Tagged ‘Industrialization‘

WATCH: The Betrayal by Technology: A Portrait of Jacques Ellul

Produced by Rerun Productions




French sociologist and technology critique Jacques Ellul in his studio in Pessac, France. Photo taken as part of the filming of the documentary “The Betrayal by Technology” by ReRun Productions, Amsterdam, Netherlands. December 12, 1990


“This movement is invading the whole intellectual domain and also that of conscience. … What is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant.”


— Jacques Ellul, Ce que je crois (1987) [What I Believe] translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (1989), p. 140


“Technology forces us to go faster and faster. One does not know where one goes. The only thing that matters is the speed.” French philosopher Jacques Ellul has analyzed modern Western society on basis of the premise that technology has become an autonomous, all-determining factor.

In 1950, Ellul finished his manuscript La Technique ou l’enjeu du siècle (The Technological Society), his seminal analysis of the way technology shapes every aspect of society. As contemporary thinker, he was strongly influenced by Kierkegaard, Marx and Barth. After a life, in which he wrote close to fifty books, Ellul died in the summer of 1994, at the age of 82.

The team of ReRun Producties visited Ellul in 1990. During five subsequent days, long interview sessions were held with him in his old mansion in Pessac. The Betrayal by Technology is one of the very few existing filmed recordings of Jacques Ellul speaking.”

54 minutes





Why Are All the Black Faces in Conservation in the Background?

Oyunga Pala

May 3, 2017


Nairobi National Park is the only park on earth bordering a capital city. It is the world’s wildlife capital and one afternoon in December 2016, it was celebrating 70 years of existence. Nairobi National park was the first gazetted park in the country, started in 1946. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) was throwing an evening party in the park to commemorate the event. The small gathering, comprised conservationists, friends of Nairobi national park, assorted Kenyans who earn a living in the wildlife industry and uniformed KWS staffers who appeared to be attending more out of protocol than choice.

There was an air of resignation about the place. Out at the Impala observation point, a panoramic view of open savanna grassland, guests mingled awaiting the arrival of the dignitaries as the catering unit from the Ole Sereni hotel hurried about setting up.

The Impala viewpoint offers a compelling sight and I trained my eyes, trying to spot some wildlife. A few KWS staffers who were gathered all seemed to be taking a good long look into the horizon. One wildlife photographer, captured the sentiment with a nostalgic comment,

“This used to be the place to take the best pictures. Now instead of shooting animals, we will be shooting the SGR”.

There were few chuckles. Mostly at the inevitability of the Chinese built Standard Gauge Railway line changing the ecosystem of the park forever. I sensed a deep sense of failure among some KWS staffers, many voicing their concern in hushed tones, certain the park would not survive the onslaught of ‘development’.

The ceremony was running fashionably late and I bumped into former KWS director Juluis Kipng’etich, who is now the Uchumi CEO in the parking lot.  Juluis Kipng’etich (Kip) was the poster child of Kenyan conservation during his tenure as director at Kenya Wildlife Service from 2005 to 2012 when he resigned to take up a position at Equity Bank.

Julius Kipngetich in the KWS strong room. Courtesy of Vanity Fair magazine.

Kip was credited with transforming KWS from a malfunctioning organisation into a respected corporate brand. During my stint as the editor of the now defunct Adam magazine, we had Kipng’etich on the cover.

There was a vibrancy to Kip in the midst of the lethargy in public service that we had not witnessed previously. But what made him material for a cover story, was the refreshing face of a competent African, getting the conservation accolades for a change.

I was in attendance, when he unveiled a Heroes statue in memory of KWS officers who had died on the frontier. KWS was on the move then. Today, not so much. Kipng’etich was reflective when I asked him about the anniversary celebrations.

“It feels like we are attending a funeral”.

When the ceremony eventually started, the KWS director Kitili Mbathi anchored his address around a breakfast in the park special visit made by the Togolese president Faure Gnassingb’e and the special place Nairobi holds as the only city in the world with a national park. The guest of honour Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Prof Judy Wakhungu managed to deliver an optimistic speech without making a single reference to the impending railway line construction.

The audience listened, all too aware of the elephant in the room that everyone was pretending not to see.

I was the guest of Jim Justus Nyamu, the founder of the Elephant Neighbors Centre, who had become the face of a campaign dubbed “Ivory belongs To Elephants”. Nyamu was a former KWS elephant scientist and researcher whose primary job was reduced to counting elephants and tracking their movement. He eventually resigned to start his own organisation, once he realised the limitation of the existing conservation model.

The big beasts that had for centuries, roamed the country on dedicated paths were now in constant conflict with ordinary rural folk. The narrative of protecting elephants for tourist dollars was not persuasive among local people suffering loss of property and lives after encounters with elephants. There was a big disconnection with the reality of public in understanding the value of wildlife conservation but conservation could not left solely in the hands of the ‘experts’.

People had to get involved. 70 per cent of the Kenya’s wildlife lie outside KWS parks and the service is stretched in capacity and resource. Jim was seeking to create a different model around the problem.

“The people who can make a real difference are the communities but no one is talking to them. Especially the children. They are the only ones who still have time to make a difference”.

So he decided to walk and talk to local people urging them to take ownership of their wildlife heritage and have a say. Jim has so far covered over 9000kms in Kenya, 900kms in the US, in addition to an epic 3200km foot journey across East Africa.

Jim Nyamu leads the International March For Elephants walk in the US.

When I met him last, in early April 2017, it was at the flag off of his 13th walk (617kms) to Marsabit at the National Museums of Kenya headquarters in Nairobi.  The Museum was the home to the iconic Ahmed of Marsabit, a living monument and the only elephant to be put under protection by a presidential decree. In 1970, President Jomo Kenyatta ordered state security to protect this giant beast against poachers. Ahmed died at age of 65 four years later. A giant fiberglass cast of Ahmed is on display at the National Museums. Jim’s was drawing his inspiration from Ahmed and raising awareness on the dwindling numbers of elephants in the Marsabit eco-system.

The Irish ambassador, Vincent O’Neill was the guest of honour, a lanky man, who set off Jim after reading out an Irish travellers blessing. After walking with the small group of volunteers and supporters, blowing whistles, blaring horns, hogging a lane marshalled by police outriders on BMWs, I bid my farewell to Jim on Thika Road and wished him journey mercies.

Ahmed of Marsabit

Moments before the flag off, I had walked into a bookshop at the Museum in search of a book that had caused a stir in the African conservation world. It was a thought provoking book co-authored by John Mbaria and Dr. Mordecai Ogada titled “The Big Conservation Lie”.

“The Big Conservation Lie” was a book challenging the western paradigms and values that had dominated the management and conservation model since Kenya was declared a British colony. I had heard of John Mbaria by reputation. He was an investigative journalist who had earned his stripes as fury critic of the ‘western’ conservation model and a staunch advocate of a return to an indigenous inspired model.

I had met his co-author Mordecai Ogada, during a panel session at British Institute of Eastern Africa, where he presented a very compelling account of the racial tainted difference between a bush meat hunter and a sports hunter. The man who hunts for his food is ‘bad’ while the other who hunts for trophies is ‘good’. Mordecai Ogada was a carnivore ecologist and a big advocate of community based conservation.

The book is a page turner and revolves around a central argument of historic racial prejudices in the Kenyan conservation industry which alienate indigenous people as important partners in conservation. It goes on an investigative discourse of Kenya’s conservation legacy, showing how the inherited conservation model was intertwined with colonial power structures.

“Many modern wildlife parks were initially hunting grounds and created for recreation for the settler communities”.

The establishment of national parks was a form of land grab that disregarded the local communities’ ancestral claim to the land.

Mbaria and Mordecai confront the conservation crisis head on. They question the unholy alliance of wildlife conservation NGOs and Western funding streams pushing the paradigm that states that resident local communities must earn money from wildlife as motivation for conservation.

Mbaria poignantly asks, “How did wildlife survive for millennia in Kenya rangelands together with people who never earned anything from it?”

They poke large holes into the legacies of conservation stalwarts, Richard Leakey, George Adamson, Douglas-Hamilton, Dr. Daphne Sheldrick and Ian Craig. They accuse single species focused organizations earning substantial incomes as engaging in tourism under the guise of conservation activities.

The Launch party of the book

Dr.Ogada was frank when I asked him about his motivation for writing the book.

“I think it is when I realized that because of the colour of my skin, I was not likely to ever be acknowledged as a significant contributor to our conservation discourse in Kenya”.

Some of Dr.Ogada’s inspirations were the late Samson Ole Sisina, the KWS officer killed by Tom Cholmondeley and Elizabeth Leitoro who used to work for KWS and busted a poaching ring east of Nairobi National park that used to supply game meat to high end Nairobi restaurants. John Mbaria added that KWS has some of the best scientists that no one outside the industry ever gets to hear about.

Mbaria and Ogada are keen to start a national conversation. “Our mission is not an avenue for accolades but for our survival. It is a national security issue”, stresses John Mbaria.

“The big problem with our conservation model is that it is alien, not inspired by traditional culture”.

The conservation crisis in Kenya is real and it can only get worse in the face what Dr. Ogada describes as the perfect storm of climate change, a policy vacuum, ethnic politics and elitist approach to conservation.

But hopefully, there is a quiet uprising of local Kenyans moving from the back of the bus to their rightful place as leaders in conservation. It seems clear in the minds of all these men I have encountered that Kenyans can no longer be bystanders, outsourcing conservation knowledge.

Article first published in the Standard Media Newspaper on April 30th, 2017. This version has been updated.


[Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.]


The Four Degrees [Book Review: Don’t Even Think about It & This Changes Everything]

  • Don’t Even Think about It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall
    Bloomsbury, 272 pp, £20.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 62040 133 0


  • This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate by Naomi Klein
    Allen Lane, 576 pp, £20.00, September 2014, ISBN 978 1 84614 505 6



It was at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that governments first agreed to do something about climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed at the summit, committed the wealthiest nations to reducing their emissions of carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’. But the treaty wasn’t binding, so nothing changed and emissions continued to rise in line with the economic growth to which the wealthiest nations were also committed.

The UN tried again in 1997. Nearly two hundred countries signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, which contained legally binding targets for emissions reductions. But the world’s biggest emitter, the US, never ratified the protocol, and the fastest growing developing countries, including China, Brazil and India, had no targets imposed on them. Many of the Kyoto signatory nations did manage reductions, but they accounted for only a third of global emissions – which, as before, kept rising. In 2009, the much vaunted climate summit in Copenhagen, which was intended to agree binding global targets to come into effect from 2012, collapsed in disarray, sabotaged by the US and China. Then, in 2012, in Doha, everyone agreed it was time to start negotiating another agreement, to be in place by 2020, nearly three decades after they all first agreed to act. Today, carbon dioxide emissions are at record levels and rising, and no one appears to be willing or able to control them.

Given everything we know about climate change, why are we still ignoring it? George Marshall’s intriguing book, Don’t Even Think about It, offers many answers, but the likely consequences of twenty years of top-level lies, dithering and obfuscation are left until the last chapter. This was probably a smart decision, because the news is all bad. ‘Scientists,’ Marshall writes, ‘who are, as a group, extremely wary of exaggeration, nonetheless keep using the same word: catastrophe.’ Their fear is that it’s increasingly likely that the Earth’s climate will warm by at least 4°C. Two degrees of warming, which the world’s leaders have accepted as the supposedly safe ‘upper limit’, is bad enough. But according to one of the world’s most influential climate scientists, John Schellnhuber, ‘the difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.’ Thanks to the global paralysis since 1992, the ‘window of opportunity’ for reducing emissions fast enough to avoid this scenario is starting to look more like a crack in the plaster.

Four degrees of warming, Marshall tells us, is likely to bring heatwaves of magnitudes never experienced before, and temperatures not seen on Earth in the last five million years. Forty per cent of plant and animal species would be at risk of extinction, a third of Asian rainforests would be under threat and most of the Amazon would be at high risk of burning down. Crop yields would collapse, possibly by a third in Africa. US production of corn, soy beans and cotton would fall by up to 82 per cent. Four degrees guarantees the total melting of the Greenland ice sheet and probably the Western Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise sea levels by more than thirty feet. Two-thirds of the world’s major cities would end up underwater. And we aren’t looking at a multigenerational timescale: we may see a four-degree rise over the next sixty years. ‘The science around four degrees keeps moving,’ Marshall notes, ‘usually in the direction of greater pessimism.’

What explains the gulf between what we know about these potential terrors and what we are (not) doing to stop them? We can answer that question only by looking at climate change differently, Marshall suggests, ‘not as a media battle of science versus vested interests or truth versus fiction, but as the ultimate challenge to our ability to make sense of the world around us’. We have failed to act on climate change not because we don’t know enough about it, or because we don’t know how to prevent it: we have failed to act on it because at one level we don’t want to act on it. And we don’t want to act on it because we don’t want to believe it’s really happening.

Most discussions of climate change start from the curious assumption that if we can just give people the information they need, they will demand action, and then the politicians will have to take action, and then we can begin tackling the problem. This is almost completely the wrong way round. ‘Everyone, experts and non-experts alike,’ Marshall writes, ‘converts climate change into stories that embody their own values, assumptions and prejudices.’ Even our experience of the weather fits this pattern:

When asked about recent weather in their own area, people who are already disposed to believe in climate change will tend to say it’s been warmer. People who are unconvinced about climate change will say it’s been colder. Farmers in Illinois … emphasised or played down extreme events depending on whether or not they accepted climate change.

The real problem comes when we start trying to cram climate change into our pre-existing ideological boxes. In the US in particular, climate change has become a central weapon in a culture war between left and right. ‘Attitudes on climate change … have become a social cue like gun control: a shorthand for figuring out who is in our group and cares about us,’ Marshall writes. Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology at Yale Law School, told him that it isn’t information but ‘cultural coding’ that forms the basis of our worldview. Thus, if you’re a supporter of the Tea Party (your in-group), then anything an environmentalist (your out-group) tells you is going to be self-evidently wrong, regardless of its factual content – and vice versa.

Research carried out in Norway, and Marshall’s own work in Texas, demonstrates that even when people have lived through unprecedented wildfires and snowmelt they maintain an ‘invisible forcefield of silence’ when the subject of climate change is raised. Climate scientists themselves, asked by Marshall about their long-haul flights, come up with some dubious rationalisations. A story is told about a dinner party at which the guests – retired professionals – chatted about their expensive holidays to far-flung locations. Exasperated, one guest dropped the subject of climate change onto the well-ordered table. ‘The room went very quiet. Then someone decided to break the silence. “My word,” she said, “what a lovely spinach tart.”’

What will destroy this web of denial, displacement and paralysis? Enter Naomi Klein, whose latest book, This Changes Everything, aspires to ‘upend the debate’ about climate change by linking it squarely to the latest crisis of capitalism. It’s a long work, filled with original research, but it doesn’t fulfil this promise. Rather the opposite: it threatens to entrench the cultural polarisation which Marshall identifies as a main obstacle to action. Klein lays out her stall early on. Her own climate denial (she once treasured her frequent flyer’s card) began to fall away when she met Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation, Angélica Navarro Llanos, in 2009. Llanos told her that Bolivia, the poorest country in Latin America and one dependent on glaciers for its water, saw climate change both as a threat and an opportunity. ‘We need a Marshall Plan for the Earth,’ Llanos told the UN climate conference. ‘This plan must mobilise financing and technology transfer on scales never seen before. It must get technology onto the ground in every country to ensure we reduce emissions while raising people’s quality of life. We have only a decade.’ After speaking to Llanos, Klein writes, ‘I found that I no longer feared immersing myself in the scientific reality of the climate threat.’ The reason seems clear enough: Klein had figured out how to fit climate change into her ideological box. The framing message of her book is that preventing climate change is a ‘progressive’ cause, firmly aligned with the left. More than this, it is an opportunity for the left to succeed where it has previously failed. ‘It could be the best argument progressives have ever had,’ she says, providing an opportunity to complete the ‘unfinished business of liberation’ on a global scale.

Klein made her name exposing what she calls the ‘corporate liberation project’: she showed how, over the last forty years, private corporations freed from public oversight have created a global economy in their own interests and image. As in her previous books, Klein does a fine job here of exposing the way private capital has not only bound the hands of governments but sucked in organisations that should know better. It’s bad enough that groups campaigning against climate change should take money from fossil fuel interests, but it turns out that Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s leading conservation organisations, owns and operates an oil well – in one of its own wildlife reserves. What can explain this? Klein suggests that too many ‘Big Green’ groups have swallowed a narrative written by corporations: that the current model of deregulated capitalism is the only game in town. Challenging this story, she says, is the first step towards showing it up for the self-serving fiction it is.

Though expert at exposing corporate wrongs, Klein is less good at suggesting how to right them. Her excitement at the prospect of blockades and barricades makes her proposals for change seem less mould-breaking than old-fashioned, as if this world-spanning predicament could be tackled with the same protest tools as the Vietnam War. The world, she says, is facing a new conflict. ‘The actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.’

The solution to this, and the only way to get that Marshall Plan up and running, will be familiar to Klein fans: ‘mass movements of regular people’ to force the powerful to change. If this is a war, we need a war economy: one that will rein in the corporations and allow governments to assert more control over the necessary and rapid creation of a low-carbon economy. This will mean swift and decisive action on land reform, agro-ecology and the creation of mass transit systems, coupled with huge global rollouts of renewable energy projects. It will mean no nuclear power, geo-engineering, genetic modification or fossil fuel extraction. It will mean more power for the poor and less for billionaires. It will mean respect for indigenous rights and a huge transfer of wealth and technology from north to south. All on a global scale, and within a decade – or two at most.

This is an American liberal wishlist, and a fantastical one. ‘Climate change can be a People’s Shock, a blow from below,’ Klein writes. ‘It can disperse power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it in the hands of the few.’ An economy based on ‘extractivism’ must be opposed by a movement which Klein calls Blockadia – a shifting, roving network of activists opposing fossil fuel extraction in places like the tar sands of Canada, the Amazon and the Niger Delta. These movements exist already, and they should be supported. But Klein’s attempt to bundle them all up into one world-changing popular uprising isn’t persuasive. She has spent the last 15 years suggesting that just such a movement, using the tactics she promotes here (blockades, mass action at global summits, taking to the streets etc), is the only way to put paid to neoliberalism. That neoliberalism still doesn’t see itself as under threat hasn’t made her feel the need to reconsider her approach. As Klein acknowledges, serious action on climate change will require those of us who live in the rich world to take a hefty cut in our levels of material privilege, and many of the world’s poorer countries to surrender their aspiration to our lifestyles. Which party leader is brave enough to try and sell that?

Even Blockadia can get complicated in ways Klein seems unwilling to acknowledge. For every mass movement opposing an oil pipeline there is another opposing a giant windfarm or solar array. Huge renewable projects of the kind Klein demands are, after all, another form of ‘extractivism’: they extract energy from the wind, sun or waves, and in order to do so they industrialise enormous areas of land or water. Are movements which oppose such projects part of Blockadia, or are they its enemies? And how can the grassroots democracy and recognition of indigenous land rights which Klein favours be reconciled with the urgent, top-down Marshall Plan she says is needed to prevent catastrophe? Contradictions like this, which thread themselves through the book, are the result of trying to make a complicated problem simple. This is clearly a tactical decision: Klein is trying to build a movement, and movements need clear messages and clear enemies. But while it might make sense from a tactical point of view, strategically it looks like a big error. Early on in her book, Klein attends a meeting of climate change deniers from the Heartland Institute, a think tank funded by the fossil fuel industry which specialises in anti-green zealotry. Most of the fervently pro-market delegates believe that climate change ‘has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution’. This is the reason they deny the science: they think climate change is a socialist plot.

The problem for Klein is that, in her case at least, the Heartlanders are right. She does want to transform the American way of life in the interests of global wealth distribution, and she is very open about using climate change as a reason to do that. Her book proves the Tea Party right, and that isn’t going to do climate change scientists any favours, as Marshall points out:

The missing truth, deliberately avoided in these enemy narratives, is that in high-carbon societies, everyone contributes to the emissions that cause the problem and everyone has a strong reason to ignore the problem or to write their own alibi … If our founding narratives are based around enemies, there is no reason to suppose that, as climate impacts build in intensity, new and far more vicious enemy narratives will not readily replace them, drawing on religious, generational, political, class and nationalistic divides … History has shown us too many times that enemy narratives soften us up for the violence, scapegoating or genocide that follows.

Climate change isn’t something that a small group of baddies has foisted on us, and the minute it becomes an issue identified with one political persuasion, action to prevent it becomes less likely. In the end, we are all implicated, which is one reason we refuse to look at it directly. This is a less palatable message than one which sees a brutal 1 per cent screwing the planet and a noble 99 per cent opposing them, but it is closer to reality.

The struggle over climate change isn’t a war: it’s what Marshall, drawing on social policy research, calls a ‘wicked’, as opposed to a ‘tame’ problem. Tame problems have ‘defined causes, objectives and outputs’. Wicked problems, on the other hand, are ‘incomplete, contradictory and constantly changing’. Neither the causes nor the solutions are clear, and the situation is always shifting. They aren’t simple or morally clear, and this means that solutions, if there are any, will be in the same category. What, in the end, can be done about this wicked problem? Climate change is really a lesson in limits: the limits of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb our waste, the limited ability of our economics and politics to deal with what’s coming, the limits of our control over nature and ourselves. Both Klein and Marshall agree that the simplest way to proceed might be to impose a cap on fossil fuel extraction itself, rather than on the resulting emissions – something which, incredibly, has never been discussed at any of those global gatherings. But how to make that happen? Klein does a good job of exposing the corporate armlock which prevents the idea being discussed, but her rallying cry – ‘only mass social movements can save us now’ – can sound like another form of denial. Marshall suggests we change the narrative: instead of seeing climate change as a war, we could see it as a quest, which would give people of all persuasions a chance to take part in solving the problem. Doing anything useful about climate change requires everyone to lever themselves out of their comfort zones.

It is clear now that stopping climate change is impossible: what is still worth fighting for is some control over how bad it will get. Neither Klein nor Marshall can convincingly tell us how we should get from where we are to where we need to be in the time available; but then, neither can anyone else. Reading these books back to back, I’m inclined to side with Daniel Kahneman, whom Marshall spoke to in a noisily oblivious New York café. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on the psychology of human decision-making, which may be why he’s so gloomy. ‘This is not what you might want to hear,’ he says, but ‘no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope. I’m thoroughly pessimistic. I’m sorry.’