A Path Toward Freedom: Revolution and Appropriate Technology
By Wispy Cockles
Aquariums teeming with life line the basement of a collectivized public building and filter the waste that would once go to a chemically intensive sewage processing plant. Pipes take the treated water to a stream that runs alongside what was once a major autoway to what appears to be a forested area, but is actually a giant permacultural garden where horticulturists have cultivated orchards, patches of herbs and daily staples like grains and wild rice. Nearby people crowd around a few solar powered trucks and automobiles that are kept in case we need to get people somewhere quick. Yesterday a free community was hit by a bad storm about an hour from here, and we need to get rations and medicine to people who lost their homes and crops in the storm. Not far from there, a small army of white nationalist bandits is taking over territory and attacking free communities, and some women from the people’s militia are going off to fend off any possible attacks on the weakened community. The operation is being coordinated by the emergency aid collective who are busy in the community’s computer lab. We stopped making computers shortly after the revolution; nobody wanted to get sick from the manufacturing process, but we collectivized, recycled and kept up the old ones to communicate with other free communities.
My day isn’t so serious. I’m going down to help with a clean up operation where we’re introducing new types of grass to filter out chemicals that the petro-capitalists left behind at one of their refinery sites. Nearby there’s a theater that we built partially out of the old gas cans, and tonight I’m going to perform some new material with my band who have been busy recycling synthesizers and making new instruments out of old factory machines for tonight’s show. Right now I’m sitting on the porch of an old folks’ collective house listening to the crazy elders rant about how hard life was before the revolution.
Although it seems far away, the above fictitious narrative could be just around the corner. Appropriate technologies and ecologically sustainable methods of producing food, harnessing energy and dealing with waste have been developed. Created by clever ecologically minded folks, these methods and technologies could form the basis of an alternative to industrial, chemically intensive life ways formed by the necessities of a capitalist market place. Living Machines, like the aquariums mentioned above, could replace a centralized sewage system. Gardens grown to mimic wild ecosystems, highly efficient at producing nourishing foods, could replace inefficient and profit-driven industrial agriculture. Solar and wind power could replace harmful methods of energy production. An ecological society based on co-operative, communal methods of living would have a greatly reduced need for energy compared to the industrial capitalist society which needs vast amounts of energy to drive it’s anti-ecological industries.
The concept of appropriate technology is basic and brilliant. Technologies and methods should be subservient to the needs and desires of a bio-region and its inhabitants, not some abstraction like “technological progress” or “the market place.” Appropriate technologies harness the already existing energy of local climates and eco-systems. They produce energy, food, housing and useful things with a local eco-system rather then out of a local eco-system (i.e imposing systems that extract, pillage and undermine local ecology for the sake of production).
People from different cultures and bio-regions will develop their own ecologically and socially sustainable technologies and ways of living. Their methodology and tool kit will be a reflection of their distinct social character and the terrain in which they dwell. Many indigenous people have lived in sync with the land up to the current day and maintained communitarian values. They, of course, don’t have as much thinking to do about how to create appropriate technologies and ways of living as those of us who live in the so-called developed societies. We who live in industrially developed societies might have a lot to learn from them. However, we have a unique task in transitioning to ecological living. An attempt to imitate so-called primitive cultures would result in a social disaster. The collective social experience and conditions in, say, the East Coast of the U.S. differs so greatly from that of the indigenous people of West Paupa. People in industrially developed societies have to forge their own path toward an ecological future and have a lot to learn from the wisdom of people who live in an ecological present. Anarchist societies must have the same destination to live in ecolgically and socially sustainable ways, but with a different point of departure from dependence on industrial /info capitalist society. Appropriate technology is a process of leaving behind the toxicity of capitalist culture. For “developed” societies, it means phasing out highly toxic technologies quickly and replacing them with ecologically sustainable alternatives or getting rid of them altogether because they are useless in fulfilling the needs and desires of free, post-capitalist societies.
The destructive tendencies of certain technologies – for instance nuclear power or industrial agriculture – affect the social as well as the ecological realm. Certain methods and tools have alienating, anti-social consequences. The culture of television and growing dependence on Internet communication is no replacement for face to face human contact and has degraded some people’s social capabilities. Automated factory lines certainly can never give people the amount of creative freedom in making something that workshops can provide. Technologies must be environmentally and socially sustainable. They must accentuate the social aspects of human life, and encourage participation and face to face communication. Methods and technologies that foster individualized, anti-social values need to be disposed of or changed to reflect the character of society based on social freedom, communiatarian values and direct, decentralist democracy.
Technologies are not neutral, as some have claimed. It is not just how a tool is used that determines its effect upon the world, but sometimes the existence of the tool or method itself that creates ill social and environmental effects. Ways of doing things and tools create ripples in society. Some technologies may not be appropriate because they create social and environmental problems even under the control of the people. Automobile technology necessitates ecological destruction by way of the highway system and petroleum production, and is individualistic to the core. If post-capitalist societies decided to keep producing car culture, the consequences would be environmental destruction and most likely the reproduction of individualistic alienation and anti-social behavior. However, it is important to note that there’s a big difference in keeping a few trucks and roads around in case of an emergency, and actively producing automobile technology. As well it’s is crucial to recognize that capitalist culture and economy give birth to such disastrous ways of living.
Unsustainable, anti-social technologies – indispensable in capital’s quest to reproduce and expand – are a product of capital not vice versa. Technology is not an abstraction outside of the material and cultural forms of capitalism. It is literally a product of it. As we move toward post-capitalist ways of doing things, we must create technologies that liberate rather then dominate.
Anarcho-primitivists view technology as flawed and hierarchical, the begining of a fall from some mythic gatherer-hunter past. Marxists, classic syndicalists and other modernists view technological progress as something inherently good, something that eventually leads to a utopian society free of worry. Both are guilty of pre-figuring a fixed essence from which all technology springs forth. Rather then taking a look at particular technologies and methods, where they come from historically and if they can be transformed or used in post-capitalist ecological society, primitivists and modernists alike generalize all technology into a philisophical abstraction that is to be judged as either evil or good, and then either condemned to death or elected as dictator. This kind of sloppy thinking will lead us nowhere. We need to think critically about the specifics of technics and method. We need to build an analysis of what is oppresive and totalitarian about some technologies and what libertarian and decentralized technologies could replace them. We must swiftly dismantle the technologies that threaten life on earth with this important question in mind: What appropriate sustainable alternative could provide for our needs and desires once this system is destroyed?
Wispy Cockles is a troublemaker spining records with the 215noise crew (215noise.com) and organizes with the Richmond Queer Space Project (queerliberation.org).