December 2007 Transcript: Stephanie Mills

AJ: Welcome to First Monday I’m AJ Hannah

Joy: and I’m Joy Austria. Global warming...polar ice caps...carbon consumption...these current buzz words are being thrown around in pop culture and politics thanks to Al Gore. The Oscar awarding winning film “An Inconvenient Truth” mainly features the former Vice President’s environmental slide show – breaking down the science of global warming, separating fact from fiction, encouraging an international audience to ponder the moral implications of climate crisis. The film rejuvenated the environmental movement — ultimately earning Gore a Nobel Peace Prize.

AJ: However, Stephanie Mills has been writing and lecturing about the cost of technology on the environment since 1969 when her commencement address at Mills College in Oakland, California, drew the attention of a nation.

Joy: As a Luddite — or a person opposed to technological progress — Stephanie believes her role in today’s high–tech, increasingly Internet dependent society is to demand people critically assess the totality of technology which means perhaps limiting our pursuit of certain types of knowledge.

AJ: First Monday Podcast sat down with Stephanie in October after she delivered the Annual McCusker Lecture at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

Stephanie: Pleasure to meet you both.

Joy: Your a woman of many talents, give our audience an idea of what you’ve accomplished with your career.

Stephanie: Okay, in 50,000 words or less. These days I’m mainly a writer, sometime lecturer, occasional community activist. And I am presently working on a biography of Robert Swan, who was a pioneering decentralist economist and very interestingly was a conscientious objector during World War II. So research on that book has informed me a great deal on how fast the peace movement in the United States has been for many years. But the short version of what I write about is ecology and social change and I have been concerned with that since I was a student in college.

AJ: Your commencement address was called perhaps one of the most anguished statements of the year as a crop of valedictory speeches.[1] How have your views changed or remain the same since then?

Stephanie: Tremendously over time, although...what to say? I’m fundamentally pessimistic in the sense that I don’t believe in progress. I’m wowed by change but I don’t think there’s a real historical trajectory toward better things. And from an ecological standpoint I think in my lifetime I’ve witnessed the beginning of the destruction of a planet I hold very dear. The planet itself, the Earth has plenty of time — Earth abides. But the health of the biosphere in which our species evolved and diversified is really severely compromised.

So I think that’s just the reality we’re living with. I think overpopulation continues to be a serious problem. When I graduated from high school in [19]65 there were three billion people in the planet. Now there are six billion people. And I’m fifty–nine since the saint television...

AJ: We can cut that out.

Stephanie: Oh that’s okay! [Laughter] You know sixty is the new forty. But that is a change of phenomenal magnitude. But what’s changed within me, and this is late breaking is the sense we simply have to do what we can with what we’re given in the day and stand in our truth and hope for the best and work for the beloved community.

As we moved through the kinds of trials I anticipate we will be moving through as humanity if we don’t defuse hostility and confrontation from every level from interpersonal to nation level and will go hard for us. And that in that endeavor of learning non–violence which is a tall order cause we’re certainly...cooperation is not particularly valued in this nation. Confrontation is extolled, but the process of becoming conscious of how we treat one another is really incredibly rewarding. It’s really liberating to relinquish violence. And I speak from my own internal experience and my own struggles.

When I gave that speech I was twenty and I was shy and kinda stepping out taking a stand. I was a lot more pronounced in my opinions a lot less understanding of complexity. And kinda fearful and at the same time resentful of people who hadn't seen the light or adopted my point of view. You know sorta afraid of “the other”. The categorical other. Lately I’ve come to understand I am “the other,” “the other” is me. So that’s what’s changed, it’s been an internal change.

“What if we just not do it? What if we just don’t do it?”

AJ: You talk about truth with a capital “T” and most people tend to divide themselves into groups or identities of supporting technology or supporting spirituality or supporting science. The pessimist in you, do you see a possible future where all these various camps of humanity can work together to solve some of these problems you’ve discussed about the energy crisis and information?

Stephanie: It depends on the scale you’re talking about. I think that’s a critical question we don’t think about nearly enough. I think those camps of science, spirituality and inventiveness and technology cease to be camps and become neighborhoods at a community level and that’s the scale at which the bridging needs to happen.

Now some things are mutually incompatible. If all the information I was trying to sketch tonight['s lecture] is correct there’s not going to be adequate energy for a glorious techno–future. And already through fossil fuels because of the greenhouse effect and genetic manipulation and green revolution and the release of countless novel chemical into the environment. A lot of biological options are being foreclosed. So in that sense some of this stuff is mutually incompatible. You can’t have clean coal and mountain tops in West Virginia. But at the level of community or region I think elegant and appropriate utilization of some of these technologies could happen.

AJ: Then what is the Luddite’s place in a technological, technologically doomed future or even in the technological community?

Stephanie: Just run around saying, “I told you so! I told you so! I told you so!” [Laughter] No I don’t know. Golly...I think critical think or believe critical thinking is essential. Luddites are critics of technology. So I guess the function of a Luddite, or I see my function is to raise consciousness that technology is not neutral. No tools have politics and consequences — social and cultural consequences. One thing that later day Luddites have done is draw attention to how undemocratic technological change is actually since a lot of it arrives in the form of consumer items or novel and ostensibly improving approaches to various tasks, but it’s all a lot of that is outside the realm of conventional politics. Technologies have to be proven guilty before they can be regulated let alone withdrawn rather than employing the precautionary principle which is like if there any likelihood that this could harm people at any stage of its deployment then we should not do it.

Years ago I had the incredible privilege and sometimes exasperation working with one of the great conservationists David Brower who was at one time executive director of the Sierra Club then established an organization called Friends of the Earth is a wonderful, eloquent, _______, courageous man and a voice for wilderness so he was forever up against the idea that there should be a ski resort in this mountain range or a dam in this valley and a pipeline across the Alaskan tundra you know stuff like that. Certainly didn’t have a lot of wins. But he insisted that we should always ask the question, “What if we just not do it? What if we just don’t do it?”

So in a way the function of the modern or contemporary Luddite is to say, “what’s gained and what’s lost?” And the other thing is to speak for quality rather than quantities.

When I gave that speech I was twenty and I was shy and kinda stepping out taking a stand. And kinda fearful and at the same time resentful of people who hadn't seen the light or adopted my point of view. You know sorta afraid of “the other”. Lately I’ve come to understand I am “the other,” “the other” is me.

Joy: Kind of in the same vein of what you’ve been talking about right now I read one of the essays in your [new] book [Tough Little Beauties], “Some Words for the Wild” and in there you discuss Bill Joy’s Wired April 2000 article...

Stephanie: The famous piece he did a great job.

Joy: And you quote him in the end you say, “‘The only alternative to the gray goo — or to a technologically bleak future — is to have the courage to say no.’” Joy proposes relinquishment to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.

And that somewhat runs in direct contradiction to some of the authors, maybe staff members and even the audience that reads and listens to First Monday. So how do you convince the people listening right now to a) be critically assessing technology — the totality of technology — and b) that maybe we have to limit our pursuit of certain technologies.

Stephanie: I’d say what do you think about seventy degrees in Chicago on October 17th? What do you think about people dying in the marathon, it’s because of the heat. These are very likely manifestations of climate change which is an outcome of the production of the kind of energy that underwrites certain activities and pursuits of knowledge.

I’m not saying the pursuit of knowledge is the cause and dead people oh the asphalt is the effect because that would be simplistic. But what I am saying is that every action in the living world has a consequence and I for one am extremely skeptical of the claims of advocates of promises of technological rescues from this plight. This is not an altruistic economic system we’re operating in and there’s nothing inherent in the provide motive that says take care of people.

I’d ask the listeners and technological enthusiasts to understand to mentally internalize the costs. One of the ways our system works is by displacing the costs of things the physical and cultural costs. My laptop or desk computer when and if it croakes — it’s a Mac so it’s probably going to last a little longer than a PC [laughter] — but when it dies it’s either going to the landfill which is the river one mile north of where I live and its toxic contents will be in my watershed. Or if we want to recycle it it’s going to go to some developed nation where people earning are few cents an hour without anything resembling environmental protection are going to be taking it apart by hand and breathing the fumes, etcetera.

We’re all in a way the camps you spoke of earlier, AJ, we're all implicated in this. My personal bent on it what we really need and is the hardest thing in the world to get is...a moral response to this situation. It’s something morality and culture are things best engendered in place locale, face–to–face with good will.

AJ: It just seems a lot of it comes down to community.

Stephanie: I think one of the interesting most worthwhile things to do and again not easy there’s no such thing as an easy prescription — book study groups neighborhood book study group. Anything to get people together to rebuild community face–to–face and learn the gentle arts of sharing and civil discourse.

AJ: Do you think the Internet can provide any sort of community.

Stephanie: Strictly speaking, no. Strictly speaking, no. I mean again it can be a really invaluable tool. It’s got its application but I am so concerned about the kind of material realities that we’re apt to be facing as so many resources go peak and go into decline — not the least of which is water — I think that the physical, regional community has to be primary and then these virtual communities or extended communities and networks can be very useful adjuncts to those things and very powerful organizing tools and should not be abandon by any means but not confused with the real thing.


1. Stephanie’s 1969 Mills College commencement address predicted overpopulation and overuse of natural resources would result in humanity’s self–destruction. Consequently, a twenty year old Mills announced, “I am terribly saddened by the fact that the most humane thing for me to do is to have no children at all.”