Technology, Autocracy, and Extinction

I’ve gone through something of a trauma recently.  Nothing to get excited over, more of an existential thing, or a re-analysis of my own values and outlook on the world.  I have spent so much of the last few years thinking, researching, and studying the history of refrigeration, I nearly forgot the seriousness of the predicament humanity finds itself in today.  Civilization is doomed, and I’ve known it for years, yet somehow in the course of day to day events, I fooled myself into believing it wasn’t really so.  That’s not exactly true; in the course of conversations with people concerning world events, I would invariably shoehorn something in there about the amount of plastic in the oceans, or the depleting aquifers, or the melting methane hydrates in the arctic, or the rapid evolution of pathogens to resist anti-biotics, or the precariousness of mono-crop agriculture, GMOs, oxygen devoid dead zones in the ocean, peak oil, peak copper, peak iron, peak food, peak water, peak civili-fucking-zation- the sheer audacity of industrial civilization trying to grow endlessly on a finite planet.  But alas, these conversations rarely touch on more than two or three of these topics or others, before I was countered with a shoulder shrugged:

“Yeah, but what can you do?”.

Stand and look at the fucking spectacle, that’s what.

When the people around me are unwilling or unable to recognize the big picture- the visibly broken railway track ahead while the fires of civilization are stoked further, I found myself gravitating- no, clinging to something of real importance and impact on society at large: refrigeration.  Since moving to Portland, I became infatuated with the history, technological and aesthetic beauty of domestic refrigerators prior to the 1960s.  Immersing myself in patent literature, and later the social history of refrigeration, an overpowering drive came over me to somehow “re-write” history; to look at the refrigerator of the 1920’s and ask myself, “What would a refrigerator look like today, if cheap energy, planned obsolescence, and intrinsic obsolescence had not adulterated these fine machines into the disposable garbage that they have become?”.  Several blog posts precede this one, describing what it might look like, how it might operate, what it might be made from, and how it could be integrated in the metabolism of the Earth.  The principles and values of such an endeavor, were laid out in text, the actual work being described via YouTube videos.  Never possessing the interest in mass producing such a refrigerator (that would violate the spirit of the project), I merely wished to to explore the physical possibilities of what could have been.  I was perfectly prepared to toil away for the rest of my life, building and sharing the progress (building in secret is lonely and no fun).

A few job opportunities arose during the months and years of the project.  Most did not materialize into anything, largely because I wasn’t interested in re-locating, or in most cases, my bull-headed values got in the way; the technology or industry was absurd in my eyes, so I would chat about the collaboration, but would ultimately drop it.  Fear of success?  Probably, but if I’m going to get paid to do what I love, then I don’t want it to be tainted by issues like marketability, cost, or the demand to feed the machines of mass manufacturing.

It has been that last few correspondents that have shifted my work towards designing and building a low cost refrigerator for the global south, for people that have not yet been “bought off” by the mountain of technological goods and services coming from the empires of industry – people that live without electricity, sewers, extensive roadways, and fast paced lifestyles.  I’m told there are billions without cold storage, and they would live better lives if they could only keep food from spoiling, so perhaps they could get it to market and make some money.  Money.

I thought about and worked on these projects with the belief that it was probably the best bet for me to get out of driving a truck and do something that really benefits people, that is people not yet too far gone and too brainwashed by consumer culture to appreciate a quality made, simple appliance which increases their ability to store calories for themselves and families for later consumption, or take their goods to market.

A “Pure Refrigerator” in my eyes, would be constructed of natural materials, largely locally sourced, assembled within the community without the need for complex machinery or skills.  Such a fridge is modular in construction so repairs are easily made by swapping parts, again with an easily attainable set of skills and little more than a screwdriver.  The design need not evolve for more than a generation of people such that standardization takes place and the fridge becomes a simple and common local tool, under the control of the local people.  “Control” is an important word here and means that no outside force will dictate the local people’s access to the materials and knowledge necessary to build and maintain refrigeration systems.

In reality, this looks to be quite unlikely.  From a a technical standpoint, small domestic refrigeration machines are built with components mined far away, processed, machined, shaped, heat treated, spun, deformed, welded, stamped, injected, or soldered.  They generally require the technical knowledge amassed from hundreds of years of industrial exploration, which in many cases is proprietary and not for public dissemination.  Taken together, it puts local people in a position where decisions made elsewhere by governments, manufacturers, and financial institutions will profoundly affect their lives.  In a word, they lose autonomy.

Depending on your outlook, autonomy is a natural loss in an increasingly globalized world, and should not be mourned for all the miracles of technology and trade will improve the lives of everyone.  Me, I’m not buying it, as I see technology to be fashioning the world to be ugly, tattered, and homogenized.  The clock has been ticking down on globalized industrial society since it began, and arguably on agricultural society as well.  There is only so much surplus to be gained, so much social capital to be exploited, so much waste and abuse the biosphere will accept, and so many resources the Earth can cough up before the whole scheme comes crashing down.  Was it a good idea?  Perhaps not, but we can’t blame one group or person as this is the result of billions of individual actions.

This is a systemic issue.  I am getting off track from my trauma explanation, but like the universe, it’s not linear; shit is complicated.  There’s a few technologies I can think of that have the potential of “fitting the bill” for a locally made and managed refrigerator but they all require steel, copper, and mechanical parts.  Regardless, once people are entering the world market, as mass produced refrigerator from far away will replace any local practice.  That’s what happens, hierarchies displace and destroy local power and authority.  The only suitable refrigerating techniques for a region are the ones developed hundreds or thousands of years prior to industrialization.

It was through considering the challenges and consequences of bringing bringing refrigeration to hunters, fisherman, and agrarians of the global south, that I finally came to terms with my own self imposed blinders regarding yet one more unsustainable and authoritarian technology: domestic refrigeration.  It is impossible for me to give up my passion for the appliances of the 1920s and 30s, and I will probably own one and use it someday.  However, the seriousness of the humanity’s position today, and the irreversible damage done to the planet by industrial civilization, causes me to stare in awe of the massive fuckup that so many people believe is the greatest time in world history.  From a practical standpoint it seems wise to largely remove ties to industrial civilization as much as is reasonable so that impending failures, fits, and convulsions of the amorphous, cancerous beast will affect me less.  Sadly, one would be lucky to escape the effects of acid rain, pollution, untreatable disease, animal extinction, blight, ocean death, and ensuing social turmoil.

The technology so proudly espoused by the champions of industry and the media machine, each come with their own set of values; they are not neutral.  The authoritarian technologies of the last 10,000 years, and especially the last 200 have given rise to social technologies- hierarchies of power granting an individual or group previously unimagined levels of control over the world around them.  Forgetting we are part of this planet and depend on it, not omnipotent gods capable of dominating the universe, we have fooled ourselves into believing we can be happier if only we had a little more.

The consequences of a quest for surplus have become increasingly obvious for hundreds if not thousands of years, in the forms of over logged, over grazed, or over tilled land, but there was always another place to go, another paradise on the horizon which by divine right is ours to devour and move on to the next course.  Our populations grew, as did our appetites, and the march of progress carried on.  The myths of our place in the natural world, our dependence on the biosphere, and experiential wisdom of how to live on this planet were replaced by modern, oversimplified versions of infinitely complex natural phenomenons, and it is by virtue of these grave misunderstandings of our place, and heinous theft without tribute or patronage that we find ourselves in debt.

What do I do with this rattling around in my noodle?  I am entertained, and perhaps made a little wiser, for it is the greatest show on Earth!  It is by far the most interesting thing about the dominant species of the this planet at this time.  It is an honor to bare witness to the cataclysmic force technology has on the potential annihilation of all life on this rock.  Our collective ability to observe and share information about the underlying principles of the physical universe and in turn develop methods to disrupt and make matter and energy to “jump through hoops” at our command, yet faintly still hear the muffled screams of the threatened mother organism beckoning us to stop this madness, compels me to listen to the instincts of my own mind that knows there is something horribly wrong and ugly with this culture.  The full weight of our collective actions, and the inevitable consequences of the ecological overdraft cannot be atoned for by further technological expansion.  It’s traumatic, but god damnit, it is sure an impressive show.

-M.C. Pletcher



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