Konrad Lorenz’s book that I review in this paper was published nearly fifty years ago, in 1973. Lorenz investigates eight problems that have been created by the human civilization which threaten its existence. As we will see during our investigation, modern technology is the common thread that links all of these problems together. We see that these problems have become more widespread and intense as modern technology has continued to develop since 1973.
Organic life, like a dam, is situated on the universal energy flux. Living things absorb energy to their metabolisms by taking advantage of the negative entropy, and this energy increases their mass. As their mass increases, their capacity for energy absorption also increases. That, in turn, accelerates their rate of enlargement. This process is an example of a positive feedback loop, and positive feedback loops don’t end up in a catastrophe thanks to negative feedback loops that balance them. Some relentless physics and probability laws counter this energy absorption and enlargement tendency inherent in organic beings. Thanks to these laws, living things and ecosystems reach homeostasis. But men, thanks to his technology, surpass the boundaries these laws set, and increase their mass with a positive feedback loop unchecked by a balancing negative feedback loop.
Overpopulation forces people to live in enormous cities as big masses. Men aren’t adapted to live in close physical proximity with hundreds and thousands of people. For this reason, modern man is inclined to ignore people whom he doesn’t know personally. Moreover, being in perpetual and close proximity to many people diminishes his capacity to care even for his close ones. According to Lorenz, some of the pathologic behaviors modern city dweller exhibits are due to this crowded and unnatural environment. Lorenz refers here, especially, to some pathological violent acts we see in metropolises. Experiments on animals and observations on people have demonstrated that crowded environments increase aggression.
Lorenz doesn’t mention that overpopulation is one of the most influential factors in the destruction of wild Nature. Construction of buildings that are necessary to accommodate milliards of people, clearing off wild lands for agriculture, extraction of resources that they need, etc. result inevitably in the destruction or subjugation of wild Nature.
Today, many people think that anxieties about overpopulation that were much more common during the 60s and 70s turned out false, and overpopulation isn't a problem anymore. During the 70s, when Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb came out, the main concern was that the expected population increase would render food sources insufficient, cause global famines, and social upheavals or wars would follow. As it is well known, the world population of 3,5 milliards in the 1970s is approaching today to 8 milliards. But this doesn’t mean that there is no overpopulation problem today. As Lorenz indicates, humanity has continued to increase its population by suspending the negative feedback loops that would normally act on its population. This has been achieved thanks to new technological developments in agriculture: the widespread adoption of more efficient crop types, artificial fertilizers, and chemical pesticides. Therefore, the overpopulation problem as Lorenz defines it in this book has continued unabated: a positive feedback loop unchecked by natural limits that are suspended by technological means. But this can be done only so long, and as Lorenz also indicates in his book, unchecked positive feedback loops in Nature generally end in a catastrophe. Besides, the toll exacted on wild things to sustain this population boom has been enormous and is getting bigger as the population continues to grow.
2. Devastation of the Environment
The species that constitute an ecosystem have very complex relations of interdependency among each other. Hunters and games are dependent on each other. Ecosystems reach their current equilibriums by passing through long evolutionary processes. Though some relatively rare events might destroy or radically alter some ecosystems, the evolution of ecosystems, like the evolution of species, happens very slowly.
But humans, due to their technology, have an ecosystem that changes very rapidly.1 Geometrical development of technology causes rapid and deep transformations in natural ecosystems that humanity depends on for survival. Lorenz speaks about here both the rapid and deep transformations humanity causes in Nature and the rapid and fundamental changes that occur in the artificial environments (cities, countryside, etc.) which are created by the human civilization. These transformations, according to Lorenz, are detrimental to the health of the ecosystems: to “humanity’s ecosystem” and also to wild ecosystems. Geometrical advances in technology change cities physically and demographically in a rapid fashion. This rapid change also affects the routines of everyday life (from the forms of work to free time activities), and relations among people (the structure of the family, relations between men and women, etc.)
Lorenz focuses specifically on the aesthetics of the cities. According to him, the rapid geographical spread of the cities devastates the aesthetic quality of the living environment of humans. He compares the cities that were built during the Middle Ages with the recent development of the suburbs, and remarks that the latter have no aesthetic quality. The lack of aesthetics in these recent developments stems from the fact that they are mass-produced. They spread rapidly like cancerous cells. The living environment of humans changes so rapidly that the equilibrium that Nature reaches in a long time is no longer present in human ecosystems. Lorenz attributes the beauty of Nature to this equilibrium which is created only through a long evolutionary process. Modern cities have lost their aesthetic quality because only a similar process can create a functional and healthy whole.
Humanity, which destroys Nature’s spontaneous aesthetics, is forced to live in an awful and ugly artificial environment. Lorenz states that this situation destroys man’s moral and aesthetic sense. Modern living environments, with their mass-produced sameness, ignore people’s individuality and stifle it in the end. Modern cities are comprised of millions of people who are stuffed in identical cages that are stockpiled on top of each other. Lorenz remarks that a person who endures this misery is inclined to isolate himself from his neighbor who suffers from the same conditions. According to Lorenz, this inclination is caused by the desire to run away from one's own misery that is reflected from a neighbor. But I think there is a more fundamental desire in this inclination. Modern man is inclined to avoid his neighbors who happen to live just above, below, or next to him. Because, essentially, his neighbors are strangers to him. These people are generally neither his relatives nor they are part of a small group through which they engage together in a practical and meaningful activity. Even being relatives or close friends doesn’t have any practical meaning nowadays. The modern individual can only function as a replaceable component of a giant social organization which makes him disappear in a giant crowd of millions of people. Friends and relatives are mostly for passing away their “free time.” That is why, in practical terms, the modern individual is lonely and isolated.
Lorenz’s position is environmentalism. Environmentalism concerns itself with the devastation of wild Nature to the extent that it affects “humanity’s ecosystem.” It is concerned that Nature wouldn’t be able to sustain the services it gives to human societies such as clean air and water, absorption of their waste, and provision of various resources. Environmentalism’s attitude towards wild Nature is instrumental. It doesn’t see wild Nature as valuable in itself. Even though Lorenz mentions the devastation that rapid advance of technology brings to wild Nature, he is more concerned about the effects of this on the “humans’ ecosystem.” He focuses on the aesthetic misery of modern cities. His attitude on this issue is reminiscent of the humanist anti-industrialists (Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, etc.) who lament the old cities, old monuments, and old cultural achievements that were so magnificent before technological development passed that optimum threshold. The technology, up to a certain level of development, was conducive to the process of humanization. It was helping humanity to elaborate and refine its sense of aesthetics, and sense of morality. It was making Homo sapiens more human by refining its qualities which distinguish it from other animal species. Once this optimum threshold has been passed by technological development, it has begun to have the opposite effect. It has started to dull humanity’s sense of morality and aesthetics. Cities have started to lose their old beauty, people have started to be more concerned by the practical aspects of things rather than their beauty, they have become the victims of the banal and vulgar popular culture, the residents of the metropolitan areas have become less concerned with one another, they have become more prone to senseless violence or other unnatural bizarre acts.
Humanist anti-industrialism’s lamentations about the old cultural achievements of humanity are no more than romantic nostalgia. And its main concern (the process of “humanization:” making humans more human, refining their aesthetics and sense of morality, etc.) reflects its progressivist stance. What this concern about “humanization” amounts to is to improve humans through cultural conditioning, to stifle or subjugate their wild nature. How can we differentiate this aim from the technophiles’ dreams about trans-humanity, integrating humans with machines, modifying their genes, or some other disgusting projects that purportedly aim to improve humanity? These aims are, qualitatively speaking, the same things. Technophiles and anti-industrialist humanists see humans in their natural character as something unachieved, unfinished, and something that needs to be improved through cultural means. We can only draw a line by making wild human nature our reference point. No “improvements” can be made artificially on what Nature (the evolutionary process) has made us during our long existence as nomadic hunter-gatherers.
When it comes to the devastation that has been brought on the “humans’ ecosystem” (the artificial environment humans live in), at least since the agricultural revolution and the advent of the sedentary life, there hasn’t been a qualitative shift in this domain. Humans have been living in unnatural environments that they are not evolutionarily adapted to since they have moved to a sedentary lifestyle with agriculture. These sedentary living environments, since their beginning, have been much more crowded than small natural human groups, destroyed the beauty of Nature, subjected humans to unhygienic conditions and infectious diseases, stratified people to strict social hierarchies, and tried to restrict the spontaneous expression of human nature through various mechanisms. Of course, they have become worse in nearly all of these aspects as technology has advanced. As Lorenz also remarks, since the Industrial Revolution, their spread has become cancerous. But this is not due to some change of mentality in humans because they’ve lost their sense of aesthetics or morals. This is simply because human societies have at their disposal since the Industrial Revolution much larger amounts of energy and material resources. That is why they are getting bigger and transforming larger areas of wilderness into artificial environments more rapidly, trapping more and more people in close proximity to each other by isolating them more firmly from wild Nature. Because of this, people are living in conditions that are becoming remoter each day from the conditions that they have evolved in. Though it may be a subjective assessment, this stricter isolation from wild Nature might be the reason why the artificial environments have lost their aesthetic qualities compared to their historic precedents. Our aesthetic sense has evolved as well during our long nomadic hunter-gatherer existence, and it must have been attuned to the sounds, smells, and views of Nature. In the cities or towns of the past, the existence of wild Nature was palpable. They were surrounded by wild Nature, and their residents could feel and even experience wild Nature to a certain degree. They could reach it by walking and they weren’t as isolated from it as the habitants of modern metropolises.