Pimple's Progress

Once there was a pimple.

Along came a pimple popper.

“Alas,” cried the pimple. “Is there no one who can protect me from this pimple popper?”

A pimple popper stopper heard her plea and stopped the pimple popper.

“Ah, you are my hero,” said the pimple. “You saved me from the pimple popper.”

The pimple popper stopper looked longingly at the pimple. “I think “I'll pop you,” he said.

But you are a pimple popper stopper, not a pimple popper,” said the pimple.

Nevertheless,” said the pimple popper stopper. And he popped the pimple.

This is a parable. As it is a very bizarre one, perhaps an interpretation is in order. And an apology. First the apology. I am sorry that it portrays humanity in such a negative light. Yes, humanity is the pimple. Indeed, some would say that humanity is a disease on the face of the earth – a threat to the well-being of Gaia, and therefore to all life. Although this is a point with some merit, I must confess to a certain fondness for humanity. At its best it can be a species of exquisite beauty. Besides, with regard to its threat to Gaia, humanity would have to be portrayed not as a pimple, but as a cancer.


So it is, at best, an imperfect parable, but lets move on to the interpretation. Who is the Pimple Popper Stopper? S/he is the technocrat who is endangering the biological and social ecologies within which we live our lives. And the Pimple Popper? He represents all threats to the United States – both real and imaginary. Whatever flaws our parable might have, hopefully it at least makes a simple point in a vivid way: At times those who purport to protect us from some evil are more dangerous than the evil they claim to protect us from. And it raises an important question: Who is to protect us from the pimple popper stopper?

In this essay I will be arguing that with the advent of the industrial revolution, Western Civilization embarked on an ill-advised project: namely to replace the natural environment with a humanly engineered one, and that this is one of the root causes of the various crises that threaten the continuation of the human race as a viable species. It was a project based on conquest and domination – of materials, of biological processes, of people, of nations and societies and of the earth itself. No mountain was too tall to climb. No force too powerful to dominate. The social, psychological and physical technocrats that embody this philosophy promise to protect us from all dangers – from disease, cold, hunger, boredom, unhappiness; from terrorists, communists and foreigners; from people with strange ideas; perhaps from death itself.

The most powerful embodiment of this “domination” philosophy is the United States World Empire and its support of the neo-liberal economic system. The oligarchs that control this empire aspire to put the wealth of the whole earth in the hands of the more or less four hundred billionaires who run our banks and multi-national corporations. Its centerpiece is unregulated capitalism. Let's call this group of 400 billionaires and their cronies the “Big B Club.” They are known in economic circles as the “Washington Consensus.” They are committed to dominating the world through the use of social, psychological and physical technologies. They are the ones who have brought us the world-wide economic collapse, the Gulf of Mexico oil volcano, a policy of endless war without boundaries, global warming, the destruction of the rain forests, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, a world of slums, the poisoning of our lakes and streams, and the pollution of our air. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive list. Likely coming attractions are genocidal policies toward the poor, nuclear wars, outbreaks of humanly created diseases and violent class struggles on a global scale. While the technologies of the Big B Club may be working for themselves, they do not seem to be doing much for the rest of us.

In order the gain a clearer picture of what is entailed in technology lets begin with a example from the micro-level. In a recent column by “Click and Clack” (Tom and Ray Magliozzi) a woman wrote in concerning her 16 year old daughter, who had recently learned to drive. “We subscribe to the Reaganesque philosophy of “trust but verify” when it comes to raising teenagers. Is there a covert car-tracking device or service that you recommend that would provide us with the ability to locate the vehicle on demand via e-mail or SMS (Short Message Service?)”

Hmm. “Trust but verify.” With their words they say they trust. With their behavior they say they don't. I leave it to the reader to assess which is closer to the truth and whether such a policy is just a bit hypocritical. The initial point here is that they are seeking a technological device that will increase their control over their daughter. Technology is, above all else, about control.

To their credit Tom and Ray suggest a somewhat less “covert” manner of dealing with the situation. But they go on to describe and recommend a technology called “tiwi.” Tiwi gives the parents almost absolute control over their daughter's driving. For example, “if you decide that your daughter is allowed to go only 5 mph over the speed limit, the unit will alert her when she's broken that rule, and aslo alert you immediately – by phone, e-mail or text message.” Also it allows the parents to “set “no go” zones with the GPS so that it will let you know when, for example, your daughter leaves the immediate area, Or wanders into her boyfriend's neighborhood.” Wow. Ray notes that the daughter will hate this, and well she might. It denies her autonomy and is a profound violation of her integrity as a human being.

So let's take this a step further with a little thought experiment. Suppose the daughter becomes rebellious and resists this kind of control. Suppose a real conflict emerges in the family. What then? Well, the parents might consult a mental health specialist, who would instruct them in the principles of cognitive/behavioral therapy, and its application in this case. And if these techniques don't work? Well, the whole family might come in for family therapy. The parents hire the therapist, and naturally want their agenda to be the guiding one. If the therapist agrees, then s/he will also “trust” the daughter, but will insist on control and verification. If the daughter is intelligent she will learn an important message from all this: Life is infused with deceit and hypocrisy.

In our thought experiment an important point arises. Not only can physical technologies, like the tiwi program, be used to establish totalitarian control, but there are psychological and social technologies as well which can be used with the same intent.

In fairness to the field of “cognitive therapy” it should be noted that while it can be used in an authoritarian and manipulative manner, this need not be the case. Cognitive/behavioral therapy is based on the simple insight that how we behave is determined in large part by how we think – how we understand ourselves in relationship to the world we inhabit. Cognitive/behavioral therapy can  be a way to offer a client new ways of thinking, which may be helpful for self mastery, and which the client can accept or reject as he/she sees fit. In this case we have a technology that respects the autonomy and integrity of the client, and this is a valid form of psychotherapy. On the other hand cognitive/behavioral therapy can be used to impose  beliefs on clients, in which case it becomes a form of brainwashing. For example, in the scenario we developed above, if a therapist contracted with the parents to make the daughter believe that her parents were just and correct in their actions, that would be brainwashing. Authentic psychotherapy avoids identifying with more powerful people and refuses to help them impose their will on the weaker.

Generalizing from our example, we would suggest that there are two kinds of technology. In one the technocrat attempts to impose his or her will on another person or living system without regard to the autonomy or integrity of the system. This kind of technology aims at domination. We could call this “totalistic technology.” The term is meant to suggest Irving Goffman's concept of the total institution in which the autonomy and identity of the individuals residing in the institution are systematically crushed. One could make the case that the aim of the powerful in the United States is to transform the entire nation into a something like a total institution.

The alternative to totalistic technology has already been called “Green technology”. I see no way to improve on this terminology. Green technology respects the integrity of the living systems with which it interacts, and is oriented to accommodation rather than domination. In either kind of technology, the living system with which a technocrat interacts may be an animal, another person, a social system, a habitat, or the earth itself as a living organism.

Perhaps the contrast can be clarified by a brief reference to two aspects of modern life. The first is agriculture. One of the general observations I would make about totalistic technology is that it frequently produces very impressive short term results, which are followed by serious and at times catastrophic results in the long run. The use of DDT might be a case in point. But no other example of totalistic technology compares with the genetically modified crops created by Monsanto, and its use of Roundup to destroy all other plants in the area. Nobody knows what the final consequences of releasing these agents into the natural environment will be. But in this case even the short term consequences were devastating. Organic farming, on the other hand, does work, and it respects the local social and ecological environment.

The outstanding example of totalistic social technology is propaganda. I have in mind the advertising, entertainment and “news” found in the mainstream media. All these sources are ultimately controlled by the multinational corporations which use them to mold the American mind to its liking. Think of where you had to go to find actual information on the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Almost immediately it was obvious that the facts were being covered up by BP with the assistance of the United States government, and that the mainstream news was doing precious little to break through this cover-up. One had to rummage through a lot of alternative news sites on the web to even begin to get an idea about what was going on. A green technology in the media would aggressively seek out the facts and present them in a balanced manner in any situation, no matter whose toes got stepped on. And it would allow the meaning of these facts to be debated openly. The news would not merge with entertainment, as it does with the emphasis on visual excitement rather that factual information that we see on CNN and on other mainstream news outlets. In movies plays and books, on the other hand, all human issues would be explored from a variety of points of view – not just from whatever perspective happened to be politically acceptable at the time. Art, after all, begins at the point that current perceptions of reality are challenged.

The out of control volcano of oil in the Gulf, which is obviously the direct outcome of unregulated capitalism, reminds us that the human species does, in fact have the capacity to destroy itself. This spill could, apparently, lead to that. And if this disaster does not do us in, then maybe it will be a combination of other dangers to which we are exposed because of the Big B Club's activities: the economic collapse, global warming, unending war which could at any time become nuclear, or some humanly created plague loosed accidentally or maliciously into the environment.

This article is based on two hypotheses. First, that the unregulated capitalism that is the centerpiece of the Big B Club's effort to dominate the world is the greatest threat to humanity's survival at the present time. This is true because of its extensive use of totalistic technologies both in the physical and the social spheres of life. It ignores the integrity of all living systems it comes into contact with – whether animals, humans, social systems or ecological systems. And it is committed to domination rather than accommodation. The world will not be able to survive Big B Club's commitment to full spectrum dominance much longer.

The second hypothesis is that we will somehow survive the current crises and be in position to re-build our world. Or at least a remnant will. I affirm the second hypothesis not because I think it is true. I honestly don't know whether it is. But it does not seem like a good idea to throw in the towel when we cannot yet see the outcome. The joke about how hedonism differs from the Epicurean philosophy is perhaps instructive here. The hedonist says, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die. The epicurean says, eat drink and be merry. But do so in moderation for tomorrow you may still be alive. Perhaps we will, so it's still worth making an effort to create a way of life that is beautiful and sustainable.

In an interesting article the philosopher John Cozy argues that the collapse of the Western way of life is inevitable because it is built on processes that are not sustainable. As he puts it, “Industrialism is a Hegelian synthesis which embodies the forces for its own destruction. The greatest threat to the Western Way of Life is the Western Way of Life itself. Patches may prolong it, but they cannot remove its contradictions.” I agree. And the collapse will not be pretty. But the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the continuing rape of the earth by unregulated capitalism cannot continue indefinitely. Certainly we should do whatever is possible to minister to the needs of those who are being crushed in this collapse. But also it is not too early to ask what sort of sustainable system we might create to replace the house of cards that is tumbling down upon our heads. This is where the issue of green vs. totalistic technology comes into play.

In a recent article on OpEd, Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world, Noemi Klein makes an interesting point:

This Gulf coast crisis is about many things corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it's about this: our culture's excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us.

The problem runs deeper than the fact that we don't yet have enough technical knowledge. The more fundamental problem is that we don't have the right kind of knowledge. We view nature and its components as machine-like, and assume that that is the whole truth. But, as Naomi Klein points out,

the notion that nature is a machine for us to re-engineer at will is a relatively recent conceit. In her ground-breaking 1980 book The Death of Nature, the environmental historian Carolyn Merchant reminded readers that up until the 1600s, the Earth was alive, usually taking the form of a mother. Europeans like indigenous people the world over believed the planet to be a living organism, full of life-giving powers but also wrathful tempers.”

Humanity, in its current state of hubris and alienation, believes that only people are fully conscious, autonomous and capable of purposeful action. The rest of reality is machine like – devoid of life, purpose or consciousness. It is this view of reality that gives rise to totalistic technology. Perhaps we need a new “Copernican revolution” – one that displaces human consciousness from the absurdly inflated position it now holds in our minds, and that enables us to see ourselves as part of a universe that is living. This is a universe that is kin to us, that we can be at home in, if we choose to. But it is also a universe with its own purposes and integrity – a universe that we must approach with respect. It is naive to think we can survive at this point without any technology. But a green technology would seek to enhance our relationship to a living order of things, rather than dominate that order. Certainly it would not attempt to simply replace the existing order with a humanly engineered one. Such a technology might lead to sustainable ways of existing on the planet.

Klein sums up the matter nicely: “And this is surely the strangest twist in the Gulf coast saga: it seems to be waking us up to the reality that the Earth never was a machine. After 400 years of being declared dead, and in the middle of so much death, the Earth is coming alive.”

Our world is being run by a small elite of very wealthy people who control the Banks and the Multinational corporations. These people are using physical, psychological and social technologies to further their own desires for increased profits as the expense of the rest of us. In the short run we must do everything within our power to bring them under control. But success in the long run will require a profound re-assessment of who we are in relation to the rest of creation. A central part of this re-assessment will have to be a re-thinking of the nature of the technologies by which we negotiate our relationships with the rest of a living universe.