In Praise of Luddites

We are certainly in the midst of a new era of luddites but instead of the original concept of a person opposed to technology that would reduce jobs, we now have luddites in politics opposed to scientific information. Not that this is terribly new historically but it seems to be part of a new conservative government agenda. The operating principle of the new luddites is quite simple: what you do not know cannot hurt you. This principle is illustrated every day by a person typing a text message as they walk across a busy road intersection, but it has now been adopted by several governments in western countries. The politicians involved of course would never recognize themselves as luddites but would argue that they are responsible spenders of the taxpayers money. When a large government agency faces a budget cut, what is more responsible than to cut out people who do the environmental work. Close down scientific research stations. Reduce funding for environmental monitoring. Eliminate the need for environmental impact studies. After all what environmental scientist of recent time has ever given good news to the government or indeed done anything to increase GNP. Since environmental problems are large-scale, long-term issues, they need not be dealt with today or even in the next 6 months. The result is that today we are locked in an arms race with environmental scientists arguing that we should do something now about climate change, species under threat, or other ecological problems, and the political world arguing that we can deal with these issues later after we increase economic growth. Since a large part of the research effort that explores environmental trends comes from the government, a simple way to turn down the thermostat is to reduce funding to environmental science and to prevent government scientists from talking to the public.

We awake only when there is an environmental disaster that cannot be covered up. This is a bit like thinking about getting fire insurance once you realize your house is on fire, not exactly forward planning. So we too often continue down the path of the luddite, with elections being fought over the economy with barely a mention of the environment. At a meeting of first nations people recently the opening statement was that we are responsible for the next 7 generations following us, the grandchildren of our grandchildren. What politician could say this with a straight face these days? Don’t worry, she’ll be right.

Leave a Reply