Toward an Understanding of Our Human Predicament
Our consumption-driven economies are founded on economic principles that treat the planet’s ecosystems as a bottomless resource pool and as a convenient place to dump the byproducts of human technological activity that we have not yet imagined a use for. The logic of neoliberal production systems and the material culture that it has helped create are nothing short of a recipe for planetary ecological disaster.
Neoliberal capitalism is, at its core, driven by what White terms the “barbaric heart,” which believes that prosperity is dependent on violence and that “if you can prosper from violence, then you should go ahead and be violent” (2009, p.9). Violence in this context is not limited to physical violence against other humans in terms of overconsuming our fair share of planetary resources but also includes the systemic structures of oppression and violence our economic, consumption, and technological systems wreak on the longterm well-being of the earth’s ecosystems. In effect, we commit violence against the future well-being of generations to come.
White contends that we often frame the attributes of the barbaric heart as a form of virtue, “especially if you think that winning, surviving, triumphing and accumulating great wealth are virtues, just as athletes, Darwinians, military commanders, and capitalists do” (2009, p.9). The barbaric heart is prereflective and, as White warns, “is no better at questioning itself about the meaning of its actions than capitalism is at asking why the growth of the Gross Domestic Product is good. Capitalism does not ask, what’s the economy for? It merely asks it to grow” (2009, p. 8).
The neoliberal consumption dynamic informed by the barbaric heart is at the core of the sustainability crisis. The logic of the barbaric heart is reproduced in education contexts that take as a given its so-called virtues, which include an overemphasis on hypercompetition, narrow neoliberal notions of economic efficiency, and the development of instrumental skill. A focus on these attributes should not come at the cost of neglecting critical and sustained reflection on the dynamics of consumption and production from multiple perspectives, including environmental justice and equity. It is important for technological education to help students develop a sense of critical discernment and judgment concerning the “economic imperative” arguments made for the continued or expanded manufacture and use of highly polluting and/or material- and energy-intensive technologies.
As Rifkin argues, Enlightenment thinking at the dawn of the age of reason posited human beings’ essential nature as “rational, detached, autonomous, acquisitive and utilitarian,” and it was thought that “individual salvation lies in unlimited material progress here on Earth” (2011, p. 3). Neoliberal economic thinking is firmly rooted in this understanding of the individual, and the technological systems and stories that disregard the environmental impacts from high levels of material and energy consumption are based on serving the needs and wants of this same old Enlightenment notion of human nature. Underpinning neoliberal economics is a mental model that posits human beings as being separate or detached from the health of the biosphere and the animal world and their societies and economies as distinct, even independent of, the planet’s natural systems. This is the central flawed mental model and the source of irrationality deeply implicated in the sustainability crisis that envelops the planet. As Rifkin warns, “If human nature is as many of the Enlightenment philosophers claimed, then we are likely doomed. It is impossible to imagine how we might create a sustainable global economy and restore the biosphere to health if each and every one of us is, at the core of our biology, an autonomous agent and a self-centered and materialistic being” (2011, p. 2).
The millions of disposable “products” of Enlightenment thinking described by Rifkin literally fill the “big-box” retail stores and landfills of North America. These ephemeral technological products are designed and built from the familiar antiquated linear model of manufacture, consume, and dispose. Hundreds of thousands of products are sold with little or no transparency regarding the nature or sources of the raw materials or energy consumed in their production and manufacture, or for that matter any longer-term life cycle considerations or repairability/reuse after the product has served its useful life. Worldwide, tens of millions of different manufactured products (Jackson, 2010) are produced with material, energy, labor, and pollution histories that are largely unknown to the consumer at the end of the supply chain.
With no social history and no connection to geographical place, we have no opportunity and feel no need to develop a long-term “relationship” with a product that extends beyond our initial novelty fascination with it or after it has served its often short-lived purpose. We quickly move on to the next indispensable “new” thing, cajoled by a billion-dollar marketing system that ensures that our sense of satisfaction with a product is as short lived as the product itself. Is it any surprise that young people who have never been encouraged to develop a sustained critical engagement or relationship with their own “story of stuff” (Leonard, 2010) develop a cavalier, disposable attitude toward their world of material abundance? The neglected “back story”that needs to come to the forefront includes the nature, source, and longevity of materials; the quantity and nature of the energy that is embodied in materials; the waste and byproducts that are released throughout the lifecycle; the skill levels of the workers; and the working conditions of the people involved in the supply chains that stretch around the planet. As Saul reminds us, “Our challenge is to learn how to recognize what we have trained ourselves not to see. We must remove the imaginative and historical veils that we have used to obscure this reality” (2005, p. 35).
Eco-technological literacy has, for the most part, been a relatively minor component of technological education and a latecomer at that. While official curricula have improved over the last decade, insofar as many now mention that students will “examine”or “consider”the environmental “impacts”of technological decision making, most remain woefully inadequate in terms of specifically identifying how this analysis will be carried out using quantifiable and qualitative tools. Although environmental “concern”or other rhetorical “sustainability”placeholders within the curriculum may be well meaning, without specifics and focused learning activities that confront the quantifiable and holistic facts surrounding pollution, consumption, and the profligate use of materials and energy, they reflect a degree of insincerity and superficiality: “The truth is that without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the earth” (Orr,1994, p. 5).
Although eco-technological practices have advanced in many industries over the last twenty years, there remain very powerful groups that oppose ecological transparency and a “polluters-pay” accountability. For example, despite the extremely serious scenario of climate change, neoliberal corporate groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM, 2013) and the American Chamber of Commerce, the largest industry and business and lobbying groups in North America, along with similar groups in Canada, oppose initiatives like a “carbon tax”or a “cap-and-trade”system in order to protect their privilege, power, and profit. Billionaires like the petrochemical tycoon Koch brothers (Hartmann & Sacks, 2012) and other conservative groups in the United States attack pro-clean energy policies (Pernick, Wilder, & Winnie,2013) in the name of their primary funders: the oil, coal, and gas industries. It is important to emphasize that these organizations effectively promote a form of “moral blindness” (Bauman & Donskis, 2013), an indifference to an environmental and social justice considerations of their business practices in the name of profit. They would rather pass on these costs to other citizens and future generations.
In Canada, oil industry consortia worked for many years to finally defeat the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and they produce public relations educational materials that underemphasize the catastrophic impact of climate change on Canada’s ecosystems and peoples. In the United States, corporate consortia funded by billionaires such as the “American Legislative Exchange Council”produce mandates for lawmakers that advocate the “balanced teaching” of climate science in public school classrooms. As Chomsky explains, “‘Balanced teaching’ is a code phrase that refers to teaching climate-change denial, to ‘balance’ mainstream climate science. It is analogous to the ‘balanced teaching’ advocated by creationists to enable the teaching of ‘creation science’ in public schools” (2013). The purpose here is simple: to spread disinformation concerning the real impacts of our hydrocarbon-tntensive technologies and lifestyles and to discredit those working to help us avoid a climate catastrophe.
It is important that young people understand that those who don’t want the environmental wake of their way of doing business to be publicized or penalized wield an enormous influence on media and political decision making. There has never been a more pressing need to educate young people about the systemic irrationality built into current conceptions of neoliberal production-consumption economics. Jackson explains how “fast consumption” is the inevitable partner of “fast production”:
If we don’t consume, then who is going to produce? And without production who will employ us? Without jobs how will we maintain our ability to go on and on consuming? Indeed the underlying dynamic here is not just about continuing to consume, but about consuming more and more. The stability of the economy itself in the ‘advanced’ consumer societies calls on us not simply to maintain our productive capacity but to pursue a strategy of continuing, exponential growth. The dynamic that feeds this strategy relies on the relentless production of novelty by firms and the relentless consumption of novelty by households. The inevitability with which this leads to a throwaway culture is patent. (2010. p. xv)
Fortunately, a number of emerging interdisciplinary methodological tools, concepts, and approaches are edging into design and hopefully technological education. These tools address various facets of the sustainability conundrum and as a whole encourage us to think more holistically about technology. They include the following:
- • Design for the Environment (DfE)
- • Life-cycle analysis (LCA) and life-cycle management
- • Industrial ecology and material flow analysis
- • Carbon and ecological footprinting
- • Design for disassembly, recycling, and remanufacture
- • Eco-efficiency and biomimicry
- • ISO 14001 and environmental management
- • The Natural Step and “triple bottom line” accounting
The next generation of technologists needs to create a “discontinuous leap” (Ehrenfeld, 2008) from the existing high-consumption product forms of technoculture. Their capacity to develop creative democratic and participatory strategies to bypass the old in order to create a new eco-technological reality will largely determine their quality of life going forward. The task for educators involves mobilizing the green, eco-technological imagination of young people as an antidote to “doom and gloom” inevitability. This involves developing technological literacies that provide insight into how technologies can sustain genuine human flourishing along with authentic forms of technological design that extend beyond the instrumental commodified forms of the “better living through more products”mantra that corporate media intensively sells. Modernity, suggests Ehrenfeld, has “dimmed” three critical domains that are essential for human flourishing and true sustainability:
- • Our sense of ourselves as human beings: the human domain.
- • Our sense of our place in the [natural] world: the natural domain.
- • Our sense of doing the right thing: the ethical domain. (Ehrenfeld, 2008, p. 58)
Eco-t echnological education can be a reconstructive journey back to a deeper consideration of these facets of sustainability. All involve developing learning opportunities for students to develop a more mindful connection with our technological creations. Design mindfulness involves a determination to
- • think about the consequences of design actions before we take them and pay close attention to the natural, industrial, and cultural systems that are the context of our design actions;
- • consider material and energy flows in all the systems we design;
- • give priority to human agency and not treat humans as a “factor” in some bigger picture;
- • deliver value to people—not deliver people to systems;
- • treat “content” as something we do, not something we are sold;
- • treat place, time, and cultural difference as positive values, not as obstacles; focus on services, not on things, and refrain from flooding the world with pointless devices. (Thackara, 2005, p. 8)
It is worth reminding ourselves that sustainability is a normative concept; it remains an aspirational goal that needs to be defined in terms of a local and bioregional context. Sustainability is “an emergent property of a complex system; we can observe it only if all the relationships on which it depends are functioning correctly” (Ehrenfeld, 2008, p. 65). This entails connecting students to the stories of individuals and organizations who are working under different precepts and visions than those being promoted by transnational corporations and retailers. There are many exemplary stories of young people changing the world for the better through technological and social innovation. For example, the stories of creative young people from 5 continents and 35 countries working toward the UN Millennium Development Goals are documented in the design science/global solutions lab project (Gabel, 2010).
Goleman explains “radical transparency”in terms of what it means for consumers equipped with the full disclosure of information related to the full environmental and social costs of products: “Radical transparency converts the chains that link every product and its multiple impacts—carbon footprints, chemicals of concern, treatment of workers, and the like—into systematic forces that count in sales. Radical transparency leverages a coming generation of tech applications, where software manipulates massive collections of data and displays them as a simple readout for making decisions. Once we know the true impacts of our shopping choices, we can use that information to accelerate incremental changes for the better” (2009, p. 10). While the radical transparency described by Goleman is as yet unrealized, and despite the powerful forces advocating for the status quo of “ecological blindness,” radical transparency signifies a key aspirational goal for ecotechnological literacy. Young people need to begin working with the best available knowledge, including ecological and carbon footprints, and full lifecycle analyses in all phases of technological education.
“Design activism”attempts to create a new counternarrative to the neoliberal modernist product culture. It incorporates ecological and social awareness into all facets of technological design. As Fuad-Luke explains, “Design activism is ‘design thinking, imagination and practice applied knowingly or unknowingly to create a counter-narrative aimed at generating and balancing positive social, institutional, environmental and/or economic change’” (2009, p. 20).
New design paradigms are embracing emerging modes of participatory culture, with customers becoming cocreators and codesigners. Codesign is striving to be more “democratic, open and porous” as it engages and gives a voice to the people who will use a given technology in the design process (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p. 147). Today it is crucial that students understand not only global material flow processes but also the local contextualized dimensions of science-technology-society-environment relationships. This entails that students develop a place-based understanding of how economic, technoscientific, and social policies contribute to or detract from environmental sustainability and local quality of life.
The world of the near future will be characterized by increasing levels of social and technological complexity (trends difficult enough to cope with) but also by a growing world population and increasingly compromised ecosystems. These trends will combine to make large-scale and often unintended and uncontrollable disturbances the new norm. Educational systems will need to prepare students who can effectively deal with accelerating levels of uncertainty and change. In short, societies will need more resilient learners who can design more resilient eco-technological systems. In its simplest sense, resilience is “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure” (Walker & Salt, 2006, p. xi). The key questions young people need to grapple with are the following: How can we imagine our technologies contributing to the development of a more resilient world? How do our technologies advance us toward, or move us away from, resiliency? The basic characteristics of a “resilient world”include the following:
- 1. Diversity—A resilient world would promote and sustain diversity in all forms (biological, landscape, social, and economic).
- 2. Ecological variability—A resilient world would embrace work with ecological variability (rather than attempting to control and reduce it).
- 3. Modularity—A resilient world would consist of modular components.
- 4. Acknowledging slow variables—A resilient world would have a policy focus on “slow” controlling variables associated with thresholds.
- 5. Tight feedbacks—A resilient world would possess tight feedbacks (but not too tight).
- 6. Social capital—A resilient world would promote trust, well-developed social networks, and leadership (adaptability).
- 7. Innovation—A resilient world would place an emphasis on learning, experimentation, locally developed rules, and embracing change.
- 8. Overlap in governance—A resilient world would have institutions that include “redundancy” in their governance structures and a mix of common and private property with overlapping access rights.
9. Ecosystem services—A resilient world would include all the unpriced ecosystem services in development proposals and assessments (Walker & Salt, 2006, p. 146).
Technological education focused on building resiliency also understands that “all design is social”and the important distinction between “design for the market,”where the primary focus is creating products to sell, and “social design,”a process of satisfying real human needs while improving well-being and livelihood, in effect using design to change “existing situations into preferred ones” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p. 152): “Aspiring design activists have to be prepared to take on multiple roles as nonaligned social brokers and catalysts, facilitators, authors, co-creators, co-designers and ‘happeners’ (i.e. making things actually happen)” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p. 189).
Global movements such as the “Natural Step” and the “Transition Initiative” (TransitionNetwork.org, 2013) are excellent examples of how communities are starting small, local grassroots projects to respond to the global challenges of climate change, economic hardship, and dwindling supplies of cheap energy. They bring together local expertise to work cooperatively to transition communities away from high carbon energy use, material consumption, and ecological impact toward a more sustainable and healthy alternative. As the designer Thackara emphasizes, “The creation of interesting social alternatives has to be as exciting and engaging as the buzz of new technology used to be. A culture of community and connectivity has to be fun and challenging, as well as responsible. An aesthetics of service and flow should inspire us, not just satisfy us” (2005, p. 8).The challenge for educators will be to design community learning experiences with eco-technologies that young people find both inspirational and meaningful.