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9 September 2019updated 19 Sep 2023 4:54pm

Why our relationship with technology is destroying the planet

Writing shortly after the Second World War, the philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that we must break free from our use of technology to address the climate crisis.

By Aaron James Wendland

Hardly a day passes without a major news story about climate change and the damage we are doing to our natural habitat. Rising global temperatures, melting arctic sea ice, plastic contamination in the ocean, a steep increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and mass species extinction epitomise the changes currently taking place on our planet.

Given the threat these transformations pose to life on Earth, environmental activists like Greta Thunberg have called on world leaders to drop the language of “climate change” and instead speak of a “climate crisis” or a “climate emergency”. The Canadian and UK parliaments heeded these calls. But what is causing this crisis? What are the exact consequences? And how are we to respond?

In an influential essay written in the ruins of the Second World War, Martin Heidegger characterised the reduction of the natural world to resources for production and consumption as the crisis of modernity. Heidegger claimed this crisis is rooted in our technological worldview. Its consequences include a loss of the sacred, the violation of nature, and the destruction of our home. To adequately address our climate emergency, Heidegger thought, we need to break free from our self-serving use of technology.

According to Heidegger, our modern technological worldview emerged with the scientific revolution in the 17th century, and is exemplified by the mathematical models of nature we use to manipulate and control our surroundings. The precision with which our scientific and mathematical theories measure and predict natural processes allow us to produce technological devices that are capable of altering or harnessing the natural world for our own ends. As René Descartes famously said in 1637: “[by] knowing the force and the action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all other bodies that surround us’ we may render ourselves the ‘masters and possessors of nature”.

Heidegger, for his part, wrote about the way we use our mathematical representations of nature to divide the world into “calculable bits of matter” and therefore ensure “certainty in governing and planning”. In fact, he thought our application of science and technology reduced the natural world to a stock of resources waiting to be used at our beck and call.

Rivers are transformed into hydro-electric dams; forests are treated as timber for our homes; the wind is harnessed to charge our smartphones; humans themselves are described as resources to be used by public ministries and private corporations. As Heidegger put it, by quantifying nature in this way, we turn the world into “a gigantic petrol station”.

Although he acknowledged that modern science had material benefits, Heidegger worried that its power had blinded us to the dangers of treating the natural world as a resource for production and consumption. A self-serving, perfunctory use of technology, he warned, leads to sacrilege, violence and destruction – the very attitudes our current climate emergency is founded upon.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the ascendancy of modern technology, the medieval religious order regarded nature as part of a sacred, life-sustaining system – one that isn’t subject to the arbitrary exercise of human will. Although Heidegger wasn’t committed to any given religious doctrine, he saw the life-sustaining power of nature as worthy of respect and thought it should check our wilful self-assertion.

Contemporary attempts to manipulate and control the natural world have eroded our sense of the sacred. And when we use our science and technology to master and possess nature, Heidegger warned, we force nature to “fit the frame of mind of man’s command” – and end up in a world in which man “always and only sees himself”. Today, human activity has led to the astroturfing of the environment: complex ecosystems have been cleared away for monocrops, grasslands paved over, and formerly diverse landscapes poisoned by pesticides.

This exploitation is a form of violence against the natural world. Taking his example from Aristotle, Heidegger suggested that animals, plants, and geological forces have “ends” of their own. There are, for example, optimal conditions for a pheasant or fir tree to grow, and the unimpeded flow of an estuary balances and supports a host of ecosystems. Yet when we engage in factory farming, clearcutting, or damming, we violate the natural state of pheasants, fir trees, and estuaries. And again, this degradation is achieved through our use of science and technology – and it is done so we can satisfy our own ends.

Ironically, reducing the natural world to resources for human consumption leads to the destruction of our home. Heidegger noted that a home provides us with safety and sustenance, but it can only serve this function if it is well maintained. When it comes to our natural habitat, maintaining it involves respecting and protecting the integrity of our life-sustaining ecosystem. Reducing the planet to a stock of energy brings about the destruction of our habitat, slowly but steadily demolishing our only home.

Heidegger believed we have become so enthralled with the power of science and technology that our use of nature serves an unquestioned and endless cycle of production and consumption. And this means our first step in response to the climate emergency is to twist ourselves free from this self-serving, uncritical use of technology.

He thought this freedom could be achieved through a form of “wilful non-willing” that releases us from our selfish activities and puts us in a position to interact with nature in a sustainable way. Of course, “wilful non-willing” sounds contradictory, but the basic idea is straightforward: we need to resist the tendency to reduce the natural world to a resource.

The Native American backlash against the Dakota Access Pipeline as well as the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, both epitomise this kind of resistance. Greta Thunberg, too, is a powerful example of how a movement can disrupt the global cycle of production and consumption; in her recent speech at Davos, she demanded business executives do whatever they can to “stop our house from burning”.

Yet resistance and calls to action are only the beginning. What we ultimately need is an alternative to the technological worldview that has governed our interaction with nature since the 17th century. Heidegger accordingly wanted us to engage in various forms of reflective and creative thinking. And while he didn’t work out the details of a new point of view, his diagnosis of the dangers that follow from our use of science and technology does provide a few clues.

A viable alternative to our exploitative worldview is one that protects the integrity of our life-sustaining ecosystems, by respecting the ends of other organisms and checking the arbitrary exercise of human power. Heidegger spoke of “letting things be”, and of shifting our mindset from “masters and possessors of nature” to “shepherds of being”.

This idea of shepherding suggests the policies that simultaneously preserve the natural world and ensure our own well-being; whether those contained in the Paris Climate Agreement or Green New Deal could even begin to adequately protect our life-sustaining ecosystems is an open question. But one thing is clear ahead of the UN’s Climate Action Summit: with rising temperatures and mass extinction, we can no longer afford to reduce nature to a stock of resources waiting to be used at our command. In Heidegger’s words, we need “a new ground and foundation” from which we can “confront the dangers of modern technology”, and “dwell in the world in a totally different way”.

Aaron James Wendland is assistant professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics and the co-editor of Heidegger on Technology. He moderates the New Statesman’s philosophy series Agora, and tweets @ajwendland.   

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