[quote]Why Technology and Consumerism are Good Things
We’re frequently exhorted by conservationists to live more like our ancestors. An idyllic vision of a peaceful, nature-friendly paradise is sometimes conjured up as a part of these exhortations. “If only we could live in harmony with nature, like the Native Americans did before the white man.” I’ve always been more of the opinion that technology is our only salvation, and being able to put a price on things like clean air and water makes it more likely we’ll value it.
Let’s look at some of the arguments for a more primitive lifestyle.
(1) It’s better for the environment - If we live a simple, uncluttered existence, we’ll respect nature more, and treat our animal brothers with respect. Bzzzzt. Try again. For thousands of years, the natural world was viewed by mankind (with good reason) as being a force that was at best unconcerned with humanity, at worst actively working to kill us all. In the Americas, while there is no direct evidence to support this hypothesis, it is an intriguing coincidence that roughly the same time humans are belived to have crossed over the Bering land bridge, large fauna in Noth and South America began to go extinct. Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs & Steel, points out that factoid, along with similar correspondences for Australia. Dr. Bobbi Low in 1996 published a study (summarized here) that the correlation between low environmental impact of primitive societies is due more to low population density and technological factors than any cultural respect for nature.
(2) It’s better for us - Considering that it’s only with the improvements in lifestyle given to us by the Industrial Revolution and literacy that we’ve been able to develop or discuss such concepts as “human rights”, “democracy” and “environmentalism”, I’d say that were we living a more primitive lifestyle, we’d be more likely to engage in slavery, cannibalism and constant low-level warfare. We live longer, live healthier and are more productive than at any time in our past.
(3) There are too many of us anyway, and we’re straining the resources of the planet - Bullshit. Ever notice the folks that say that generally live in the West? In the US, we’re talking a maximum of a little over 1000 people per square mile in the most densely-populated state (New Jersey). This argument has frequently been used by racists to justify their desire to keep non-whites out of industrialized nations, but that’s not why it’s bogus. Western farming techniques provide more food, and better quality food, than Third World subsistence techniques. Better education leads to lower birthrates - if we send our daughters to school, they know they’ve got better options than Baby Making Machine and Prostitute. More people living a Western lifestyle (education, access to technology, etc) will give us more prains to put to work to solve our problems. While it is true that the Earth’s resources are finite, it’s also true that (a) there’s still a hell of a lot out there and (b) out there will in all likelihood begin to include the Solar System within the next century.
My preferred argument against this, though, is simple: Let’s say the Earth can support about 100,000,000 human beings as hunter-gatherers. What do we do with the 5-6 BILLION other people? Are you willing to volunteer to remove yourself from the teeming masses?
(4) Do we even need all of this dehumanizing technology? - Yes. Yes, we do. Maybe not every single bit of it, but if we suddenly stopped using the technology that we take for granted, economic disruption would be the least of out worries. We can’t live without technology now. From the sterile tools used at birth to the vaccines we get in childhood, to the tractors that plow, plant and harvest our food, the power plants that send electricity humming along to our schools, hospitals and grocery stores, we as a culture cannot survive without technology. Technology is a mixed bag - on the one hand, it’s given us pollution, toxic waste and the movies of Pauly Shore. On the other hand, we live longer, we don’t bury half of our children before the age of 5, it’s routine to live well past the age of 70. We can’t clean up our messes without technology, and we can’t figure out how to prevent new ones without it.
(5) We’re moving towards a homogenized culture that is sterile and bland - The jury is still out on this one. Yes, McDonalds and Starbucks are all over the planet now. Western culture is all over the place, and satellite TV means that almost everyone on Earth has access to David Hasselhoff TV shows, but it works both ways. Go into any decent sized city in America, Britain or Canada - you’ll find a bewildering array of choices for your dinner - from Abyssinian to Persian to Zambian, almost every ethnicity is represented. Western culture is inherently cosmopolitan and consumer driven. This means that there will always be a demand somewhere for things like West African tie-dyed fabrics, Asian dinner condiments and the like. Our musicians routinely cherry pick the best sounds and traditions to incorporate into their music. We in the West have an amazing concept called the hobby - we have the free time and disposable income to learn Xhosa, or try to translate Etruscan, or record the indigenous folk tales of rain forest dwellers in Sumatra. Somewhere, some other person is looking to buy what you’re selling. Look at eBay, or World Market - the success of those two alone is reason to doubt the blandification of the Earth. Our culture is driven to seek out the new and to make it part of us. We’re kind of like the Borg, except we’re not as creepy, and we don’t just assimilate, we blend.
So don’t lament our world, celebrate it. Fight to make it better, certainly, but understand that however bad it is now, it’s a damn sight better than the world of a Russian serf in the 18th Century, or a Persian slave - hell, your life is probably better than the lives of most medieval kings. Our goal should be working to ensure that everyone in the world has our standard of living. That means push for representative governments, education for women and respect for human rights. The next time you meet an engineer or a scientist, give 'em a big hug and say, “Thanks! Thanks for helping make the world a better place!” They’ll probably run away from you, and maybe call the police, but the important thing is to let them know they’re appreciated. That way, they’ll maybe work a little harder to invent antigravity machines. [/quote]