"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Tilting at Windmills

To be critical of a society is to invite a variety of staid, boorish, and simply hostile responses. Common amongst these retorts are those that do not attempt to engage in debate in any meaningful way but instead make use of the logical fallacy of attacking the advocate. With a mock confounded or cruel tone it is pondered rhetorically how these criticisms can be made by people who – in the main – enjoy benefits from the society they criticize, or clearly make use of the technological tools made available through the systems they decry. Such arguments are the slightly more mature cousin to the rejoinder: “What!? And go back to living in caves!? Why don’t you go live in a cave!?”

Granted, accusing others of being troglodytes is an excellent way of masking one’s own fear of sunlight.

At the face of it these hyperbolic responses are plainly absurd, yawn inducing, and really rather unoriginal. The idea that one cannot be critical of a society that one is a part of is a view that lacks any awareness of what it means to be critical (or ethically engaged). While a stance that assumes that those with a critique of an economic system should refrain from using technologies obtained through that economic system are muddling debates between economic systems and technological forms (though the two are certainly linked). In other words: a person can live in an industrialized-capitalist nation and have a critique of the prevailing economic system without being a hypocrite. Likewise one can make use of commonly used communication technologies without ascribing to the holy writ of Silicon Valley. And yet, let us acknowledge that some of the reason that these mocking gibes make some folks bristle with such indignation is that they manage to scratch at an uncomfortable point.

The recent spate of climate change actions drew huge numbers of people to the streets in countries around the world – with a massive gathering bringing hundreds of thousands to the street in Manhattan. While these rallies were host to a variety of viewpoints (from Christians to pagans and from green capitalists to anti-capitalists) the main unifying objective of the marches was to create a political climate in which politicians felt public pressure to take serious action regarding climate change. After all, it seems that hardly a week goes by that does not bring with it another serious report warning that the time to take serious action to arrest the advance of climate change may have been several months ago.

Unrelenting doom and negative emotions can be rather poor organizing slogans – confronting people with apocalyptic scenarios may result in people throwing up their hands and declaring “so, what’s the point!?” instead of readying their hands for hard work. Thus the prevailing emotion at many of the climate rallies seemed to be one of measured – read: cautious – optimism, a feeling that was certainly bolstered by the numbers that these marches managed to mobilize. To risk a slight generalization (which may or may not be unfair), it seems that one of the main sources of hope was a belief that there are “greener” choices that can be made – alternative energy solutions that can be pursued to unplug our societies from the types of fuels that have exacerbated the climate crisis.

Indeed, right in time for the main march The World Future Council released an impressive policy handbook titled “How to Achieve 100% Renewable Energy,” a report in which the key takeaway is largely that what is missing is the political will to act. Thus the part of the title to focus on is “how to” as the examples that the report sites are in the main moving towards 100% renewables, but have not quite reached this laudable goal as of yet. Which is not to mock Frankfurt am Main (Germany), the Fukushima Prefecture (Japan), Cape Verde, Tuvalu, or the other cities/regions/nations used as case studies for their efforts; however, one of the buried takeaways of the report is that even where there is political will achieving “100% Renewable Energy” is a mighty challenge. Particularly as one area can make the switch but unless these changes are made a planet wide scale the conclusion may wind up being the same.

That 100% renewable energy is a goal that can and should be struggled for seems fairly evident – and only somebody who has not read it could accuse the World Future Council’s report of being an anti-capitalist document (filled as it is with reminders that the switch to renewables creates jobs and economic growth). And yet there is something about the promise of 100% renewable energy, that seems to say that we can keep our energy consumption up and keep the planet healthy too. We are seeing a new definition of the adage “tilting at windmills” being born, but instead of this referring to attacking illusory enemies it is now coming to mean charging furiously towards a goal that in the end may still knock us off of our collective horse (a horse which we can name planet Earth [it’s actually not such a great name for a horse, {but, I digress}]). Which is to say – if we are to pursue solutions that promise “sustainability” must we not also consider what is sustainable in the first place? Are windmills, solar panels, and other green-tech dreams not just a less clearly corporate version of the present obsession with finding technological solutions to problems created by technology? Once more Lewis Mumford’s warning is worth remembering:

“Let no one imagine that there is a mechanical cure for this mechanical disease.” (Mumford, 50)

And thus we return to the discomfort that is experienced when somebody decries environmental activists for the fact that they attend climate rallies with smart phones in hand – for what this barb manages to successfully strike at is a subconscious suspicion (carried by many activists) that maybe some of the tools we have come to rely upon are part of the problem. We are encouraged to dream of charging our smart phones and laptops with 100% renewable energy – but seldom are we made to question the full environmental implications of such devices.

Frankly put, consumer electronics (at least in their current form) are not sustainable.

It would be easy to point here to the fact that these devices are filled with rare earth materials mined in horrific conditions, that the chemical processes necessary to create circuit boards and the like leave toxic traces, that they are assembled in exploitative factories, and that ultimately the devices come to leech toxins in unseen e-waste dumps. Yet one need not delve into the aforementioned environmental-ethical thicket to make the case that consumer electronics have a sustainability problem – for tech companies make this argument quite clearly themselves. Shortly before the wave of climate actions the tech company Apple unveiled their newest iPhone, along with a new operating system that will not work on some older models of the phone – but in our discussions of sustainability we too rarely ask if this cycle of planned obsolescence is sustainable. That which these tech firms are attempting to sustain is their rate of profit, not the planet.

This is not to say that all consumer electronics must immediately be renounced, though such is the caricature to which these concerns are often reduced. Yet it is to indicate some of the very real discomfort surrounding climate change stems from a fear that those who have lived lives of plenty may have to make some difficult choices. Decisions that shift from “buying greener” to ones that twin “buying greener” with “consuming less” – particularly in such spheres where such rapid consumption has negative environmental dividends. For the time to replace a smart phone or a similar device is not when a company unveils a new model, but when the device currently possessed has ceased functioning. Or, to put it another way, we are likely all familiar with the saying “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” – but the problem is that we have taken to recycling our soda cans and the cardboard boxes our Amazon orders came in without remembering that we also need to “reduce” and “reuse.”

Though the issue at the moment is one that is truly time sensitive it is worth recalling that the questions surrounding mass consumption – consequences be darned – are not new. The mocking response that many environmental activists meet is Janus faced – those who throw these insults do aim to disparage those marching in the name of climate justice, but they simultaneously are speaking of their own fear. For it may be that the thing we fear more than climate change is having to admit that we need to give things up. When what we have is a key component of who we are, the thought of having less seems synonymous with being less – this was a problem that Ivan Illich considered decades ago:

“Most people have staked their self-images in the present structure and are unwilling to lose ground. They have found security in one of the several ideologies that support further industrialization. They feel compelled to push the illusion of progress in which they are hooked. They long for and expect increased satisfaction, with less input of human energy and with more division of competence.” (Illich, 44)

Uncomfortable as the above words may be they cut to the true core of the line that mocks those who are environmentally engaged for their usage of the tools of technological society. Yet at the same time, Illich’s discussion of “the several ideologies” presents a warning against turning the environmental and ethical need for renewable energy into just another industrialized ideology. Climate change presents humanity with many grave challenges that only become the more perplexing the longer we put off facing them, but as stated above we must face these with a Janus head: looking simultaneously out at the world and back at ourselves. Especially when doing so makes us ask uncomfortable questions.

When aiming our lances and preparing to charge we need to be mindful that sometimes an illusory solution is as perilous as an imaginary enemy – for Don Quixote felt assured of victory when he spurred Rocinante and charged at the windmills. Yet his certainty did not prevent him from being unhorsed.

As we survey the effects that climate change is having upon our planet let us acknowledge the role of the windmills on the hill – but let us refrain from tilting at them. And let us consider that the digital devices that we have taken to be our armor, may actually be a dangerously weak point in our defenses.

Works Cited

Illich, Ivan. Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.

Related Content

“The Courage to Be Afraid”

Speeding Towards a Slowdown

Riddled With Questions – Interrogating Technology

A Mechanical Moses

Hope Comes Pre-installed

Are We Technologically Literate?


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

5 comments on “Tilting at Windmills

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