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Letting Go of Progress in the Late(?) Atomic Age: Transhumanism and Environmental Justice June 9, 2012

Posted by Summerspeaker in Environmental justice, Technology, Transhumanism.
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Yesterday I received a crash course in the lingering joys of uranium mining via Bluewater Valley Downstream Alliance. Despite decades of lies and bureaucratic dawdling, this community group continues to push for complete cleanup of the local water table and the relocation of a tailings pile to site safe for the long term. As it’s waged through government agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Environmental Protection Agencies, the struggle involves attending dreary meetings and combing behemoth reports to discover and decipher the elaborate technical arguments the company makes in order to evade responsibility and thus spend the least money possible. I admittedly found myself out of my element at the NRC hearing, though the courage and passion of the BVDA folks there secured by admiration.

Organizations like Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment link BVDA to the broader movement for environmental justice here in the Southwest. The Grants area is just one part of region reeling from the United States and global nuclear complex. Under two hundred miles away at Los Alamos on land scared to various Pueblo peoples, J. Robert Oppenheimer and friends initiated the atomic age by succeeding in their noble endeavor of building a better bomb. On the bus over to Grants in the morning, I read parts of Joseph Masco’s The Nuclear Borderlands, which details the raise of LANL and its effect on northern New Mexico. The atomic era has been a contradictory tale of triumphant nationalist fantasy, mutually assured destruction, booming economic growth, ecological devastation, and planet-wide radioactive contamination. There’s no consensus on how many cancer deaths ionizing radiation from the nuclear industry – both military and civilian – has caused to date, but various estimates get well into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. A 2003 study from the European Committee on Radiation Risk rejects the dominant model employed by the International Commission on Radiological Protection and predicts 61.6 million global cancer fatalities instead of the ICRP’s 1.17 million.

Both figures stand out as significant and refute the extraordinary claims of safety often made by advocates of nuclear power. The debate rages back and forth, but if the ECRR model has any accuracy, then atmospheric nuclear weapons tests loom as one the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century. Given the competition, that’s really saying something. Regardless of the outcome of that theoretical controversy around radiation, I’m provisionally convinced that the weight of the evidence justifies the skepticism exhibited by BVDA and other environmental justice groups about the official line on nuclear dangers. They primarily operate within that framework, but informally point to local cancer clusters and insist on levels of cleanup that perhaps appear overly cautious from canonical perspective. Considering how – as one of many examples deception – the mining company sat on information that drinking water had reached officially hazardous levels of contamination for close to fifteen years, they have a firm experiential basis for doubt and caution.

What does transhumanism have to offer the struggle for environmental justice at either the practical or theoretically level? So far I’ve seen negligible attention paid to the damage the industrial and technoscientific system routinely inflicts on communities and land bases. Many in the transhumanist and Singularity movement adore nuclear energy and dismiss opponents as confused if not deranged. At best, transhumanists and Singularitarians gush about techno-fixes to environmental problems. Ray Kurzweil, for instance, assures us that solar is on exponential trend and we shouldn’t worry.

We need to do better than invocations of inevitable progress. Behind Kurzweil’s graphs lies a consistent history of wanton resource exploitation, reckless pollution, and intense human suffering. These things go hand in hand with all forms of modern technology. I share the dream of a just and sustainable technological society but don’t believe we’ve much hope of getting there without recognizing the harm caused by existing industrial arrangements and adamantly supporting struggles for environmental justice as a part of a expansive revolutionary platform. If we can’t reach our H+ aspirations without victims, I don’t want to go. (I’m hardly in the front of line for enhancements under the existing system anyway, so I’ve got little to lose from this position.)

I part ways with many – though not all – other transhumanists by opposing the progress narrative. Industrial capitalism isn’t on some inexorable trend toward awesome. We don’t necessarily live better than our ancestors, either distant or recent. The material benefits of modernity come coupled with vast social and psychological costs. My brand of futurism takes alienation and dissatisfaction as its core. I’m not content to either continue walking through this grey nightmare of discipline and repression or return to the tender mercies of parasites and bacteria in the forest. Combined with egalitarian and anti-authoritarian forms human organization – whether drawn from anarchism, indigenous traditions, religious communalism, or what have you – technoscience does present the potential for radically better world.

That’s it. The law of accelerating returns gives us space to imagine positive transformation. I find Kurzweil’s belief that the continued grinding of the gears will produce utopia so implausible that it’s most usefully interpreted as an extreme variation of the longstanding American myth of progress. If we want a wondrous future – and who doesn’t? – we’ll have to build it ourselves as part of decidedly uncertain historical process.

Here’s to innovation and comfort without victims. ♥

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