Technological Neutrality

For ENL, the term economic progress refers only to changes that move an economy towards sustainable well-being. Progress is not equated with increasing output quantity, greater scientific knowledge, or rising technical sophistication.

This position, called technological neutrality, means that ENL's terms, concepts, and analytical tools contain no explicit or implicit judgments about a society's level of scientific and technological development.

The ENL framework thus includes no notions of underdeveloped and developed, or of primitive and advanced. Instead, a society's technologies are neutrally characterized as varying from a low to a high level of complexity.

Technological neutrality is fundamentally important because it counters the ethnocentric prejudices of many otherwise progressive minds, especially in centuries past.

As Jared Diamond said in Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book written precisely to combat such attitudes, "Nineteenth-century authors tended to interpret history as a progression from savagery to civilization."1

Aside from its moral odiousness, the practical problem with such attitudes is that it tends to impose inappropriate economic structures on dominated peoples. Discussing the withdrawal of the colonial powers from their captured territories in the 20th century, journalist Paul Harrison comments:

More serious than anything else, the elites they handed over power to were products of the colonial education system and were schooled in western ways. Instead of pursuing indigenous models of development, almost all of them set out to construct imitation western societies. So modern industry was put up before agriculture, modern skyscrapers had to go up before the masses were housed, modern-sector employees had to be paid enough to enjoy imitation western consumer lifestyles while the majority languished in poverty.2

ENL's technological neutrality implies that an indigenous tribe in Borneo or the Amazon does not progress by industrializing or by adopting Western innovations, but by moving sustainably from a lower to a higher level of well-being. Such changes could entail the selective adoption of Western technologies, but the tribe's economic progress is measured exclusively by the increase in its individual well-being and by the decrease in its overall ecological impact.

Richard Levins, a Marxist biologist who has worked extensively with the Cuban people, precisely captures the ENL perspective:

Progressivist thinking, so powerful in the socialist tradition, expected that developing countries had to catch up with advanced countries along the single pathway of modernization. It dismissed critics of the high-tech pathway of industrial agriculture as 'idealists,' urban sentimentalists nostalgic for a bucolic rural golden age that never really existed. But there was another view, that each society creates its own ways of relating to the rest of nature, its own pattern of land use, its own appropriate technology, and its own criteria of efficiency.3

A second reason for adopting technological neutrality is the relationship between a society's resilience and its level of complexity. The recognized authority on this topic is Joseph Tainter, who studied the relationship in his 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Tainter's main point is that greater social complexity requires additional social investments at each stage, and that these increments eventually generate diminishing returns. As complexity continues to increase, the additional investments may not be sufficient to resolve the escalating problems. Tainter concludes:

At this point, a complex society reaches the phase where it becomes increasingly vulnerable to collapse.4

Other researchers have pointed out that complex social structures depend on highly talented and specially trained people. If a critical number of such people suddenly become unavailable, as could happen in a high-mortality pandemic, collapse could ensue.5

If either thesis is accurate, the only long-term escape appears to be a conscious turn towards a lower level of technological complexity.

Another reason for technological neutrality is that a lower level of complexity may not only be prudent or necessary, it may well be desirable in unsuspected ways. A profound critique of humankind’s present state calls into question not just industrialism or capitalism's economic logic, but civilization itself—that is, the period of agriculture and urbanization that began about 10,000 years ago.6

Jared Diamond addresses this point in his book The Third Chimpanzee. Like many anthropologists today, Diamond rejects the long-held claim that the pre-civilized life of hunter-gatherers was “nasty, brutish, and short”.7

He points out that hunter-gatherers who survive in the modern world, even though they have been pushed off the best land, “generally have leisure time, sleep a lot, and work no harder than their farming neighbors.”8

As Diamond points out, an excellent indicator of nutritional level is height. When farming was introduced, the average height of both men and women decreased sharply.9

Agriculture also led to increased risk because of the rising dependence on only a few crops as food sources, to more disease due to crowding, and to class divisions. The latter were prompted by food surpluses that could support idle elites.

Diamond rebuts the standard objection as follows:

To most American and European readers, the argument that humanity could on average be better off as hunter-gatherers than we are today sounds ridiculous, because most people in industrial societies today enjoy better health than most hunter-gatherers. However, Americans and Europeans are an elite in today’s world, dependent on oil and other materials imported from countries with large peasant populations and much lower health standards.10

The striking truth is this: Humankind lived as hunter-gatherers for 99% of its time on this planet without causing major environmental destruction. In the last 1% of our time, as civilized farmers, we have plunged the world into ecological chaos.

While a return to a pre-civilized mode of living clearly cannot be achieved in time to reverse overshoot, humankind may seek to move in this direction over the longer term. An enlightened economic framework should not dismiss this option.

In brief, ENL sees technological complexity as a choice that a society should make independently. Remaining technologically simple or becoming technologically complex is not a decision about progress, but about people's relationships to their productive activities, to the natural world, and to their fellow human beings.

<prev linear thread next>

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License