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Elegant Technology
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Elegant Technology


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.

Industrialization has been blamed for many great evils--environmental destruction is only the last great crime. The holocaust of Fascism, the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horrors of colonialism, and the insanities of Stalinist Marxism were all made possible or infinitely worse by industrialization. At times one wonders if industrialization is not the genuine original sin. The more interesting questions concern temptation--What about industrialization is so attractive that it has been relentlessly pursued whenever humans have understood its possibilities? What about industrialization is worth fighting wars over?

Before industrialization, it took months of high adventure to cross the American continent by foot, horseback, and canoe. Now the same crossing takes six hours and the biggest hazards are bad airline food and the fear of lost luggage. No one wants to sew or saw without electricity once a Skilsaw or sewing machine has been tried. And certainly no one wants to return to the days of preindustrial medicine when most women eventually died giving birth and 60 to 90 percent of all children died before the age of five.

Going backward toward a preindustrial state is made impossible because preindustrial skills have been forgotten. Few farmers still know how to grow crops using horses and the few remaining horsedrawn implements are in museums. Even the Amish, who have maintained a preindustrial lifestyle for religious reasons, find it very difficult to remain outside of industrialization.

Even with a powerful cultural tradition that teaches new generations the old skills, these skills are so many and difficult that often Amish youth leave the sect, not so much because the seductions of the modern world are so enticing, but because they simply cannot master preindustrial skills.

Anyone who has seen an Amish barn-raising knows that these skills are not trivial. Amish barns are built with factory-produced nails, so even these people are not as purely preindustrial as they would wish themselves to be. Imagine a typical urbanite, who has difficulty lighting his hot-water heater, becoming five times more self-sufficient than the Amish, and the scope of the difficulty of returning to our preindustrial past is illuminated. We cannot go back because we simply no longer know the way.

The seductions of industrialization are many for ultimately, industrialization is, and has always been, about possibilities. For most, industrialization is about their very survival. The question must be asked, How did the drive for survival turn so mutant that it now threatens to destroy the biosphere?

Industrialization is about thermodynamics, and like the fire that drives it, it is a cursed blessing. It can and has been used for good and evil.

Industrialization is about tools. The motor of industrial change is the relentless human striving for perfection. Perfect goods can only be built with perfect tools and the perfect industrial organization of work. The crimes attributed to industrialization are a foul perversion of a sublime human characteristic.

Because industrialization is about fire and tools, the crime of ecocide is a sin of industrialism itself. It is the producing class version of hubris. Industrialization is about human creativity--the assumption that the gifts of nature needed creative transformation. When measured against the creativity of nature, the creativity of human beings is still quite primitive.

Humans may protest that their creativity is not so primitive. A compact disc player, Mercedes Benz, or bioengineered medicine must be at least as sophisticated as an amoeba. Point taken. Yet human creations at their most sophisticated do not reproduce by themselves. Until a television set can mate and reproduce itself, humans are perpetually responsible for their creations. With industrialization the rule is--in for a nickel, in for a buck.

There is no going back with the advanced products of industrialization--the nuclear technologies of the 1950s, alone, will be a burden to humanity for 10,000 years. This is no back-to-nature solution for radioactive waste.

There is only one solution for industrial problems--get more sophisticated industry, very quickly.

The other superior quality of an amoeba is connectedness. The amoeba lives and dies as a link to all other parts of nature. Since an automobile cannot eat worn out television sets and give birth to a new car, humans must manage the links between their creations as well.

This is the environmental imperative to industrialization--the industrial loop must be closed.

Industrial environmentalism is the social imperative to industrialization--your creativity must mimic natural creativity. If that means your technology must become more elegant and your production more sophisticated, then that is a part of the imperative as well.

This is what Elegant Technology; economic prosperity from an environmental blueprint is all about.

Part One: The People of Industrialism, examines the history and social development of the peoples who produced the industrial state. In spite of the fact that the United States is an industrialized country, the people and problems of industrialization remain almost invisible. The struggle over the definition of industrial organization has always had profound social implications.

This struggle has defined most of the twentieth century--its wars and ideological combat. The end of the Cold War is the perfect time to re-examine the core questions of industrialization, stripped of its irrelevant distractions, now that 75 years of missing the point are behind us.

Part Two: The Economics of Industrialism, reviews the cultural philosophies of the people who invented twentieth century industrialism and contrasts them to the neoclassical economic theologies taught in American universities. After two decades of world-wide economic and social fundamentalism, there exists a crying need to recognize that the imported views of David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and Adam Smith are not very relevant.

If American problems are to be solved, it is time to teach the economics of the people who invented the United States. The political-economic theories of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thorstein Veblen, Henry Ford, the Populists, Robert M. La Follette and the progressive Republicans are certainly relevant if the industrial state must be reinvented. Combined, the political-economic theories of these great thinkers could be called the economics of industrial design. It is the economic thinking necessary to produce an industrial environmental society.

American industrial redesign needs new economic understanding as much as better environmental thinking. Fortunately, some of the industrial-economic philosophies of the thinkers at the birth of the current manifestation of industrialization shed considerable light on the path to industrial environmentalism.

Part Three: The Industrial Environmental Solution, looks at the existing examples of elegant technologies and speculates on the social and economic needs for a graceful transition to an industrial form that conforms to the imperatives of the natural order, and seeks to answer the questions:

Can the damaged environment be rescued from total ruin by a more sophisticated industrial philosophy?

Can industrial societies be governed by philosophies that are preindustrial? When is industrial planning appropriate and when is it not?

Does industrial environmentalism have core principles and if so, what are they?

Are successful industrial societies by necessity, by definition, high-wage, full-employment societies?

What are the implications for the twenty-first century of an industrial-environmental strategy?

GO TO--Elegant Technology: Chapter One

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