Questioning "Progress": the resurrection of Ned Ludd


by Lionel Basney


"What joins their [the Luddites'] predicament to ours, however, is less specifically social conditions than a common economic principle--the theory that constant technological innovation supported by capital provides, in the long run, a better society by increasing economic productivity."





The Second Luddite Congress met for three days, in April 1996, in Barnesville, Ohio. 

It was convened by the conservative Quaker Center for Plain Living, but the 250 "citizen
delegates" represented many faiths, and none, as well as most of the states and many slots in the
economy. At one point, someone stood and said, "I'm one of the enemy: I work for an
engineering firm." No one took him for an enemy but for someone, like the rest of the delegates,
skeptical of unrestrained technology and looking for a just response. 

There never was a First Luddite Congress, though perhaps a thousand people gathered on April
15, 1812, in Stockport, Cheshire, and made plans to meet again more formally. Nor did the
Luddites have a national organization, though the British government acted on the presumption
that they had. The Luddite machine smashings of 1811-13 were local and populist, and left
behind them no ongoing movement or official creed. For 180 years, Luddite remained on the
fringes of common usage as a word for an irrational and violent fear of machines. 

Especially violent: even after Luddite was formally resurrected by Chellis Glendinning in a 1990
manifesto published in the Utne Reader, it has been hard to free the name from the aura of
lynchings and midnight havoc. Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine opened an interview with
Kirkpatrick Sale by asking, "Other than arson and a lot of vandalism, what did the Luddites
accomplish in the long run?" Sale--whose history of the Luddites, Rebels Against the Fu ture,
was one of the congress's occasions--answered that the Luddites had raised the question of
industrial culture itself, of its meanings and costs. This is what Glendinning meant by Luddite:
someone sharply awake to the ways "mass technological society" threatens family, community,
and health; someone willing to dissent from the robot enthusiasm with which new technology is
adopted. 

The congress was conscious of both implications of Luddite--of the loyalties and militancy the
word originally represented and of the suspicion others would inevitably feel. We were the more
aware of this suspicion because the congress opened, by chance, a few days after the arrest of
Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. In fact, the Unabomber's style of solitary, vicious banditry is
not the original Luddite style at all; it was open, communal, and careful to distinguish between
machine and person. Nor would the Unabomber have been comfortable at the Second Congress.
Its delegates--"neo-Luddites"--called not for an uprising but for a "Revolution of Hearts" through
neighborhoods of belief and practice. 

The congress convened in the Stillwater Meetinghouse (built in 1878) of the Ohio Yearly Meeting
of Friends, and the sessions had the form of traditional Quaker worship, or of town meetings.
We were called to order with a handbell. Children played in and around all the sessions. Many
delegates rose to speak, many wholeheartedly and eloquently. They told us they had experienced
the poisons and losses of runaway industrialism; that they were monitoring or repairing
environmental damage; that they were aware of our cultural losses and feared for their children. 

The congress was addressed by Bill McKibben (The End of Nature); the educational activist
John Taylor Gatto (Dumbing Us Down); Gene Logsdon, the chronicler of traditional crafts;
Clifford Stoll (Silicon Snake Oil), Art Gish, the Christian communitarian; and others. Sale
keynoted the congress and presided at its final deliberative session. Sale has spent two vocal
decades challenging the orthodoxies of the technological culture in such works as Human Scale
(1980), an extended, pragmatic argument that smaller is better, and Dwellers in the Land
(1985), a study of bioregionalism. Rebels Against the Future is really two projects in one--a
freshly researched, crisply told history of a fascinating popular upheaval; and a projection of the
Luddite predicament and premise into current conditions, from the first Industrial Revolution of
mechanical looms and British capital to the second, of microchips and the global economy. 

The Luddites understood, from the start, that the mechanical loom was only a symptom and
instrument of a larger change. Loom smashing was as much a form of publicity as a vehicle of
policy. Indeed, Sale writes, "the workers' grievance . . . never was just the machinery," but
rather a new "political economy and the . . . principles of unrestrained profit and competition and
innovation at its heart." The new political economy was destroying an older moral economy
based in communities, where economic questions like value and moral questions like integrity
were answered by common consent and tradition. In the new economy, such issues, insofar as
they had meaning, were determined by capital and the good of machinery, and imposed on the
workers by force. 

And force it was. As is often true in public uprisings, the tools of real violence lay in the hands of
the authorities. There was, as Sale shows, no general conspiracy among the Luddites. There was
not even a common political program: most Luddites were so far from being revolutionaries that
they hoped Parliament would help them. Instead, Parliament attacked them with an army larger
than it sent to Spain to fight Napoleon. 

The disparity of forces in this domestic war can be seen in what it cost. Beginning in November
1811 in the "Luddite triangle" in Britain's industrial midlands, the Luddites smashed and burned
perhaps £100,000 worth of stocking frames, mills, and houses. The government spent roughly
15 times that much to put the Luddites down--that is, in specific terms, to isolate, capture, and
sentence about 100 men out of the thousands who had risen. 

Sale has told his story well; his research disposes of many myths about the Luddites. What is
harder to ascertain is whether the Luddites were being at all realistic in their rebellion against the
new industrialism. Were the conditions all that bad? Here there is, as Sale says, a small academic
industry devoted to interpreting inadequate data in conservative or liberal ways. But the debate is
not merely academic. We base present decisions on our estimates of the past. 

A writer like Paul Johnson will draw on scholarly skepticism about the social observations of
Engels and others to support his own technological optimism. 

Recognizing the project's difficulty, in any case, wielding his own knowledgeable skepticism,
Sale has waded into the evidence, original documents as well as modern history. His final picture
of industrialism's results is uncompromisingly grim. The Luddites were not, in his account,
being melodramatic. If anything, they were moderate in responding to the degradation of life and
work, the destruction of community; they were suffering. 

What joins their predicament to ours, however, is less specifically social conditions than a
common economic principle--the theory that constant technological innovation supported by
capital provides, in the long run, a better society by increasing economic productivity. If this
theory were correct, of course, there would be less reason in Luddite objections. But we must be
careful in testing the theory: for one thing, we must disentangle it from accidental advantages. If it
works, it must work apart from extraordinary exploitable resources (like America's) or an empire
(like Britain's) built to provide labor and markets at the point of a gun. Such accidents cannot be
evidence for the theory; indeed, they show only that it needs inputs of energy and people it cannot
provide for itself. 

In any case, Sale's judgment is plain: the theory is not only false but responsible for many
evils--the snowball process of the destruction of tradition and community, the end of meaningful
work (Sale observes that 40 percent of Americans labor at "disposable" jobs), and massive harm
to the environment. It is in this predicament that the Luddite protest seems to offer usable
lessons--that industrialism is always cataclysmic, that faster economic growth means faster
consumption of the world, that an explicit and urgent resistance on the part of ordinary people is
appropriate. 

Listening to the delegates of the Second Congress, one was struck not by the strangeness of their
concern but by its familiarity. We live in a technolatrous culture: we hold these truths to be
self-evident, that more sophisticated machines will be built and will change our lives for the
better. If we want evidence, the economy seems eager to provide it: the stock market soaring in a
"long boom" attributed to high-tech innovations. And yet technology has generated a muted but
insistent chorus of dissent. 

Observers like Edward Tenner, in Why Things Bite Back, chronicle the daily contradictions,
costs, and frustrations of the dream of a perfect technology, its "revenge-effects" on our bodies
and minds. Writers such as Neil Postman argue that, by drawing us away from tradition and
significant communication, our dominant technology does us moral harm. E. F. Schumacher and
his disciples have tried to reconceive technology in forms that would foster community and
nurture local life. Philosophers such as Albert Borgmann and Don Ihde (behind whom one
glimpses the formidable, ambiguous figure of Martin Heidegger) question the ontology and
epistemology of a world of devices and images. 

Neo-Luddite questions, however, go further back, to why we want this technology in the first
place and whether it does what it promises. Neo-Luddites come closer, that is, to confronting the
advocates of advancing technology on their own ground. In The Road Ahead, his wide-eyed
survey of the information kingdom to come, Bill Gates notes that some people have misgivings
and deals with them as technological optimists have always done: he says that "progress" is
inevitable and assures us that we have always managed to adapt to it. What is coming, Gates
wants us to believe, is at the same time utterly new and utterly familiar. 

In particular, we are going to get more of our familiar consumerism. This is the major benefit
Gates promises. In what he calls "friction-free capitalism," I will be able to contact anyone in the
world who has anything to sell simply by jotting my want ad on my "wallet PC." Of course, the
power to buy anything from anyone must put everyone in the world in competition in the race to
use up whatever is available. Gates sees no peril here. "All the goods in the world," he writes,
"will be available for you to examine. . . . It will be a shopper's heaven." 

But the competitive consumer market has mined, burned, eaten, wasted, and poisoned so much
of the planet in the last five headlong decades that its very endowment for life is depleted. Gates
doesn't see this or think it relevant. His technology is protected from criticism by the assumptions
of classical economics, which refuses to track "goods" back to their sources in nature. The
mesmerizing effect of Gates's vision is so strong, moreover, that even skeptical observers fail to
see past it to its planetary effects. Writing in the February 15, 1995, New York Review of
Books, James Fallows surveyed Gates's critics (including Clifford Stoll) without ever raising
the obvious question: whether we or the planet can afford to have us heighten our economic
appetites. 

To talk technology is to talk politics, economics, morality, culture, and religion; and this confirms
Sale's most basic point about the Luddites: that even in their comparative naïveté, they
understood it was not machinery itself that posed the danger. For it is nonsense to state the
question, as it is so often stated, in terms of being "for" or "against" technology. Technology
includes any change we make in our environment with a practical end in view. No neo-Luddite is
"against" technology; this would entail being "against" your pencil or your coffee cup. 

This does not mean, however, that technology is ever "value neutral," and it is a measure of our
confusion that so many well-intentioned people take refuge in thinking that it is. It would be
better to say that some machines (not all), detached from the web of human needs, plans, uses,
beliefs, and consequences, could be described as morally empty. Most machines seem to have
less innate value than trees or faces; they are not embedded, as Heidegger might say, in a world
of meanings. 

But to detach a machine from the web of uses and beliefs is merely a thought experiment. No
actual machine ever exists that way; none, therefore, is value neutral. All machines, as the authors
of Responsible Technology insist, embody choices among forms of knowledge and power; all
machines impose uses on us; all machines close off some avenues of social action as they open
others--and "there is no purely neutral or technical justification for any of these decisions." 

The neo-Luddites are not questioning "technology," then, but the technology we actually have
and live with. Like all questioners of a powerful status quo, the neo-Luddites will be called
idealists and dreamers. In fact, their analysis is far richer and more realistic than Gates's
technolatry, because it asks a wider range of questions. 

Setting money aside for the moment, what are the broadest implications of our dominant
technology, and, specifically, what may be the costs of extending it? Sale summarizes these costs
with a kind of tight-lipped severity in chapter 8 in Rebels Against the Future, but we might state
them even more concisely in four classes of danger: 

      The direct misuse of the planetary endowment for biological and sentient life. Here
      skepticism about technology overlaps concern for the environment. 
      The economic and political inequality, and the physical suffering, of those on whom this
      technology is imposed and who are powerless to resist. The original Luddites were
      among these; our examples today are mostly (not exclusively) in the developing world.
      What we call "development," as Herman Daly and John Cobb remark, is what was called
      in Europe the "industrial revolution." But the economic historian Peter Mathias points out
      a crucial difference. The technologies now imposed on small farming or fishing
      communities are already enormously sophisticated and expensive, and already have
      control of the global economy and the ears of most of the world's governments. It is not
      surprising that the descent of these technologies seems inevitable. 
      The breakdown of society's capacity to maintain moral and cultural norms for a decent
      life and pass them on to children. Schumacher was deeply concerned about this, as are
      Neil Postman and others. At the Second Congress this concern came out primarily in
      anxieties about education. Hence the power of John Taylor Gatto's revisionist history of
      American education and its allegiance to economic progress. 
      Finally, the religious peril of an enormous, self-sanctioning expansion of human power.
      The most influential prophet here, of course, has been Jacques Ellul. 

In recent years I have talked with many people about these dangers, and the conversation almost
invariably pauses here--at a more or less abstract suspicion of peril. What stops the conversation
is not lack of comprehension but the difficulty of knowing how to feel: to go on we need a
plausible stance, which we feel we do not have. 

On the one hand, skepticism about our dominant technology hardly belongs to neo-Luddites
alone (nor would they claim it did). Many of us wonder about a social movement of such scope
that seems to mandate itself to resist criticism. We may feel that our freedom to exercise
responsible judgment has been taken away from us, as if we were children at an increasingly
spooky Christmas--so many fascinating gadgets in the boxes, so much darkness outside. 

On the other hand, what resistance is sensible, or even possible? It seems impossible to slow the
development of technology or even to take its gifts one by one. Technological change is, as Neil
Postman says so well, not cumulative but ecological. A new class of device changes the whole
felt world, as it changes how almost everything--eating, traveling, working, caring, and being
cared for--is done. There seems no way to resist changes so global and yet so intimate. If we
sympathize with Bill Gates, it may be (if truth were told) partly in compensation: we hope his
enthusiasm is right; we hope the changes may be beneficent. We may envy Gates's ability to shut
out the contrary evidence. Any effort to resist seems like (to use Witold Rybzcynski's term)
"ghost dancing"--courageous, perhaps, but futile, and so more an object of pathos than of
admiration. 



            The Luddites understood from the start,
  that the mechanical loom was only a symptom
    and instrument of 
 a larger change.
   

Neo-Luddites resist, of course, and believe the rest of us should too. It may be worth repeating
that the tone of the Second Congress was on the whole sober and self-collected. No one
suggested that we levitate the Pentagon. The delegates included lawyers, engineers,
businesspeople, and educators as well as environmentalists and farmers. Their resistance had
begun not in countercultural bias but at the point where technology threatened specific instances
of family, place, common morality, faith, and the earth's abundance. The confidence to resist
arises, that is, when loyalty responds to a rational estimate of danger. 

But is the neo-Luddite estimate of danger rational? (Were the Luddites right in 1811?) It would be
appropriate here to give a detailed answer, if space permitted; such an answer may be found, with
statistics, in the annual reports of the Worldwatch Institute (State of the World 1984, et seq.,
edited by Lester R. Brown and published by W. W. Norton), which has built a reputation for
probity over a decade and a half of cumulative research. 

In lieu of detail, this may be said: considering only environmental consequences, it is clear that
the dominant technology and its culture cannot continue on their present course indefinitely.
Gates's friction-free capitalism will crash into the limits of environmental resources and
tolerances long before it puts everyone in the world (assuming this is Gates's true intention) into
the same category of consumer. The editors of the British journal The Ecologist have observed
that it would take the resources of "dozens of spare planets" just to even out our present
inequalities of income at the Western level. And we have no more planets. The fondest boast of
the technological culture--that it will, in the end, make everyone as comfortable as North
Americans--is not supported by the evidence. It is Bill Gates who is ghost dancing. 

It is not doomsday thinking, then, that leads Kirkpatrick Sale, Bob Goudzwaard and Harry de
Lange, and many others, to assert that our economic ways must change. It is the numbers in the
case. It is also compassion--for our children and neighbors, of course, but also for the nations
and people who are falling so quickly and so far behind in the race for new machines and
markets. If we doubt that resistance is appropriate, it may be partly that we are blinded by the
disparity between what we have and what two or three billion others do not and will never have.
What we have protects us, buffers us. We live in the safety zone. Neo-Luddites and others like
them are trying to look over the walls. 

What they see there are thousands of human social and cultural groups struggling to choose a
prudent course in the face of runaway change and the power it confers on others. The
neo-Luddite query, at its simplest, is this: Who will choose our vital technology, and on what
basis? 

Technolatry has its own answer, the one embodied in most of the institutions of the developed
world. This answer is that the big decision was made long ago, in favor of ever more
sophisticated and expensive devices, and that the smaller decisions will now be made by
"qualified" people--by the largely self-selected group of entrepreneurs who nurture new
inventions and sell them to the rest of us. These smaller decisions will be conceptually simple: all
cultural concerns will be reduced to matters of feasibility and profit; no effects but short-term
ones will be considered; and the results will be reported to us in the advertisements. Our only
decision--actually, there will be no decision in it--will be to buy now. 

But to make technology responsible--answerable to our needs, careful of the approaching limits
of the planet, responsive to conscience--such simple decisions must be replaced by complex
ones, that include all the things--family, education, nature, faith, and the long-term future--that
technolatry ignores. But in what social space will such decisions be made? 

The neo-Luddite answer is that they can only be made in the limited, local community capable of
thinking together about common concerns. This is not, of course, a new or surprising answer.
But the congress was preoccupied with community, for it seems clear that community offers the
conditions for an open, responsible, conscientious examination of social change. This is why the
congress listened so intently to a Quaker voice, like Scott Savage, and an Amish one, like David
Kline. This is why Wendell Berry has identified himself as a Luddite and offered this definition
of his commitment: "I am not 'against technology' so much as I am for community." 

It is appropriate to quote Berry at this point, for his 30 years' writing was the unconfessed text of
the entire congress. Berry's work ties technology to cultural change, political freedom,
environmental damage, and the fate of small communities. He has built these connections in
Christian ways, moreover, for his root insight is that cultural practice is always moral, and
morality, always practical. What you take as the defining relationships of your life--with power,
profit, and the abstractions of progress, on one hand, or with communities of faith, specific
places, and God, on the other--will finally determine whether your cultural practice can be
sustained and for how long. It is a mark of the congress's whole inclination that the question
most often repeated was not, "What are machines for?" but the question Berry used to entitle his
1990 collection, What Are People For? 

In appealing to community, neo-Luddites are entering a familiar debate among sociologists,
political scientists, and philosophers divided between those (like Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert
Bellah) who rely on community for moral guidance and those (like John Rawls and Derek
Phillips) who rely on rights. Berry and the neo-Luddites have something positive to contribute to
the debate--the insistence that "community" means communities, actual people living in actual
places. In Berry's work, "community" is never abstract, because it is always linked to specific
technological and environmental practice. To ignore this, Berry would argue, would be to make
the moral and political meaning of community so general as to be moot. 

Berry's exemplary communities are the small American agricultural communities whose young
traditions of good farming and self-reliance were distracted and then largely destroyed by
governmental policy. Berry first told this story in 1977 in his classic The Unsettling of America
and has summarized it in his recent collection, Another Turn of the Crank. But neither at first
nor now has Berry taken these communities as ideal or offered them, in any simple fashion, as
the cure-all for problems in other parts of the world. Their advantage to thinking is that they
include, bring into coincidence, problems of belief and problems of practice: their story makes the
practicality of morality evident. 

And Berry has enriched his account over time. In Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, he
distinguished between "community" and the "public." The second is, for him, simply everyone
apart from individual and neighborly attachments. It is the space where communities work out
their differences. But this public space is largely negative. When it becomes dynamic--when the
public interest begins to dictate a form of economy, a level of consumption, or a new class of
machine--it becomes dangerous. This is because its economy and technology will not be
answerable to any specific place or social group. They will be out of community control; they will
be out of control. There will be nothing to protect communities from them, or--since communities
protect individuals--to protect people themselves. 

Hence Berry's bitter criticism of the global economy. In Another Turn of the Crank, he asks:
what will be the effect on agriculture and other productive practices of a market that makes it
possible for anyone to undersell anyone else? The answer is plain: the consumption of the planet
in an all-out, dog-ravenous competition to lower costs. What Berry opposes is exactly what
Gates envisions. But Berry's questions are more complex: not just, what will the effects of this
competition be for money, but what will they be for the earth, for education, for democracy, for
health care, for religious belief? These are questions a genuine community could answer for
itself. 

Neo-Luddite hopes for community must face one discouraging fact: the communities that writers
like Berry rely on to make humane practical decisions are themselves disappearing fast. The story
of this, for the developing world, has been told in Whose Common Future?, a polemical
response to the UNCED (Rio Conference) agenda for "sustainable" global development. The
frustrations of the Rio Conference are well known among environmentalists, the way the
industrial nations, and the United States in particular, excluded the testimony of small racial and
national communities and blocked all radical examination of the program of economic growth.
Among indigenous peoples, as Whose Common Future? makes clear, this program has meant
the end of communities--their subsistence needs overridden by global trade, their inherited places
submerged under dams and airports. This survey makes it clear, also, that the transfer of
technology from Manhattan to Amazonia has mainly resulted in the transfer of cash the other
way. 

In the nations of the safety zone, the project is less preserving communities than restoring them.
For all the philosophical energy invested in the communitarian debate, most of us know that
actual felt community is hardly a fact in our experience. We find ourselves asking, with Deborah
Tall, "How do we come to feel loyal to a place and choose to dwell there?"--a question no
indigenous people must ask. Even where we face common problems in a common place--to quote
a recent, incisive essay by Daniel Kemmis--"We have been practiced in the politics of alienation,
separation, and blocked initiatives" too long to cooperate. 

Tall and Kemmis write as contributors to a recent collection, Rooted in the Land, edited by
William Vitek and Wes Jackson, a remarkably broad-minded, practical assessment of
communities in America and of their attachment to places. The collection is aware of the
communitarian debate and sides with Bellah and MacIntyre; many of the essayists, moreover, are
engaged in kinds of work--Kemmis is the mayor of Missoula, Montana--where common vision is
a practical necessity. Here we have biologists calling for new research to explain how ecological
communities are formed, philosophers trying to explain how a "land ethic" might work, and
social activists describing their actual successes in building land cooperatives and local food
markets. Rooted in the Land represents the best kind of thinking about these problems, because
it starts with a full consciousness of moral tradition and ends with the dollars and cents of putting
it into practice. 

One of the collection's editors, Wes Jackson, has indirectly responded to Deborah Tall's question
in Becoming Native to This Place. With Dana Jackson, Wes Jackson--a research biologist and
MacArthur Fellow--founded the Land Institute in 1976 to explore what he called "new roots for
agriculture." In challenging the orthodoxy of high-energy mechanized monoculture, Jackson's
research was probably neo-Luddite from the start. It has become more so, as Jackson has moved
from modeling a passive solar agriculture to thinking about the kind of social life that could
support and profit from such a technology. Becoming Native to This Place focuses on Matfield
Green, a tiny, dwindling Kansas town where Jackson and the institute are trying the experiment
of restoring community. 

Jackson calls for a planetary inventory and assessment of technology in view of the approaching
end of cheap energy. What this will teach us, he argues, is that we can never know enough to run
the earth--only enough to live in small communities in "little places of unwilderness . . . intensely
loved." This means local history, local business, the maintenance of a local cultural life, a
"homecoming" major in American education. It means adjusting our cultures to their natural
conditions and not the other way around. 

It would be impossible to say how many neo-Luddites there are. Several thousand local
organizations exist, in the United States and abroad, to serve projects that have the Luddite feel.
They include small schools and homeschooling networks, watch groups protecting specific bits
of wilderness or common land, activist groups confronting specific cases of industrial damage,
communal gardening, and farm markets. 

And the movement has already had its successes. Goudzwaard and de Lange record the
reinstatement of small farming in western Kenya, where a limit on cropping for export has
restored the tradition of labor-intensive, land-careful farming and built schools, health clinics, and
locally owned business. The Chipko movements in Nepal and India, and the Sarvodaya
movement in Sri Lanka, both inspired by Gandhi's teaching on the renewal of village life, make
development the direct responsibility of the villagers affected. In Rooted in the Land, Jack
Kittredge chronicles the spread of CSAS (community-supported agriculture) from Japan and
Switzerland across the United States. Whose Common Future? records popular resistance to the
exploitation of common resources in Bolivia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Ecuadoran farmers,
having found that the Green Revolution exhausted their soils and depleted their seed pool, have
gone decisively back to native potato varieties and traditional cultivation. 

To the technolaters, of course, the fighting phrase here is "gone back." Even setting aside the
superstitions of "inevitable technological progress," however, there is one last important
objection for neo-Luddism to encounter. It is the conviction, widespread among people of
goodwill, that only global development and the newest technology can deal with urgent social
problems. The challenge to neo-Luddite thinking is clear: Can better health care, more food,
social liberation, and increased political stability be obtained through local, grassroots
development with modest capital and smaller, not larger, technology? 

 This question is answered,
 powerfully, in Bill McKibben's
 Hope, Human and Wild.
 McKibben has written several
 books about environmental
 concerns; his most recent,
 Maybe One (1998), explores
 population growth and asks us,
 tactfully but urgently, to consider
 single-child families. McKibben
 summarized Hope, Human and
 Wild for the Second Luddite
 Congress by telling stories his
 book tells in greater detail. One
 concerns city development in
 Curitiba, Brazil, where
 technological innovation has
 been governed by the principle
 of community preservation. But
 the more fascinating and apposite
 story is that of the south Indian
 state of Kerala. With a dense
 population of 1,933 people per
 square mile, an average per
 capita income of $330 a year,
 Kerala also has a life expectancy
 rate comparable to that of the
 United States, a un-certified 100
 percent literacy rate, and a
 quality-of-life index higher than
 those of such "miracles of
 development" as Taiwan and
 South Korea. 

 McKibben pounces on the
 apparent contradiction in these
 statistics and insists on it: In
 Kerala, life is poorer--and better.
 Kerala is a standing challenge to
 the orthodoxy of technolatry:
 apparently the elaborate and
 expensive technologies we wish
 the developing nations to adopt
 are not necessary to their social
 progress.
       BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY



      Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank
      (Counterpoint, 1995). 

      Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom,
      and Community: Eight Essays (Pantheon,
      1993). 

      Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr.,
      For the Common Good: Redirecting the
      Economy Toward Community, the
      Environment, and a Sustainable Future
      (Beacon, 1989). 

      The Ecologist, Whose Common Future?
      Reclaiming the Commons (New Society
      Publishers and Earthscan Ltd., 1993). 

      Bill Gates, with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter
      Rinearson, The Road Ahead (Viking,
      1995). 

      Bob Goudzwaard and Harry de Lange,
      Beyond Poverty and Affluence: Toward an
      Economy of Care. Tr. Mark Vander Vennen
      (Eerdmans/WCC Publications, 1995). 

      Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to This
      Place (Counterpoint, 1996). 

      Bill McKibben, Hope, Human and Wild:
      True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth
      (Little Brown, 1995). 

      Stephen V. Monsma, et al., Responsible
      Technology: A Christian Perspective
      (Eerdmans, 1986). 

      Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender
      of Culture to Technology (Alfred A. Knopf,
      1992). 

      Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future:
      The Luddites and Their War on the
      Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the
      Computer Age (Addison-Wesley, 1995). 

      Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back:
      Technology and the Revenge of 
      Unintended Consequences (Alfred A.
      Knopf, 1996). 

      William Vitek and Wes Jackson, eds.,
      Rooted in the Land: Essays on Community
      and Place (Yale Univ. Press, 1996).


Even more important for a Christian analysis, Kerala's self-development has stemmed, very
largely, from a nineteenth-century religious revival rooted in land distribution. The state's social
progress--democratization, education, the liberation of women, the control of population
growth--has sprung not from economic expansion based on modern conveniences, but from a
passion for justice. 

The lesson of Kerala is clearly not that the poor must be left in poverty. Kerala, McKibben
admits, is too poor. Its lesson is rather that communities must be allowed room to judge what
kind of development they want and can afford. This is a lesson for the first world as well as the
third. If, as the neo-Luddites believe, an unexamined, runaway technology will shortly make
civilization unworkable, then a community-based resistance is both pragmatic and urgent. It may
be that only this kind of resistance can succeed, for only self-conscious communities can be
faithful to actual places and ways of life. Through such faithfulness, love becomes a principle of
knowledge and of practice--and from love we can derive hope (as McKibben says) both for the
human and for the wild. 

Lionel Basney is professor of English at Calvin College. 



Copyright(c) 1998 by the author or Christianity Today, Inc./Books & Culture
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September/October 1998, Vol.4, No. 5, Page 18