A Complicated Solution to a Simple Problem: The Assumption of the Promise of Technology

Originally published at http://ecoanthropologist.blogspot.com/ on September 11, 2016.

“What do you think of indoor farms?” the students in my high school garden club asked me. We were outside in the garden cleaning out what was left of the spring season and preparing to plant the summer crops. I took a deep breath to organize my thoughts. I had recently watched a video on Facebook touting the marvelous indoor garden in the middle of a grocery store inGermany. It gushed over the ability of employees to monitor soil moisture and light via an app on their phones! “Or,” I thought, “They could monitor these things with their brain and eyeballs…” I wondered, if the greatest advantage was how close and; therefore, fresh the food would be, then why not grow the food on the roof top? There would be all of the benefits of a green roof and the sun is free. “I would hate to see their electric bill. “ I said to the students.

I then saw another video on Facebook extolling the virtues of a robotic garden tender; its greatest asset being you can grow your own food without ever having to touch your garden. So once again, what are the true costs here? Power? Materials? A lost opportunity? My heart breaks at the thought of so many lonely gardens! Our gardens thrive depending on our relationship with it and a garden knows when it is loved and appreciated. Besides, we need to touch soil. Touching soil and tending a garden has been shown to relieve depression and anxiety. We need to be around plants. We need sunshine too. We don’t exist in isolation. We are a part of this web of life on this planet and we need to cultivate a deeper relationship with our planet if we are to solve the problems we face today.

Now, I am not against technology per se and I am not suggesting we should never farm in this way. There is much that is wonderful and useful about technology and some places in the world experience winter. However, I am cautioning against the assumption that more technology is always the solution, the best solution, or the only solution because, frankly, this isn’t necessarily true. We are so busy trying to create technology to solve our problems, such as pollution and environmental destruction, created by the technology we have invented (coal burning electrical plants and cars, for example) we don’t consider that maybe more technology isn’t the answer. Typically, the gains in sustainability we experience with new technology are actually overshadowed as we increase production, consumption, and consider the true costs of creating these sustainable technologies in the first place. So what are we to do? If technology isn’t the solution, what is?

Einstein is purported to have said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that created them.”  Our problem isn’t our lack of technology—our problem is with our paradigm (an untested assumption taken for granted as truth) and until we fix our paradigm, our technological ‘solutions’ will never help us create a sustainable society. Modern society takes technology for granted, assuming without question it is better and will make our lives easier; however, research conducted by anthropologists have called this assumption into question by showing that modern day hunter-gather societies have far more leisure time than their counter parts in the developed world. Particularly here in the modern west, we assume our technology is beneficial for humanity, but this isn’t necessarily true when you actually consider all of humanity. Someone recently told me they believe humanity has benefited from smart phones and the internet (these are things I really like), but they forgot about the vast number of humans in the third world, and here, who don’t have smart phones or the internet! We must also take into consideration the lives of those who manufacture our smart phones and computers… are they really benefiting? If you were a factory worker in China, would you really say you were benefiting? What about the toxins people are regularly exposed to in order to ‘recycle’ our old electronics? What about the damage done to mine materials? If your land is contaminated, air polluted, and water poisoned, have you really benefited? If you are stuck in a cycle of modern slavery manufacturing phones or stuck on the consumerist treadmill of consumption in order to afford your technology, are you really benefiting?

Considering all of this, what is the cost of soil and water and sunlight compared to the building, machinery, and specially designed ‘to mimic the sun’ light bulbs (I look out of my window toward the sun in utter confusion… we need to mimic the sun?) and all of the electricity needed? As I said before, our technological solutions tend to create whole new problems and unintended consequences. Plants grown under strictly controlled, sterile, and artificial conditions tend to be extremely susceptible to contamination from algae or fungus or whatever. I know this all too well from my time running experiments with lab grown moss as an undergraduate at UNLV. The lab bred plants just couldn’t handle life. This is what tends to happen when living things are grown in isolation under tight control as if they were merely machines.

This unwavering faith in technology is why we choose shallow solutions like developing hybrid or electric cars instead of solving the problem with behavior change toward public transit, bicycles, or walkability. A shallow solution is bulldozing the desert to build ‘solar farms’ (which preserves corporate utility dominance) instead of putting solar panels on people’s rooftops. These shallow solutions give the appearance of creating a greener world while allowing people to go about their business as usual. The deeper solutions would break this pattern of ‘business as usual’ comfort and require a completely different way of living and relating to each other and the other living beings with whom we share this planet.

It seems the idea behind indoor farming is we don’t need the sun and we don’t need soil or bacteria or mycorrhizae because we have liquid nutrient solution! We don’t need to interact with plants or their communities to understand their needs because we have an app to tell us what they need! It seems like a step to further remove us and isolate us from the natural world and this has been the source of our environmental problems in the first place. Technology won’t save us, a relationship with the planet will save us and indoor gardens and farms are taking us in the wrong direction with this relationship.  We believe we can improve upon nature and grow more food in a lab setting. This is a very mechanical way of thinking… again, the plants are seen as little machines and they just need the right parts… However, plants (and people) thrive in community! Living things are not machines; they are living systems and function within systems (such as ecosystems). In a living systems perspective, relationships between objects/things are emphasized and the flow of energy and information is important. It is the relationships which make a thriving garden or society! When plants are growing in healthy soil they aren’t just growing in a nutrient rich substrate, they are growing, communicating, and participating in a rich living community!

If we truly want to save this planet, if we really want to create a sustainable society as human beings on this planet, then we need to create a better relationship with our planet. Our technology won’t help us do this until we change the way we think about and relate to all of the other living things on this planet. Our paradigm needs to reflect respect, symbiosis, and community!

Resources and Further Reading:

AJ Plus. (2016, July 29). Robot Grows Veggies. AJ Plus Facebook Page. [Web Video]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/769827263158783/
Bell, M.M. (2004). An Invitation to Environmental Sociology, 2nd Edition.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Brende, Eric. (2005). Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. Harper Perennial. Link to information on the book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/143159.Better_Off

Kamenetz, Anya. (2013, July 29). A Day in the Life of An iPhone Factory Worker. Fast Company: 3 Minute Read, Technology. [Web Article]. Retrieved from: https://www.fastcompany.com/3014988/a-day-in-the-life-of-an-iphone-factory-worker

Kauffman, Draper, Jr. (1980). Systems 1: An Introduction to Systems Thinking. Future Systems, Inc.

Kiss the Ground. (2016, May 31). Why Soil Matters. Kiss the Ground Facebook Page. [Web Video]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/kissthegroundCA/videos/1032566466810045/

Markham, Derek. (2016, March 23). This Berlin Supermarket has a verticle micro-farm inside it. Treehugger. [Web Video]. Retrieved from: http://www.treehugger.com/green-food/berlin-grocery-store-store-vertical-micro-farm.html

Dr. Miller, Daphne. (2016). The Curious Case of the Antidepressant, Anti-anxiety Backyard Garden. Yes! Magazine, Winter. [Article]. Available online at: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/good-health/the-curious-case-of-the-antidepressant-anti-anxiety-backyard-garden-20151112

Putnam, Robert. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Ryan, John C. and Allan Thein Durning. (1997). Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things. Northwest Environmental Watch. Link to more information on the book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/318690.Stuff
Spradley, James P. and David W. McCurdy. (1990). The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari. Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 7th Edition. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company.

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