Much of this article is taken from my writings in 1994. If you’ve read my blog you know I’m very critical of the general state of the world. I thought I’d post some of the underlying thought for my criticisms and perhaps begin to paint a picture of where I think we need to go. I’ll warn you now that the following is a bit radical. I’m not for reforming the current system because I think it’s flaws are too fundamental. We’ve gone on for far too long accepting the basic ground rules of our current social, political, economic, and technological systems. This first resurrected essay addresses the issue of technology as it relates to community and society…
How can we begin to define new social ecological and community technologies? What is the role of these technologies in a social ecological revolution? Can we use these technologies to empower people in their communities and through this break the strength of the capitalist nation-state? Indeed, how can these technologies be reclaimed by communities and elaborated to work bioregionally from within the community?
**Eco-Technology in Organic Society **
In order for us to understand the social ecological potentialities of technology we must first understand the origins of, development of, and current condition of science and technology. Humans, unlike all other species on the earth, have become dependent on tools for their survival. In our slow and graded development in the natural world we were required by our physical weaknesses and propelled by our developing mental capacity to create and use tools. At first it is probable that we used objects as we found them. It did not take long, however, for early humans to begin to alter and improve upon the things they found. They began to create an early technology and along with this they began to create a social matrix in which their technology was rooted.Community Garden in an apartment complex of the Southern-Highland neighborhood of Memphis, TN, 1993
In early, organic society, technology was intricately intertwined with the natural world and was used by the small community. This technology was guided by an organic outlook which was often highly democratic and based on the needs of people not their every whim or desire. In short, their technology was carefully crafted from within their community and the natural eco-community of which they were a part.It is of critical importance that we understand that this technology was not created to dominate and exploit a machine-like nature. Rather, it was a technology which, like the people who created it, gracefully fit into a spontaneous and balanced nature. The people of this time did not objectify nature and so the tools they created were to work from within nature–from the inside, pushing out to further elaborate themselves and the natural world. This is directly opposite the modern view of dominating an objective nature which must be forced from the outside to “yield her fruits”.
From Organic to Modern Technology
How has our technology become what it has–what kind of society produced it? The technology that we have today has as its base two aspects of 16th century philosophy and science. In her book The Death of Nature, Carolyn Merchant describes the transition from an organic outlook to a mechanical one:
Central to the organic theory was the identification of nature, especially the earth, with a nurturing mother: a kindly beneficent female who provided for the needs of mankind in an ordered, planned universe. But another opposing image of nature as female was also prevalent: wild and uncontrollable nature that could render violence, storms, droughts, and general chaos. Both were identified the female world. The metaphor of the earth as a nurturing mother was gradually to vanish as a dominant image as the Scientific Revolution proceeded to mechanize and to rationalize the world view. The second image, nature as disorder, called forth an important modern idea, that of power over nature. Two new ideas, those of mechanism and of the domination and mastery of nature, became core concepts of the modern world.
It is important to understand that while this transition to a mechanical view of nature was crystallized by Bacon’s development of scientific method, its evolution was gradual and did, in fact, take thousands of years.
The second philosophy which has helped form our current science and exploitive technology is that of Kant. For it was with Kant that we began to study our systems of knowledge instead of nature. Kant undermined the idea that we could ever truly understand an objective nature. Bookchin writes that “Kant denatured nature in the Presocratic sense by removing the material ‘grade of being’ as such….Kant left us alone with our subjectivity”(Philosophy 64). Kant removed any inherent meaning within nature. Whether nature was viewed as an organism or a machine was no longer of importance. There was a fundamental shift in science from an “objective” study of the outside world to a study of humanity and its perceptions or interpretations of that world. Science as a discipline of “objective” observation of “natural laws” developed alongside of an increasingly objectified and meaningless nature. The natural world had laws but it had no meaning or, if it did, science and philosophy was no longer concerned with what it was. This was to be the grounding for the dangerous technologies that were developed along with the elaboration of an increasingly powerful capitalist nation-state.
So, modern technology has developed without reason and without an ecological ethics. To be specific, “our” technology developed without the careful and rational reasoning human beings are capable of. We have been asking how rather than why. It is a technology that has been stolen from people and communities and is now controlled, to a great extent, by multinational corporations and the nation-state. The “science” which produced this technology is a shallow, instrumental one which is used, not to meet the needs of people and communities, but to obtain greater and greater profit for those in control. One such example of this which was mentioned earlier is that of General Motors' 1950’s successful plot with oil and rubber companies to dismantle the entire U.S. trolley system. Another example might be today’s attempt by agribusiness to genetically engineer foods to thrive in the chemical bath that now constitutes agriculture in this country and others. Monsanto does not care about people’s health or the stability of ecosystems. Rather, Monsanto is concerned with profit, and technology which will increase profit. As we will see, this may sometimes include new “ecological technologies”.
Ecological Technology of the Capitalist State
With the 1970’s energy crisis and the developing “environmentalism” of that time we begin to see a slow and insignificant shift to greener technologies. These “eco-technologies”, however, have only been a forced adaption undertaken by the capitalist nation-state in an attempt to sustain the current system of control and domination. Let me illustrate with the example of the immense development of solar collection fields taking up several square miles of California desert land. This was the development of a potentially revolutionary technology by a huge corporation called Luz, not to improve people’s lives and challenge the existing social order but, quite simply, to make a profit by selling energy. Indeed, Luz failed not only beause of its huge scale, but because according to government/industry standards, it was not big enough to qualify for the tax breaks that drive the power production industry. In this case, however, the technology used for the profit was, to some degree, an “ecological” one. But it is just as authoritarian and out of control of the community as even a nuclear power plant.
Another example that I will site is one in which I have had personal experience. I was employed by the Squash Blossom Market of Memphis Tennessee for approximately ten months. In this short time I was able to carefully analyze one example of “green capitalism” and the cooptation of one ecological technology by capitalism. Organic or, more correctly, sustainable farming, has been slowly growing for the past twenty or so years with a boom in the last four to five years. While the “organic” farming industry does seem to be making some progress as far as educating people about the technology of sustainable farming, it is, at the same time, turning this technology into just one more way to further capitalism and make a profit. Indeed, it is becoming a multi-million dollar industry. The result is highly centralized growing patterns (you guessed it, California is a huge exporter of organic foods) which contribute to very high prices and little gain for local communities. To be certain, this sort of “development” of sustainable food production does nothing to make communities self-reliant and is, in fact, little-to-no better than the modern methods of chemical farming. The food is still produced in one place and then shipped across country to people living in far away cities. There is no integration of town and country, just the continuation of a resource dependent city and culturally dominated country.A community garden created by a local group of Greens in Kirksville, MO 1991
Ecological Technology Directed by Community
The role of ecological technologies should be the empowerment of people in their communities. If they are to be any kind of solution at all they must be radicalized and decentralized so that they are controlled, not by huge multinational corporations or state governments, but by democratic communities. These social ecological technologies must play a supportive role in our development of our communities by adding to the social life and material base of our neighborhood revolutions. In Community Technology Hess writes that:
So long as technology actually seems that remote and that majestic, it will not serve us. Like a monarch, it will rule us. Rather, those who manage it will rule us. The fact is that technology is simply the way we use tools, actual tools in the material sense, and tools of knowledge in the sense of skills and craft and technique. It is not majestic. It is quite earthy. It is not remote. It involves us all. It involves shopkeepers in crowded cities. It involves farmhands. It involves kids. Everyone. People here. People around the world. We are all tool users and knowledge users, from the tribal farmer scratching a seed furrow with a pointed stick to the high-energy physicist aligning a particle accelerator, from the shaman to the molecular biologist(7).
From the perspective of social ecology, when we examine and seek to develop technology we must do so from within the community in which that technology will be used. The many projects of the Peace Corps in “developing” countries are a clear example of what “good” intentions can result in when they are imposed from outside a particular community and its surrounding eco-community. The technologies often worked against the existing social forms and institutions of the local culture in which they were placed because these were not considered in the “plans”.
One of the best examples of this program was the widespread installation of gas and diesel powered water pumps and new wells in Africa. These pumps and wells lasted long enough to change the local settlement patterns and then, sometimes after only two or three years, they failed. Not experienced in the technology and not provided funds if they were, many villages were forced to leave and resettle closer to other water sources. Thus, the end result was the disruption of native lifeways which were, to a great extent, adapted to the original water supply. One analogy that might apply here would be attempting to transplant the organ of a wolverine into that of a badger; this, quite simply, will not work because the bodies of the two organisms have evolved differently and so the internal organs are too specific to be able to adapt to that kind of imposition.
It is common sense which tells us that imposing one specific technology on many different places will never work. The technology must be adapted or developed by the people living in the community for it is they who can determine their needs and they who know the surrounding ecological community. Indeed, social ecology asks not just how to develop a specific technology but, more importantly, why develop it. For the question of how tends toward instrumentalism while the question of why tends toward ethics. An ecological technology must be developed carefully and democratically so that it is based on an ethics of not just sustainability, but freedom. Just as important as the technology is the social matrix from which it is elaborated. In discussing the problems of technology Bookchin writes that:
Just as serious as the extent to which we have mechanized the world is the fact that we cannot distinguish what is social in our lives from what is technical. In our inability to distinguish the two, we are losing the ability to determine which is meant to subserve the other. Herein lies the core of our difficulties in controlling the machine. We lack a sense of the social matrix in which all technics should be embedded–of the social meaning in which technology should be clothed(Freedom 240).
The social matrix of which Bookchin in speaking must be highly democratic and participatory. Technology is not the solution but only a part of the solution and it should be carefully crafted by people who are engaged in the practice of citizenship. It is from this social and community matrix that an ecological ethics and technology will evolve.
Sustainable Food Production in the Community
Since the period of the World Wars food production in the United States has become more and more centralized. We grow our food in one place (California is my favorite example) and ship it far away to cities. The centralization of food production has been, for the most part, based on the development over the past 50 years of the huge agribusiness industry. The industry has its roots in the weapon industry with early fertilizers being made out of chemicals (mainly nitrates) left over from the mass production of bombs. As this industry grew in size so to did the size of farms. Relatively small, family owned farms gradually went into debt and were bought out by corporations with many small farms being swallowed up by the greatly expanding cities. Today, practically every city is dependent upon these distant “centers of food production”. According to Co-op America Quarterly, “When you sit down to eat a meal the food on your plate has traveled an average of 1,300 miles to reach your table. Supporting local agriculture improves economic self-reliance as well as providing healthier food”(Spring 1993). A sign in front of the deCleyre Cooperative in Memphis, TN. The sign reads: Our Garden Resource Center and Cafe Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.
Books, magazines, journals on topics such as anarchism, ecology, women’s liberation, race, class struggle, and labor. Come enjoy a cup of organic coffee or tea with us too! The deCleyre Co-op actively works to promote cooperative living and permacultural design through community education and radical media.
Community food production is possible anywhere: small cities, towns, huge cities, and, most obviously, in the country. All that is required are simple hand tools, soil, kitchen food waste, seeds, people, and the desire to learn about ecology. There are many sustainable technologies which may be used by a community to grow its food supply including both the Biodynamic/French Intensive and permaculture methods. These methods are very space intensive and rely upon the principals of ecology for their basis. In his book How to Grow More Vegetables, John Jeavons describes the philosophy of the biodynamic/French intensive method of horticulture as:
a quiet, vitally alive art of organic gardening which relinks people with the whole universe–a universe in which each of us is an interwoven part of the whole. People find their place by relating and cooperating in harmony with the sun, air, rain, soil, moon, insects, plants, and animals rather than by attempting to dominate them(2).
Using these methods a city community could begin to grow a percentage of its food supply and in a few years could most likely be growing most of its food. How can this be? For one, biodynamic horticulture and permaculture are not just ways of growing food. They are far more. They are art and design. There are countless ways in which we can begin to integrate food production into our existing neighborhood spaces. Obviously vacant lots can be transformed into gardens but what about rooftops, alleys, windows, front yards, and basements? And in a future with fewer cars we could begin to use some ares which are currently paved after the soil was tested and detoxified.
Thus far I have only spoken of gardens as a place in which we can grow our food but it is also important to consider the side benefits. For example, in city neighborhoods, gardens often serve to be far more than places of food production:
On a smaller scale are community gardens. Community gardens are transforming urban vacant lots, strewn with garbage, into a center of community. Neighborhood gardens serve as a catalyst for community development, beautify local areas, reduce food costs, and provide valuable recreational and therapeutic benefits. Community compost projects can be coupled with community gardens(Co-op America Quarterly Spring 93).
As well as being food producers and beautiful places gardens can also serve as recycling centers for organic wastes such as leftover food items, wood, leaves, manures,… All of these are essential in nature’s recycling process. If we take out nutrients during the food growing process then we must replace them by composting our organic “wastes” into humus. In her book Start With the Soil, Grace Gershuny writes that “Composting is a low-cost, nonpolluting alternative to sending household food and yard wastes to the landfill…On the compost pile, yard wastes will recycle themselves quickly”(67).
In cities with more open spaces and in smaller towns in the countryside one productive form of food production might be the CSA or Community Supported Agriculture. While a CSA could also work in a city it tends to require more land than is often available. According to Coop America Quarterly :
Community supported agriculture (CSA) offers people a unique way to reconnect with their food and the land through a direct relationship with a farmer and a local farm. Through CSAs, a community of citizens purchases shares in a farm. A share entitled the shareholder to a set amount of organically grown produce during the growing season. By paying up front, the shareholders also share the financial risk of farming. The guaranteed income means the farmer can focus on growing high quality food, rather than on what crops will get the best price(Spring1993).
We should also remember the relationships that can be created between the countryside and the city. In the past, cities have, as we can so clearly see today, evolved a parasitic relationship with the countryside. Often times doing more harm than just draining away resources without returning them, cities have come to dominate the countryside culturally as well. It is important that we restore a balance to the relationship between town and country–ecological food production must figure into this balance. This balanced relationship must replace the historical development in which the countryside has become little more that a chemical food factory (or a place for other resource extraction or victim of urbanization).
The Bicycle as Community Transportation
Of all the devices invented by human beings to increase their speed of travel the bicycle is perhaps the most beautiful. Why is the bicycle beautiful you ask? The answer is simple. Bicycles are relatively cheap. They require very little material for their production. They can be easily modified to suit practically any need of a community. Their construction is simple enough so as to allow a community to manufacture its own supply. They are easy to repair. Last, but certainly not least, they cause little pollution in their construction and maintenance, and emit no pollution of any kind when they are used.
Also very important in the community is the conversion of “normal” bicycles into working bicycles or, put in another way, bicycles which can carry heavy and sometimes awkward loads. According to an article entitled “Making Workbikes for the Neighborhood”:
Better bike designs for hauling loads were first available nearly a century ago, then fell into disuse with the advent of the combustion engine. But today a tiny international network of ecology- minded bicycle engineers is leading a renaissance for workbikes. The old bikes are being brilliantly redesigned with lessons of the past century in mind, including the experience of being overrun by the automobile industry( Rain Winter/Spring 1992:14).
It is important that we understand the potential of bicycles as a completely radical and ecological technology. This is a technology that can completely undermine the oil industry and one which can, with a little work, be controlled by communities. What is needed is a shift in technology and the development of inexpensive tooling devices for the neighborhood bikeshop. Indeed, “local economies benefit from decentralizing and personalizing bike production. Custom Italian bicycle frames are famous throughout the world because each Italian neighborhood has bike designers and builders”(Rain: 15). The bike shop becomes a community institution of ecological technology. A place in which neighbors can learn not just about bicycle technology but technology in general. And the bike shop could very easily serve as a catalyst to further development of various eco-technologies.
Recycling “Junk” in our Communities
Recycling is one of the most accessible of ecological technologies easily available to communities. Anything from wood to metal piping to an old grocery cart can be “recycled” and made into new, useful forms to improve the material base of a neighborhood. While it is necessary to carry on with the more common “recyclables” such as aluminum and steel cans, glass, newspaper, and other such items, we must also begin to see that these and other recyclables be turned into a community resource not a profit for BFI (Browning Ferris Industries) or city hall. It is, unfortunately, becoming a common practice for cities and states across the country to extend wastehauling relationships with large corporations into recycling relationships often times resulting in the coercion of people and the enforcement of recycling. In these instances a potential neighborhood resource is taken away and shipped elsewhere for processing and reproduction.
One possible solution to the recycling problem is the creation of neighborhood recycling and technology centers. A center of this kind could easily be located in an old garage, storage building, or some other kind of structure that is not being used or has been abandoned. Someone in the neighborhood may even have extra space and volunteer that. People in neighborhoods should also begin to form technology and recycling collectives to work in the centers they create. Such centers should develop eco-tech libraries and could, after becoming established (or as a part of the process of becoming established) offer community workshops and technical assistance on projects such as solar and wind energy, permaculture, building weatherization,… It will only be through this hands-on work that our neighborhood “junk” will be turned into community resources and an added material base for self-reliance.
The overall beauty of community technology is that the resources for it already exist in most neighborhoods–the potential is there, waiting for us to develop it. It is imperative that, as we create our communities we also work to create an ecological, community controlled and developed technology. It will be with this technology that we feed, cloth, and shelter our bodies and it will be through this technology that we interact with nature. We should create this technology just as we would a garden: first, with careful and artistic planning, getting our hands into the soil, then we nourish and craft it as it grows.