Many years ago while jogging in the idyllic countryside near my South Dakota home, I listened to an audiobook of Silent Spring, the Rachel Carson classic that launched the modern environmental movement.
Riveting stuff, but the feared ecological Armageddon she warned about never happened.
Carson portended the eventual silencing of nature — a chilling “silent spring” — which she ferociously warned would come at the hands of human beings ravaging their environments worldwide. Fortunately, the catastrophe was later largely co-opted. Ironically, the book successfully rallied the nature-loving faithful, which led to cleaner air, purer rivers and less toxic dumps, among other improvements that partially stemmed the onrushing tide of environmental degradation.
Yet, it’s still not a done deal. We now we have climate change, or, if you prefer, global warming, to worry about. Etc.
Dark soul of technology
At the core of the previous — and current — ecological debate is technology. That includes the internal combustion engine that runs our planet’s billions of automobiles and other motored vehicles. The clear-cut forests and fuel-inhaling steel plants required to build our homes, industrial plants and skyscrapers. The jet engines that ship billions of tons of cargo, whose disposable packaging created by fossil-fuel-burning machines ends up as mountainous waste in landfills. The oil-dependent planes and trains and automobiles (and ships, etc.) that move countless hordes of people all over the planet in travel and relocation, crowding existing cities and creating new ones, profusely multiplying all the negative environmental effects people irresponsibly inflict on our fragile planet already.
So, the technology that we simltaneously loath and love and can’t seem to get along without — “smart” phones, et al — is a big problem. But, in my view, it’s an even scarier, more demoralizing problem than we think.
What we seem to be heading toward perhaps in the not too distant future, while not necessarily a “silent spring” (although that’s still a longer-term existential worry), is a slow-motion silencing of Main Streets across the land as mom-and-pop merchants disappear in the avalanche of unfair online competition, and a surging revival of religious fervor in the same places these home-town shops seem poised to vanish.
This is largely speculative, I admit, but hear me out. There’s actual substance to these worries, as well.
In a New York Times column this week, writer Thomas B. Edsall lays out a bleak convergence of factors — all driven by technological advances — that point toward momentous, even wrenching, transformations in American life in coming decades. The apt title is “Industrial Revolutions Are Political Wrecking Balls.”
On the brink
Edsall quoted Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), who at WEF’s January 2016 gathering at Davos, Switzerland, offered this sobering assessment of what technology will bring:
Drivers of these wholesale changes will include robust advances in computing power (e.g., in esoteric quantum computing), Artificial Intelligence, the use of robots, exponential expansion of the Internet of Things, self-driving vehicles, extremely tiny technology, biotechnology and even 3-D printers.
“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. … disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.”
But all this wonder comes at a cost. Schwab soberly notes that many:
“… workers are disillusioned and fearful that their own real incomes and those of their children will continue to stagnate, … middle classes around the world are increasingly experiencing a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and unfairness.”
The inevitable underclass
So, as technology lops off mountains of jobs in scattered economies — as it does now and which led to the rise of Donald Trump — the unemployed increasingly become the Americans least able to thrive in a progressively technology-driven and skill-dependent economy. They end up, at best, underemployed, underpaid, underappreciated and underclass, unless they are among the minority of exceptionally smart and motivated blue-collar Americans who can successfully adjust to fundamentally disruptive change.
What I fear might happen is small, rural communities, even now slowly fading away as precious few businesses hang on by their fingertips along decaying Main Streets, will become quasi ghost towns. Places with silent streets, as it were. Places whose left-behinds, dislodged by technology and unable to find suitable, dignified, living-wage work, increasingly will be haunted and further desolated by despair and drugs and failure.
It’s already happening — with the opioid epidemic ravaging America’s hollowed-out rural and urban communities, the abandoned battlefields of technology’s ruthless victories.
A boon for religion?
To avoid an even greater potential economic catastrophe, America’s government (local, state and federal) will need to rethink democratic capitalism and how it may be made far more humane than it is now. And far less destructive.
My added worry and particularly relevant to this blog is that all this unrelieved and increasing misery and hopelessness will push the most susceptible into the arms of religion. It’s happened many times before in America, when religious faith, at times on the verge of blinking out nationwide, came roaring back in hard times, stronger than ever. Remember the three so-named Great Awakening events in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, which culminated in the flamboyant evangelical transformation evoked by the classic Sinclair Lewis novel Elmer Gantry and the hugely-popular Canadian-American Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Simple McPherson. And later, Billy Graham.
It would be both ironic and tragic if our technological progress — glorious fruit of the evidence-based Enlightenment — led us straight back to the evidence-free fantasies of religion.