The Work of Alternate Worlds
Words, Non-fiction
2018—04 (12)      
Houston, TX

The year is 1812. 

Mr. Smith of Huddersfield walks into the premises of his new state-of-the-art shearing factory. When he arrives at the desk in his office, a letter awaits him.  

“Sir”, the letter reads, “Information has just been given in that you are a holder of those detestable Shearing Frames, and I was desired by my men to write to you and give you fair warning to pull them down… You will take notice that if they are not taken down by the end of next week, I will detach one of my Lieutenants with at least 300 men to destroy them.”

Signed: “The General of the Army of Redressers, Ned Ludd”

General Ludd, in fact, did not really exist. He was just a name used by various sabotage groups, a conscience myth. A fiction, if you will.

This is where the word "Luddite” comes from, often used in reference to a person who has a backward aversion to technology. The word, however, is a bit of a misnomer.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the Luddite rebellion was not really about technology. The Luddites were in fact quite happy to use machines. What galled them, however, was the new industrial logic of industrial capitalism, where the productivity gains from a new technology enriched only the machines’ owners and weren’t shared with the workers. Another thing that appalled them, was the mediocre quality of industrial stockings, forced into public acceptance solely by their sheer quantity.

At the heart of Luddite rebellion was a war of culture. 

So dramatic were the cultural changes inflicted by the Industrial revolution that by 1830, going to work for 14-hour work-days, 5-6 times a week, was standard practice. This shift is especially nuts when you consider that 30 years prior, most people in that very same industry worked from home, and did so no more than 3 days a week.

We are brought up to think that “progress” is inevitable. Almost linear in nature. That science allows us to invent new things that are better than older things, and thus must replace them. But such logic is flawed, and fails to explain things like: Why is vinyl making a comeback? 

Or: How is it possible that in the age of the keyboard and the iPad and the stylus that some of us still prefer to write on paper?

Culture is extremely powerful. More powerful than science sometimes. In fact, even scientific development is often guided by culture. The invention of DDT, for example, and awarding its inventor a Nobel prize was not an inevitable scientific development. It is the result of a culture that seeks to control nature, that sees the ecosystem as a hierarchy, with man asserting control from a high castle at the very top. Never would something like DDT ever emerge from, say, a Jainist culture, for example.

The key to saving our planet lies more in culture than in science. This is evident by looking at the Great Law of the Iroquois, which urges us to consider whether the decisions we make today would benefit our children seven generations into the future. 

They did not need satellites or studies of the Earth’s ozone layer to figure this out.

Solar Energy alone will not save our planet, nor will any other form of renewable energy, not without a sever alteration of the culture that dominates us: the culture of Capitalism.

I shudder to think how much absolutely pointless crap will flood our lives once factories have access to unlimited, costless energy.

Luckily though, culture is not genetic, and is susceptible to change. Myths and stories have been weaved to act as the blueprints for entire civilizations since the beginning of time. What we are missing today, I believe, are new guiding mythologies. Stories that are created not for capitalist ends, not as empty entertainment, and not to satisfy the ego, but something more.

Something that will perhaps benefit our children. Maybe even benefit our children seven generations into the future.

For a talk given at the Cultures of Energy 7 Symposium at Rice University in Houston, TX. 

A recording , along with talks by Cymene Howe and Jeff VanderMeer, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A, on the Cultures of Energy Podcast.