It often occurs to me how growing up, my family depended on a coal burning furnace to keep us warm. I can picture the fiery furnace and taste the tang of coal’s smoldering ash. I can hear the sizzle of new coal as it added to that burning pile of ash. I recall watching the undulating orange and yellow inferno.
Into this furnace tumbled the shiny, metallic anthracite coal. The hard, glassy, compact kind of coal that burned bright and hot for long stretches of time. As far as fossil fuels go, anthracite coal is rather beautiful, nothing like its unsightly crude oil or tar sands or even its bituminous brethren.
This semi-metallic beauty enveloped my hometown and region. Driving anywhere involved gazing at seeming mountains of shining black coal on the sides of highways. Every few weeks, public works crews dumped sizeable mounds of anthracite at the end of my street. We neighbors were to collect the coal and cart it back home.
Turn the clock forward to 2016, and my hometown once again chatters about coal. This pretty, though lethal substance played a central role in our nation’s election of an orange, combed-over narcissist. By now, we know coal is and will never be clean. And we don’t require sociologists and ecologists to tell us how coal destroys the communities and landscapes that produce and consume it. We can see this for ourselves.
Yet something else makes coal unseemly: it’s centralized, authoritarian bent.
Authoritarian vs. Democratic Technics
Lewis Mumford said it best:
My thesis, to put it bluntly, is that from late Neolithic times in the Near East , right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable.
Here Mumford invites us to consider how technologies—or “technics”, as he termed them—are inherently either “democratic” or “authoritarian.”
Using Mumford’s definition, you see how coal is an authoritarian technic. Soot-faced workers extract and process the coal, others distribute it to power plants, and many of us consume the coal in the form of warm houses and hot showers. Talk about a powerful, unstable system.
Some other “authoritarian” systems include hospitals; modern architecture and construction; motor vehicles; solar arrays; supermarkets; and highway systems.
But what about weak, yet durable—”democratic”—technics? Let’s think about this for a minute. To be truly “democratic” technologies should be produced by small groups of people, built to last, and made of sustainable resources. Using these criteria, the following technics fit the bill: passive solar housing arrangements; biodynamic gardens; communally erected housing structures; bicycles and bicycle cooperatives; common libraries; community-built trail networks.
Most of us wish to live in more democratic societies. This is likely true given our human tendencies to want to live cooperatively. Yet we all sense on some level how authoritarian technics are crowding out democratic ones. And as long as we modern humans see ourselves as beings with needs to be satisfied by state or corporate ministrations, authoritarian technics will continue closing in on human dignity and community.
More Democratic Ways of Seeing Ourselves
To avert the authoritarian avalanche, we must form a new—though ancient—means of seeing ourselves. Right now, most of us think of ourselves as consumers of bureaucratically meted out or corporate-provisioned goods and services. We demand better, faster, cheaper transit systems, organic eateries, medical care facilities, and fairer police departments, pharmacies, schools, and on and on into the sunset.
We rail against coal in the abstract, while we crank up our thermostats once it hits 67 F. Yet we also long for alternatives to owning cars and having to buy “work clothes” and anything—and everything!— plastic.
If we were to think democratically, we might call for something else. Something more convivial. The sort of places and items that last and afford us a chance to spend quality time together. The kind of homes that make full use of the arcing sunlight. The type of infrastructure we can build and maintain shoulder to shoulder. Commons where kids can freely play and adults can learn from each other. Communally. Democratically.
Realizing these community-benefiting technics require a seismic shift in self-identity. We are not inherently needy; instead, we are a deeply social species. A species that on a cellular level understands how coal and all ancient sources of extracted energy run counter to life and community. From this understanding, we know the revolution will not spring forth from authoritarian technics. Indeed, our future will be “democratic”, from the ancient Greek, demos or “common people.”Follow SethLaJ307