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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

Failure of Imagination (p. 220)

From chapter "The Dictatorship of the Machine"

Let’s discuss electricity, and through that discussion, look at one of the ways authoritarian technics can destroy our ability to imagine.

One of the (many) ways this culture is killing the planet is through a lack of imagination. I think about this all the time, but I especially thought about this in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, and especially in light of three pretty typical responses I read soon after, each showing less imagination than the one before.

The first came from global warming activist George Monbiot (who normally writes much better stuff), who, just ten days after the earthquake and tsunami, wrote in the Guardian, “As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.” His position was that the catastrophe—the mass release of highly toxic radiation—was caused not by the routine production and concentration of highly radioactive materials, but rather by a natural disaster combined with “a legacy of poor design and corner-cutting.” If the Technocrats can just design this monstrous process better, he seems to believe, they can continue to produce and concentrate highly radioactive materials without causing more accidents. Similar arguments were made after Oak Ridge, Windscale, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. And of course similar arguments are made every time any authoritarian technics leads to disaster, such as Bhopal, Valdez, and Deepwater Horizon. And of course each time we swallow it anew. You’d think by now we’d all know better. And you’d think it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination to see how routinely performing an action as stupendously dangerous as the intentional concentration of highly toxic and radioactive materials would render their eventual catastrophic release not so much an accident as an inevitability, with the question of if quickly giving way to the questions of when, how often, and how bad.

I think the reference we’re looking for here is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The second comment I read came from someone who did not have George Monbiot’s advantage of living half a world away from the radioactive mess. In late March of that year, an official with the Japanese nuclear regulatory agency told the Wall Street Journal that Japan is not reconsidering nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, because “Japan couldn’t go forward without nuclear power in order to meet its demand for energy today.” He said that a significant reduction in nuclear power would result in blackouts, then added, “I don’t think anyone could imagine life without electricity.” There’s nothing surprising about his response. Most exploiters cannot imagine life without the benefits of their exploitation, and, perhaps more importantly, cannot imagine that anyone else could imagine going through life being any less exploitative than they are. Many slave owners cannot imagine life without slave labor. Many pimps cannot imagine life without prostituting women. Many abusers cannot imagine life without those they routinely abuse. And many addicts cannot imagine life without their addictions, whether to heroin, crack, television, the internet, entitlement, power, economic growth, technological escalation, electricity, or industrial civilization.

The failure of imagination at work here is stunning, or at least it would be had we not already rendered ourselves relatively insensate by our addiction or enslavement to these authoritarian technics, these technics that have become some of this culture’s assumptions which must never be questioned. Humans have lived without industrially-generated electricity for nearly all of our existence; we thrived on every continent except Antarctica. And for nearly all those years, the majority of humans lived sustainably and comfortably. And let’s not forget the many traditional Indigenous peoples (plus another almost 2 billion people) who are living without electricity today. The Japanese official is so lacking in imagination that he can’t even imagine that they exist.

George Monbiot, in his Guardian article, asks some questions about living without industrial electricity: “How do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways—not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels?”

These rhetorical questions are problematical for multiple reasons. The first is that he explicitly identifies with those processes, technics, and people who are killing the planet, and not the real world. How differently would we react to his rhetorical questions if we changed just a few words? “How do the capitalists drive their textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways—not to mention advanced industrial processes. Rooftop solar panels?”

The answer? Not our problem. And unless the capitalists can come up with a way to perform these actions without harming other communities, including nonhuman communities, then the real problem we face is: how do we stop them?

Once you break your identification with the system, with the authoritarian technics that are driving planetary murder, your language and your actions become very different. Once you identify with the real, living planet, everything changes.