Ecology and technology: are we experiencing a shift from technophobia to technophilia?

Écologie et technologie : de la technophobie à la technophilie
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From technophobia to technophilia

Is technophobia a characteristic of ecological awareness and of the first environmental movements? Rather than merely stating that these terms oppose each other, it is necessary to consider the relationship with technology as a tension that has polarized ecology from the outset. This tension has organized itself in different forms in different countries, fluctuating between technophobia and technophilia, and over the course of two centuries shifting towards the latter.

The 'machine in the garden': the industrial revolution and the destruction of nature

Technophobia appeared with the Industrial Revolution when machines were said to be responsible for a form of alienation from nature, while at the same time creating the image of archaic ways of working in harmony with the environment. Workers have contributed to this interpretation from the time of the Luddite movement involving the destruction of machinery, which began in the UK in 1811-1812 (Jarrige, 2009). The early texts of Marx described the way in which the alienation of people from work (through capital and ownership of the means of production) stemmed from a previous alienation of humanity from nature, caused by the rupture of metabolic exchange between humans and nature, a direct relationship that was now mediated by machines or cities.

The relationship between technophobia and ecology appears more clearly at the birth of environmentalism as an organized movement at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States, i.e. conservation policies, marked by the convergence between the elites, scientists and the State. In this context, the ideal of wilderness, that of an unspoilt and wild nature, was built on the model of Eden, a disappearing paradise that should be preserved. Yosemite's 'cathedrals of nature', described by John Muir, a tireless promoter of conservation policies, are the opposite of the city, where technology triumphs. Literature, especially Melville, Hawthorne and Emerson, thematized the Machine in the Garden (Marx, 1964) because technological progress was seen as the dramatic eruption of machines in the landscapes of the US that had hitherto been preserved. In fact, and for a long time, technology-mediated human labour was considered by environmentalist movements as a factor in the destruction of nature, this world that humans had not created, which designate a form of physicality that is external to human societies (White, 1995).

From that founding moment onwards, there was, however, no clear division between these opposing sides. This critique of technology derives from those who benefit from it and who are its main stakeholders. Indeed, in what constitutes one of the more ironic paradoxes of the wilderness, it is urban elites, due to their increasing remoteness from a daily contact with nature, that have developed an ideal vision of nature and who have fought for the conservation measures that constitute the roots of ecology. Some controversies, such as the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913 following the implementation of the dam project to supply San Francisco with water, showed that the pre-environmental movement era was divided between radical advocates of pristine nature and those who wanted preservation but with an opening for the rational use of technology for human well-being. In Europe, this supposed contrast between technophobes/environmentalists and technophiles/optimists is also questionable, for example during the development of the chemical industry, of gas lighting in nineteenth century London and of steam engines, the impact of technology on the environment was emphasized by the technophiles themselves. Moreover, these negative effects of industrialization were made ​​acceptable by disinhibiting devices, a paradoxical effect of regulatory procedures and expertise, and the shift from environmental to social, making the working classes morally responsible for the health problems they suffered (Fressoz, 2012).

Cold-war industrial capitalism and the rise of techno-scientific controversies worldwide

After World War II, the relationship between ecology and technology was reformulated, based on developments initiated between the two wars, but particularly fuelled by a context marked by the atomic bomb, the Cold War and the arms race, the spread of the consumerism (and the first airing of doubts about such a society), decolonization and the emergence of a multipolar world. Globalization in the environmental field promoted the export of the US idea of wilderness, through international associations for the protection of nature, even if sensitivities varied between countries and particularly between environmental movements.

In the US, the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's, Silent Spring, marked the birth of mass movements, emanating from a condemnation of the effects of the pesticide industry, particularly DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). Ecological destruction was presented as a consequence of the human desire to conquer nature, and the criticism of technology took up a core tenet in the criticism of the capitalist system, a system that causes its own downfall. It was the 1960s that saw the first criticisms of a societal model that excluded a proportion of Americans, and of the fact that material improvements - synthetic revolution, sprawling suburbs, abundant energy - came at a high environmental cost and had a high impact on health. This view was typically expounded by a growing university-educated white collar class, who were sensitive to environmental arguments and for reasons of an improved quality of life, moved away from city centres, promoted recreational sports and the protection of nature. Inspired by the anti-Vietnam movement, the first Earth Day in 1970 was strongly marked by this type of criticism regarding the destructive effects of technology. Ecological awareness began to be structured around a number of high profile technological accidents, such as the 1967 Torrey Canyon oil spill and the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. In 1971, the Keep America Beautiful organization launched its 'Crying Indian' campaign which promoted a westernized figure of the ecological Indian, living in harmony with nature because he does not exploit it, conjuring up the archaic and romantic image of work. The traditional conservation movement and its new modes of protest, which were more democratic, then joined forces. Nuclear disaster served as a matrix for the representation of the ecological crisis, helping to establish the identifying link between ecology and the rejection of nuclear power (Greenpeace was founded in 1971 to mobilize against nuclear power). In 1972, The Ecologist magazine predicted the collapse of society and Earth by the end of the century, in the same year as the Club of Rome published its famous Limits to Growth report, which recommended limiting the growth of the industrial machine, the population and agriculture.

France had a different outlook, one that according to Michael Bess could be called 'light green'. Indeed, post-WWII France was attached to nuclear power and rural landscapes, there was pride in the TGV (the French high-speed electric passenger train) and in the nation's farmers and the country was sensitive to the environment but hostile to ecology (Bess, 2011). After the war, the idea of a bright, progressive, technocratic and scientific future transcended the political divide, uniting Gaullists, Communists and Christian Democrats (Frost, 1991). However, new ecological trends were heavily critical of technology. Since the 1930s, the French personalist movement, incarnated by Bernard Charbonneau, has questioned the rapid development of machinery, the rationalization of work and social life, and the deep transformations induced by technical progress: is cold material sterilizing the spirit? Are the gains to humanity in terms of material well-being obtained at the cost of liberty? All of these concerns were revived after 1945 by a new source of anxiety triggered by the use of the nuclear bomb and the effects of war on science and the State. This situation was exemplified by the mathematician Alexandre Grothendieck, recipient of the Fields Medal in 1966 and considered one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century: he abandoned his scientific activities in the name of ecology and strongly opposed the use of science by the military. In La technique ou l'enjeu du siècle (1954)

The Technological Society. Trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf, 1964.

, Jacques Ellul claimed that the nature of technology changed in the early twentieth century, by seeking efficiency at all costs, replacing the ends by the means in an autonomous movement, which self-generates and accelerates without any possible human control.

At the time of their formation, environmental groups campaigned to protect nature conservation from the extension of industry, the modification of landscapes and the exploitation of natural resources. Such positions led them to denigrate technological advances. In the late twentieth century, a new hope arose for the development of technological innovations that would reduce the impact of human life on the environment.

Beyond the irrelevant opposition between technology and ecology

How have we reached this turning point from technophobia to technophilia? The first impetus has come from a new type of environmental, global and climatic threat, which can only be understood through the use of modelling and very complex scientific theories: thus, the enemy of ecology becomes the enemy of science, the ignorant one. A second impetus derives from the internationalization of environmental issues and the provincialization of the West, as a result of globalization: the opposition between technology and ecology makes no sense in other cultural contexts, especially in India where the environmentalism of those living in poverty chimes with inexpensive and diffusible technical solutions. The figure of the engineer covers very different realities in different countries and it is striking that, in India, two of the institutions that have the most influence over the environment, but in its social dimension, were founded by engineers, linking technology and local traditions: the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) founded by the Tata Group in 1974 and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) founded by Anil Agarwal in 1980. The third stimulus relates to the ecological potential of new technologies: without going as far as geoengineering, which is probably only the modern face of a very nineteenth century technophilia (Hamilton, 2013), digital technologies have opened new opportunities for reducing our impact on the planet, in spite of their energy consumption.

Moreover, talk of a turning point is misplaced because tension is present, within ecological theories and movements, between good and bad techniques, or rather between types of determination that vary between techniques (Ecologie et Politique, 2012). According to André Gorz, technology is part of the rationale of capitalist accumulation and its negative effects, but it can also serve to move away from nature and to affirm one's freedom. Two types of ecological awareness result. One is rather sensitive to the potentially liberating role of technology, such as solar energy, information technology and clean tech. The other, conversely, promotes a radical criticism of technology, which can lead to the reactivation of the Luddite tradition. Each of these positions engages with different political models on issues of decentralization, democracy, relations with local people and their knowledge. Today's mobilization against energy (nuclear, dams, oil), water management (irrigation), transport (rail, TGV) as well as GMOs and nanotechnologies, show that the technophobe perspective remains strong. Criticism of technology is also made in the name of science, since knowledge today is spread across a multitude of places and no longer remains the preserve of experts. The heritage value of the environment, which is one form of the memory obsession of Western societies, also includes an implied criticism of technology by the isolation of an ideal state prior to technological influence and by freezing these places in a stationary time.

From technophobia to technophilia

At the time of their formation, environmental groups campaigned to protect nature conservation from the extension of industry, the modification of landscapes and the exploitation of natural resources. Such positions led them to denigrate technological advances. In the late twentieth century, a new hope arose for the development of technological innovations that would reduce the impact of human life on the environment.
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