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‘Twas Ever Thus
The problems of biotechnology are in one respect like the problems of any technology. All discoveries, however beneficial, have unwanted side effects, and any technology can be used to good or bad ends. Hence there is no technological advance that is not greeted, at some stage, by protests. History does not record the protests that surrounded the invention of the wheel. But it certainly records the protests that surrounded the invention of the railways. For the great critic and social philosopher John Ruskin, the railways were a ruthless assault on rural tranquility: they destroyed the sense of place, they uprooted settled communities, they overran the countryside with steel-clad ugliness and urban sprawl. They set us all in motion, when the true point of human life, Ruskin thought, was to stay quietly where we were. Oddly enough, the railway bridges and stations of England were built according to aesthetic principles influenced through and through by Ruskin’s writings, and in particular by The Stones of Venice; they are looked back on now with intense nostalgia, as symbols of peace, place, and distance. And campaigners against automobiles adduce railways as their ideal of a safe, environmentally friendly, and aesthetically pleasing link from place to place across a continent.

Even if Ruskin’s protest against the railways has lost its persuasive force, it belongs to a habit of mind that is one of our deepest instincts. For Ruskin, the railways threatened one of the fixed points in our moral universe, which was the earth itself–the earth that provides the food we eat, the water we drink, and the stones with which we build. There is a natural way of using the earth, which is to respect it as our home. When we build, we must treat the land as a place of settlement, into which our lives are harmlessly slotted like those of fish in the sea. In a similar vein, contemporary environmentalists complain that by exploiting the earth for our ephemeral purposes, we treat as a means what should be respected as an end.

Like Ruskin, environmentalists who lament the costs of present knowledge tend to forget the costs of former ignorance. Burning wood caused the deforestation of Europe, the desertification of North Africa, and the drying up of lakes and rivers all over the Middle East. This was an environmental catastrophe, which could have been prevented had the Romans and other ancients known what we know about soil erosion, microclimates, and the chemistry of carbon. The environmental problems that we confront today are not going to be cured by returning to old ways of life or old ways of extracting energy. It is not technology that has caused our environmental problems but incompetent technology–technology that has failed to address the real question, of how to extract energy without damaging the planet. As Butler might have said to the inhabitants of Erewhon, Don’t destroy the machines; let the machines take over. But first make sure they are correctly programmed.

However, that response does not get to the heart of the current anxiety. Our desire for a controlled environment wars with our sense that some things ought to be beyond our control–things like the tides, the seasons, the movement around us of the elemental forces on which we depend. To attempt to bring them under control is, we believe, to challenge fate, whose only law is the law of unintended consequences.

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Credit: Sam Weber

Tagged: Communications

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