In the coming weeks I will be "checking in" on my understanding of how environmental thinkers have regarded technological development. I had started writing on this theme a couple of years ago. This is what I have so far on this theme.
In Italo Calvino’s fable Baron in the Trees the young Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò retreated from a family dinnertime squabble and took to the trees vowing never to return to the ground again. His act, a reversal of the flow of human evolutionary history, brought the impetuous baron back to humanities’ primordial dwelling-place. This recapitulation necessitated compromises. The baron abandoned his tunics, his stockings, his powdered coiffure (the year is 1767), and over the course of the years he modified his habits and equipped himself for life in the canopy. Reacclimatizing to the ancestral habitat his body warped and, by the end of his long life, he may not have been able to return to solid ground even had he chose to do so. The baron’s retreat was merely an extreme gesture in the relationship between people and primeval landscapes – a relationship defined by abandonment and the subsequent scramble for adaptation. It is a simultaneously optimistic and nostalgic affair. Accommodating our relationship with landscapes of the past, the abandoned wilderness from which we created our modern human landscapes is one of the challenges of our times. The prospects and problems associated with loss of wildness are inarguably a legacy of technology. Whether or not technology can assist us in solving the problems that technology created remains a matter for debate. Up for debate also is whether the protection of the wild can be assisted by technology.
Despite the many excellences of the human body – the dexterous grip of the hand, the engineered precision of stereoscopic vision, the marvels of bipedality, the hitching of gristle and flesh to gracile but sturdy bones, the preposterous engorgement of the human brain – we are nevertheless no more than adequately provisioned for the physically taxing world in which we live. We are creatures – rare when considering the sweep of creation – trapped between the heavens and the earth: confined to the surface of the soil. To take possession of a new habitat, or even to retreat to one from our past (as seen in the case of the baron), is achieved only with great difficulty. The primeval human animal, newly descended like a tremulous god from the canopies of east African forests, was a succulent, vulnerable thing. The irredeemably terrestrial nature of our lungs yields the aquatic realm unlivable to us. The interstices of the soil, snug and receptive to perhaps a majority of living things, are not a home for the hulking hominid. A glance overhead at birds and insects (and the occasional mammals) is to peer into a distance world. And we are an undefended and doubtlessly a tasty morsel – a fact attested to by our sociality (primate vulnerability, it seems, loves company). Despite human physical limitations we have extended our reach to all of these seemingly foreclosed worlds. We have plumbed the depths of the oceans, flown through the atmosphere, and penetrated deep within the earth. The means by which we have overcome these limitations is through our capacity for technology.