November 4, 2012

On Mitt (Romney) and Martin (Heidegger)

I avoid political commentary in this space because that's not what it's here for, and there are plenty of places to go for that. I try to keep my focus on technology and its effects, which as focuses go is plenty expansive enough. 

My comments here are not as much a departure from that policy as they might seem. The intention isn't to denounce Mitt Romney, but rather to note how clearly some of his campaign statements echo the ideas contained in Martin Heidegger's seminal essay, "The Question Concerning Technology." (Yes, I borrowed his title for my blog.) 

When Romney was interviewed in January by members of the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal, he was asked about the federal government's massive landholdings in Nevada. If elected President, would he be willing to turn over some portion of those holdings to the state? Here's his response:
I don’t know the reason that the federal government owns such a large share of Nevada.  And when I was in Utah at the Olympics there I heard a similar refrain there.  What they were concerned about was that the government would step in and say, “We’re taking this” — which by the way has extraordinary coal reserves — “and we’re not going to let you develop these coal reserves.”  I mean, it drove the people nuts. 
Unless there’s a valid, and legitimate, and compelling governmental purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land. So I haven’t studied it, what the purpose is of the land, so I don’t want to say, "Oh, I’m about to hand it over." But where government ownership of land is designed to satisfy, let’s say, the most extreme environmentalists, from keeping a population from developing their coal, their gold, their other resources for the benefit of the state, I would find that to be unacceptable.
Again, the point here isn't to paint Romney as some sort of right-wing fanatic. To the contrary, he's far from the only politician, Republican or Democrat, to see economic growth as the cure for all that ails us. It was specifically his inability to comprehend the "purpose" of undeveloped public lands that made me think of Heidegger. 

Nuclear power on the Rhine, one of Heidegger's examples
of nature transformed into "standing reserve"
Heidegger was among those who defined technology as a way of thinking as well as a collection of machines. From a technological perspective, he said, nature has no value simply for what it is. Rather its worth is contained entirely in its usefulness as a means to produce something else. A river, a mountain, a forest – all are merely repositories of potential power, or what Heidegger called "standing reserve." This standing reserve must be extracted aggressively, by "setting upon" the natural world in "a revealing that challenges." Technology's aggression is narrow as well as relentless: It "blocks the shining forth and holding sway of truth.”

It would be easy for any politician to dismiss Heidegger as an ivory tower academic hopelessly removed from real-world concerns. And of course Heidegger's own political affiliations hardly inspire confidence in his epistemology. That's unfortunate, because his insights into the nature of technology are profound and important.

To argue today that a form of truth "shines forth" in nature, and that such a truth has value that can't be measured in dollars, seems hopelessly na├»ve. Even environmentalists felt compelled to respond to Romney's comments by pointing out that Nevada's national parks attract tourists who contribute millions to the state's economy. For conservatives in particular, conservation seems to have become a dirty word. The tragedy is that all too often in our history, "natural resources" development leaves precious little that is "natural" behind.  

©Doug Hill, 2012

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