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This work appears in Anarchy Archives with the permission of the author. The article was written in May 1965 and published in Anarchos, no. 2 (Spring 1968) and No. 3 (Spring 1969).

Towards a Liberatory Technology

Lewis Herber [Murray Bookchin]

Note: This is the final part of a two-part article on the technological bases of freedom. The first part (Anarchos n. 2) examined the technological limitations of the previous century and their influence on revolutionary theory. An economy anchored technologically in scarcity, it was shown, circumscribed the range of social ideas and tended to subvert revolutionary concepts of freedom. These limitations were compared with the potentialities of technology today -- the substitution of invention by design, the open end in technological development, the emergence of cybernetic devices, the prospect of reducing toil to a near vanishing point. The article examined the possibility of making qualitative changes in the technological apparatus itself, of which the most important was conceived to be the shaping of technology to the human scale. The development of "miniaturization" and multipurpose machines, was discussed as means for achieving a small-scale, ecologically balanced technology that could be used in a society of decentralized communities.


I have tried, thus far, to deal with a number of tangible, clearly objective issues: the possibility of eliminating toil, material insecurity, and centralized economic control. In the present section, I would like to deal with a problem that may seem somewhat subjective, but one which is nonetheless of compelling importance: the need to make man's dependence upon the natural world a visible and living part of his culture.

The problem is unique to our highly urbanized and industrialized society. In nearly all pre-industrial cultures, man's relationship was well-defined, viable, and sanctified by the full weight of tradition and myth. Changes in season, variations in rainfall, the life cycles of the plants and animals on which humans depended for food and clothing, the distinctive features of the area occupied by the community-all were familiar, comprehensible, and evoked in men a sense of religious awe, of oneness with nature, and more pragmatically, a sense of respectful dependence. Looking back to the earliest civilizations of the Western world, we rarely encounter a system of social tyranny so overbearing and ruthless that it ignored this relationship. Barbarian invasions and, more insidiously, the development of commercial civilizations may have destroyed the gains achieved by established agrarian cultures, but the normal development of agricultural systems, however exploitative they were of men, rarely led to the destruction of the soil and terrain. During the most oppressive periods in the history of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ruling classes tried to keep the irrigation dikes in good repair and promote rational methods of food cultivation. Even the ancient Greeks, heirs to a thin, mountainous forest soil that suffered heavily from erosion, shrewdly reclaimed much of their arable land by turning to orchardry and viticulture. Throughout the Middle Ages the heavy soils of Europe were slowly and superbly reworked for agricultural purposes. Generally, it was not until commercial agricultural systems and highly urbanized societies developed that the natural environment was unsparingly exploited. Some of the worst cases of soil destruction in the ancient world were provided by the giant, slave-worked commercial farms of North Africa and the Italian peninsula.

In our own time, the development of technology and the growth of cities has brought man's alienation from nature to a breaking point. Western man finds himself confined to a largely synthetic urban enviroment, far removed physically from the land, his relationship to the natural world mediated by machines. Not only does he lack familiarity with how most of his goods are produced, but his foods bear only the faintest resemblence to the animals and plants from which they were derived. Boxed into a sanitized urban milieu (almost institutional in form and appearance), modern man is denied even a spectatorial role in the agricultural and industrial systems that satisfy his material needs. He is a pure consumer, an insensate receptacle. It would be cruel to say that he is disrespectful toward his natural; the fact is that he scarcely knows what ecology means or what his enviroment requires to remain in balance.

The balance must be restored-not only in nature but between man and nature. Elsewhere, I tried to show that unless we establish some kind of equilibrium between man and the natural world, the viability of the human species will be places in grave jeopardy.* Here, I shall try to show how the new technology can be used ecologically to crystallize man's sense of dependence upon the natural world into the human experience, we can contribute to the achievement of human wholeness.

The classical utopians fully realized that the first sept in this direction must be to remove the contradiction between town and country. "It is impossible," wrote Fourier nearly a century and a half ago, "to organize a regular and well-balanced association without bringing into play the labours of the field, or at least gardens, orchards, flocks and herds, poultry yards, and a great variety of species, animal and vegetable." Shocked by the social effects of the Industrial Revolution, Fourier added: "They are ignorant of this principle in England, where they experiment with artisans, with manufacturing labour alone, which cannot by itself suffice to sustain social union."

To argue that the modern urban dweller should once again enjoy "the labours of the field" might well seem like gallows humour. A restoration of the peasant agriculture prevalent in Fourier's day is neither possible nor desirable. Charles Gide was surely correct when he observed that agricultural labour "is not necessarily more attractive than industrial lab our; to till the earth has always been the type of painful toil, of toil which is done with 'the sweat of one's brow'." Fourier does not remove this objection by suggesting that his Phalansteries will mainly cultivate fruits and vegetables instead of grains. If our vision were to extend no further than prevailing techiniwues of land management, the only alternative to peasant agriculure would seem to be a highly specialized and centralized form of farming, its techniques paralleling the methods used in present-day industry. In fact, far from achieving a balance between town and country, we would be faced with a synthetic enviroment that had totally assimilated the natural one.

If we grant that the land and the community must be reintegrated physically, that the community must exist in an agricultural matrix which renders man's dependance upon nature explicit, the problem we face is how to achieve this transformation without imposing "painful toil" on the community. How, in short, can husbandry, ecological forms of food cultivation, and farming on a human scale be practiced without sacrificing mechanization? Some of the most promising technological advances in agriculture made since World War II are as suitable for small-scale, ecolical forms of land management as they are for the immense industrial-type commercial units that have become prevalent over the past few decades. Let us consider a few examples:

The augermatic-feeding of livestock illustrates a cardinal principle of rational farm mechanization -- the deployment of conventional machines and devices in a way that virtually eliminates arduous farm labour. By linking a battery of silos with augers, for instance, different nutrients are mixed and transported to feed pens by merely pushing some buttons and pulling a few switches. A job that may have required the labour of five or six men, working a half day with pitchforks and buckets, can now be performed in a few minutes. This type of mechanization is intrinsically neutral; it can be used to feed immense herds or just a few hundred head of cattle; the silos may contain natural feed or synthetic, harmonized nutrients; the feeder can be employed on relatively small farms with mixed livestock or on large beef-raising ranches, or on dairy farms of all sizes. In short, augermatic-feeding can be placed in the service of the most abusive kind of commercial exploitation or the most sensitive applications of ecological principles.

This holds true for the most of the farm machines that have been designed (in many cases, simply redesigned to achieve greater versatility) in recent years. The modern tractor, for example, is a work of superb mechanical ingenuity. Garden-type models can be used with extraordinary flexibility for a large variety of tasks; the light and extremely manageable, they can follow the countour of the most exacting terrain without damaging the land. Large tractors, especially those used in hot climates, are likely to have air-conditioned cabs; in addiction to pulling equipment, they may have attachments for digging post-holes, for doing the work of forklift trucks, or even providing power units for grain elevators. Ploughs have been developed to meet every contingency in tillage. Advanced models are even regulated hydraulically to rise and fall with the lay of the land. Mechanical planters are available for virtually every kind of crop. On this score, "minimum tillage" is achieved by planters with apply seed, fertilizer, and pesticides (of course!) simultaneously, a technique that telescopes several different operations in a single one and reduces the soil compaction often produced by the recurrent use of heavy machines.

The variety of mechanical harvesters has reached dazzling proportions. Harvesters have been developed for many different kinds of orchards, berries, vine and field crops, and of course, grains. Barns, feed pens, and storage units have been totally revolutionized by augers, conveyor belts, air-tight silos, automatic manure removers, climate-control devices, ad infintium. Crops are mechanically shelled, washed, counted, preserved by freezing or canning, packaged, and crated. The construction of concrete-lined irrigation ditches is reduced to a simple mechanical operation that can be preformed by one or two excavating machines. Terrain with poor drainage or subsoil can be improved by earth-moving equipment and by tillage devices that can penetrate well beyond the true soil.

Although a great deal of agricultural research is devoted to the development of harmful chemical agents and nutritionally dubious crops, there have been extraordinary advances in the genetic improvement of food plants. Many new grain and vegetable varieties are resistant to insect predators, plant diseases, and cold weather. In many cases, these varieties are a definite improvement over natural ancestral types and they have been used to open large areas of intractab le land to food cultivation. The tree shelter programme, feebly initiated during the 1920's, is slowly transforming the Great Plains from a harsh, agriculturally precarious region into one that is ecologically more balanced and agriculturally more secure. The trees act as windbreaks in the winter and as refuges for birds and small mammals in warm weather. They promote soil and water conservation, help control insects, and prevent wind damage to crops in summer months. Programmes of this type could be used to make sweeping improvements in the natural ecology of a region. So far as America is concerned, the three shelter programme (much of which has been carried out without any state aid) represents a rare case where man, mindful of the unfulfilled potentialities of a region, has vastly improved a natural enviroment.

Let us pause, at this point, to envision how our free community is integrated with its natural enviroment. We suppose the community has been established after careful study has been made of its natural ecology -- its air and water resources, its climate, its geological formations, its raw materials, its soils, and its natural flora and fauna. The population of the community is consciously limited to the ecological carrying capacity of the region. Land management is guided entirely by ecological principles so that an equilibrium is maintained between the enviroment and its human inhabitants. Industrially rounded, the community forms a distinct unit within a natural matrix, socially and artistically in balance with the area it occupies.

Agriculture is highly mechanized but as mixed as possible with respect to crops, livestock, and timber. Floral and faunal variety is promoted as a means of controlling pest infestations and enhancing scenic beauty. Large-scale farming is permitted only where it does not conflict with the ecology of the region. Owing to the generally mixed character of food culviation, agriculture is pursued by small farming units, each demarcadted from the other by tree belts, shrubs, and where possible, by pastures and meadows. In rolling, hilly or mountainous country, land with sharp gradients is covered by timber to prevent erosion and conserve water. The soil on each acre is studied carefully and committed only to those crops for which it is most suited.

Every effort is made to blend town and country without sacrificing the distinctive contribution that each has to offer to the human experience. The ecological region forms the living social, cultural, and biotic boundries of the community of of the several communities that share its resources. Each community contains many vegetable and flower gardens, attractive arbours, park land, even streams and ponds which support fish and aquatic birds. The countryside, from which food and raw materials are acquired, not only constitutes the immediate environs of the community, accessible to all by food, but also invades the community. Although town and country retain their identity and the uniquiness of each is highly prized and fostered, nature appears everywhere in the town, and the town seems to have caressed and left a gentle, human imprint on nature.

I believe that a free community will regard agriculture as husbandry, an activity as expressive and enjoyable as crafts. Relieved of toil by agricultural machines, communitarians will approach food cultivation with the same playful and creative attitude that men so often bring to gardening. Agriculture will become a living part of human society, a source of pleasant physical activity and, by virtue of its ecological demands, an intellectual, scientific, and artistic challenge. Communitarians will blend with the world of life around them as organically as the community blends with its region. They will regain the sense of oneness with nature that existed in humans from primordial times. Nature and the organic modes of thought it always fosters will become and integral part of human culture; it will reappear with a fresh spirit in man's paintings, literature, philosophy, dances, architecture, domestic furnishings, and in his very gestures and day-to-day activies. Culture and the human psyche will be thoroughly suffused by a new animism.

The region will never be exploited but it will be used as fully as possible. This is vitally important in order to firmly root the dependence of the community on its enviroment, to restore in a man a deep, abiding respect for the needs of the natural world-a respect identified with the community's requirements locally-to use the region's energy, resources, minerals, timber, soil, water, animlans and plants as rationally and humanistically as possible, and without violating ecological principles. In this connection, we can forsee that the community will lend themselves superbly to a regionally based economy. I refer, here, to methods for extracting trace and diluted resrources from the earth, water, and air; solar, wind, hydro-electric, and geothermal energy; the use of heat pumps, vegetable fuels, solar ponds, thermo-electric convertors, and eventually controlled thermo-nuclear reactions.

There is a kind of industrial archeology that reveals in many areas the evidence of a once-burgeoning economic activity long abandoned by our predecessors. From the Hudson valley to the Rhine, from the Appalachians to the Pyrenees, we find the relics of mines and highly developed metallurgical crafts, the fragmentary remains of local industries, and the outlines of long-deserted farms -- all, vestiges of fourlishing communites based on local raw materials and resources. In many cases, these communites declined because the products they once furnished were elbowed out by industries with national markets, based on mass production techniques and concentrated sources of raw materials. The old resrouces quite often are still available for use in the locality; "valueless" in a highly urbanized society, they are eminently suitable for decentralized communites and await the application of industrial techniques that are adapted for small-scale, quality production. If we were to seriously take an inventory of the resources available in many depopulated regions of the worls, the possibility for communites satisfying their material need in these areas is likely to be greater than we ordinarily think.

Technology itself, by its continual development, tends to expand these local possibilities. As an example, let us consider how seemingly inferior, highly intractable resources are made available to industry by technological advances. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Mesabi range in Minnesota provided the American steel industry with extremely rich ores, an advantage which led to the rapid expansion of the domestic metal industry. As these fine reserves declined, the country was faced with the problem of mining taconites, a low-grade ore that contains about 40 per cent iron. Mining taconites by conventional methods is virtually impossible; its takes a churn drill an hour to bite through only one foot. In recent years, however, the mining of taconites became feasible when a jet-flame drill was developed which cuts through the ore at the rate of 20 to 30 feet an hour. After holes are burned by the flame, the ore is blasted and processed for the steel industry by means of a series of newly perfected grinding, separating, and agglomerating operations.

When we reach the next technological horizon it may be possible to extract highly difused or diluted minerals and chemicals from the earth, gaseous waste products, and the sea. Many of our most valuable metals, for example, are actually very common, but they exist in diffused or trace amounts. Hardly a patch of soil or common rock exists that does not contain traces of gold, large quanities of uranium, and progressibly more amounts of industrially useful elemts, such as magnesium, zinc, copper, and sulfur. About five per cent of the earth's crust is made of iron. How to extract these resources? The problem has been solved, in principle at least, by the very analytical techniques chemists use to ditect them. As the highly gifted chemist Jacob Rosin argues, if they can be detected in the laborator, there is every reason to hope that eventually they will be extracted on a suffieiently large scale to be used by decentralized communities.

For more than half a century, already, most of the world's commercial nitrogen has been extracted from the atmosphere. Magnesium, cholorine, bromine, and caustic soda are acquired from sea water; sulfur from calcium sulphate and industrial wastes. Large amounts of industrially useful hydrogen could be collected as a large by-product of the elctrolysis of brine, but normally it is burned or released in the air by chlorine-producing plants. Carbon could be rescued in enormous quantities from smoke and used economically (actually, the element is comparatively rare in nature), but it is dissipated together with other gaseous compounds in the atmosphere. The problem industrial chemists face in extracting valuable elements and compounds rom the sea and ordinary rock, centres around sources of cheap energy. Two methods-ion exchange and chromatography-exist and, if further perfected for industrial uses, could be used to select or separate the desired resources from solutions; but the amount of energy involved to use these methods would be very costly to any society in terms of real wealth. Unless there is an unexpected breakthrough in extractive techniques, there is little likelihood that conventional sources of energy-fossil fuels such as coal and oil-will be used to solve the problem.

Actually, it is not that we lack energy per se to realize man's most extravagant technological visions, but we are just beginning to learn how to use the sources that are available in limitless quantity. The gross radiant energy striking the earth's surface from the sun is estimated to be 3,200 Q, more than 3,000 times the annual energy consumption of mankind today.* A portion of this energy is converted into wind or used in photosythezing land vegetation, but a staggering quanity is theoretically available for domestic and industrial purposes. The problem is how to collect it, even if only to satisfy a portion of our energy needs. If solar energy could be collected for house-heating, for example, 20 to 30 per cent of the conventional energy resources we normally emply could be redirected to other pruposes. If we could collect solar energy for all or most of our cooking, water heating, smelting, and power production, we would have relatively little need for fossil fuels. What is tantalizing about recent research in this area is the fact that solar devices have been designed for nearly all of these functions. We can heat houses, cook food, boil water, melt metals, and produce electricity with devices that use the sun's energy exclusively, but we can't do it efficiently in every latitude of the earth inhabited by man and we are still confronted with a number of technical problems that can be solved by crash research programmes.

At this writing, quite a few houses have been built that are effectively heated by solar energy. In the United states, the most well known of these are the MIT experimental buildings in Mssachusettes, the Lof house in Denver, the Thomason homes in Washington, D.C., and the prize-winning solar-heated house built by the Association for Applied Solar Energy near Phoenix, Arizona. Thomason, whose fuel costs for a solar-heated house barely reaches $5 a year, seems to have developed one of the most practical systems at hand. Solar heat in a Thomason home is collected by a protion of the roof and transferred by circulating water to a storage tank in the basement. (The water, incidentally, can also be used for cooling the house and as an emergency supply for drinking purposes and fire.) Although the system is simple and fairly cheap, it is very ingeniously designed. Located in Wshington near the 40th parallel of latitude, the house stands at the edge of the "solar belt"- the latitudes from 0 to 40 degrees North and South. This belt comprises the geographic area where the sun's rays can be used most effectively for domestic and industrial energy. That Thomason requires a miniscule amount of supplemental conventional fuel to heat his Washington homes comfortably augurs well for solar-heating in all areas of the world with similar or warmer climates.

This does not mean, to be sure, that solar house-heating is useless in norther and colder latitudes. Two approaches to solar house-heating are possible in these areas; the use of more elaborate heating systems which reduce the consumption of conventional fuel to levels approximating those of the Thomason homes, or the use of simple systems which involve the consumption of conventional fuel to satisfy anywhere from 10 to 50 per cent of the heating needs. In either case, as Hans Thirring observes with an eye toward costs and effort:

[Rest of article will be posted shortly]

* See Lewis Herber: "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought" in Anarchy 69, November 1966, or in Anarchos 1, February, 1968.

** "Q" is equal to 2.93 x 1014kWh (kilowatt-hours)

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