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Elegant Technology
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Elegant Technology...the book

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The Preface

Some courage is required to link the notions of technology and industrialization to the hope for environmental renewal. Industry has been portrayed as the bad environmental actor for so long that the concept of industrial environmentalism seems a hopeless contradiction of terms.

The Preface audio file (mp3)

The Table of Contents

The People of Industrialism

Chapter One: The Hunter and the Farmer

In the beginning, there was agriculture. Before agriculture, humans were barely different from the other primates. Agriculture would change everything because agriculture grows more than plants and animals: it grows civilizations. Before agriculture, human groups consisted of nothing more than wandering clans in search of food. With agriculture, humans could predict when and from where their food would come. Having solved this essential problem, humans would go on to build cities and libraries and governments.

Chapter One audio file (mp3)
Chapter One: NOTES

Chapter Three: Are Producers a Class?

What is the proper way to define a class?

First, prove the existence of a group with boundaries;

Second, explain what the members of the group have in common.

The features of cultural commonalty will be explained in chapter four, but first there is this little problem of showing that producers constitute a class.

Chapter Three audio file (mp3)
Chapter Three animated illustration

Chapter Four: The Theory of the Industrial Class

When Veblen wrote his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, he assumed that his readers knew little about the values of the ruling class and used industrial values as a starting point. Today, because leisure class values dominate the mass media's features on politics, finance, militarism, travel, lifestyle, and manners, the problem is reversed. Because of this, any discussion of the producer class and its value systems seems almost foreign in a contemporary setting. Ignoring or misunderstanding the producer class, however, is a dangerous mistake.

Chapter Four: NOTES

The Economics of Industrialism

Chapter Six: Money

Money—there is no subject that can more deeply divide predators and producers.  For the predators, the manipulation of money represents the final bastion of power in a world where they are becoming utterly obsolete.  For the producers, money is, at best, a subject of love and hate.

Chapter Six audio file (mp3)

Chapter Eight: Tools

Producers are ambivalent about money. They love the resources that money can buy, but loathe the time-consuming restrictions. Producer heaven is permanent funding, a modest living, and minimum supervision--such as once a year. Those who made it to producer heaven in the past forty years have given us the microchip, artificial heart valves, . . . examples abound!

Chapter Eight: NOTES
Chapter Eight audio file (mp3)

The Industrial-Environmental Solution

Chapter Ten: Do Producers have a Plan?

When the economy turns sour, concern for nature and the environment evaporates like the morning dew. Far from having lasting impact, most environmental actions fade from public consciousness faster than a bad advertising campaign. Compared to the problems of daily survival in times of economic hardship, environmental activism seems like a hobby for the idle rich.

Chapter Eleven: Technological Elegance

The battle between industrialization and environmentalism is more intense than the conflict between communism and capitalism and 6000 years older. It is as old as the conflict between the hunter and the farmer. By asserting that the only route out of the industrial-economic crisis is to join these two opposing forces, this book could easily be dismissed as a utopian fantasy. Industrial environmentalism is an idea whose time could never come! Moreover, because cooperation between the industrial and predator classes has produced such lovely phenomena as Fascism and the military-industrial complex, the suggestion of cooperation is frightening and fraught with danger.


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Executive Summary

Elegant Technology is an attempt to describe the root causes of the industrial-environmental dilemmas facing the developed countries from the point of view of those who invented them.

The book is organized into three parts:

The People of Industrialism...describes the history and values of the builder of the modern state.

The Economics of Industrialism...draws careful distinctions between pre-industrial and industrial thinking concerning money, capital goods, etc.

The Industrial-Environmental Solution...describes the possible society available if economic and social thought would align itself with the values of the builders.


The People of Industrialism (Chapters One, Three, and Four)

Advanced industrial societies are merely the highest flowering of civilization based on agriculture. But agricultural societies are plagued by a persistence of predators. The most serious predators are human.

Human predation has many manifestations from the crude to the very sophisticated. The methods used by the predators have included slavery, feudalism, imperialism, usury, ground rents, tithes and taxation. To improve their lives, the producers have resorted to religious movements, cultural challenges and most importantly, radical changes in production.

This last effort gained for the producers the single most important change in history--the industrial revolution. By transferring the burden of predation from their shoulders to the biosphere, the producers gave to the industrial states history's highest general standard of living.

A shift to the exploitation of nature clearly has limits. The social and political problems of human predation have not diminished as a result of the industrial revolution. But the dominant problems of the late 20th century, such as toxic waste, groundwater pollution, deforestation, soil erosion and resource depletion, are those associated with the efforts of the producers. The problems of the producer civilization are as life threatening as warfare. The industrial state has already sown the seeds of its own destruction. This is true whether the system is called capitalist or communist.

(Chaper Four) In order for technology to be understood in a sociological sense, it is useful to understand the creative roots of technology. In many ways, technology is Protestant art. A philosophical link is established between the industrial designer and the product.

Because the values necessary to become a successful producer are very different from the dominant predator values in society, these values are described in depth. Even though most of these values are quite laudable, the producers can cause many problems by the very nature of their work.

Because predators make problems for producers who in turn cause problems in the biosphere, an argument is made that the time has come for both forms of exploitation to cease. Failure to do so will bring on the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The Economics of Industrialism (Chapters Six and Eight)

The best way to understand production is to understand tools--how they are created, how they affect social organizations, and their economic implications.

When all other factors of production are equal, industrial design becomes the critical variable. Because this is true, design becomes the dominant economic motor in enlarging the economic pie.

But if design is the critical element in the growth of productive capability, the financial systems are the main form of industrial sabotage. In the 80's, montarism and high interest rates have exacerbated this problem.

The result is that worldwide, virtually all forms of productive activity are facing huge, man-made, difficulties at precisely the time when new and better production methods are necessary to address growing environmental problems.

The Industrial-Environmental Solution (Chapters Ten and Eleven)

Because industrialization cannot be abandoned in anything except a symbolic way, the only practical method is to redesign the industrial process to mimic the processes of the ecosphere. If technology has created the means for biological destruction, it can be made to solve the environmental problems as well. And if it cannot, nothing else will, either.

So, problem by problem, the possibilities for an industrial-environmental future are discussed. Because these are huge projects--the kind designed to put the industrial civilization back to work as well as fix the environment--a inquiry is conducted on the financial rearrangements necessary to get these projects done.

The American obstacles to an industrial environmental future, while not insurmountable, are formidable. Fortunately, (or maybe, unfortunately) these hurdles are not technological but cultural. America can have a brighter future by changing its thinking about its values, politics and economics.

While the decision to have an industrial-environmental future is mainly cultural, the critical decision is to allow the industrial civilization to do the planning. Only they have any experience in this matter. Politically motivated industrial planning has been a notable failure.

Jonathan Larson


Jonathan Larson



SEE ALSO-- Elegant Technology: the speech given to the American Economic Association (AEA) convention, January 5, 1993, and reprinted in the June 1993 issue of the Journal of Economic Issues. (JEI)

This speech on an audio file (mp3)

SEE ALSO-- Book Review written by JACOB J. KRABBE, Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands

SEE ALSO-- Analysis of economic and environmental events since publication of Elegant Technology.

SEE ALSO—The Evolution of an Idea: the intellectual basis of Elegant Technology



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