We like to think that technology is neutral, value free, that what makes it good or evil is the use we put it to. We like to think that we control it, that we use it to go where we choose. But perhaps, as Jacques Ellul warns us, the reverse might be the case: perhaps technology has developed a life of its own, and it is increasingly controlling us, shaping and pulling our lives with its demands. Should we bow to the inevitable or resist? Or does humanity and freedom start, as the Greek tragedies would have it, at the point where we rise to resist fate ? Copenhagen 2009: world leaders come together to rise and resist the fated, seemingly irreversible course of causes and events that is resulting in climate change; and fail. It is important to understand why. Efforts were not made to address the difficult topic of causes, such as our expectation of sustained, unlimited technical progress and growth, or to question our faith in the power of science and technology to deliver it. Continued economic growth, measured in GDP, and confidence in our ingenuity is what our leaders could agree on; debates focused on who should pay how much for the right to pollute and geo engineering technologies such as the proposal to cool the planet by blowing sulphuric fumes into the stratosphere to form cloud covers like those created by volcanoes. What else could be expected from more of the very mindset that caused the crisis in the first place ?
The seemingly irreversible hold of technology on our minds and the hubris it invites are symptoms of a deeper trend, that I will call disembodiment. I would like to suggest that our way out of the crisis needs to start with what is in fact a cornerstone of belonging: embodiment, or incarnation as it is called in many faith communities, including the Christian traditions.
Disembodiment is the result of the divorce between life and thought. Klages, in one of the early formulations of the ecological ethos, describes disembodiment as Spirit coming between Body and Soul, breaking their organic connection, and setting itself up as the only way of relating to life. By Soul, he means our connection to the untangible, to the mystery, the quality and the fullness of life; it is the part of us that is touched by the beauty and the promise of the rainbow. By Spirit, he means our capacity to step back from experience, and reduce the world to abstract concepts and laws that can be used to control it; the part of us that sees the rainbow as a phenomenon fully captured and explained by the laws of optics – what other philosophers have called ‘instrumental reason’. Both are needed, and can coexist in a balanced way. However, according to Klages, modern times are characterized by triumph of Spirit, the reduction of the miracle of life, of the sensuous, of the rich, multifaceted experience of life and community to abstract concepts, numbers and measures that claim to fully capture their reality. Where Soul is about the freeing and self-effacing values of love, abandon, admiration, and inspiration, Spirit is the self-affirming energy of will power, control, and domination.
Esthetic, social and justice issues are thus reduced to their numbers and formal dimensions, the same way the economy is reduced to GDP measures that fail to take into account the human consequences of economic decisions. For Spirit, power and mastery over nature are not just ends in themselves, they are the stuff of unstoppable progress; freedom from pain, from suffering, from want and eventually, death, is its aim, and just a matter of time and ingenuity; limits are made to be pushed back and, eventually, eliminated.
The confidence in our technology and the hubris that comes with the conviction that our minds have done away with limits makes us incapable of seeing the extent to which our development actually rests and depends on rapidly depleting social and natural capital. It is why warnings, such as Admiral Hyman Rickover’s 1957 analysis of the consequences of peak oil 1 are routinely dismissed. It is why we continue to look at the financial market crisis, climate change, oil peak and the depletion of community and social capital as unrelated issues.
Embodiment means restoring the connection between the tangible and the untangible, the balance between the analytical power of Spirit and the reconstructed unity of Soul and Body. Our fated attempt to create a perfect, eternal world through technology must give way to a reawakened capacity to find eternity in the fleeting beauty, taste, colour and quality of the moment, in the fragile but inspired balance that is life, personal life, community life and the life of the planet. This is the difference between living with the perfect partner, with the perfect child, in maximum comfort designed apartment complexes, in the anonymity of planned communities and the imperfect, yet so perfect harmony of life under the sun of a beautiful tuscan village.
Embodiment requires accepting limits and vulnerabilities, ours and those of those around us. This is perhaps only possible through the power of love of the particular – this tree, this piece of land to protect, this child with her limitations, and this love can perhaps only exist if it is grounded in a sense of the sacred of the immediate. This is an idea that comes naturally to cultures grounded in religious cultures – whether traditional, animist, Hindu, Christian, all of which are centered around the concept of incarnation, God become matter.
«The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot. Fuel that has been burned is gone forever. Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves. They were created by solar energy 500 million years ago and took eons to grow to their present volume.
In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.
Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare.»