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ON THE SHELFPerils of Invention

We need to stay alert to technology’s unintended consequences.

Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch:
Living Sustainably in a Connected World

by Leslie Paul Thiele
MIT Press 2011, 330 pages

In Vedic lore, Indra’s net is a concept that depicts the connectivity of all existence: Stretching into infinity, this gossamer web is said to support a vast complex of shimmering jewels, with each facet of each gem reflecting all the other gems dangling from the net. No jewel exists separately but instead gains its existence from this “infinite cavalcade of reflections.” Thus, the destruction of a single strand of the net threatens the entire creation. For Leslie Paul Thiele, a professor of political science and director of the Sustainability Center at the University of Florida, Indra’s net serves as a perfect metaphor for the fragility of life on Earth. Hence its use in the title of his new book on sustainability.

Thiele argues that to grapple with the rapidly spiraling problems of globalization – pollution, overpopulation, shortage of resources, and the “unparalleled crisis” of climate change – we need to acknowledge these embedded connections. “We will neither achieve more sustainable societies nor understand the nature of our current challenges if we do not explore and embrace the breadth and depth of our interdependencies,” he writes.

Yet like Midas, the mythical Greek king also invoked in the title, humans often have made choices that are ambitious, greedy, and shortsighted, with little thought for the consequences. Midas asked that everything he touched turn to gold, but the king’s remarkable ability quickly proved self-destructive when even his food transformed to metal, rendering him unable to eat – or survive. In similar fashion, the Midas touch of new inventions, greater technology, and medical advances promises “golden lives of justice, order, comfort, plenty, and power” yet “delivers us into a realm of endless and escalating side effects.” Technological advances will always produce unintended negative consequences, so we must stay alert to the possibilities and be agile in our response, the author argues.

Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch explores these complex interconnections with the aim of heightening awareness and inspiring action. Thiele weaves his own multi-strand web in examining the issues from the perspective of ecology, ethics, technology, economics, politics, psychology, and physics and metaphysics – each of which is treated in a separate chapter. Early sections of the book highlight examples of attempts to control nature that have produced additional, often insurmountable problems, most famously the use of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. DDT’s dangers were brought to light after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which exposed its poisonous effects on humans and wildlife, as well as the dangers of scientific solutions that ignore the complexity of biodiversity. Interestingly, the widespread use of DDT was itself the outcome of a much earlier scientific experiment gone wrong. When gypsy moth larvae were accidentally released in Boston in the late 1880s, they spread and multiplied until trees throughout Massachusetts were threatened. The 1957 DDT eradication program that prompted Carson’s concern was only one of many efforts to destroy the pests; but it, too, proved futile, and the moths continue to plague America’s Northeast, as well as parts of the South and Midwest.

Today, many social and ecological problems are the result of previous attempted solutions. And because unintended consequences will continue to occur, “prudence demands that our actions be tempered by knowledge and that our knowledge be tempered by wisdom,” writes Thiele. He urges the exploration of cautious, “appropriate technologies” that have low environmental impact and that are safe to fail – with effects that can be reversed once the technology, should it prove harmful, has been withdrawn. Echoing the view of writer Wendell Berry, Thiele also strongly advocates solutions that remain attentive and responsive to the web of relationships in which they are embedded.

Indra’s Net delivers an urgent message to think anew about humans’ relationship with their home planet. Thiele’s interweaving of different voices, though at times somewhat heavy-handed, generally produces a layered, thoughtful deliberation that is well worth reading.


Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.




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