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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Oxygen Catastrophe (p. 320)

From chapter "Technotopia"

A few years ago, at the online Derrick Jensen discussion group, a new poster started saying things like “we don’t need to worry about environmental catastrophe. All of this pollution is just a new nutrient. At one point oxygen was a deadly pollutant to most creatures and caused a massive extinction, but look how well that turned out. Really, industrial civilization is just a totally natural step in our planet’s evolution.”

The poster did get one thing right. When life first appeared on Earth, there was very little oxygen gas in the air or dissolved in water. Photosynthesis had not evolved yet, so only limited sources of energy were available, mostly from digesting various chemicals like hydrogen sulfide.

When photosynthesis did evolve, about 2.7 billion years ago, it was the start of big changes. For anaerobic organisms, oxygen is toxic. And when oxygen became widespread in the atmosphere, it caused the death of those anaerobic species who couldn’t hide themselves underground or evolve to tolerate the gas. This event is called the Oxygen Catastrophe, or sometimes, more optimistically, the Oxygen Revolution Many species did go extinct.

But the poster had a bunch of things wrong, too. There are some big differences between current events and the Oxygen Revolution. First, that event involved the production of really just one chemical. It’s pretty conceivable to me that life could evolve to tolerate one new chemical, but modern industry is producing thousands upon thousands of new toxins. And second, the issue of time. Evolution takes time. Between the evolution of photosynthesis and the oxygen-induced extinctions around 300 million years passed. Most modern pollutants have been around for less than a century.

We could outline other differences, too, but I think the main distinction is on the long-term impact on life on this planet. Photosynthesis allowed life on Earth to make use of energy from the sun, instead of relying on small amounts of chemical energy from (mostly) underground. Although some species did go extinct, because of the change the planet can support a far larger and more diverse population of life than it could before. An oxygen rich atmosphere also allowed the evolution of large, fast moving, warm-blooded animals (ourselves included). All that sounds like a net improvement for life.

But industrial civilization isn’t offering that at all. In fact, it’s decreasing the population and diversity of living creatures in general. In addition, it’s shifted human society from relying on solar energy to relying on small (and short-lived) amounts of chemical energy from underground, now in the form of fossil fuels. And civilization is taking oxygen out of the air and replacing it with the gases carbon dioxide and methane, essentially moving the atmosphere slowly back towards what it was like before the Oxygen Revolution.

The poster on the discussion group was arguing that industrial pollution was the same as the Oxygen Revolution. But in every way that matters, it appears to be the opposite.


This attempt to naturalize industrialized ecocide by equating it with great ecological changes of the past is something I’ve seen many times. Of course, it’s now generally accepted that human beings—specifically industrial civilization—are causing one of the largest mass extinctions in our planet’s history. If you’re reading this book, you’ll probably agree that’s not a good thing. However, it’s also been argued that since mass extinctions have happened in the past they are natural, and therefore good, implying that it’s okay for industrial civilization to destroy the planet.

This is a bit like saying that because someone fell out of a tree and broke her leg that it’s then okay to run over her with a truck. Just because something happened in the past doesn’t make it right to replicate it. Especially since some mass extinctions were caused by things like asteroid impacts, which are essentially unpredictable and unplanned accidents in ecological terms.

Moreover, the current mass extinction—what’s called the Holocene mass extinction—is markedly different from mass extinctions of the past. Yes, something like an asteroid impact kills a lot of individual creatures, as well as many species, and it changes the planet’s ecology. Well, that’s happening now, you might say. The difference is that when those mass extinctions pruned the tree of life, they also allowed it to branch out again. Mass extinctions cleared habitat and ecological niches, leaving room for new species to evolve. These extinctions may be followed by an explosion of radiative evolution, in which nature has room to try out new and experimental ways of living. Some evolutionary traits are lost, but many are gained.

However, for this to happen there must be room. The activities of industrial civilization now destroy or reduce habitat in the long term. Cities and roads are paved over and inhospitable. Farms wipe out ecosystems and replace them with a few domesticated species. This kind of habitat reduction and ecological imperialism means there’s no room for the kind of explosive evolution we’ve seen in the past.

That is, of course, unless civilization collapses, and farms and cities begin to return to wild habitat, a subject to which we’ll soon return.

In the technotopia we’re describing, of course, this does not happen at all. Instead, human impacts continue to grow, with farms for biodiesel and bioplastics expanding rather than contracting. A technotopia would make the Holocene extinction permanent, and leave the tree of life crippled forever.


A couple of years ago I was sitting with a friend of mine, talking about peak oil, the collapse of civilizations, and related ideas. This friend worked on community gardens, helped people repair their bicycles, dumpster dove, and generally lived a pretty low-impact life. So it surprised me when partway through the conversation he said, “Well, we don’t need to worry about any of that, because we can just grow food in orbital space colonies and ship it down to Earth.”

I was dumbstruck. I didn’t even know how to answer. I must have missed the point where we stumbled into bizarro-land, I thought. He might as well have said that magical pixies were going to end world hunger, or that Xandraxis from the Fifth Dimension was going to teleport in and make new rainforests grow out of discarded coffee cups.

Partly I was surprised because this wasn’t a stupid guy. He was pretty smart, as, I presume, are a lot of people who are attracted to the technotopian solution. But a belief in technotopia is essentially a form of magical thinking. And not even magical thinking in that Starhawk-style of think-positive-but-still-do-activism kind of way. The problem is, since the idea of technotopia is disguised in high-tech terminology, people don’t think of it as magic.

Magical thinking, if you recall, is sometimes defined as, “The erroneous belief that one’s thoughts, words, or actions will cause or prevent a specific outcome in some way that defies commonly understood laws of cause and effect,” or more succinctly as “a conviction that thinking is equivalent to doing”. This seems to sum up many beliefs about industrial technology, and sometimes activism, especially pacifist activism that proposes things like “meditating for world peace.” The die-hard pacifist, and the die-hard technotopian both believe that just thinking hard enough will solve any problem, either through cosmic vibrations or new technologies.

When I was writing this section, the amazing activist and writer Lierre Keith told us she couldn’t wait for the section to be finished. “Technotopia is where progressives have gone to die,” she told me, “and the idea is in serious need of debunking.” It’s true, and I think it’s fairly evident why that is. Anyone who cares about human welfare, social justice, or ecology can see that the planet is in a lot of trouble. There are more people every day, consuming more every day. Those in power are getting more powerful every day, and the gap between them and everyone else continues to widen. Ecological limits are being trampled. And these basic trends have been at work, with a few interruptions and collapses, essentially since the beginning of civilization. Environmentalism has failed to stop or reverse global destruction, and many of the social justice gains that have been made are now dependent on the goodwill of governments or on the surplus production of a system which is itself unsustainable and based on exploitation. In other words, it’s clear to intelligent people, and painful to sensitive people, that we’re in a lot of trouble and that our efforts to deal with that have so far been pretty ineffective.


So what do you do if the odds are against you, if the situation is incredibly complex, and you don’t see a way out that doesn’t involve a lot more pain and suffering for a lot of people? Sometimes you cope by pretending that everything is going to be all right in the end, because that makes it a bit easier to get through the day, and maybe that helps you to do work that is important and valuable. If you’ve been raised by a society of God-fearing men and women, maybe that belief is in heaven or the Second Coming. On the other hand, if you’ve been raised by a society of gadget-loving Star Trek watchers constantly shown a future where technology has ended poverty and where even the most dire problems can be solved by reversing the polarity on the deflector dish, maybe you have a different belief.

There’s no question that industrial technology is good at solving certain problems. But drawbacks include: industrial technology depends on a large-scale and centralized society; those in power choose the problems it will address; and every problem it does solve creates a cascade of new problems.

In any case, those who believe that orbital space colonies or the like will feed us in the future won’t be moved by technical arguments to the contrary. Although the belief is ostensibly one of science, they won’t be impressed by discussion of energy return on energy invested, or the technicalities of carrying capacity or nutrient recycling. The belief that technology will solve all of our problems is a comforting article of faith.

In the end, technotopia offers a pacifying false hope. It used to be that the discontented masses were promised “pie in the sky when you die,” mediated by a class of theocrats. In the more “rational” modern age many people won’t believe religious promises of the afterlife. So a new promise, predicated on the same model, promises a future of technological bounty, mediated by a class of technocrats. In both cases, the promise serves to lull and distract potential dissidents, and prevent them from taking responsibility into their own hands.