The Hesperotechnic Phase

Lewis Mumford’s 1934 opus Technics and Civilization was one of the first major efforts to take technology seriously as a defining factor in human culture, and it still remains one of the better attempts at a broad vision of technology’s impact on civilization, light-years ahead of Marshall McLuhan’s glib generalizations or the dualistic morality plays of such current figures as John Zerzan. History has dealt harshly with Mumford’s more optimistic predictions, and the history of the next century or so will likely be even less merciful. Mumford was very much a thinker of his own time, a firm believer in the inevitability and moral value of progress, and the thought that the technological civilization of his own time might turn out to be the peak of a ballistic arc was, at least in 1934, unthinkable to him. Still, a writer who in 1934 could argue that the future belonged to sustainability rather than linear progress, and identified the restoration of balance between humanity and organic nature as a central need of his time, is hardly outdated today.

Mumford’s view of the rise of modern technics divides the process into three steps. The first step—the eotechnic phase (from Greek eos, dawn, and techne, craft)—unfolded from older handcraft traditions reshaped by advances in mathematics and pre-Newtonian physics. The technologies that typify the phase—clocks, windmills, printing presses, square-rigged sailing ships, firearms, and the like—all evolved gradually out of less effective medieval versions by the gradual buildup of small incremental changes. Like their medieval equivalents, they relied on sustainable energy resources: the same combination of wind, water, biomass, and muscle that had powered human technology since the late Neolithic.

The second or paleotechnic phase (the Greek root here is paleos, old) arrived with the first efficient coal-fired steam engines. James Watt’s invention built on more than a century of earlier work, through the same sort of incremental change that turned the hand cannons of the 14th century into the flintlock rifles of the 17th; steam-powered pumps of various types had become standard in mining, where the problem of pumping water out of deep mine shafts had driven innovation since the Middle Ages. The breakthrough was as much conceptual as technical—the vision of steam power as a prime mover for any purpose, rather than simply a mining machine, transformed society and launched the industrial revolution. Efficiencies of scale made mass production profitable as well as feasible. The sheer availability of coal, far and away the most abundant of the fossil fuels, made it almost impossible for people of the time to see the risks of a transition that made human civilization dependent on a nonrenewable resource.

It is with Mumford’s third step, the neotechnic phase (Greek neos, new, is practically an English word now), that his analysis begins to break down. In his view the neotechnic phase is the age of electricity, and represents not a further progression along paleotechnic lines but a reversal, equal and opposite, leading to Utopia. Only the fact that a great deal of paleotechnic thinking and practice remained stuck solidly in place, he argued, kept the neotechnic phase from bringing in a new mode of society, clean, humane, decentralized and liberating.

Much of his argument makes sense even today. With electrification and the internal combustion engine, the vast centralizing force of Victorian technology went into reverse and began to encourage decentralization; electric motors allowed force to be applied at a level of delicacy steam could never achieve, and mass-produced cars replaced crowded, railroad-dependent Victorian cities with the first bloom of suburbia. In 1934, when the great hydroelectric plants of the Columbia and Tennessee watersheds were still coming on line and petroleum was so cheap to produce that even federal antitrust agencies permitted open price fixing to keep the American oil industry from bankrupting itself, the neotechnic era must have offered endless vistas of hope.

Looking back from two thirds of a century later, the flaws in these gleaming prediction are all too apparent. Despite the proverb, hindsight is not invariably 20/20—the United States, for example, seems almost perversely unwilling to learn the lessons of past empires as it embraces policies that embody nearly all their most fatal mistakes—but it does tend to cast a clear light on the faultlines that separate the ideal from the real. What Mumford could not have known in 1934 was that his neotechnic phase depended on nonrenewable resources far more limited than the abundant coal that powered paleotechnic society. He was right to see the neotechnic phase as a reversion to a more organic pattern; what he missed was that this pattern was the bloom and crash of yeast in a nutrient vat.

Arguably, Mumford’s vision was blinkered here by yet another variation on the same pattern of religious myth I’ve tried to critique in the last two Archdruid Report posts. His pretechnic, eotechnic, paleotechnic, and neotechnic phases are modeled on the version of Christian sacred history central to the identity of the liberal Protestant mainstream of Mumford’s time. The pretechnic phase, full of foreshadowings of the coming technological revelation, mirrors the time before the incarnation of Jesus; the eotechnic phase is Mumford’s version of the primitive Christian church; the paleotechnic phase is his Catholicism, the whipping boy for so much Protestant rhetoric in his time; while his present, stuck temporarily between paleotechnic and neotechnic phases, echoes the view of many liberal Protestants of his time that their churches had not yet finished casting off the formalism and central control of their Romish past, and would achieve pure Christianity just as soon as this happened.

Such exact parallels are anything but uncommon in writings of Mumford’s time, or for that matter any other, very much including ours. This is no accident; most human thought might be described, without too much inaccuracy, as the art of fitting new experiences to familiar myths. The question that needs to be asked, here as elsewhere, is whether the myths we use actually fit the texture of our experience. Mumford’s phases—the eotechnic age of square-rigged ships and windmills; the paleotechnic age of coal and steam; and the neotechnic age of petroleum and electricity—make a useful typology for the last four hundred years or so of technological history. If that same history fails to support the mythic pattern he overlaid on the typology, the first question a mythically literate person might ask is whether there’s another myth that fits it better.

While I’m hardly a fan of such neoprimitivists as Daniel Quinn and John Zerzan, they deserve respect for having grasped this last point clearly. The neoprimitivist movement seeks to replace the myth of progress with a myth of fall and redemption in which technology plays the role of original sin. It’s a clear and compelling narrative, and has the advantage of recasting our current predicament as a cause for optimism. I’m far from convinced that their myth makes any more sense of our actual situation than the myth of progress does, and a myth that defines the mass death of six billion people and the loss of every trace of eight thousand years of human culture as good things has obvious problems of its own, but at least they have taken the mythic dimension seriously.

A reader of last week’s Archdruid Report post wrote to ask whether I had any myths of my own to propose as alternatives to the myth of progress, or whether I intend to limit myself to deconstruction and will leave the future to find its own myths. It’s a valid question, and too important for a glib answer. Like all intellectuals, I’m in the mythology business, and as a religious leader in a tradition that enthusiastically affirms the mythic nature of its own core narratives, I have the freedom to treat mythic narratives as such, rather than dressing them up in the borrowed clothing of some other field of thought. Over the weeks and months to come I hope to have something to say about the narratives that might help us make constructive sense of our present predicament.

Mumford’s myth offers a place to start. As we bump along the unsteady plateau at the top of the Hubbert curve, wondering how soon the plateau will turn into a slope and the toboggan ride down from today’s technological heights will begin, it seems increasingly clear that the neotechnic era is a passing phase, not the permanent achievement Mumford seems to have expected. Over the decades to come, then, we can expect to see the first major steps in the transition to a new phase. It won’t be an exact repetition of any earlier phase, but it will have certain similarities to past ages that faced similar conditions. As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Borrowing a bit of Mumford’s own jargon, we can call this new technological stage the hesperotechnic phase (the Greek here is hesperos, evening)—the twilight phase of industrial technology. Just as important elements of the three earlier phases can best be understood by looking at the technologies and energy sources that drove them, at least some of the outlines of the hesperotechnic phase can be grasped by considering what technologies and energy sources human societies will have to hand once the neotechnic phase finishes fading out. Over the next few weeks I plan to make a first reconnaissance of this largely unexplored territory. As this exploration proceeds, those of my readers attentive to the language of myth may begin to get a sense of what narratives I might offer as useful tools for thinking in the coming times.