The Eschatology of Technology and Environment

The Eschatology of Technology and Environment

To answer the first obvious question: eschatology is the branch of theology dealing with death, immortality, resurrection, and final judgment. The second obvious question: eschatology matters because it is embedded in both the environmental and technological discourses that are now dominant.

Both discourses arise from a common cultural matrix, the Judeo-Christian Eurocentric culture, which, as a result of the industrial revolution, is now globalized. But despite their common heritage, they embed very different visions of the human endpoint. Understanding these visions is important for anyone having to deal with environmental or technological issues.

Neither modern environmentalism nor technology arose in a vacuum; they are sets of complex cultural constructs that have evolved over millennia. Most obviously, they reflect the Enlightenment split between the pragmatists and rationalists (such as Voltaire, Hume, and Locke) and the Romantics (most notably Rousseau). More fundamentally, they also embed two important elements.

First, both technology as a cultural practice, and environmentalism in its dominant, Westernized form, embed within themselves a vision of their ultimate end. And in both cases these visions are heavily colored by Christian eschatology. The technological enterprise arose in the West primarily because it was seen as a way for humans, fallen from grace, to demonstrate they were worthy of salvation through their (technological) works — and to work towards salvation through technology. Thus, early monastic orders, such as the Cistercians, were critical to the medieval diffusion of technology; the concept of technology as salvation is implicit even in some modern technologies.

Conversely, modern environmentalism reflects a great deal of Enlightenment Romanticism (colored, in the U.S., with the mythic frontier experience), behind which lies the image of a pastoral Eden. Both environmentalist and technological discourses, therefore, embed visions of an ultimate endpoint culturally based in Christian eschatology, but the visions differ significantly in how this endpoint will be reached, and what will dominate. For the technologist discourse, it is a technology-rich Eden; in some artificial intelligence versions, even biological systems are obsolete. For environmentalists, it is "Nature," a heaven on (a pastoral) earth.

The reason this matters is that the era when environmental perturbations could be managed merely by installing scrubbers is over. Loss of biodiversity; anthropogenic disruption of global nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, phosphorous, or hydrologic cycles; shifts in climatic and oceanic systems — none can be addressed without recognizing that the process is an Earth of human design.

And design implies goals: a car is to drive, a toaster is to make toast, a human Earth is for . . . what? Negotiations such as those involving climate change seldom recognize that they are, in essence, ethical and theological discourses in an age of planetary engineering, and with them comes the eschatological question, What Earth do we want?

This question clearly is beyond the scope of a short column. Those seeking more information may want to peruse D. F. Noble, The Religion of Technology (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) or W. Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (W.W. Norton, 1995).

This is a question to be posed to humans and their institutions, not glibly answered by yours truly.

But a few observations may be appropriate. First, both eschatological images, the technocratic and pastoral Edens, are powerful, but unlikely to be achieved. They are strong myths that have powered the now global Eurocentric technocratic culture, but they are unlikely to speak to the evolution of human history (assuming deistic intervention does not occur). For, like most complex systems, the tightly coupled human/global system — the Earth as human artifact — will continue to evolve in ways contingent, unpredictable, non-teleological, and not likely to resemble previous myths. Cultural systems may embed powerful visions of "the end of history," but the evolution of the systems of which they are a part are not predetermined.

One may also raise the question as to whether — now that we as a species are beginning to deal explicitly with an Earth we have and will continue to shape — it is appropriate to posit eschatologies at all — especially if, in doing so, the result may be the creation of a self-fulfilling millennarian collapse.

Allenby is Environment, Health and Safety Vice President, AT&T, and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily those of any institution with which he is associated.