October 28, 2016

Technology – a false religion

Review of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences by Edward Tenner. Fourth Estate Limited, London 1996; 346pp, ISBN 1 85702-560-1.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 28 No. 5, September–October 1998.

The most fundamental tenet of what is, in effect, the religion of modern Man, is that science and technology (with a little help from industry) can solve all the problems that confront us, such as poverty, unem­ployment, disease, malnutrition, crime and delinquency, and create a veritable material paradise on Earth.

This being so, Edward Tenner’s book is truly blasphemous. Its thesis is that our technological efforts to manage the world of living things are not working out too well. At first they may seem magically successful, but then comes what Tenner calls their “revenge effect”, which at best transforms acute problems into chronic ones, at worst gives rise to all sorts of new problems, often more serious than whatever problem was targeted in the first place.

The book is well-written, easy to read, and full of interesting information. He illustrates his thesis very convincingly, with reference to such things as our efforts to control disease, to acclimatise alien species of plants and animals, to control agricultural pests with chemical pesticides, and to computerise the office in order to improve decision-making.

Of course, I am far from shocked by this book’s blasphemous tenor. Indeed, my only complaint – and a mild one at that – is that it is not sufficiently blasphemous.

I remember seeing graffiti on a wall in a run-down area of London, which read “Technology is the answer – but what is the question?” That is a point I want to make. Technology undoubtedly provides a means of doing all sorts of very impressive things – to take an obvious example – landing people on the moon. But it is not clear what real human problem this really solves. Even the most ardent admirer of our technological prowess must admit that if we were to draw up a list of the problems that confronted us since we first began to live on this planet, not being able to visit the moon would be pretty low down on the list.

My contention is that the real problems that confront us today are due to the disruption of natural systems such as the family, the community and the ecological system (ecosystem), and that for these problems there are no technological solutions. One reason is that our technological intrusions into the workings of the living world are unnecessarily crude when compared with the highly sophisticated – one might even say brilliantly – intelligent way in which it is capable of responding.

Consider the way in which the humble mosquito was able to learn, very rapidly and in all sorts of different ways, how to deal with the DDT with which it was mercilessly assailed during the World Health Organisation’s malaria-eradication programme in the sixties. It learnt for instance not to alight on the walls of the houses that were sprayed with this poison; it developed a thick cuticle through which the poison cannot penetrate; it grew much fatter so that there would be more fatty tissue in which the poison could be diluted; or it developed an enzyme that breaks down the poison into a perfectly harmless substance.

Equally illustrative is the hopeless failure of the US Department of Agriculture to eradicate the red fire ant – a native of South America – that invaded the southern states of North America in the thirties, where they have proliferated and caused terrible problems; littering the land with their mounds and killing just about everything, including birds, reptiles and small mammals, that dare get too close to them. Efforts to eradicate them have failed miserably.

As Tenner notes, by 1978 “the USDA had sprayed millions of acres, spent $200 million, and left more fire ants than ever”. It has been calculated that the spraying programmes actually “helped fire ants increase their share of the resident ant population from 1 percent to 99 percent in only four years”, largely by killing off their predators.

The spraying further increased the problem as the fire ants reorganised themselves into densely spaced super colonies, of which there were as many as 500 per acre, each with a hundred queens or more. What is more, the colonies became linked by tunnels that enabled them “to form an extended fighting organization, capable of wiping out almost all other forms of insect, reptile, bird, and rodent life in its path”. What is interesting is that this is something quite new, which does not occur in the ants’ original South American habitat – an improvisation that USDA scientists could never have predicted.

Our technological efforts to eradicate microbes have, in the long run at least, proved even less successful. Tenner notes how the use of penicillin has

“selected natural variants of bacteria that could not only resist but destroy penicillin. Resistant strains began to overwhelm hospitals in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Then, in the seventies, resistant forms of the bacteria causing meningitis and gonorrhoea began to appear.”

He points out that very much the same thing occurred after the introduction of streptomycin that was used in particular against the tuberculosis bacillus.

The truth is that to wage chemical warfare against insects, let alone against micro-organisms that adapt even faster to the poisons, is possibly the most unequal struggle that man has ever yet waged.

In 1966 the US Surgeon General, William Stewart, declared, as Tenner notes, “It is time to close the books on infectious disease”. This reflected a quasi religious belief in the omnipotence of technology, as well as a total ignorance of biology and ecology. Needless to say, twenty years later the incidence of just about every infectious disease, with the exception of smallpox and poliomyelitis, is escalating worldwide; new ones are appearing and our ability to combat them is decreasing exponentially.

How then do we deal with them? The answer is by learning to live with the parasites and the pathogens that we will never be able to eliminate, which means, above all, adopting social and ecological policies that minimise rather than maximise their numbers.

Among other things, this means drastically changing current agricultural practices, which involve maximising vulnerability to potential pests by growing endless stretches of a single crop – and often of a single variety of that crop – providing thereby, a veritable feast for whatever particular bug lives off it and a permanent feast at that, since the same crop is planted year after year with monotonous regularity.

If we want to minimise pest outbreaks we must, on the contrary, plant a great many different crops of different varieties and different ones every year. This, furthermore, would have a ‘solution multiplier’ effect since it would help maintain soil fertility and provide us with food that is uncontaminated with cancer-causing pesticide residues.

Social and ecological problems require social and ecological solutions. Technological expedients can only mask symptoms and render these problems that much more tolerable, thereby serving to perpetuate them.

Take the present epidemic of crime, delinquency, drug addiction and general violence. It is, as must be clear to most people, the inevitable consequence of the breakdown of the family and the community and the values with which the members of a society based on these key social units are normally imbued.

Money spent on burglar alarms and video cameras or on building more prisons, as Michael Howard insisted when Home Secretary, can provide us with some protection against criminals – but does little more than mask the symptoms of the real problems involved. To solve them there is only one solution. It is to adopt those policies that will permit the reconstitution of the family and the community.

Another example is global warming – by far and away the most serious problem that confronts us today. It is caused by the massive and ever-increasing volume of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide, from the combustion of fossil fuels that are emitted by a modern technological society. This is leading to a dramatic change in the chemical composition of the atmosphere; in other words it is disrupting that natural system that Jim Lovelock calls Gaia (the biosphere or world of living things taken together with its atmospheric environment).

The US National Academy of Sciences has proposed that we apply ‘geoengineering’ solutions to this problem, such as siting 50,000 100-square-kilometre mirrors in space to deflect the heat of the sun. Whatever precarious protection this mega-gadgetry can provide against the destabilisation of world climate, it is still only dealing with the symptoms of the problem involved, which we can only solve by learning once more to satisfy our needs without having to change the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

I do not know if Edward Tenner would agree with these views. For me, if one pursues his arguments to their logical conclusion, they are inescapable. If he reads this review, maybe he can give me a call and let me know.


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