I recently discovered Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay, A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be, a far more stimulating piece for broader contemplation than the title suggests. You could also think non-linear if you are better able to picture that.
Le Guin’s use of “cold” refers to the Yin, consolidated, stable, internal, tribal societies of historic California Natives before the arrival of the hot Yang, expanding, invasive, progressive society of white Europeans. But I want to focus on our perception of direction and progress here.
Folks living in western modernist society until now have tended to see technological progress as inevitable and as good since it was expected to solve our problems (caused by the dynamics of progressive society?). Now this perception is being questioned more widely, especially as social inequality is now being seen as a lever of ecological destruction.
Le Guin quotes Howard A. Norman’s introduction to his book The Wishing Bone Cycle, who cites a Swampy Cree saying:
Usà puyew usu wapiw!
“He goes backward, looks forward.” The porcupine consciously goes backward in order to speculate safely on the future, allowing him to look out at his enemy or the new day. To the Cree, it’s an instructive act of self-preservation.
The Swampy Cree saying is an invitation to listen with the sentiment, I go backward, I look forward.
Le Guin’s main point is that if there is a utopia for us to create, the direction to it will likely be roundabout, more back to something left behind than a continuation of present momentum, since the forward movement of modern society is what got us here.
Let’s back away from technology far enough to see the technocracy.
More technology will not save us. Younger readers who have grown up with all the conveniences and wonders of modern hand-held technology may have trouble swallowing this. I think we can agree that we won’t throw better tools out with the bad values of some who espouse them. Please, let us also agree that …
Better cooperation (community) will solve more of our problems than slicker tools.
The lust for technology leads to technocracy.
High tech authoritarianism in any form, no matter how much green washing it comes with, will not get us to humane and ecological living. Painting such technocracy with optimism in our mind’s eye will not prevent the wicked problem complications of greedy powermongers who depend on technology to extend their own power, leaving us always with the lesser versions of those technologies and the longer lasting consequences of the problems.
With a Solarpunk / eco-futuristic movement of balanced, peaceful folks at home in nature and not anticipating the next technological ‘fix’, it is far easier to steer intelligently off this mad highway and take the off ramp to what we left behind. Back to nature need not take us to subsistence minimalism or rejection of innovation.
I am no longer fascinated by more sophisticated technology, but by the innovations born of a utilitarian, naturalist mindset.
I was born in 1970. I lived in a world in which the personal computer was not necessary for business or daily living. I stuck my finger in the numbered loops of rotary phones to call someone. I watched TV on a small black-and-white set that took a few minutes to warm up from a small white point of light to a visible picture.
Community was happening. The youth were being educated. Adults were cooperating.
The greatest progress has been social — learning to include all groups and types of persons in full membership in society. This sets up a broader, more diversely gifted base of human cooperation needed for sustainable human society.
Let that implementation of the golden rule also guide us in how we design and implement technology. Otherwise, what have we gained?
The most significant advance of the modern computer is to create the global platform for the unity of humanity, erasing the continental, cultural, and linguistic boundaries of the past. It is Relational, not task oriented in nature.
It is time to aim innovation at bringing people together reintegrated with nature. What we need are better human values directing our tools, not just better tools. If you love your devices, but can’t stand people you won’t be part of the revolution. And let’s redefine “better.”
Now we can collect the best that humanity has created in its variations worldwide and implement them, one and all, in any given community.
The real potency and quality of life on Earth is found in Nature itself.
The only real significant technological developments left for us to live better on Earth are those of biomimicry and the like. The mechanical must take a back step to biology and botany and learn to merge with them. This approach to technology will move away from the mechanical, ease up on the electronic and veer towards biological models. Larger and faster wheels will simply flatten larger portions of our planet with greater rapidity. Faster exchange of information between ever more modernist minds will become a race off the planet, not a harmonious integration with nature’s full offerings here on Earth.
Back to the Future – Not all innovation leans forward.
Sometimes the best innovations are simple reworkings of ancient innovations.
Tired of trees being cut down to make paper? How about lobbying for full legalization of hemp, a grassy genus (Cannabis) outlawed as “marijuana” most of a century ago. It is one of the most renewable ways to make paper, and many other things like textiles for clothing and even long-lasting building materials.
Geothermal energy. Tidal power. Solar power is everywhere in varying degrees.
The old world village redesigned with sustainable ecology.
The windmills of the past.
What natural power exists in your locality? The world of a peaceful tomorrow exists in those powers of nature close at hand that can be owned by local communities instead of purchased from the promises of plutocrats and technocrats.
Le Guin’s point of going back instead of forward deserves to be contemplated deeply.
Utopia may first be a tangential retreat to a sheltered place protected from the hard grinding wheels of so-called progress. Humanity missed the turn to its destination. It is time to veer off the highway, onto the off-ramp, come to a stop on the feeder road, then take a left turn under the bridge and reverse our previous course. The destination for humanistic optimists is still there waiting for our arrival.
There are human relational innovations to be created there. Many will find healing there. It is ours to create.
We’ll never see it if we don’t halt the forward push of so-called progress on our individual lives. Time to be alert like a porcupine, back into a safe place, while looking forward.
Think the retreating porcupine analogy sounds weak? Take a look at this video:
Thanks to the Solarpunk Anarchists facebook page for sharing Le Guin’s article. By the way, if you are hesitant about anything associated with anarchism, it is probably best to understand it as governmental minimalism that totally rejects hierarchies in favor of voluntary organization. Anarchism is a philosophy of non-compulsion that believes hierarchies interfere with human voluntary cooperation. It sees that voluntary cooperation can more directly solve problems through human creativity rather than force of law or violence. That means real democratic decision making at the local level of face-to-face dealings with others in our community. It is related to localism, libertarian socialism, anti-statism, anti-authoritarianism, and democracy. Le Guin contributed to it as a peace and people-loving imaginative artist could. So I present it for your consideration.