In The Absence Of The Sacred

In The Absence Of The Sacred: The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations by Jerry ManderSierra Club Books, 1991 – 446 pages

It’s occurred to me, as it has to many others, that if I want to live more harmoniously, I might do well to learn more about the folk who peopled this land in relative peace for thousands of years. I’d read and liked Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television (a review for another day), but felt a little dubious when I saw In The Absence Of The Sacred. It looked like it might be some kind of misguided, backward-looking, native-romanticizing, technology-hating hippie trip, so I made a mental note and passed it by. But in light of the concern above, I wondered if the book might be more relevant than I’d realized – and it is. The two main points of the book are: 1. Our society needs to slow down and view new technologies much more skeptically, debating their potential extensively before they embed themselves in our lives, and 2. Our society could learn much of value from traditional tribal and subsistence-oriented peoples. Though I found some of the ideas in the book difficult to accept, I unfortunately also found them hard to argue with.

Part One, “Questions We Should Have Asked About Technology”, looks at the processes by which new technologies are introduced and argues that we need ways to evaluate them before they become part of our environment. New technologies tend to be introduced with very positive descriptions because the descriptions come from those who will benefit fromits acceptance. Negative effects receive little debate as “progress” rushes on, and only become apparent over time. Despite the promises of proponents, high technology has not brought us a happy, work-free techno-utopia; industrial peoples still work hard for many hours to keep themselves alive, and judging by statistics on mental health, substance abuse, suicide, and more, contentment is far from rampant. Mander further argues that technologies are not, as most people believe, neutral. By their very nature, some technologies will tend to centralize power in society, or increase isolation, or affect society in some other way (negative, positive, or mixed). He gives as an example nuclear power, which not only requires large institutions to produce, but also requires an effective scientific/military priesthood to deal with and safeguard the byproducts. He recommends we abandon our current practice of accepting whatever the profit-driven corporate sector decides to implement, and instead view all new technologies as guilty until proven innocent.

Part Two, “The Inevitable Direction Of Megatechnology”, examines several technologies individually and as part of a larger system. Computers, television, corporations, space technology, and biotechnology all come under scrutiny and are found wanting. I had the hardest time with the computer chapter, since I find them personally useful in so many ways, but Mander argues that despite their usefulness and purported increase in personal power, the major function of computers is to serve and enable large centralized institutions like corporations, government and the military which are most in need of high-speed communications and complex calculations & computing. Without computers, many other technologies like missile guidance systems and genetic engineering would be impossible. “It is only because computers do exist that a virtually automatic, instant worldwide war,involving total annihilation, even enters the realm of possibility.” Besides all of which, their manufacture and disposal present numerous health and environmental problems. This is the chapter that most challenged my worldview; the other technology chapters, while presenting information and ideas new to me, mostly resonated with my onw growing instincts. Your mileage may vary.

Part Three, “Suppression Of The Native Alternative”, highlights our society’s institutionally-supported ignorance of Native Americans and their ways and issues. The differences between their traditional cultures and ours are formidable, including: lack of private ownership of natural resources, subsistence orientation, cooperative orientation, steady-state economics, consensus-based direct participatory democracy, decentralization and local orientation, small scale, oral tradition, mostly matrilineal, reverence for the old, harmony with nature, view of the earth as alive, locally-gathered biodegradable building material, spirituality integrated with daily life, polytheism & animism, knowledge from direct experience – these traits are shared by most traditional tribal peoples around the world, and some of them have started to gain toeholds in parts of our culture, but it is a very different mindset from that of the average American (and certainly different from that of the ruling American). Mander also points out that, contrary to what one might expect, many subsistence-oriented peoples have consciously chosen their lifestyle, which provides more leisure time, more even wealth distribution, and at least as varied and nutritious a diet as our own.

The fourth and final part of the book, ” World War Against The Indians”, emphasizes that American behavior toward its natives has not changed much. Though the reservations are supposed to be sovereign, the US government sets up its own “tribal councils” and meddles when it sees fit. And though Native Americans were generally allowed to hold the lands least desired by white Americans, sometimes new types of resources are realized to be hiding in those lands, and corporations and the government resort to the traditions of coercion and subterfuge to get what they want, with little regard for the social or environmental damage caused. Mander details modern conflicts over fishing rights, oil drilling, and uranium mining & disposal, and sketches out similar plights around the globe.

In the epilogue, Mander expresses surprise at commentators who say, “Sounds interesting, but we can’t go back to the way the Indians lived,” since that isn’t what he was suggesting. I’m surprised at his surprise, since it’s an easy impression to get from the book. In any case, we don’t have a lot of choice in the matter – we definitely need to change somehow, and soon, or else change will come upon us, and in a much harsher fashion.

I found In The Absence Of The Sacred to be a worthwhile, thought-provoking read. I highly recommend checking it out at your local library (via inter-library loan if need be) or your local bookstore.

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