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Technology and the Religious Impulse - The End of Growth?

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Maybe you have noticed, like me, an increasing trend towards the unquestioned assumption that our wildest technological fantasies are a foregone conclusion, just waiting for the next important discovery that will adequately explain consciousness in terms of neurochemical processes, or make terraforming dead planets a simple matter of logistics.

I am not anti-science, nor opposed to technology. I am both grateful for the technological advancements that we all enjoy as modern humans, and look to the future with excitement and apprehension about where technology will take us. The future tech predictions I’m referring to here can be distinguished by the nightmarish forms of immortality that they promise. From my perspective, those who find such promises desirable have failed to enter into a meaningful relationship with themselves or the world.

According to Carl Jung and analytical psychology, aspects of the psyche that are suppressed or disowned will find expression in subversive and potentially destructive ways. Although certainly not all bad, technology can be such a thing. Usually employed as a means to alleviate physical limits, it can, in its most outlandish form, become a manifestation of our subverted and natural spiritual intuitions that point to an internal transcendence that is available to all, but recognized by few.

Considering the exponential rate of technological advancement in the last hundred years, and extrapolating that to the next hundred, a techno-utopian future is an easy sell. I am, however, suspicious for a number of reasons related to both environment and psychology. The public conversations around this subject frequently lack a depth that can illicit the unconscious motivations at play. Absent a psycho-spiritual lens, discussions around future tech have a poorly disguised evangelical lust, generated and inflamed by a handful of chosen emissaries who, by virtue of exorbitant wealth, are unfettered by the common limits of human existence and proclaim loudly that our future can only be an unending upward ascent. Our collective compulsion to invest our hope for salvation in such figures reveals much about where we are as a species.

When faced with such presumptions, I wonder where the appreciation for the natural cycles of life has gone. Somehow, we are, miraculously, no longer subject to the universal law of contraction and expansion. The degree to which our culture thrives on the hidden denial of this fundamental law is reflected in our fevered resistance to contraction in our personal lives, whether that appears as a low mood, the end of an intimate relationship, or upon the contemplation of death.

Increasingly, the presence of contraction, or limits, invoke an immediate and automatic response, assuring us that, like always, technology will save us from having to deal with them. We'll figure out the pesky details later!

If we ignore this invitation to stop thinking and probe a little deeper, it soon becomes obvious that we are no longer in rational territory. The belief in science and technology as unlimited and omnipotent forces is a matter of faith, and thrives on promissory notes. They have become transcendent objects that we unknowingly worship with the kind of uncritical fervour usually reserved for religious deities.

The period of time since the industrial revolution and the advent of large scale fossil fuel use has been an infinitesimally small slice of human history. Without this humbling perspective, we fall prey to hubris and insist that our way of life, and its increasing material comforts must endure. Where is the recognition that our exponential growth has been fuelled by limited resources? that the human population and our tools are the end product of an energy equation?

It bears considering that a vast array of manufactured goods that we depend upon are either made directly from petroleum, or are the product of a manufacturing process that relies heavily on it. Furthermore, despite the powerful incentives to transition to alternative green energy sources, these will never replicate the energy density of oil and, ironically, require oil for their manufacture, and for the ongoing repairs that sustain them. Nuclear power is the only viable alternative, but one that arouses fears of catastrophe and yields very low net energy (energy for construction and maintenance minus energy output).

However indirectly, our bodies, and our cities are made of oil - a source of energy that has taken, on average,150 million years to form, and one that will soon be tapped dry, or at least become too costly (in oil) to pull out of the ground. What then? Ah, technology, of course! Maybe, or maybe not.

An important distinction to make here is that I am not suggesting that science and technology won't solve the energy crunch that is coming, just to point out the unquestioned belief that it most certainly will, and how that belief serves to protect us from considering the alternative, namely, the end of growth as we've known it.

Being intimately tied up with the mechanism of ego, our compulsive urgency to expand and grow is the evolutionary impulse of nature, distorted by the presence of ego into a perpetual avoidance of contraction, and it plays out on both individual and collective scales. As such, embracing the end of growth will demand of us that we also transcend ego-consciousness, and its exclusive fixation on the avoidance of painful limits.

The beautiful paradox here, and the key to our redemption, is that by embracing limits we simultaneously transcend them.



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