«© Jeremy Naydler, 2011 All rights reserved. This PDF is the text of a booklet published by Abzu Press, Oxford, 2011, and is a revised version of an ...»
TECHNOLOGY AND NATURE
The Unquenchable Thirst to Live in
Gratitude: Digital Technology and the
Afflicted Soul of the Earth
© Jeremy Naydler, 2011 All rights reserved.
This PDF is the text of a booklet published by Abzu
Press, Oxford, 2011, and is a revised version of an essay
first published in New View 60 (2011). Page numbers are
those of the booklet.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 978 1898497 63 9 Secular Culture and the Exclusion of Gratitude I have recently taken to drinking sage tea. I have noticed that each time I go to the sage bush and pluck its leaves, I quite spontaneously feel an impulse of gratitude to the plant, and murmur a word of thanks before walking away. In earlier times, when people lived more closely with the plants and animals on which they depended, it must have been a great deal easier for such feelings to have permeated their relationship to the natural world than it is for us today. For in such a direct encounter it is hard to ignore that what one takes for oneself really belongs to another. The word of thanks follows that recognition.
In a lecture given in September 1906, Rudolf Steiner spoke of the significance of the practice of gratitude towards those beings lower on the scale of nature than we are. This practice belongs to the very first stage of the esoteric Christian path of inner development – the Washing of the Feet – in which we incline ourselves in humility towards these beings because it is precisely
upon them that we depend:
“This humility towards those who are lower than we are, and at whose expense we have been able to rise, must be present everywhere in the world.
If a plant were able to think, it would thank the minerals for giving it the ground on which it can lead a higher form of life, and the animal would have to bow down before the plant and say: ‘To you I owe the possibility of my own existence.’ In the same way human beings should recognise what they owe to all the rest of nature.”1 To live in such a way, with this awareness and with this disposition of gratitude to the world around us, is at the kernel of the religious attitude towards life. Gratefulness, according to a renowned contemporary monk, lies at the very heart of prayer.2 By contrast, the secular attitude is one that excludes gratefulness towards nature. It took root during the industrial revolution, through which human ingenuity and mechanical power wrested from nature the credit for the new manufactured goods that came into people’s lives.
Thanks were no longer due to nature, for industrial products were toomany stages removed from the “raw materials” from which they originated to warrant such reverential feelings. Nature’s raw materials (metals, coal, gas, oil) were now regarded simply as “resources” for us to plunder and utilise. Within such a viewpoint, gratitude had no place. It became a vagrant, ejected from the secular framework of production and consumption whose medium is the exchange of money, the modern means of alleviating indebtedness.
Industrialisation and the massive growth of urban living, gave rise to the illusion that nature was a peripheral factor of life, and was even superseded by our technological prowess. In the twentieth century, novel synthetic products, such as thermoplastics, began to appear that could not be found anywhere in the natural world. The driving force behind industrialisation was such that it set about creating a domain that was apparently independent of nature, into which humanity was enticed. Thus the world of manufactured artefacts increasingly came to rival the natural world in its ability to attract our desire and harness our loyalty. Human beings came increasingly to feel at home in artificial environments, cocooned by the products of industry and technology.
The divorce from nature and the triumph of the secular industrial society are the background to, and precondition of, the digital revolution and new wave of wireless technologies that flood our lives today. These are but the latest and clearest manifestation of a process that was set in motion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Interestingly, they scarcely seem to belong to the natural world. The provenance of mobile phones, smart phones, tablets and so on seems to be a world of pure technology, as if no part of them retains any recognisable connection with nature.
If the industrial revolution brought secularisation in its wake, then the agenda of the digital revolution is more radical still. It is systematically to replace the natural with the virtual world as the primary point of orientation in our day-to-day existence. Nature is increasingly squeezed to the margins, to the periphery of our lives, while our electronic devices become the principal mediators of reality. The next stage, which is already under way, is to regard the living organisms on which we depend for our daily sustenance as versions of our electronic gadgets.
According to Richard Dawkins, life itself may be redefined as information technology.3 Such is the atmosphere of scientific-technological hegemony today that we must exert an enormous moral and imaginative effort to extricate ourselves from the hardness of heart in which it embroils us. For just as it drives out the spontaneous impulse of gratitude to nature, so also does it suppress the voice of conscience within us when, enamoured with the latest seductive digital gadget on offer, we fail to consider not only the damage that its manufacture has wrought on the environment but also the human suffering that is part of its production cost.
The Hidden Wounds of the Earth I have to admit to having unconsciously succumbed to the collective illusion that our digital technologies bear no relationship to nature. It simply did not occur to me that they are not as they seem to be – “pure technology”.
Mobiles, smart phones and so on convey this illusion partly through their extraordinarily compact and “glossy” design, utilising aluminium and plastic - neither of which are found in nature - to give them that space age feel.
Aluminium has the double virtue of being both light and shiny, qualities that add to the allure of these devices.
Significantly, the production process of aluminium requires passing a huge current of electricity through alumina, which is in the form of a powder, in order to fuse it into metal. Aluminium’s dependence on electricity marks it out as a metal whose very existence depends on our modern ability to harness the forces of sub-nature.
Nevertheless, like all metals, it originates in the ground as bauxite, found often on the upper reaches of densely forested mountains. In India, such mountain summits are blasted out and dug to a depth of between thirty and a hundred feet, stripping away the covering forest and destroying the springs that are the natural water sources for the streams and rivers that flow into the valleys below.
Every stage of the production of aluminium involves ecological devastation, that is to say sorrow to the earth.
The destructive mining of the bauxite; the refining of the alumina that produces large amounts of toxic “red mud” as waste; then the smelting of the alumina to fuse it into metal, which requires so much electricity that the industry has actually evolved side by side with the building of environmentally destructive big dams (for hydro-electricity). Alongside the ecological devastation, whole communities are often displaced both by the mining and by the building of these mega-dams, while those left behind have to eke out a living in a wasteland where streams and rivers have dried up, the topsoil is eroded and the earth and atmosphere are polluted.4 The plastic in which our digital technologies are encased is similar to aluminium in that it, too, is an industrial product, one step removed from nature; and it too belongs to the modern age, having only come into existence in roughly the last hundred years, as a result of our exploitation of crude oil, from which plastics ultimately derive. Notwithstanding the complex chemical processes involved in the manufacture of plastics, they would not exist if we did not extract crude oil and natural gas from the depths of the earth. This extraction process is mostly invisible to us because it is out of sight, save when there is a disastrous oil spill or a desert war. But the oil industry has been, and remains, a prime example of the relentless and ungracious plundering of nature regarded as no more than a resource, and made possible by the exclusion of any feelings of reverence for, or indebtedness to, the soul of the earth.
Inside the plastic and aluminium casing, almost a third of the components of our wireless devices are made of metals that also have to be taken out of the ground.
Mostly copper, the components of mobiles, smart phones, laptops and tablets also include tin, silver and gold and less well-known metals such as cobalt, tantalum, palladium and platinum. The copper is an essential component of the printed circuit board, as the actual circuits through which the electricity flows are made of copper. While the amount of copper in each mobile device may not seem great – roughly sixteen grams multiply that by the hundreds of millions of mobile and smart phones manufactured each year and it becomes a sizable amount.5 In the mining of copper, an ugly sore is created on the earth’s surface that can reach hundreds of feet down, forming a large crater surrounded by barren terraces dominated by the bulldozer and the dumper truck (Figure 1).
One of the bi-products of copper mining is the much more rare cobalt, which happens also to be an important component of wireless technology. It is in fact a key component of all high-tech devices with rechargeable lithium ion batteries, like MP3 players, digital cameras, and laptops, as well as mobiles, smart phones and tablets.
It is sobering to reflect that the copper mine depicted in Figure 1 is just one of many similar wounds that we have inflicted on the earth for the sake of our love affair with digital technology. Its true cost goes far beyond the credit card transaction that we make in the shop or on the Internet. Such transactions are painless to us, but they are not painless to the earth.
Figure 1: Open-cast copper mine. Kolwezi, Katanga, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo In the past, mining used to be an activity limited by beliefs that the earth was a living organism. The metals themselves were regarded as alive, and mines were allowed to rest after a period of active excavation. In the Middle Ages religious ceremonies accompanied the opening of every mine.6 Religious constraints on mining were only overturned in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when writers such as Agricola and Bacon sanctioned the view that nature was there to be exploited for human benefit. In the course of the seventeenth century the earth came less and less to be regarded as a living subject, to whom thanks would be due for what she gave to us, and more and more as an object bereft of life, a kind of storehouse for us to raid.7 It may be hard for us to associate our own mobile or smart phone, let alone the use we put it to, with such a view, and yet it is the product of precisely this way of regarding the natural world. The open cast copper mine depicted in Figure 1, or one like it, has provided an essential component of your apparently innocent device. Its awful barrenness is the unmistakable signature of the secular view of nature as a resource to be plundered.
Another important rare metal used in the electronics industry is tantalum, which is derived from a substance called coltan, sometimes referred to as “black gold” (Figure 2). One of the main sources of coltan is the dense jungle regions of central Africa, where the shiny black nuggets of this precious substance are mined with little more than pans and sluices, as gold was in the U.S.A. in the mid-nineteenth century. It has been for the most part an unregulated activity conducted by thousands of unofficial miners, including an estimated fifty thousand children, in search of a source of ready cash.8 As well as destroying the forest, mining has badly hit the wildlife gorillas, okapis and other rare species being an easy target for food. When coltan is refined, the metal tantalum is yielded in the form of a heat resistant powder that can store a high electric charge. Because tantalum is a vital ingredient of electrolytic capacitators, there continues to be a consistently strong demand for it from the electronics industry, for use in mobiles, smart phones and tablets as well as laptops, video game consoles and so on.
Figure 2 Coltan, the source of tantalum.
A Terrible Human Cost During the 1990s and for most of the first decade of the twenty-first century, one of the cheapest sources of copper, cobalt and tantalum was the Democratic Republic of Congo. During precisely the time of the surge in demand for mobile phones, the Democratic Republic of Congo was devastated by an extraordinarily violent and brutal war. Literally millions of people were killed, tens of thousands of women raped, and many civilians forced at gunpoint to work as slave-labourers for one side or the other. One of the industries in which forced labour was used was mining. Over that roughly fifteen-year period, much of the mining of tantalum was done by men, women and children held at gunpoint by militias. With the world demand for tantalum rocketing, it was an easy source of income to finance their murderous campaigns.