Thursday, August 26, 2010

Today's Kunstler post, on hubris

I know I've been linking a lot recently to stuff from James Howard Kunstler. Well here's more from him. Here he talks about techno-hubris and organizational hubris. Techno-hubris is the well-worn belief in the US that technology can and will solve any current or future problems we have. I have long been aware of and opposed to this mentality. But organizational hubris is a new concept for me. It describes a belief that we can organize our way out of problems. I don't know if Kunstler is referring to organizing in the sense of changing infrastructure or management, or of grassroots organizing. Perhaps both. Ever since my college days, I was sort of taken aback when people advocated grassroots organizing as the solution to problems that seemed to me to be over all a question of objective facts. Of course many things, even seemingly technical problems, are in fact best solved by grassroots and political organizing. Promoting agricultural production and food security is best achieved through pressuring governments and aid groups to favor farmer access to land and inputs, as opposed to researching new, cutting-edge ag technologies. As a way to address our fossil-fuel dependent society and global warming, Kunstler himself often recommends political measures such as favoring investments in trains and densely-planned cities as opposed to cars and planes and suburban sprawl. Another example of a successful organizational effort to address a problem is this campaign to outlaw toxic substances in personal care products.

But "organizing" to find a cure for AIDS or cancer or even poverty always seemed a silly exercise to me. I just didn't have a language to describe the folly of this type of thinking. Now "organizational hubris" gives me the term I was looking for.

April 11, 2005

Over in Vermont last week, I ran into a gang of biodiesel enthusiasts. Biodiesel is oil extracted from vegetable crops that can be used to run engines and do other things as a replacement for petroleum. They were earnest, forward-looking guys who would like to do some good for their country. But their expectations struck me as fairly crazy, and in a way typical of the bad thinking at all levels of our society these days.
For instance, I asked if it had ever occurred to them that bio-diesel crops would have to compete for farmland that would be needed otherwise to grow feed crops for working animals. No, it hadn't. (And it seemed like a far-out suggestion to them.) Their expectation seemed to be that the future would run a lot like the present, that bio-diesel was just another ingenius, innovative, high-tech module that we can "drop into" our existing system in place of the previous, obsolete module of regular oil.
Their scheme seemed misconceived in the same way as the ultra-high-mileage "hyper-car" that has been pushed for years by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute -- the main effect of which would be to promote the idea (especially among environmentalists!) that we can continue the suburban life of easy motoring. Lovins' even compounded this inanity by locating his institute's new headquarters (a green building!) way up a mountain road in Snowmass, Colorado, where all the employees have to drive cars to work (in four-wheel drive vehicles!).
I notice lately that there are two kinds of hubris operating among the "forward-thinking" classes in America (which is to say, those who are thinking at all). One I call techno-hubris. It represents the idea that there are really no limits to our powers of innovation and it is obviously the product of our experience in the past century, especially of our victory in World War Two and of the 1969 moon landing. The other kind is organizational hubris, the certainty that we can organize our way around the oil bottleneck, global warming, and population overshoot. What both modes of thinking have in common is that neither recognizes the probability that we are moving into a period of discontinuity, turbulence and hardship. Both modes of thinking assume that we can negotiate a smooth transition from where we are now to a new-and-improved human condition.
There is a remarkable consistency in the delusional thinking at every level of American life these days. When Americans think about the future at all, they seem to think it will be pretty much the way we live now. The buyers of 4000 square foot McHouses think that they will be able to continue heating them with cheap natural gas, not to mention commuting seventy miles a day. The stadium builders assume that major league sports will continue just as it is today, with chartered jet planes conveying zillionaire athletes incessently back and forth across the continent. The highway engineers and the municipal planners are focused like lasers on providing more roads and more parking spaces for evermore cars. The architects are designing more skyscrapers, despite the decrepit condition of the electric grid and the frightful situation with our depleting natural gas supply. We're so confident, so sure of ourselves.

When you combine the seven deadly sins with high technology, you get some really serious problems. You get turbo-sins. It's dreadful to imagine what goeth after turbo-pride.

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