We pride ourselves on the ingenuity of our society and believe we will be able to think our way out of any problems. James Scott calls this blind faith in technology “high modernism,” described as:
a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technological progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. [Scott 1999, 4]
High modernism is not science. It is the unwavering belief that the science will be able to overcome all problems. The largest implementation of high modernism may have been the Soviet and Maoist agricultural reforms of the 1930s and 1950s, respectively, but we have seen the same ideology continue to drive industrial agriculture since the green revolution of the 1960s. Even neo-Malthusians, such as Paul Ehrlich (1968) and Julian Cribb (2010), cite technological innovation as one way to stave off their predicted famines.
High Modernism’s influence has spread far beyond our food system, though. We all have friends and loved ones who are unworried by a changing climate because of the conviction that scientists will innovate our way out of the coming crisis. “We’ll be able to synthesize food, energy, and the baubles that make life worth living,” they say. “We’ll build seawalls to protect New York, London, and other low-lying metropolises and crank up the air conditioners when Canada and Northern Europe get hot.” Who can blame them? The Romans, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Maya, proudly looked around their cities and felt invincible under the protection of benevolent gods, kings, and priests: “Have faith! The gods will save us!” We cannot dismiss their beliefs as mere superstition since our own belief in the infinite power of our technology blinds us to the dangers we have created: “Never fear! Science will circumvent any problem!”
Cribb, Julian. 2010. The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ehrlich, Paul. 1968.The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.
Scott, James C. 1999. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Excerpt from forthcoming book EcoGuerrillas.