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The advocates of technophobia

By Alan Caruba
web posted July 19, 2004

Thomas EdisonWe think nothing of turning on the lights in our homes, but did you know that "more than thirty years after Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb in 1879 and soon thereafter installed a lighting system in a business section of lower Manhattan, barely ten percent of American homes were wired"?

Americans did not immediately embrace electric lighting and "Even after the First World War, that percentage rose only to twenty percent." So, for the first twenty years or more of the last century, Americans were often more fearful of electric lighting than grateful for its ability to dispel the dark more safely than gas lighting, the then preferred method.

At the same time, however, countless Americans embraced "electrotherapy", allowing themselves to be strapped to a machine that sent tiny amounts of electricity through their bodies as a cure for almost any kind of disorder and disease you can name. It was endorsed by the medical establishments throughout America and Europe. Medicine, in those times, however, was still in the virtual Dark Ages and it only took a few months study and a short apprenticeship to become a physician.

Electricity was magic, both feared and embraced, but in different ways. I learned about this in a fascinating new book, Dark Light, by Linda Simon ($25.00, Harcourt). For anyone who enjoys reading about history and science, it will provide many insights. What it did for me, however, was to illuminate the many ways technophobia is still widely advocated by many environmental and other pseudo-scientific organizations.

The same fears that earlier generations held concerning the introduction of new technologies are alive and well today, fanned constantly by those who oppose everything from irradiated meat, the extraction and use of petrochemicals, cellular phones, and, yes, even electrical transmission lines.

It took decades for electric lighting to become commonplace throughout America and the rest of the world. In its early days, "Newspapers frequently reported electrical fires and accidental electrocutions, and magazines offered long lists of cautions for those who dared to install electricity." In fact, "Because incandescent light had a different quality from gas, some people worried about becoming blind from reading by electricity." This is a long way from the Energizer Bunny's portable use of electricity!

So, why did people gladly submit to having electrodes strapped to them to cure their ills? It was a widely held belief that "energies were mutually convertible, that our own vital force was electrical…" Little wonder the story of Frankenstein has this creature activated by a giant jolt of electricity. In an age when medical care could just as easily kill you as cure you, the notion that electrically stimulating the body's nervous system to help it fight disease or mental disorders was widely accepted.

This is not all that different from the endless succession of diets offered as ways to insure against all manner of disease and against obesity, a problem that only a society that provides an abundance of food could encounter. Food, however, does not magically appear in the supermarket. It must be grown, requiring extensive and highly scientific agricultural techniques. It must be provided through vast ranching enterprises for cattle and sheep, and massive farms to raise chickens or pigs. Today, there are also fish farms.

Why, then, do environmentalists target agriculture and ranching, so necessary to feed a huge worldwide population? Why have the Greens succeeded in banning many of the pesticides that protect crops against the many insects that attack them or herbicides that protect crops against the weeds that can destroy them? Why would Greens want DDT banned when there is no proof it poses a health threat and, indeed, could protect the millions who die every year from malaria for lack of it?

Why is there an army of "food police" calling for the banning of "junk food", sodas and snack foods? Why do organizations working through the United Nations seek to thwart the use of hydroelectricity in nations such as India for the provision of power and the irrigation of new and existing farmland? Why, at one UN conference, was the introduction of flush toilets opposed for use in many underdeveloped nations? Why was spraying mosquitoes opposed when the West Nile Fever was first introduced in the United States in the late 1990s?

Why is the use of nuclear power for the generation of electricity opposed by the Greens? Why is the construction of much-needed new refineries opposed? Why is the extraction of oil from a tiny section of Alaska opposed? The answer to these questions is that both the environmental and the animal rights movements are essentially opposed to the existence of the human population of Earth. Whatever may contribute to diminishing that population is encouraged. Whatever may contribute to ending famine or the diseases that kill people is discouraged.

In general, Americans and others in Western nations are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Many factors contribute to this, not the least of which is the use of inexpensive electric energy.

We need only inform ourselves of the endless ways Americans in the 1800s and early 1900s died for lack of science-based medical knowledge and techniques to understand why no one would want to return to a world lighted by gas or cured by bleeding the patient, a world that knew nothing of germs or their transmission.

We have come a long way from just over a century ago to a world connected by communications powered by electricity; a world connected by forms of transportation that were the stuff of science fiction novels; a world that has the knowledge to feed everyone and to respond to the threat of new diseases.

There are, however, forces in the world that would return us to darkness. Some reflect an Islam that preaches intolerance and oppression of the human spirit. Others reflect the deliberate fear mongering that distorts science to thwart its march toward a better world for everyone. The technophobia that troubled people who were fearful of the use of electricity to light the darkness is with us still. It is called environmentalism.

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on www.anxietycenter.com, the website of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba 2004

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