Reading this article from Mark Boyle, the Guardian's Living Without Technology columnist, didn't make me feel guilty in the usual way when I read something about how I should be healthier. Everyday there's a new study that you shouldn't eat this many eggs, or that many bananas, that we're doing too little exercise or something else to this effect. I feel guilty but then I push it aside because no one can possibly remember all these things, let alone do them all. Reading Boyle's article was different though. He hasn't suggested we give up X in exchange for Y, or do more of Z. Instead he talks about his own life spent rejecting all modern complex technology. He lives off the land, doesn't ingest any chemicals whatsoever, and seems all the happier for it.
But how realistic is all this? It wouldn't be progress if we all reverted to such a way of living. Modern technology is what allows us to travel the world, stay connected with people far away, experience new things and help people on a bigger scale. Boyle makes some convincing arguments that say our version of progress is skewed; some of the most common diseases affecting us, including obesity and stress, are products of the industrial civilisation that we've brought on ourselves in the past 200 years. Society is stressed out, mentally ill and, very often, lonely. He asks why we don't address the root of these 'industrial' problems and simply lead simpler lives?
While Boyle makes valid arguments, what's clear to me is that we must find a balance. What society has achieved in the last 200 years is progress on a huge scale, and that shouldn't be denied, but he is right in saying that progress can come at a cost. Just because something is new doesn't always mean it's positive. Either way, it's verging on the impossible to limit progress. This means governments and policymakers have a tough job and a lot of work ahead of them to keep up with all of our advancements and protect us from too much progress.
Big picture aside, most of what afflicts us today – cancer, obesity, mental illness, diabetes, stress, auto-immune disorders, heart disease, along with those slow killers: meaninglessness, clock-watching and loneliness – are industrial ailments. We create stressful, toxic, unhealthy lifestyles fuelled by sugar, caffeine, tobacco, antidepressants, adrenaline, discontent, energy drinks and fast food, and then defend the political ideology that got us hooked on these things in the first place. Our sedentary jobs further deplete our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing, but instead of honestly addressing the root cause of the illness we exert ever more effort, energy, genius and money trying to treat the symptoms and contain the epidemics.