Jan 2010

The genie's out of the bottle

A message was recently sent to an online group of which I’m a member. Dealing with numerous issues, the group has expanded beyond merely “energy resources” and now tends to cover the broader issue of sustainability. Recently one member (Pedro from Madrid) suggested — quite correctly in many ways — that the problem is “technology”. He writes:

… I am very much in line with Einstein, when he said “We can not solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” And it is clear that something went wrong, specially since we developed machines (technology) and started massive exploitation of cumulated fuel resources from the lithosphere. We should not expect that using technology “wisely” we are going to solve anything. Better use our brain to change the paradigm. That way of living is over, whether we like it or not.

Now, that particular Einstein line is often wheeled out in discussions about sustainability and technology. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time studying Einstein’s work, and has a great deal of respect for him both as a scientist and a philosopher, I’m the first to acknowledge that there’s a great truth within that quotation. However, I think it’s somewhat unlikely that he would have agreed with the conclusions that Pedro has drawn from his words. Certainly he wrote “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity” but he was also realistic about the likelihood of reversing this trend (at least without total collapse).

And such a total collapse (what’s known in sustainability circles as a “die-off”) was obviously unthinkable to Einstein. He wrote:

I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind […] Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: “Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?

Albert Einstein | Why Socialism?

Then later in that same essay, he writes

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed […] we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. […] technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time—which, looking back, seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.


Humanity clearly cannot continue along the same road we’ve been on for the past few centuries. We made a wrong turn at industrialisation (arguably even earlier; when we decided to take up agriculture) and desperately need to correct our course. But undoing the past is not an option. We can’t simply backtrack… return to pre-industrial pastoralism. Or return even further to a hunter-gatherer existence. I hardly need to explain why such options are unavailable to us. Perhaps if the planet got six and a half billion people lighter, such a course of action may be thinkable? But even then, it’s likely we’d just start the same process again.

Technology is a genie that won’t go back in the bottle. Are we to abandon electricity? What about the wheel? The plough? Sharp edges and lighting the dark places? Do we get rid of fire-making?

We’re tool-users, so the only option is to use technology more wisely. Perhaps Pedro is correct and this won’t “solve our problems”. Indeed, I’m rather sceptical that it will. But just like Einstein, I don’t see despair as an option. We should be seeking “a way out” of the mess we’ve created, even if the odds are stacked heavily against us.

We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility.Albert Einstein

Let’s consider two hypothetical scenarios. One: some kind of “technological wisdom” allowing us to harness some of our tools and ingenuity and reduce our collective impact on our ecology to sustainable levels. Two: sustainability through a wholesale abandonment of technological progress.

While Scenario One has — in my view — a miniscule chance of success, Scenario Two is simply a non-starter. To pursue the second at the expense of the first (which is the only way to pursue it) is to succumb to despair. To admit defeat.

The major problems we face are not technical per se. Realistically the world has enough engineers to deal with whatever technical challenges we do face. Rather, the problems that need to be urgently addressed involve how we, as a culture, view the world and behave within it. They are essentially problems of group psychodynamics (yes, yes, I know I sound like a broken record, but I wouldn’t have spent the past few years studying the subject if I didn’t think it was important).

We are discovering today that several of the premises which are deeply ingrained in our way of life are simply untrue and become pathogenic when implemented with modern technology.Gregory Bateson | Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization

The unfortunate reality is that we cannot go back. Certainly if we continue along our present destructive course we may well end up, greatly reduced in number, living in a world that resembles the past in some ways… an end to mass production, feudal political structures, and yes; a dramatic reduction in available technology. But so long as there’s still a handful of humans in this world, some of them will be sharpening sticks and lighting fires.

Abandoning technology is a pipe dream. Instead we need to use it more wisely (and likely, more sparingly). Einstein also wrote that technological progress was “like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal”. It seems beyond obvious that the long-term solution to such a situation is not to convince the guy to drop the axe for a while. The solution is to successfully treat the pathology.

Posted in: Opinion