Life After Modern Technology

…and the power of saying no

13 min readJan 1, 2024
Photo by Deb Dowd on Unsplash

Culture, and the society it gives birth to, is downstream from technology. And what is technologically possible is defined by access to resources and energy. Given a range of choices (whether to start agriculture, mining minerals or sticking to a hunter gatherer lifestyle) saying ‘no’ to a certain technology was and always will be the defining factor in the making of a society. Having stuck with a ‘yes-culture’ which rarely if ever said no to any emerging opportunities, the coming decades will be especially challenging. And while we could have said no to our current way of living fifty years ago, soon we will no longer be able to say ‘yes’ to technologies which are slowly becoming physically impossible to maintain due to a lack of resources. Presuming we don’t drive life or ourselves extinct in the coming decades, learning to say ‘no’ and walking away will be more important than ever. What type of societies could emerge from the ashes of this one as a result? Might indigenous wisdom has something in hold for us?

This is the third essay in a row of musings over the past, the present and now the future of societies and how technology use define their ways. After our “holiday special” let’s recap where we left off before we move on.

Technologies requiring hierarchies to build and operate will invariably lead to autocratic societies, while technologies available to everyone without the need for large scale coordination (larger than a handful of humans) foster democratic societies. Take ship building for example: creating armadas of three mast sailboats required confiscation of resources (forests, food, workforce) a strict hierarchy and a kingdom able to accumulate such surpluses. Wood was taken from indigenous people inhabiting them. Work was centrally coordinated and supervised. Food was confiscated from peasants through well established means of a feudal system. Men were often forcefully recruited to join ship crews.

Compare that to what took place in more egalitarian societies, like the Polynesian. They never evolved into despotic civilizations controlling global trade as they used more democratic technologies, like small catamarans. These vessels could have been built and manned by a handful of humans, and most importantly: without the need for large hierarchical societies, confiscation of land, food and other resources. The very fact, that anyone could’ve built such ships (or their own weapons and tools for that matter), made these technologies widely available to every member of the society. When everyone has the same bow and arrows or the same means to sustain their family, who needs a king for anything other than ceremonial roles? This natural democratization of technologies demanded a much more egalitarian structure where everyone had a say, as opposed to autocratic states which used oppression and large scale warfare to sustain their technological base and the necessary flow of resources.

In the history of this simple dichotomy the past couple of hundred years presented the single biggest anomaly. A cornucopia of resources — brought about by an inherently autocratic technological ecosystem — gave birth to western colonialism and capitalism. In this culture everything was deprived of its history and origins in the process of commodification, making the decision to say ‘yes’ to genocide, slavery, deforestation, theft, and eventually the plundering of the entire planet all the more easier. As a result technology became so cheap and widely accessible in the Western world (and more recently in China) that its use was no longer limited to the elites. At least for a while.

Thanks to the many energy slaves (first real humans, now machines powered by fossil fuels) the use of complex technologies became democratic the first time during human history. Everyone who worked hard enough could’ve bought a car and a house. Food was cheap and widely available. People had a similar access to goods and thus felt they deserve equal rights. This process gave rise to human rights movements, democracies and individual freedom. For a while at least things were allowed to go in a self-organizing manner.

Given the fact that both human nature and our resource use are driven by the maximum power principle, however, western civilization fell into the same old civilizational trap as its many predecessors, repeating the same old pattern all over again. It started with discovering a new resource (fertile land, coal, oil, uranium etc.) and mining it to exhaustion. Then it went on by pretending that depletion is not a problem at all, while kicking the can down the road ever more desperately.

As resources and energy started to stagnate (and soon decline) so will technology use become ever more limited to an ever smaller, ever more privileged elite class. Again. Since the maintenance of such technologies will still require massive hierarchies, democratic self organization will be no longer enough. First resource extraction then manufacturing will become more autocratic, then outright dictatorial. Say goodby to worker rights, adequate pay, and a social safety net. Those who have the keys to the grain store, the access to oil fields, lithium or copper deposits, or those who can decide which neighborhood gets electricity by flipping a switch, will have the power and control over the population. Just like any other time before.

Not that it could’ve happened any other way. Beyond a certain point every civilization becomes wholly unsustainable, due to the fact that they always use up an accumulated resource wealth much faster than it could regenerate. Our industrial capitalist civilization is no exception. Its history follows the same arc as all of its predecessors. And just like in ancient times instead of looking for an “exit strategy” by attempting to dismantle what is wholly unsustainable in an effort to soften the blow somewhat, we will get more fairy tales of how the next bout of prosperity is just around the corner, or how we just need to elect the right leader promising to bring back the ‘good old days’.

At least until people say enough is enough and walk away, to try something totally different. Until energy and resource flows run low enough not to matter, we cannot have a democratic society again. Only when people learn to live without technology, or each family / community becomes able to generate their own energy flows and store up for the winter / dry season, can we talk about more egalitarian structures again.

The crisis of modernity throws a new light on the indigenous critique, and brings us closer to the core question of this essay: what could come next, once this one is over? Could it be that North American Indians knew it all the time?

Indigenous peoples have consciously said no to developing autocratic technologies and remained egalitarian as a consequence. Not because they were unable to imagine the use of large boats or the creation of sprawling cities, but exactly because of that. They knew from experience that building earth mound temples for example required cooperation and submission, something which they did occasionally, but then decided to go back to their primordial freedoms. They voluntarily said no to go down this path once they saw how it leads to the rise of self-righteous sociopaths to power. It’s no wonder then that indigenous ideas about equality and freedom stood in direct conflict with the European notions of social status and a natural hierarchy when the two cultures met in the late 17th century.

…many of the Native American cultures had no notion that anyone could be born higher or lower in status than anyone else or that anyone could have authority over anyone else. In such cultures, status might be gained with age or according to merit. But the notion that people are inherently unequal or that any status could give someone the right to dominate someone else would not have existed in this kind of cultural worldview.

In their book titled The Dawn of Everything anthropologist and activist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow described this opposition of ideas in a truly colorful way. They started with identifying the three pillars of freedom, that are commonly at the foundation of most egalitarian cultural value systems:

#1. The freedom to move awayone should be free to leave at any time and know there’s somewhere else they can go and be welcomed.

#2. The freedom to disobeyone should be free to disobey orders without repercussion.

#3. The freedom to build new social worldsif what exists isn’t working, there should always be freedom to imagine new possibilities and implement them.

None if this were possible should the survival of the community depended on agricultural work, a military, or more recently, production output of a factory. Indigenous people valued freedom more than to allow themselves to be subjugated. The drudgery and strict calendar of agricultural work, following orders or paying taxes simply did not fit into this picture. (Again, according to archeological evidence, they too experimented with grain crops but then decided to say: ‘Thanks but no thanks.’) It was the act of saying ‘no’ to complex technologies which helped them retaining their freedom and their (more or less) sustainable lifestyle.

Just as culture is downstream from technology, so is a group’s belief system. If the success of a tribe’s technology (in this case hunting) depended upon the seasonal return of migrating animals, clean water and a healthy ecosystem, it should not come as a surprise that these ‘things’ were sacred and had souls of their own. In such an animistic belief system, often associated with a foraging lifestyle, humans are simply one part of a natural order where everything is imbued with spirit, and to be valued and honored. Equality is an inherent part of this worldview, therefore the human world is constructed similarly.

According to historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, it was the emergence of agricultural societies which gave birth to polytheistic belief systems with multiple gods that are often ranked. Although Harari says this form of religion tends to be more tolerant and inclusive than a monotheistic one, it still supports a hierarchical worldview. No wonder: the technology of growing grain crops required planning and precise execution — thus some form of hierarchy — either within the group or family, or throughout the entire society. Think: Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Greek cities… and so on.

As the technology of large scale agriculture became more prevalent in Western Asia, emerging empires often found themselves at odds with each other. In a race for resources between polytheistic societies it was the monotheistic faith which has finally created a rationale for domination and intolerance. These religions were based on a belief that only one god exists, and therefore any other theology must necessarily be wrong. With such a belief system in place, a doctrine such as the Divine Right of Kings could be justified. (An article of faith, which asserted that kings derived their absolute power from the one universal power, God.)

Imagine the stark contrast between the animistic beliefs of indigenous people of the New World living in egalitarian societies, and the monotheistic empires of the Old World led by a divine king. This was the setting in the late 1600s in which the indigenous critique was formed. Contrary to what is suggested by common culture, the native North Americans did have strong philosophical traditions and skilled orators who challenged European colonial officials in debates:

What started the Enlightenment? In New France, Wendat leader Kandiaronk raised scathing critiques of European social customs and values, particularly criticizing monarchical rule, social hierarchies, emphasis on the accumulation of wealth and materialism, and punitive justice systems. These descriptions then made their way back to Europe, where they were widely distributed among the intellectual class and, Graeber and Wengrow argue, became the inspiration for much Enlightenment thought.

What was missing from this otherwise convincing story of the enlightenment is the role of new technologies and the massive influx of wealth into Europe. Should colonization resulted in no such material abundance, the usual grind would have continued for centuries to follow. The feudal system would have kept going in a business as usual manner, and absolutist kings were still ruling over our heads. It was the massive increase in looting (ahem, world trade) and a sudden rise of a wealthy investor class which has challenged this old world order. Just like in recent times with the oil boom giving rise to the ‘American Dream’ and the civil rights movement, the sudden inflow of resources made large masses of people feel that they deserve equal rights, and inspired them to get rid of despotic kings. All it was missing was a spark. And the indigenous critique might have provided just that with its ideas of freedom and equality.

With the new technologies came a new belief system as well. Centered around enlightenment ideas of inherent equality, human rights, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses (a.k.a.: science), a new religion was born. The Religion of Progress. Its core tenet, namely that things can only get better with time, be it human relations or technology itself, has defined the industrial era. Now, that resources and energy have turned out to be somewhat less than infinite (a notion still awaiting public recognition), and that there is a predefined time window for operating a high tech society, the core tenet of faith needs to be queried.

Questioning the merits of “renewables”, or raising doubts over future oil output, however, is still considered a heresy these days. Similarly querying the sustainability of an industrial civilization based entirely on finite and non-renewable resources is still tantamount to questioning the existence of God. These questions must be raised nonetheless. Resource depletion, overshoot, our inability to build anything relevant without fossil fuels and the resulting rise of global temperatures and sea levels, or the disappearance of wildlife and the collapse of entire ecosystems is not something which will disappear if we imagine deserts covered with solar panels hard enough.

Progress is dead, it just haven’t realized that. What’s more sad however, that with it our entire planet is dying.

Complex technologies rising on the back of a temporary abundance of resources has led to the rise of ever more complex societies with ever more sophisticated belief systems. It is thus not terribly hard to imagine how a fall in resource and energy availability will lead to lower complexity, and eventually to a return to animistic belief systems. (Don’t expect this to happen overnight: just as resources tend to decline over time the de-complexification of societies and the re-emergence of old belief systems will take an awful long to unfold.)

Without mining an adequate amount of new materials, and after all the scraps have been repurposed and recycled to the point of unusability, science and technology will lose its relevance. In this sense, and purely by enlightenment terms, a new “dark age” awaits. Why, what use would any farmer trying to grow crops on the slopes of the Alps would have of the Large Hadron Collider underneath their feet…? Without enough copper, aluminum, steel, concrete etc. (and most importantly fossil fuels making the mining, transport and smelting of these materials possible) the electric grid is doomed to fail. (In fact, as soon as power plants run out of natural gas and coal to balance “renewables” the whole system will shut down, but let’s not just get lost in the details.) Road and rail networks will crumble, but without liquid fuels, and most importantly diesel, no one will really miss them. Long distance transport, together with world trade will all but disappear. At least beyond what is possible with the use of sailboats and horse-drawn car(t)s. This is when the survivors of modernity will stand up and say: ‘Thanks but no thanks. We are leaving.’ There will be a lot of hard choices to make: what technologies could be ‘saved’? Or rather: what could be / needed to be powered for a little longer than others? There will be a lot of saying nos, to a lot of things.

Cities will slowly depopulate and small communities will pop up like mushrooms after a summer rain. When there is no technology to maintain, why stick to old hierarchies and a social order which no longer fulfills its original purpose? Large companies will have gone bankrupt anyway by then, and practically everyone will have become “unemployed”. Some decades into this post-industrial world some places will look like democratic city states, while others will be ruled by a charismatic leader. Some communities will become nomads. In this large scale social experiment, rules and norms will vary greatly across once coherent nations.

Who will care then what’s the spin of an electron means…? Who will care then what’s an electron anyway? Or who will be able to tell how to make fertilizer via the Haber-Bosch process? Once all the methane we can lay our hands on gets burned or released into the atmosphere, there will be no way to power this way of improving crop yields. Sure, it would be great if we could keep at least some of the marvels of technology, but without resources and energy to make and power them…

I guess you start to see my point. A few centuries into the future all of our high tech will look like dragons from fairy tales. Words like ‘nuclear reactor’ will lose their meaning and eventually their proper pronunciation. They will sound something like ‘nucleactor’ and will mean a treacherous area where ancients used to channel magic into long ropes spanning across the country. Now all that is left is evil juju poisoning and killing everyone who dares to approach these desecrated places. In this world, once again inhabited by good and evil spirits enchantment will regain its proper place in human thinking. It will be a way to deal with the massive trauma of losing so many lives and the so many highly praised achievements of “human ingenuity”.

I know it sounds scary for some, but we will eventually lose all, I repeat: ALL of our scientific achievements, and eventually return to a foraging lifestyle. Without resources and technology it simply cannot happen any other way. With soil erosion, climate change, sea level rise, residual chemical pollution and aquifer depletion even agriculture will become impossible over time. If some of our ascendants will still be around then, hunting whatever meager wildlife is left, they will remember us like giants who made some pretty impressive magic but in the end blew it all… Maybe we should’ve paid more attention to what indigenous folks really had to say back in the late 1600s. Or maybe, modernity had to happen — no matter what.

Until next time,


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A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: