events to meet your neighbors, maybe it’s (ahem) writing essays in magazines about the stuff you read and the stuff you think.

I’m not calling Kingsnorth a hypocrite. If he wants to go off-grid, escape the progress trap, if that makes him happy, he should. But I don’t think his premises, or even his doomsday ‘the planet is dying!’ prediction means we all should. This is the world we’ve got. Whether we got here through progress or a ‘progress trap’, here we are.

Steinbeck’s diary describes getting lost over and over again, and how most locals are terrible at giving directions. After awhile, he says, he doesn’t even ask how he should get where he’s going, he just asks them to tell him where he is.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “John Steinbeck, Ted Kaczynski and the Appeal of Nostalgia

  1. I liked this a lot. Good synergy of sources.

    Also to consider, the “humans are destroying the planet with technology” refrain puts humans outside of nature. I find that kind of grating. Army ants are destroying the soil. Dutch Elm Disease is destroying forests. It’s all just the way it works.

    Trying to avoid deletrious actions is admirable, but one has to acknowledge human technology as a consequence and part of evolution proper.

    Also also, giving it a label “trap” colors all your thinking about it. After awhile you’ll never see technology as a benefit, simply because you’re thinking about it as a hazard all the time.

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