Slavery’s past and disturbingly likely future

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

                                      William Faulkner

Dystopias, just like utopias, are never unmoored from a society’s history. Our worst historical experiences inevitably become the source code for our nightmares regarding the future. Thankfully, America has been blessed with a shallow well from which to feed its dystopian imagination, at least when one compares its history to other societies’ sorrows.

After all, what do we have to compare with the devastation of China during the Taiping Rebellion, Japanese invasion, or Great Leap Forward? What in our experience compares to the pain inflicted on the Soviet Union’s peoples during World War II, the fractional bloodletting of Europe during the wars of religion or world wars? Only Japan has had the tragic privilege of being terrorized into surrender by having its citizens incinerated into atomic dust, and we were the ones who did it.

Of course, the natural rejoinder here is that I’m looking at American history distorted through the funhouse lense of my own identity as a straight- white- male. From the perspective of Native Americans, African Americans, women, and sexual minorities it’s not only that the dark depths of American history were just as bad or worse than those of other societies, it’s that the times when the utopian imagination managed to burst into history are exceedingly difficult to find if indeed they ever existed at all.

Civil war threatens to inflict a society not only over the question of defining the future, but over the issue of defining the past. Deep divisions occur when what one segment of society takes to be its ideal another defines as its nightmare. Much of the current political conflict in the US can be seen in this light- dueling ideas of history which are equally about how we define desirable and undesirable futures.

Technology, along with cultural balkanization and relative economic abundance, has turned engagement with history into a choice. With the facts and furniture (its stuff) of the past so easily accessible we can make any era of history we chose intimately close. We can also chose to ignore history entirely and use the attention we might have devoted to it with a passion for other realities- even wholly fictional ones.

In reality, devoting all of one’s time to trying to recapture life in the past, or ignoring the past in total and devoting one’s attention to one or more fictional worlds, tend to become one and the same. A past experienced as the present is little more real than a completely fictionalized world. Historical re-enactors can aim for authenticity, but then so can fans of Star Trek. And the fact remains that both those who would like to be living in the 24th century or those who would prefer to domicile in the 19th, or the 1950’s, by these very desires and how they go about them reveal the reality that they’re sadly stuck in the early 21st.

What we lose by turning history into a consumer fetish that can either be embraced or pushed aside for other ways to spend our money and attention isn’t so much the past’s facts and furniture, which are for the first time universally accessible, but its meaning and meaning is not something we can avoid.  

We can never either truly ignore or return to the past because that past is deeply embedded in every moment of our present while at the same time being irreversibly mixed up with everything that happened between our own time and whatever era of history we wish to inhabit or avoid.

This strange sort of occlusion of the history where the past is simultaneously irretrievably distant in that it cannot be experienced as it truly was and yet is also intimately close- forming the very structure out of which the present is built- means we need other, more imaginative, ways to deal with the past. Above all, a way in which the past can be brought out of its occlusion, its ghosts that live in the present and might still haunt our future made visible, its ever present meaning made clear.

Ben Winters’ novel Underground Airlines does just this. By imagining a present day America in which the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists he not only manages to give us an emotional demonstration of the fact that the legacy of slavery is very much still with us, he also succeeds in warning us how that tragic history might become more, rather than less, part of our future.

The protagonist of Underground Airlines is a man named Victor. A bounty hunter in the American states outside of the “hard four” where slavery has remained at the core of the economy, he is a man with incredible skills of detection and disguise. His job is to hunt runaway slaves.

The character reminded me a little of Dr. Moriarty , or better, Sherlock Holmes- minus the cartoonishness. (More on why the latter in a second) But for me what made Victor so amazing a character wasn’t his skills or charm but his depth. You see Victor isn’t just a bounty hunter chasing down men and women trying to escape hellish conditions, he’s an escaped slave himself.

A black man who can only retain what little freedom he has by hunting down human beings just like himself. It’s not so much Victor’s seemingly inevitable redemption from villain to hero that made Underground Airlines so gripping, but Winters’ skill in making me think this redemption might just not happen. That and the fact that the world he depicted in the novel wasn’t just believable, but uncomfortably so.

Underground Airlines puts the reader inside a world of 21st century slavery where our moral superiority over the past, our assumption that we are far too enlightened to allow such a morally abhorrent order to exist, that had we lived in the 19th century we’d have certainly stood on the righteous side of the abolitionists and not been lulled to sleep by indifference or self-interest crumbles.

The novel depicts a thoroughly modern form of slavery, where those indignant over the institution’s existence do so largely through boycotts and virtue signaling all the while the constitution itself (which had been amended to forever legalize slavery in the early 19th century) permits the evil itself, and the evil that supports it like the human hunting done by Victor, to continue to destroy the humanity of those who live under it.

Winters also imagines a world like our own in that pop-culture exists in this strange morally ambiguous space. Victor comforts himself by listening to the rhythms of Michael Jackson (a brilliant choice given the real life Jackson’s uncomfortable relationship with his own race), just as whites in our actual existing world can simultaneously adopt and admire black culture while ignoring the systematic oppression that culture has emerged to salve. It’s a point that has recently been made a million times more powerfully than I ever could.

The fictional premise found in Underground Airlines, that the US could have kept slavery while at the same time clung to the constitution and the Union isn’t as absurd as it appears at first blush. Back in the early aughts the constitutional scholar Mark Graber had written a whole book on that very subject: Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil . Graber’s disturbing point was that not only was slavery constitutionally justifiable but its had been built into the very system devised by the founders, thus it was Lincoln and the abolitionists who were engaged in a whole scale reinterpretation of what the republic meant.

No doubt scarred by the then current failure of building democracy abroad in Iraq, Graber argued that the wise, constitutionally valid, course for 19th century politicians would have been to leave slavery intact in the name of constitutional continuity and social stability. He seems to assume that slavery as a system was somehow sustainable and that the constitution itself is in some way above the citizens who are the source of its legitimacy. And Graber makes this claim even when he knows that under modern conditions basing a political system on the brutal oppression of a large minority is a recipe for a state of permanent fragility and constant crises of legitimacy often fueled by the intervention of external enemies- which is the real lesson he should have taken from American intervention abroad.

In Underground Airlines we see the world that Graber’s 19th century compromisers might have spawned. It’s a world without John Brown like revolutionaries in which slave owners run corporate campuses and are at pains to present themselves as somehow humane. What rebellion does occur comes in the context of the underground airlines itself, a network, like its real historical analog that attempts to smuggle freed slaves out of the country. Victor himself had tried to escape more than once, but he is manacled in a particularly 21st century way, a tracking chip embedded deep under his skin- like a dog.

What Winters has managed to do by placing slavery in our own historical context is recover for us what it meant. The meaning of our history of slavery is that we should never allow material prosperity to be bought at the price of dehumanizing oppression. That it’s a system based as much on human indifference and cravenness as it is on our capacity for cruelty. It’s a meaning we’ve yet to learn.

This is not a lesson we can afford to forget for, despite appearances, it’s not entirely clear that we have eternally escaped it. It seems quite possible that we have entered an era when the issue of a narrow prosperity bought by widespread oppression come to dominate national and global politics. To see that- contra Steven Pinker– we haven’t escaped oppression as the basis of material abundance, but merely skillfully removed it from the sight of those lucky enough to be born in societies and classes where affluence is taken for granted, one need only look at the history of cotton itself.

Sven Beckert in his Empire of Cotton: A Global History skillfully laid out the stages in which the last of the triad of great human needs of food, shelter and clothing was at last secured, so that today it is hard for many of us to imagine how difficult it once was just to keep ourselves adequately clothed to the point where the problem has become one of having so much clothing we can’t find any place to put it.

The conquest of this need started with actual conquest. The war capitalism waged by states and their proxies starting with the Age of Exploration succeeded in monopolizing markets and eventually enslave untold numbers of African to cultivate cotton in the Americas whose lands had been cleared of inhabitants by disease and genocide. The British especially succeeded not only in monopolizing foreign trade in cotton and in enslaving and resetting Africans in the American south, they had also, at home, managed through enclosure to turn their peasantry into a mass of homeless proletarians who could be forced through necessity and vagrancy laws into factories to spin cloth using the new machines of the industrial revolution. It was a development that would turn the British from the most successfully middleman in the lucrative Asian cotton trade into the world’s key producer of cotton goods, a move that would devastate the farmers of Asia who relied on cotton as a means to buffer their precarious incomes.

The success of the abolitionists movement, and especially the Union victory in the US Civil War seemed to have permanently severed the relationship between capitalism and slavery, yet smart capitalist had already figured out that gig was up. Wage labor had inherent advantages over slave based production. Under a wage based system labor was no longer linked to one owner but was free floating, thus able to rapidly respond to the ceaseless expansion followed by collapse that seemed to be the normal condition of an industrial economy. Producers no longer needed to worry about how they would extract value from their laborers when faced with falling demand, or worry about their loss of value and unsellabilty should they become in incurably sick or injured.  They could simply shed them and let the market or charity deal with such refuse. Capitalists also knew the days of slavery were numbered in light of successful slave revolts, especially the one in Haiti. The coercive apparatus slavery required was becoming prohibitively expensive.

It took capitalism less than twenty years after the end of American slavery to hit upon a solution to the problem of how to run commodity agriculture without slavery. That solution was to turn farmers themselves into proletarians. The Jim Crow laws that rose up in the former Confederate states after the failure of Reconstruction to turn the country into a true republic (based on civic rather than ethnic nationalism) were in essence a racially based form of proletarianization.

It was a model that Beckert points out was soon copied globally. First by Western imperialists, and later by strong states established along Western lines, peasants were coerced into specializing in commodity crops such as cotton and to rely on far flung markets for their survival. In the late 19th century the initial effect of this was a series of devastating famines, which with technological improvements, and the maturation of the market and global supply chains have thankfully become increasingly rare.

What Beckert’s work definitely shows is that the idea of “the market” arising spontaneously on its own between individuals free of the interfering had of the state is mere fiction. Capitalism of both the commercial and industrial varieties required strong states to establish itself and were essential to creating the kind of choice architecture that compelled individuals to accept their social reality.

Yet this history wasn’t all bad, for the very same strength of the state that had been used to establish markets could be turned around and used to contain and humanize them. It required strong states to enact emancipation and workers rights rights (even if the later was achieved under conditions of racialized democracy) and it was the state at the height of its strength after the World Wars that finally put an end to Jim Crow.

But by the beginning of the 21st century the state had lost much of this strength. The old danger of basing the material prosperity of some on the oppression of others remained very much alive and well. Beckert charts this change for the realm of cotton production with the major players in our age of globalization being no longer producers but retail giants such as WalMart or Amazon- distributors of finished products which aren’t so much traditional stores as vast logistical networks able to navigate and dominate opaque global supply chains.

In an odd way, perhaps the end of the Cold War did not so much signal the victory of capitalism over state communism as the birth of a rather monstrous hybrid of the two with massive capitalist entities tapping into equally massive pools of socialized production whether that be Chinese factories, Uzbek plantations, or enormous state subsidized farms in the US. Despite its undeniable contribution to global material prosperity this is also a system where the benefits largely flow in one direction and the costs in another.

It’s as if the primary tool of the age somehow ends up defining the shape of its political economy. Our primary tool is the computer, a machine whose use comes with its own logic and cost. To quote Jaron Lanier in Who Owns the Future?:

Computation is the demarcation of a little part of the universe, called a computer, which is engineered to be very well understood and controllable, so that it closely approximates a deterministic, non-entropic process. But in order for a computer to run, the surrounding parts of the universe must take on the waste heat, the randomness. You can create a local shield against entropy, but your neighbors will always pay for it. (143)

Under this logic the middle and upper classes in advanced economies, where they have been prohibited from unloading their waste and pollution on their own weak and impoverished populations have merely moved to spewing their entropy abroad or upon the non-human world- offloading their waste, pollution and the social costs of production to the developing world.

Still, such a system isn’t slavery which has its own peculiar brutalities. Unbeknownst to many slavery still exists, indeed, according to some estimates, there are more slaves now than there have ever been in human history. It is a scourge we should increasingly work to eradicate, yet it is in no way at the core of our economy as it was during the Roman Empire or 19th century.

That doesn’t mean, however, that slavery could never return to its former prominence. Such a dark future would depend on certain near universal assumptions about our technological future failing to come to pass. Namely, that Moore’s Law will not have a near term successor and thus that the predicted revolution in AI and robotics now expected fails to arrive this century. The failure of such a technological revolution might then intersect with current trends that are all too apparent. The frightening thing is that such a return to slavery in a high-tech form (though we wouldn’t call it that) would not require any sorts of technological breakthroughs at all.

In Underground Airlines what keeps Victor from escaping his fate is the tracking chip implanted deep under his skin. There’s already some use and a lot of discussion about using non- removable GPS tracking devices to keep tabs on former convicts no longer behind bars.

The reasoning behind this initially seems to provide a humane alternative to the system of mass incarceration we have today. The current system is in large measure a white, rural  jobs program – with upwards of 70 percent of prisons built between 1970 – 2000 constructed in rural areas.   It was a system built on the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans who make up less than 13 percent of the US population, but comprise 40 percent of its prisoners.

The election of Donald Trump has for now nixed the nascent movement towards reforming this barbaric system, a movement which has some strangely conservative supporters most notably the notorious Koch Brothers. What their presence signals is that we are in danger of replacing one inhumane system with an alternative with dangers of its own. One where people we once imprisoned are now virtually caged and might even be sold out for labor in exchange for state “support”.

This could happen if we enter another AI winter and human labor proves, temporarily at least, unreplaceable by robots, and at the same time we continue down the path of racialized politics. In these conditions immigrants might be treated in a similar way. A roving labor force used to meet shortages on the condition that they can be constantly tracked, sold out Uber-like, and deported at will. Such a “solution” to European, North American, and East Asian societies would be a way for racialized, demographically declining societies to avoid multi-cultural change while clinging to their standard of living. One need only look at how migrant labor works today in a seemingly liberal poster child such as Dubai or how Filipino servants are used by Israelis who keep their Palestinian neighbors in a state of semi-apartheid to get glimpses of this.

We might enter such a world almost unawares our anxieties misdirected by what turn out to be false science-fiction based nightmares of jobless futures and Skynet. Let’s do our best to avoid it.

 

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Utopia of the Wastelands

Part of the problem with utopia is the question of where do you put it. After all, what any imaginary ideal society ultimately ends up being is its “own world turned upside down”, which means that the world, as it is, must not have a place for anything like a paradise on earth, otherwise an author would have had no reason to dream up a utopia in the first place.

Authors have gotten around this problem by locating utopia on an unknown island, on the frontier, in the deep past, in the future, in outer space, or on some alternate historical timeline where everything has worked out for the good. Cory Doctorow is the first fiction author I’m aware of to have located his utopia in our own society’s garbage dumps.

His novel Walkawy depicts a world where individuals have abandoned a hyper-capitalist world not all that different from our own and relocated to the zones of destruction and decay familiar to anyone who has lived in the post-industrial wastelands of the US, Europe, or beyond. Anyone who has lived within walking distance of a man made disaster or regions deemed lost by the forces of capital rushing around the globe has first hand experience of the kind of environment walkaways hope to build their utopia in.    

Walkaways can find the space to build a new kind of society in these zones because capitalists- whom Doctorow delightfully calls “zottas” find little value in the material and human trash heap they have created. The utopia of the wastelands the walkaways build is indeed a blissfully bizarro world version of our own. Money counts for nothing there, nor do possessions. Merit is a matter of service to the collective good rather than a way to mark one off as deserving of special rewards.

A utopia that builds itself on the basis of capitalism’s trash would seem to have scarcity built into its very design. But it’s just not so. Perhaps no one but Doctorow could have made collective dumpster diving sound so sexy, high-tech, and well…cool.

The codebase originated with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, had been field tested a lot. You told it the kind of building you wanted, gave it a scavenging range, and it directed its drones to inventory anything nearby, scanning multi-band, doing deep database scapes against urban planning and building-code sources to identify usable blocks for whatever you were making. This turned into a scavenger hunt inventory, and the refugees or aid workers (or in shameful incidents, the trafficked juvenile slaves) fanned out to retrieve the pieces the building needed to conjure itself into existence. p.45

And almost anything that can’t be ripped and re-fabricated from a pre-existing source can be created via 3D printing or crafted via the love and labor of willing walkaways.

The only rival for the leftist ethos in the wastelands are the “reputation economy freaks” whose own version of utopia isn’t so much and upside down version of the world of the zottas as one where the zottas’ false meritocracy- where the “best” come out on top- is supposed to be made real. Reputation freaks hope to make it real via the intricate measurement of every individual’s contribution, through the gamification of human action. Doctorow is having some fun here by showing the absurdity of the current Silicon Valley fad for neo-Taylorism and the “quantified self”.

We’ve known since Jesus that doing good for the recognition of being seen to be doing good doesn’t result in goodness but “in game-playing and stats-fiddling”. Virtue signaling didn’t need Twitter to come about- it’s as old as the Pharisees.

A major problem for contemporary utopianism on the left is what position to take on abundance, above all, how to square the older dream of truly universal material prosperity with the now equally strong utopian desire to be free of the dehumanizing machine– the global network of corporations and bureaucratic processes, laborers and devices which Marx himself pointed out had made our unprecedented era of abundance possible. Such a desire to be free from the machine, on the left, can be found in the desire to return to the craft economy and the organic. At its most pessimistic this newer branch of the left urges an exit from the machine on the basis that whatever prosperity is experienced today is being bought at the price of the destruction of the rest of nature, and ultimately, perhaps, the human species itself.              

Doctorow has mentioned a number of influences for the utopia of walkaways which are really positions on the abundance/scarcity question. He wants to preserve and universalize prosperity but on reconfigured, and more human foundations- a prospect perhaps only now possible given current technologies. Influences such as Leigh Philips, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A guide to our future, and Ronald Coase’s 1937 article The Nature of the Firm are all part of Walkaway’s source.  

Walkaway, in one sense, is an attempt to bridge this new gulf among the left between those, such as Philips, arguing that after asserting public control and ownership of the productive instruments of society, we need to go deeper into the machine so as to unleash what some have called “fully automated luxury communism” and figures such as Douglas Rushkoff urging a return to more organic forms of living and an economy based on craft.

In Walkaway ad hoc networks enabled by digital technology combined with advanced and ubiquitous 3D printing serve as an alternative to the huge centrally controlled industrial systems that provide the bulk of our food and products. In the novel Doctorow has given us a plausible version of a makers’ economy where technologically empowered craftsmen are once again the equals of the factory system that had swept them away starting in the 1700’s.

I’ll return to the question of whether I think such a path is plausible in a moment. Right now, I want to discuss one author and her work whose philosophy I think also lies at the root of the utopia Doctorow has imagined in Walkaway, namely; Rebecca Solnit and her amazing book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

In its essence, the argument Solnit makes in A Paradise in Hell is that human beings are essentially good. What undermines this goodness is that powerful minorities are often able to exploit for their own gain the fact that so few of us believe this very fact. Most of us know that if all the state’s police powers disappeared tomorrow we wouldn’t straight away set upon our neighbors to seize their goods and wives. Yet somehow we assume that in a crisis those around us would do just that, as if we personally were somehow the exception to Hobbes’ picture of humankind as being in a state a war of “all against all” absent the threat of violence by the state.

At least that’s what we learn in Hollywood disaster flicks. Get rid of the state and you unleash an even more violent mob.  In A Paradise built in Hell Solnit makes a strong empirical case that this is nothing like what human beings do in the face of actual disaster. Instead, time after time, and in varying circumstances and locations, crises give rise to responses of altruism and mutual aid. As a general rule when faced with the demand that we feed, clothe, heal, and protect our neighbors we do so not merely willingly, but joyfully. The surprising thing is that in doing so people in the midst of horrible privation have often reported experiencing a type of freedom unavailable in the world they inhabited before disaster struck. As Sonit put it:    

The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding. The very structure of our economy and society prevents these goals from being achieved.

Disaster demonstrates this, since among the factors determining whether you live or die are the health of your immediate community and the justness of your society. We need ties, but they along with purposefulness, immediacy, and agency also give us joy- the startling, sharp joy I found in the accounts of disaster survivors. These accounts demonstrate that the citizens any paradise would need- the people who are brave enough, and generous enough- already exist. The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being,so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live in another way. (p.15)

Solnit helped answer for me questions I had stumbled into eons ago while reading the political theorist Hannah Arendt. Her argument was that we moderns only experienced genuine freedom under two conditions, and while I understood Arendt’s assertion that one of these conditions was revolution, I never grasped why it was she also claimed that the other condition in which freedom could be found was war.

In an introduction to the soldier Jesse Glenn Gray’s philosophical meditation on war The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle Arendt grapples with a story from the book where Gray encounters an isolated French hermit who has no real idea of the Second World War that is raging around him:

Who am I? What is my function in life?” This was fraternity, and it was possible because one of them, the old man and hermit, was blessed with “the gift of simplicity” and the other, soldier and philosopher, had been stripped of his normal sophistications, of all that is subtly false in what we teach and learn.

Both were outside civilization, outside tradition and culture, the soldier because war had thrown him into one of those lonely foxholes with nothing to keep him company but “watching the stars at night,” the hermit because it was “as though he had sprung from nature herself… her authentic child… (xii)

This “fraternity” between two human beings was made possible by the unraveling, or self-imposed exile from the world that by its nature embeds the individual in a particular history, culture, and set of power relations and their supporting modes of thought. On this reading the freedom experienced in war has little to do with the adrenaline rush of battle, or the fact that in war the individual is permitted to break the taboo of “thou shalt not kill”, rather, as in revolution and disaster, war can temporarily release the individual from the weight of history, set them free from the complicated structures that define life in modern society, structures which from their nature of being based on machines, demand that individuals become machine-like.

We’ve built these structures largely because they provide for our needs, keep us comfortable and safe in the face of a hostile nature. Yet such safety comes at the cost of each of us becoming a cog in a larger system, easily replaced if lost. Disaster, revolution, and war temporarily restore not merely our ability to act creatively, but to have our actions actually have consequences that change the shape of the world.

Walkaway depicts an escape route into a very similar realm of freedom, though if it emerges out of any of my triumvirate of disaster, revolution, and war it is in the form of a slow moving disaster in which the powers that be have allowed great zones of the world they find superfluous to their profit seeking objective, along with the people who inhabit them, to fall into decay. Science-fiction is always as much about the present as it is the future and the policy of Doctorow’s zottas towards the wastelands is but a ramped up version of the new imperialism practiced by capitalists today. The sociologist Saskia Sassen in a recent essay for e-flux said it best:

These are not old imperial modes where conquerors wanted it all. Today’s financial conquerors want specialized, and selective geographies: they need specific sites within national geographies. They do not want to deal with a whole country. They want instruments that allow them to cut across international borders and occupy only the sites of that territory that they need or desire for their own projects—differing radically from the older imperial land grabs.

As in Walkaway, Sassen seems to imagine a utopia based on the occupation of abandoned or yet to be colonized spaces. It’s a hopeful vision, yet I can’t help wondering if recent events might be warning us that this particular path to paradise might have shortcomings of its own. And I say all this as a person who has consistently argued that we need to renew our utopian imagination and create opportunities for alternatives to our society to be experimented with. Thus if I appear critical of Doctorow, Solnit or Sassen it’s not so much in order to challenge their perspective or goals as it is a means to be critically engage with myself.

Let’s imagine that the largely self-sufficient makers’ economy Doctorow depicts in Walkaway is a plausible alternative to the world of continent and globe straddling bureaucratic systems we currently depend upon for our wants and needs. Though I may completely agree with Limpopo, one of the main characters of the novel when she argues against the reputation freaks that:

“If you do things because you want someone else to pat you on the head, you won’t get as good as someone who does it for internal satisfaction”  (75)

I know that many others won’t. Indeed, the rivalry between the walkaways and the reputation freaks Doctorow depicts show just two of the possible and radically different forms of society constructed using the same technology. Many, many others are equally possible, and while from my perspective the society built by the walkaways is ideal, I know that many others would choose to build something else. And I know this even though I am in complete agreement with Solnit- that in a crisis human beings are more prone to feed their neighbors rather than prey upon them. The problem arises the moment these issues of basic survival, without which no society can exist, have been solved. For at that moment we run into the intractable question- what is the best way to live? The answer to which, far too often in human history, has been a rationalization of our own interest, even when that means the oppression of others for what is deemed to be the “greater good”. I know this because we’re already in a world where the same technology empowers both the very best and worst of people. Encryption protects dissidents against cruel states and creeps at the same time it shields hard core criminals and terrorists groups such as ISIS. Perhaps it has always been so.

A makers’- economy world where anything we wanted could be scavenged from civilization’s refuse or summoned out of the ether with 3D printers would just as likely lead to profound moral and political splintering as a “leap to freedom.”

One doesn’t have to adopt Marxism whole hog to agree that political and social systems are ultimately based on the “system of production” that underlies them. We’ve created for ourselves a globalized, liberal, world order because our own system of production- industrial capitalism- requires precisely this to function. A truly effective suite of maker-technologies might return us to something that more resembles feudalism than anything we’ve seen since the beginning of the modern world.

Splintering would not, of necessity, be a bad thing. Such a world would be littered with utopias and dystopias depending on one’s point of view. Whether or not such a pluralistic system would be better than our current global mono-culture, which has its benefits as well as its all too obvious risks and downsides would depend upon the mix of societies at any one time, along with the relationship between the different societies that inhabit the world.

A splintered world would be more diverse and free, but, unless coupled with a species shattering disaster, it wouldn’t release us from the problems and moral dilemmas we face from living in one world. Policies and technologies pursued by one society might still impact and threaten those living half a world away, we would still be aware of, and feel morally compelled to act, in the interest of sufferers (including animal sufferers) far removed from us. In other words, it’s impossible to see how we should, or even could, walk away from politics- the conflict between human groups- for no such conflict free zone can exist in a universe where individuals and groups must choose between mutually opposing options, and this is the case even when all of those options are good.

The only universe where we could escape these Sophie’s Choice type problems would be one that was wholly simulated and virtual. There’s no need to choose between options when one can fork and have both, no need to fret about the individual and collective impact and consumption on the environment when our desires are just built out of code.

Doctorow has called the central role played by uploading in Walkaway a McGuffin, yet the walkaways pursuit of defeating death by scanning their brains, along with the zottas efforts to prevent these outcasts from democratizing immortality, seems baked into the political logic of the novel. Human abundance, whether of the capitalist or socialist sort ultimately comes into conflict with the rest of nature. It’s a conflict that the virtualization of the human would seemingly solve. As the character Sita explains to Limpopo:

For hundreds of years, people have been trying to get everyone to live gently on the land, but their whole pitch was, “hold still and try not to breathe.” It was all hair-shirt, no glory in nature’s beauty. The environmental prescription has been to act as much as possible like you were already dead. Don’t reproduce. Don’t consume. Don’t trample the earth or you’ll compress the dirt and kill the plants. Every exhalation poisons the atmosphere with CO2. Is it any wonder we haven’t gotten there?

Now we’ve got a deal for humanity that’s better than anything before: lose the body. Walk away from it. Become an immortal being of pure thought and feeling, able to travel the universe at light speed, unkillable, consciously deciding how you want to live your life and making it stick, by fine-tuning your parameters so you’re the version of yourself that does the right thing, that knows and honors itself.  (195)

A virtualized humanity wouldn’t only solve the conflict between humanity and the rest of nature, it would seemingly solve the problem of humanity’s conflict with itself.

Virtualization would solve the issue of human contention because everyone could live in whatever imaginary social order one chose, including, disturbingly, one where you played the role of a tyrant or a sinister god. Perhaps solved is the wrong word.

Yet there are problems with believing virtualization truly would solve our perennial problem of scarcity, let alone the conflict between humanity and nature or the conflict between humans themselves. Even if what Doctorow has previously satirized as a “rapture of the nerds” was available for everyone any belief in a paradise made of electrons suffers from the fact that the material world is not something we can actually walk away from.

After all, running uploads requires all kinds of physical systems and above all the energy to run them. A lot of energy. As the physicist Caleb Scharf recently pointed out:

…our brains use energy at a rate of about 20 watts. If you wanted to upload yourself intact into a machine using current computing technology, you’d need a power supply roughly the same as that generated by the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric plant in China, the biggest in the world. To take our species, all 7.3 billion living minds, to machine form would require an energy flow of at least 140,000 petawatts. That’s about 800 times the total solar power hitting the top of Earth’s atmosphere. Clearly human transcendence might be a way off.

Of course, even if improvements in computations-per-joule have been leveling off, we should expect at some point, in the far future, to have drastically shrunk the gap between the human brain and a copy of it run on a computer, unless, as the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has argued the mind is something to complex and stochastic to be digitally simulated.

I suppose, after a long concerted effort, one could eventually put such energy harvesting systems in outer space, yet the quest might prove less one of the creation of new and better simulated worlds than the human retreat into a kind of cartoon. That’s because as Rudy Rucker long ago pointed out in his essay The Great Awakening:

We know that our present-day videogames and digital movies don’t fully match the richness of the real world. What’s not so well known is that no feasible VR can ever match nature because there are no shortcuts for nature’s computations. Due to a property of the natural world that I call the “principle of natural unpredictability,” fully simulating a bunch of particles for a certain period of time requires a system using about the same number of particles for about the same length of time. Naturally occurring systems don’t allow for drastic shortcuts.

Matter, just as it is, carries out outlandishly complex chaotic quantum computations by dint of sitting around. Matter isn’t dumb. Every particle everywhere and everywhen computes at the max possible flop. I think we tend to very seriously undervalue quotidian reality.

Virtualization would be more like Bitcoin than an escape from either scarcity or human caused environmental destruction- it would based on the unequal access to energy and materials necessary for the creation and maintenance of uploaded individuals and their worlds, and it wouldn’t do nature much good until much of this infrastructure was moved off of the earth. Until that time it would be perhaps even more destructive to the environment- because of its hunger for energy- than the world of biological humans we currently have.

Regardless of its effect on scarcity and environmental destruction, retreat into the great uploaded beyond wouldn’t solve the issue of human moral conflict unless we surrendered our moral responsibilities and adopted a laissez faire approach regardless of the consequences. (I find it weird how grappling with a world of uploaded humans results in a reality that is merely an intensified version of our own where we spend much of our time digitally engaged already.) Would we allow an individual to live in any digital world they chose? Would simulated persons have rights? Would we allow the sale of copies of oneself even if knew that copy would be mistreated or abused? If the answer to any of these question is no, then we’re back in the world of moral contention, a world we can seemingly escape only at the cost of our own soul.

If there is one fundamental flaw to the utopian imagination it is the belief that we can permanently escape this zone of dispute. The price of escaping has often come at the cost of withdrawing from the responsibilities of caring for the larger world and leaving those left behind to fend for themselves. Yet there is an even worse option whereby utopians attempt to enforce their particular version of the ideal society by force. The latter is the means by which the hope for a better world has given way to its opposite- to dystopia.

Ultimately, there is no possibility of walking away from the world we inhabit. Rather than leaving we must fight now and forever to build and preserve the kind of societies we want to live in. In his novel, Cory Doctorow has given us a compelling vision of what kind of society we should be fighting for whether or not we can ever enter the promised land.

Ursula Le Guin and The Dispossessed

 

“The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself.” (272)

                                                 The Dispossessed 

The great science-fiction writer, poet, environmentalist and feminist Ursula Le Guin died last week at the age of 88 at a time when wisdom like hers was needed more than ever. Her last piece of advice, written in light of the panic and despondency triggered by the presidential election was to urge us to calm resistance to become like water, the perfect form to counteract the inflexible hardness of violence and force. It was a wisdom she took straight from the Taoist Lao Tzu whom she had beautifully translated and whose cyclical view of the world as birth and growth followed by inevitable decay and death followed by rebirth had for decades had resonance with her own.

Only a few years before she had seen the decay coming. In an interview with fellow science-fiction writer Naomi Alderman she noted that:

My country where I live is currently in this curious regressive mood. Apparently people are frightened and so they want to go back to what they perceive as the old certainties, and, of course among this is putting women back in their place. And it worries me when I see young women who aren’t worried about this who think they’ve sort of got it made, you know.

She also observed that the time for her to engage in our perpetual struggles for justice had now passed and the torch passed to the young:

But I really have to say, Naomi, at my age- 85- I don’t think it’s particularly my job to look ahead. I think the perspective from where I am in really extreme old age is… how much of the future can it include, or should it include. It’s really not my business anymore. It’s your business and the young-ins.”

Certainly she would have seen in the resistance to Trumpism so far, in the Women’s March, and the #MeToo movement the end to complacency and the basis for something new. The seeds Le Guin and other feminists of her generation had sown have apparently taken deeper root than she feared. Even if this reinvigorated call for equality came with questions and possible dangers as have all sharp moves towards justice before.

I myself had discovered Le Guin quite late in life and what brought me to her was the hope that she could reveal something deep about the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which in one sense, helped give birth to this blog. Below is one of the first post I ever published here on her anarchist version of Utopia. It is not my best work. Yet I still believe, and now more than ever, that The Dispossessed is a book no one who hopes for a better future that does not repeat the error of Utopias of the past should fail to read.    ___________________________

I just finished The Dispossessed, a 1974 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. This wonderful book tells the story of an “ambiguous” anarchist utopia. Though written during a period much different from our own, The Dispossessed  might have lessons for us today, especially for those in the OWS movement whose political philosophy and hopes represent what might be seen as a triumph of anarchism.

The novel is set on the anarchist colony on the moon of Anarres, founded as a breakaway settlement of a movement called Odonianism- a moral and political philosophy created by Odo a woman who railed against the capitalist system of Urras, the rich and beautiful mother planet.  The two worlds under “The Terms of the Closure of the Settlement of Anarres” have interactions limited to a space freighter that exchanges necessities between them 8 times a year. There is a “wall” between Anarres and Urras, and it is the efforts of the protagonist of The Dispossessed,  a brilliant physicist named Shevek to break down this wall between worlds that form the essence of the story.

Without doubt, Odonianism has created a moral utopia. The inhabitants of Anarres, constantly subject to a harsh climate, and in constant danger of scarcity and famine, are bound together tightly and suffer continuously for one another. The needs of the whole community come before all others, even those of family. As is the case with Shevek and his beloved partner Takver who separate in the name of the needs of the community.  Anarres is an organic community that in the words of Shevek arguing with a Urratzi social Darwinist:

Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species are those who are the most social. In human terms the most ethical.” (195)

The people of Anarres have no real government, though it can not really be said that they have politics either. Like Saint-Simon had suggested, without the class war endemic to the state, politics would become the mere “administration of things”.  A series of councils/syndicis make important decisions such as the allocation of work (though an individual is always free to refuse to go where a work syndic requests.  To my ears, these councils sound much like the “working groups” of the OWSM each tasked with a very particular need or goal of the movement. On Anarres they are a place where rotation and openness to debate mask the fact that they can be manipulated for political ends such as the machinations of the scientist Sabul who uses his ability to control the flow of information between Anarres and Urras, and even to control the publication of scientific papers to use the brilliance of Shevek for his own advantage, and take credit for what is mostly Shevek’s work.

It is this ability and desire to control the flow of knowledge and insight (including the insight brought by travelers from other worlds) whether stemming from the flawed human condition of someone like Sabul, or the tyranny of the majority implicit in an egalitarian society, that is the sin of Anarres. For, when combined with an internalized moral code that commands them not to be egoist, the Anarrresti are unable to express their own individual genius. Whether that be in a case like Shevek’s where he is constantly thwarted from constructing a theory that would allow faster- than- light communication, and therefore the enable the strong connection of interstellar peoples to become possible, or the comedy of a non-conformist playwright, such as Tirin, who writes a play about a comic character coming from Urras to Anarres. This suffocation of the spirit of the soul is the primary, and growing, flaw of Odo’s utopia.  As Shevek says:

That the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t cooperate –we obey. (291)

In an effort to break free from the control of knowledge, Shevek and those around him set up a printing syndicate of their own. This syndicate eventually starts communicating with the outside, with the Urratzi, which ultimately results in the ultimate attempt to breakdown walls- Shevek’s visit to Urras itself.

The capitalist nation of A-Io invites Shevek out of the belief that he is on the verge of discovering a unified theory of time which they will profit from.  Shevek’s journey is a disaster. What he discovers on Urras is a beautiful yet superficial world built on the oppression of the poor by the rich. Not surprising for the time period the novel was written, a Cold War rages between capitalist A-Io and the authoritarian communist nation of Thu. The two-powers fight proxy wars in less developed nations. When the poor rise up to protest the rich in A-Io they are brutally massacred, and Shevek flees to the embassy of the planet Earth. The ambassador of earth shelters Shevek, but expresses her admiration for Urras, with the civilization on earth having almost destroyed itself. Explains the ambassador:

My world, my earth is a ruin.  A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left and then we died…

But we destroyed the world first. There are no forest left on my earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot.” (347)

She admires Urras for it’s  beauty and material abundance, which has somehow avoided environmental catastrophe. She does not understand the moral criticism of Shevek- a man from a desert world of scarcity, and famine.

Earthlings were ultimately saved by an ancient, sage like people the Hainish. They return Shevek to Anarres, along with a member of the Hainish that wants to see the world anarchist have built. The walls Shevek sought to tear down continue to fall…

What might some of the lessons of this brilliant novel be for our own times? Here are my ideas:

1) For the OWSM itself: that the “administration of things” always has a political aspect. That even groups open to periodic, democratic debate are prone to capture by the politically savvy, and steps make sure they remain democratic need to be constant.

2) One of the flaws of Le Guin’s view of utopia is that it seems to leave no room for democratic politics itself.  Politics, therefore can only be in the form of manipulation (Sabul) or rebellion (Shevek) there is no space, it seems, for consensual decision making as opposed to a mere right to debate and be heard.

3) There is a conflict between the individual (the need for creativity, love of family) and the needs of the community that is existential and cannot be eliminated by any imaginable political system. The key is to strike the right balance between the individual and the community.

4) That the tyranny of the majority or groupthink is a real danger for any community and not just a mere bogeyman of conservative forces.

5) The most important thing we can do to preserve the freedom of the individual and health of the community is to keep the lines of communication and connection open. That includes openness to the viewpoints of ideological rivals.

______________________

The deep compassion of Ursula Le Guin is something all of us will miss.

 

Escape from the Body Farm

Body snatchers

One of the lesser noted negative consequences of having a tabloid showman for a president is the way the chaos and scandal around him has managed to suck up all the air in the room. Deep social and political problems that would have once made the front page, sat on top of the newsfeed, or been covered in depth by TV news, have been relegated to the dustbin of our increasingly monetized attention. And because so few of the public know about these issues their future remains in the hands of interested parties unlikely to give more than a perfunctory concern to issues such as ethics or the common good such issues involve.

For that reason I was extremely pleased when the news service Reuters recently did a series of articles on a topic that seemingly has nothing to do with Trump. That series called The Body Trade gives the reader insight into an issue I would bet few of us are aware of. The way that life-saving tissues and organs have been increasingly monetized and turned into profits centers for medical companies despite the fact this biological trade is supposedly done on a voluntary basis not for money but in what is often the last ethical, charitable act a person can do in the service of the common good.

According to Reuters, bodies “donated to science” often end up dismembered and sold to the highest bidder to body brokers who sell the dead for a profit to anyone willing to pay. Whatever your qualifications you can buy such human remains over the internet, for a price. Many morticians are apparently now onto the game and will convince a family to donate the body of a loved one only to sell these remains at a profit, but the trade is also comprised of large corporations. One such corporate body broker, Science Care, has aimed to become the “MacDonald’s” of the dead and has managed to run a 27 million dollar profit from the sale of whole bodies many of which were gained from poor people unable to pay for funeral expenses.

A body reduced to a commodity comes to be treated like a commodity. In one body broker’s warehouse the heads of dead were stacked like frozen cookie jars. Biological Resource Center dismembered bodies using off-the-shelf power tools and stored the remains like trash in garbage bags. They seemed to have been especially adept at getting hold of the bodies of the poor.

All of the cases from the Reuters series appear to have happened in the US and dealt with the remains of the dead, but the body trade is a global phenomenon and often trucks in the parts of the living and the living themselves. I knew this because I had recently read Scott Carney’s excellent book on the subject, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child  Traffickers.

Carney’s book takes readers into the heart of the red market, whose victims come largely from the poor of the developing and post-communist world and whose beneficiaries are the rich and middle class of advanced economies along with the nouveau riche who because of globalization are now everywhere. Skeletons are obtained for the rich world via Indian grave robbers, a place where in one of the most gruesome section of the book. There, on the Indian border with Nepal, a farmer named Papa Yadhav kept his captive victims whom he milked like cows- only for the much more valuable commodity of human blood.

Carney reveals that there are whole villages in south Asia that base their economies on selling their kidneys, that Chinese authorities have harvested corneas from political prisoners such as those from the religious movement Falun Gong, that older women who can afford it can with ease buy the eggs of poor women, or rent their wombs for a pittance. Among the world’s poor pharmaceutical companies can also find willing human guinea pigs at a similarly bargain basement price.

One might think the quest for organs especially is born from a crisis of supply. Yet Carney points out how the scarcity of organs is largely artificial. Like an oil cartel, by inflating the number of patients eligible for transplants the medical industry consciously guarantees that demand will exceed supply.

Then there are the children. Often kidnapped on the streets of the world’s crowded mega-cities their darkest fate is to become the commodities of the global sex trade while the lucky ones are adopted into the homes of well-off families who even with the best of intentions remain oblivious of their new children’s sinister origins.

Rightfully, Carney dismisses market based solutions to the problem of the red market. Given the level of global inequality there is no way to sort willing sellers from those forced into the decision to undergo risky and life changing surgery in order to temporarily escape the vice grip of hunger and homelessness.

His solution is that we mandate transparency throughout the supply chain of human organs and tissues so that anyone who receives a transplant or other gift of this kind can trace what they have been given back to its original owner or their family. As Paul Auster laid bare is his book The Winter Journal a self is inextricable from its body, our unique experience etched into every scar and wrinkle. What Carney is arguing for is really a form of social memory that links its way back to this personal experience. In the era of ubiquitous big data this shouldn’t be too hard. It is simply a matter of political will.

The body trade is just one example of new forms of dystopia missed by 21st century proponents of the belief in human progress, such as Steven Pinker. Optimists focus on the bright side. Organ transplantation, the harvesting of human eggs, and surrogacy are all technical marvels that would be impossible without breakthroughs such as immunosuppressive drugs and antibiotics. They are technologies that, at one level, certainly increase human happiness- allowing patients to live longer, or people to have children where it was previously impossible- as is the case with homosexual couples.

The dystopian aspects of this new relationship towards our own and other’s bodies, however, hasn’t been missed by the writers of speculative fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro made it the theme of his novel Never Let Me Go in which cloned children are raised for their organs. Yet the philosopher Steven Lukes probably gave us the picture most clearly with his depiction of a utilitarian dystopia in his book The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat.  There the narrator Nicholas Caritat gets this response when he suggest that the county of Utilitaria compels organ donation for the benefit of the physically disabled:

 ‘They’re not beneficiaries,’ Priscilla corrected him. ‘They’re benefactors. It’s their distinctive way of contributing to the general welfare. They can’t produce goods or services, but they can provide organs that will enable others to do so. It gives them a purpose in life, and that’s especially valuable as we’ve largely phased out medical care for that particular category.’ (83)

Yet both Ishiguro and Lukes in their focus on the individual perhaps underplay the fact that modern day utopias are sustain themselves by creating entire dystopian realms both within and between societies on opposite sides of that chasm. There’s a reason both techno-optimists and pessimists, while drawing opposite conclusions, are reading our situation correctly.

In our time the utopian and dystopian aspects of civilization have taken on the same topology as our economics, and communications- utopia and dystopia are now global, networked, with little respect for national borders, whose membership is almost solely based on your ability to pay, which in turn is based on your capacity to extract rents and displace costs onto those outside your own utopian bubble. If every society takes on the shape of its most important technology then ours, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out, has the shape of computer- a box that creates a pocket of order at the price of displaced entropy.

Here are just a few examples of this displacement: material abundance is bought at the cost of brutal conditions for the laboring poor and rampant environmental destruction; food abundance is bought at the price of horrendous animal suffering, wildlife eradication and cruel conditions for migrant labor. The increasing complexity of our societies is bought at the price of displacing our entropy and pain onto other human beings and life itself. Yet chaos can only be held at bay for so long.

Yet I am making it all sound too new. What makes our situation unique is its truly global aspect, its openness to elites everywhere. That this system is based on the domination of human bodies is as old as civilization itself, a cruel reality we, for all our supposed tolerance and lack of overt violence, have never escaped. Ta-Nehisi Coates said it best:

As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation in the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tasting, and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it.” (8)

Since the agricultural revolution elites have mined the laboring bodies of the lower classes starting with slaves and the peasantry, moving on to the industrial proletariat and now seemingly having moved on after a brief interim when elite wealth was supported by middle class consumption to mining our data.

I say elites, but given the way human ancestry folds back upon itself and in a globalized world has penetrated even the most isolated populations, everyone alive today has been shown to share a common ancestor as little as 3,600 years ago. What this means is that none of us are truly innocent or completely guilty. All of us can trace our existence back to both cruel masters and blameless slaves. In some sense the moral truths behind the myth of the Fall remain true even in light of Darwin’s discovery of evolution: all human beings share a common parentage, and all exist as a consequence of their guilt. It remains up to us to break free from this cycle.

The dystopia of the moment, surveillance capitalism, isn’t the only dystopian iteration of this perennial theme of human fallenness possibly in store for us, although given the profits in medicine the two are likely to become linked. For if human labor is truly becoming superfluous, and production become too cheap through globalization and automation to render large profits, then the lower classes, absent technical breakthroughs such as 3D printed organs, artificial wombs, and the growth of human organs in livestock,  still have our bodies themselves left to exploit.

As with global warming, many hope that the rapid pace of technological progress will ultimately save us from such a fate. And thanks to breakthroughs like Crispr things are moving extremely fast, especially in the area of growing and harvesting human organs from animals.

While exploiting the bodies of animals for life saving organs would be better than using them for meat, such breakthroughs wouldn’t completely solve the problem of the red market which stem as much from political economy as they do from technological roadblocks.

Bodies might then be exploited not as a source of organs but as sites for what would now be deemed unnecessary surgeries- in the same way unnecessary testing is done today by the medical industry to drive up profits. This is what is bound to happen when one treats the human person as just another commodity and source of revenue. To disconnect the needs of the human body from the ravenous appetite of  capitalism would be the best thing we could do to ensure its humane treatment.

Yet there is another, more philosophical and spiritual aspect to our condition. When Western culture made the move into Protestantism followed by the scientific revolution and secularism we also made a break from an aspect of human culture that was perhaps universal up until that point in history- the respect for and veneration of the dead. And while much understanding and untold good came from this move in that a good deal of our modern health can be laid at the feet of those courageous enough to pursue knowledge through dissection and other means that came at great personal risks, something was also tragically lost in the bargain.

There are signs, however, that we are getting it back: from efforts to understand death in other cultures, to a desire to naturalize our relationship with death, to the attempts to memorialize the death of loved ones through tokens of remembrance we carry on and even etch into our bodies. All stem from the acknowledgement that we are bodies, material beings prone to decay and death, and yet, through the power of human love and memory, always something else besides. Some might even call it a soul.

How Copernicus Stole Christmas

The Bubble Nebula

For the last decade Alan Taylor at The Atlantic has created one of my favorite Christmas traditions. The Hubble Advent calendar counts down the twenty-five days preceding the holiday using spectacular photographs taken by the world’s most famous telescope. Above is the aptly named “Bubble Nebula”, which remains my favorite if for the only reason that I find it so beautiful. Yet the incongruity of these pictures of our truly awe inspiring universe with the traditional understanding of Advent itself is something never acknowledge. For it seems we can have either this beautiful universe presented to us by science or the equally awe inspiring birth of the savior of humanity which Advent counts its way to- not both.  Let me explain:

The “true meaning of Christmas” as Linus from Peanuts can tell you is that, God, the  most perfect being imaginable, becomes a mere creature through human birth.There is a whole celebratory scene around this nativity with shepherds, angels, and three wise men from the east, but that shouldn’t distract from the reality that the king of the universe spends his first moments in a stable filled with barnyard animals.  This is a version of God that is truly imminent-  in the world- and not like some form of super baby from Krypton, but as a weak and vulnerable one, of earthly flesh and bones, a god who, in child friendly language, “poops and pees” like ourselves.

Step back for a second to grasp the utter strangeness of this idea. This human baby, one of the most vulnerable creatures in nature is, according to the tale, the creator of the universe. A child who can not even speak in fact the omniscient intelligence that knows everything that is known, will be known, or knowable. This “royal birth” in a stable reeking of animal feces is the sovereign of the world, the founder of nations, destroyer of civilizations, the ultimate source of justice.

I came to the recognition of wonder at the strangeness of this tale long after I had ceased being a Christian the traditional sense of the word. I was brought to it by what was a certainly less than five minute segment on NPR by the playwright Peter Sagal who was reflecting on the Christmas holiday as a Jewish man married to a Christian. A clip which I unfortunately have been unable to find, but which has stuck with me ever since.

It is true that Christianity wasn’t the first religion to turn God into a baby, but the Christian version of the story is the one that made it down to our own day. Why would people imagine this strange and beautiful story? Why think of a God so like ourselves?

These questions start to open up once one realizes the types of gods a human god was meant to replace. We tend to see the Greek god Zeus as a somewhat cartoonish figure, with his seduction (and rape) of human women, and his hurtling of lightning bolts, but he was every bit as real a god for his worshipers in the ancient world as gods are for people today. Zeus actually has a lot in common with his contemporary, Yahweh. Both had a penchant for destroying the world by flood when they thought human beings got out of hand. Both based their sovereignty over the universe on appeals to their power rather than their justice. Zeus was the king of the Olympians because he was the only one strong enough to succeed in a divine coup against the Titans. Yahweh’s answer to the accusations of Job that God does not act with justice are answered not with an explanation, but with a terrifying display of divine power.

If Western religions tended to see in human suffering some sort of divine architect with a higher purpose, Hinduism, which is less a single religions than a constellation of religious and philosophical traditions, tended to embrace the creative and destructive aspects of existence at once without a necessary design or purpose behind them. The creation of the new was the product of the destruction of the old so that all of its major deities, oversimplified as the difference between two of the major Hindu gods- Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer, who were both merely manifestations of the one all-embracing god- Brahman. Hinduism too, found need of a personal god, a human god, that bridged the gap between the both traditional gods such as Shiva, or deep and all embracing ideas such as Brahman and found it in the figure of Krishna a manifestation of Vishnu who enters the world as a human being to set it, for a time, aright.

Christ and Krishna are distinct in that the birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection,  and promised return of the messiah in the Christian telling represents a kind of play in which the destructive elements of existence are to be overcome once and for all. Unlike in the Krishna tales God shows up in person only only twice- once to begin the climax to the end of history and a final time to close the book.

This brings me back to the picture of the universe that began with Copernicus and which is on such awesome display in the Hubble photographs.  The overthrow of the Ptolemaic version of the solar system by the heliocentric model of Copernicus had deep theological implications that would call into question the promise of Christianity that the nativity represented the beginning of a path that would bring to an end the endless cycle of creation and destruction- of birth and death- that seemed to be the existential features of the world in which human beings inhabited.

These theological implications were not at first grasped- at least not by most. Newton could sincerely believe that the model of the universe he was building atop the Copernican system was “proof” of the Christian version of God. The philosopher, Spinoza, seemed to grasp the theological implications of the new cosmology with a much clearer eye seeing that in place of the moral architect found in Judaism and Christianity, the new science seemed to point towards a divinity that was both wondrous and beyond good and evil in the sense that all of its aspects- bountiful or destructive from the human perspective- were but different aspects of its same underlying reality.

But, it was the iconoclast, Giordano Bruno, who tried more than any other to grapple with the theological implications of the Copernican revolution for Christianity. Bruno almost immediately grasped what Copernicus never addressed that the end of the Ptolemaic system meant a universe that had to be much bigger than previously conceived, indeed it was likely infinite in space and time. This meant many suns like our own and therefore many earths like our own, and many intelligent creatures like ourselves. And what did Bruno think this meant for the nativity?:

I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the earth, with a Garden of Eden on each one. In all these Gardens of Eden, half the Adams and Eves will not eat the fruit of knowledge, but half will. But half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions. Therefore, either there is one unique Jesus who goes from one world to another, or there are an infinite number of Jesuses. Since a single Jesus visiting an infinite number of earths one at a time would take an infinite amount of time, there must be an infinite number of Jesuses. Therefore, God must create an infinite number of Christs.  *

It is the very scale of our modern vision of the Universe that makes the idea of a singular salvation impossible. With up to a trillion galaxies between 10 sextillion and 1 septillion stars a conservative estimate, giving one planet for each star, would give us an equal number of planets, and even if only a tiny, tiny, fraction of those planets support life, and yet a smaller fraction of those have advanced civilizations we would still have many, many fellow creatures in the universe other than ourselves whom it would be greatly unjust for God, should such a being exist, to have offered neither a soul nor a path to salvation. Should God not have put other intelligent species in the Universe or made it all for “us” it would represent the most colossal waste of real estate imaginable.

The trouble with trying to wed the inexpressibly prolific Universe science has shown us with a Christian narrative that holds to the position that Christ is the primary or sole path to salvation can be seen in the life and work of the Christian technologist- Kevin Kelly. Kelly had his modern “Road to Damascus” moment in  which he hit upon a “technological metaphor” for God  in 1986 while watching Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality enter the world he had created.

I had this vision of the unbounded God binding himself to his creation. When we make these virtual worlds in the future—worlds whose virtual beings will have autonomy to commit evil, murder, hurt, and destroy options—it’s not unthinkable that the game creator would go in to try to fix the world from the inside. That’s the story of Jesus’ redemption to me. We have an unbounded God who enters this world in the same way that you would go into virtual reality and bind yourself to a limited being and try to redeem the actions of the other beings since they are your creations. So I would begin there. For some technological people, that makes the faith a little more understandable.

Given his extensive travels in Asia, as shown in his beautiful website, Asia Grace, it somewhat amazes me that Kelly does not see in Krishna or the Buddha figures who attempt to “fix” the world in the same way as Kelly’s Christ. His conclusion, I think, was the wrong one to draw in being so narrow. Christianity represents not the way but one of many ways to an ethical life and deeper understanding of the paradox of the human condition and our place within the wide cosmos.

What the scientific version of the Universe has shown us is not, as someone like Lawrence Krauss, in his A Universe from Nothing would have it, that God doesn’t exist, or that spirituality is born of ignorance and exploitation as is the view of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, but that the scale of creation is so vast, its possibilities and diversity so beyond human intelligence, that any narrative we create to give it meaning can capture almost nothing of its fullness.  It supports not the clockwork demiurge God of Newton or the intelligent designer and miracle worker of literalists, but something more akin to the mystical tradition found in all the world’s religious faiths. It is the adoption of a perspective of deep humility regarding our own knowledge- both religious and scientific- and tolerance for those whose views are different than our own.

Copernicus may have stole Christmas, but he left it where we could find it.

This post has gone through several Christmas iterations.  “God vs the Big Brain: a Xmas story,” and the original “How Copernicus Stole Xmas”.

 

Forgotten October

Soviet Train poster

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. This stupendous event, which  so shaped the history of the last century has, like few events of similar magnitude that continue to haunt the present, suffered the sad fate of being either being absent mindedly or deliberately forgotten. The lessons of October have been forgotten and brushed aside as a tragic cul de sac of of history for those who believe capitalism’s current reign to have been the  preordained “end of history” and even by Russia’s current autocrats themselves who see in the revolution a dangerous object lesson for those who might be encouraged to throw off the yoke of the vile.

When the weird fiction author and Marxist China Mieville published his vorticose, short history of the Russian Revolution bluntly titled October he did not expect to have the market almost all to himself. But he did. Publishers and historians seemed to doubt whether this century old event could garner any widespread interest. Who cares about what happened in a backward country a century ago? What’s the point engaging with communist revolution when we know how the story turned out? Gulags or Stalin’s demonic psyche are more dramatic material. And besides, communism was a failure, capitalism won the cold war. Even the Russians with their luxury apartments in London and their goldplated candidate in the White House admit the truth of capital’s triumph.

As anyone who has had the good fortune to read his novel The City and the City knows, Mieville is a freaking brilliant fiction writer. His demonstrated artistic skill in fleshing out characters, and more importantly, conveying reality in a new register came across in October, but sadly not enough. If his goal as an admitted partisan for Marxism was to convey the brilliance and courage of the major figures of the Russian Revolution- Lenin, Trotsky- it was only partially achieved for the revolution seemed less characterized by human agency than it was by factionalism and chaos. The Bolsheviks, almost in spite of themselves, ended up the last man standing after the accumulated simple mindedness of Russian czars and above everything the pain and devastation wrought by the First World War built up to the point of causing complete social collapse.

Lenin was without doubt a brave man, but his brilliance as a revolutionary consisted mainly in seeing the impossibility of coalitions between various factions holding while centripetal forces were tearing the Russian empire apart. A society incapable of coalitions between its strongest social forces is forced to chose between the Scylla of anarchy and the Charybdis of tyranny. We know how Lenin chose.

One catches a glimpse of Mieville’s brilliance only in October’s epilogue when he reflects on the legacy of the Russian Revolution. After, with brutal honesty, admitting the crimes of Soviet Communism in the decades following the revolution, Mieville grapples with what the revolution meant. What the revolution revealed was that other futures were possible.

The revolution of 1917 is a revolution of trains. History proceeds in screams of cold metal. The tsar’s wheeled palace, shunted into sidings forever; Lenin’s sealed stateless carriage; Guchkov and Shulgin’s meandering abdication express…. “

Revolutions, Marx said, are the locomotives of history. ‘Put the locomotive into top gear’, Lenin exhorted himself in a private note, scant weeks after the October revolution, ‘and keep it on the rails.’ But how could you keep it there if there really was only one true way and it was blocked?

Mieville quotes Bruno Schulz’ story ‘The Age of Genius’:

Have you ever heard of parallel streams of time within a two-track time? Yes, there are such branch lines of time, somewhat illegal and suspect, but when, like us, one is burdened with contraband of supernumerary events that cannot be registered, one cannot be too fussy. Let us try to find at some point of history such a branch line, a blind track onto which we can shunt these illegal events. There is nothing to fear. (319)

Mieville’s point, I take it, is that the Russian Revolution offers up to us an attempt to breach an alternative future from the junction of 1917. The failure to actually constitute an alternative to the capitalist order that is our own doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and the opportunity remains to diverge again in the direction of the future that was lost.

That is certainly true, but there is something else, something even more poignant and beyond his own authorial fetishes, to  Mieville’s choice of railroads and switchmen as images for lost and alternative futures.

Perhaps the greatest novelist during the most brutal phase of Soviet history was Andrei Platonov. The son of a railway worker Platonov too saw in the locomotive a potent analogy for the world brought forth by the revolution. Early in the revolution Platonov had written to his wife:

Even though I had not yet completed technical school, I was hurriedly put on a locomotive to help the driver. The remark about the revolution being the locomotive of history was transformed inside me into a feeling that was strange and good: remembering this sentence, I worked very diligently on the locomotive . . . ‘

Platonov never lost his faith in Marxism or his affection for the revolution, but the deep humanity on display in his novels ultimately allowed him to grasp the cruelty and absurdity of the Soviet system. He would turn his experience on the locomotive into a harrowing scene in his story Chevengur a frightened engineer drives his train to collision:

The locomotive was quivering with tension and swaying its entire body, searching for a chance to hurl itself down the embankment and escape the power and pent-up speed that were suffocating it. Sometimes Dvanov felt that the locomotive had already left the rails and the coaches were about to follow and he was dying in the quiet dust of soft soil, and Aleksandr put his hands to his chest to keep his heart from terror.

Platonov would compose an even more powerful metaphor in what became his most well-known novel The Foundation Pit. There, instead of revolutionaries driving trains off their tracks, Platonov imagined them digging a giant hole, the first step in laying the foundation of a longed for utopian arcology that would house the dispossessed. It is a hilarious, absurdist tale the likes of Kafka or Samuel Beckett and perhaps the best reflection on the cruelties of bureaucracy ever written.

Andrei had a real example to go on when writing The Foundation Pit. The planned Palace of the Soviets that was to tower 1,362 feet which would be topped by a 6,000 ton statue of Lenin, so large that there was to be a library in his head. With the ravages of World War II the colossus was never built although the Cathedral of Christ the Savior had been leveled to make room for the imagined temple to the new gods.

The point Platonov, who remained a Marxist until the end of his days, seemed to be making with his fiction was to remind the world what the revolution was for. The why of the revolution was to find an alternative to the human crushing nature of both autocracy and capitalism. What it appeared to be doing instead was to combine the worst aspects of both.

There is a history to how this happened, how the revolution went from being a moment of revolution to one of subjugation under far worse chains. At it’s root lie the sweeping aside of real human beings in the quest for an idol of technological and economic progress.

You can see the revolution go off the rails, the humanism Platonov clung to die in an interview of Lenin by none other than H.G. Wells. The model for the Soviet future that Lenin put forward in that interview was drawn from the apparent power of the planned economy that had been wielded by all the capitalist countries during the First World War. Lenin seconded the irrationality of capitalism which cannibalized the productive forces of its own societies a reality he had learned from reading Chiozza Money’s book The Triumph of Nationalization which told the story of the success of economic planning during the war, and its dissolution in the war’s aftermath as capitalism reasserted itself.  In Lenin’s vision, the Soviet Union would be the first nation modernized and ran from above, the harbinger of the post-revolutionary society that would soon overthrow capitalism and run the globe. It was an argument dear to Well’s cold technocratic heart, even if he had little interest in Marxism or social justice.

The seeds for this dictatorship of the experts could be traced well before the Russian Revolution in the dispute between the anarchist Bakunin and Marx. Bakuin opposed Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” because as he predicted in his Statism and Anarchy it would leave the oppressive nature of the state intact:

… no state, however democratic – not even the reddest republic – can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves…

Dictatorship of the proletariat would inevitably mean a despotism under the technocrats:

If science were to dictate the laws, the overwhelming majority, many millions of men, would be ruled by one or two hundred experts. Actually it would be even fewer than that, because not all of science is concerned with the administration of society. This would be the task of sociology – the science of sciences – which presupposes in the case of a well-trained sociologist that he have an adequate knowledge of all the other sciences. How many such people are there in Russia – in all Europe? Twenty or thirty – and these twenty or thirty would rule the world? Can anyone imagine a more absurd and abject despotism?

Lenin’s experiment with “war communism”, technocratic management of the economy, ended in starvation, social collapse and rebellion. Yet if the man’s true genius lie anywhere it was in his flexibility in the face of events.

With the New Economic Policy he reversed course and adopted a limited form of capitalism. He also, in the face of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion that grew out of the failure of war communism, put an end to the “soviets” the councils of average citizens and workers who arose out of the revolution to take control of their fate and he imposed the centralized control of society by the Bolsheviks. For a time the nascent Soviet Union would have the worse of both worlds: an economy based on capitalist economics with all political power concentrated in the hands of one party. A world not all that dissimilar to the one found in China today. The NEP itself would be killed by Stalin who returned to Lenin’s idea of modernization from above only this time with a cruelty and speed Lenin could never have imagined.

It’s with the lost opportunity of the soviets that I so wish Mieville would have focused his considerable talents and attention. For a time, the collapse of the old autocratic regime during the revolution really did open up new spaces of freedom where citizens took control over their own economic and political affairs through the soviets and enabled rapid progressive reforms that would take decades elsewhere to unfold. In October Mieville does draw our attention to these human possibilities opened up by the revolution.

October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ protections and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalization of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the flourishing of adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though these moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise. (317)

Who were the people who occupied this temporary space of freedom, and how was their freedom gained and lost? What does this real freedom look like? It is into their utopias I wish Mieville would have taken us rather than focus on the “great men” of history who ultimately drove the revolution to its doom.

The source of the lost and now forgotten freedom of the October Revolution Mieville seems to find in the hopeless and besieged revolutionaries in a world where the expected communists revolutions in Europe failed to arrive and the capitalist powers remained implacably hostile to the revolutionary society.

There’s certainly much too that, when Stalin abandoned the NEP in 1928 and began the forced, rapid modernization of the Soviet Union he did so in large part for geopolitical reasons. All of the big powers at this time understood that power of a unified, fully industrialized, continental state; namely, the then isolationist United States. Multiple powers during the 1930’s: Japan, Germany, the USSR, the British Empire would struggle with how to configure themselves into something on par with the US, both to protect themselves and to project power. This was how the Nazi jurists Carl Schmitt understood German expansionism.

And yet, all the pieces for the type of totalitarian society the Soviet Union became were already in place before these imperatives became apparent. On the left, Bakunin had warned of the potential for technocratic despotism within Marxism itself just as on the right Dostoyevsky had predicted something similar with his parable of The Grand Inquisitor and warned us that the quest after material prosperity might ultimately mean the death of our humanity.

In light of the seeming success of systems where ruling elites took control of both economics and information during the First World War Lenin had tried to move the Soviet Union in the direction of a centrally controlled economy. Coupled with the collapse of capitalism in the depression in the 1930’s Stalin’s economics of “the five year plan” didn’t appear retrograde but a glimpse of the future. His iteration of the theme particularly brutal- collectivization resulting in perhaps 12 million deaths- because of the speed at which Soviet society be industrialized relied on the corpse of its overwhelmingly larger agricultural sector. Nevertheless, the idea that the society of the future would be technocratically managed was nearly universal from the 1930’s onward with H.G. Wells being a particularly vocal proponent of this view.

We know how this idea began to unravel in Western countries with revolts against “the establishment” starting in the 1960’s, how the Chinese in the late 1970’s adopted a version of Lenin’s NEP, and how the sclerotic bureaucracy that the Soviet Union had become imploded a decade later. Still, one might legitimately wonder given the rise and spectacular success of behemoth companies that are essentially planning algorithms; most notably Amazon and Wal Mart, whether the types of command economics dreamed up in the early 20th century were just computationally premature. Thanks to Moore’s Law might we have the capacity to rationally manage our economies in a way previously impossible? Might this be done in a way that retained the humanism of figures like Platonov? Those are big questions that will have to wait for another day.

 

 

Three Anthopocenes

The Moirai by James-Goetz 2 --1915-1946

A few weeks back I read an interesting essay by Jedediah Purdy on Aeon written in the halcyon days of 2015. An article which, given the news, captured something essential and got me a little depressed. Within the space of the last three weeks hurricanes of almost unprecedented magnitude slammed into Houston, then, Florida, then Puerto Rico. All were bad, but the last looked something like something straight out of a Hollywood apocalyptic. It wasn’t just the scale of the storm that hit it which made the situation in Puerto Rico so much more dire, it was the lack of resources to deal with the aftermath, along with the highly racialized response of the American government to hurricane Maria’s destruction. A delayed, politicized rescue, which was inexcusable given the fact that Puerto Ricans are as much US citizens as any of my Pennsylvanian neighbors.

Purdy knew this was coming. The argument in his 2015 essay essentially boils down to the claim that it’s less climate change that is the problem than the structural inequality of the world in which this change is happening. As he puts it:

Planetary changes will amplify the inequalities that sort out those who get news from those who get catastrophes; but these inequalities, arising as they do from a post-natural nature, will feel as if they were built into the world itself. Indeed, nature has always served to launder the inequalities that humans produce.

In his essay Purdy makes the case for what he calls a “democratic Anthropocene” where these inequalities are addressed as opposed to both the catastrophism of a vocal segment of the environmental movement, or the view known as Ecomodernism that wants us to double down on green technology, but leaves late capitalism itself unaddressed. Purdy’s is a view I found remarkably similar to that expressed by Pope Francis in his Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.  

A world transformed by climate change that refuses to address inequality will be one where the wealthy in Phoenix hide from a 120 degree heat in air conditioned domes, while the poor in India and other poor countries die from the heat of the summer sun. The situation in Puerto Rico makes me doubt we will be moral enough to prevent that from happening. And yet, when grappling with Purdy’s argument I couldn’t help thinking that this split between three wings of the environmental movement all of which agree that climate change is happening and demands a human response isn’t all that productive. His division is based on the idea that we can know exactly what kind of climate changed world we are moving into, which we can’t. And precisely because we can’t, the best path forward is to take a little wisdom from each.

Depending upon whether one is a proponent of the democratic Anthropocene, argues for a rapid and broad application of green technology, or thinks we’re headed for a civilization destroying catastrophe depends on which climate change trajectory one thinks we’re on. The possible scenarios have been meticulously laid out by the IPCC. Here’s their 2014 projections.

2014 IPCC projections

Perhaps surprisingly, both Purdy and the Ecomodernists seem to share the assumption that we are headed for the lower to mid-range estimates of the IPCC in terms of the global rise in temperature.

If we do stay in the low to middle temperature range then it really is a political dispute, which is really about whether we keep global capitalism or jettison it for an also global, but democratic, alternative. Yet there’s no apparent reason why such democratic globalism can’t also be based on green technology. The fact that many green technologists now seem unconcerned with questions of political economy is likely an accident of history. The fact that they live in an era where the state can’t seem to get anything done. Had the need to rapidly respond to climate change occurred in the political and economic conditions of the middle of the 20th century Ecomodernists would be arguing for massive action by states.

Still, any rise in the 4-5 degree Celsius range, let alone above it, would make a democratic Anthropocene almost inconceivable- the world’s ice sheets would disappear, coastal cities in the developed world would be slowly drowned sending a flood of refugees into the interior. Industrial food systems would fail. Not merely would the advanced countries be unlikely to save those facing even worse crises in the developing world, they themselves would likely break apart into cities and regions struggling just to save their own communities. Rather than being global, democracy would, at best, be found at the level of cities and small states.

Global warming above the IPCC mid-range would transform the perspective of Ecomodernists as well. Having found that the shift to a non-fossil fuel economy had proven far too late, they would likely embrace geoengineering as the only solution.

Scientists are a clever bunch, but sometimes clever by half. A few years ago some of them were arguing that we had a cheap way to hold off global warming while we got our act together. We could, volcano like, spew sulfates into the atmosphere to cool the earth. The orange sky we’d get as a consequence might put the fear of God in us, and inspire a change in our ways. Fortunately, other scientists pointed out that the acid rain from our sulfuric sunshade might also kill all the world’s trees.

It’s the view that we’re irreversibly on the course to a civilization shattering 5 degree or higher temperature that is truly radical and gives us a glimpse of a world radically different than our own. In a widely debated article in The New York Review back in July called The Uninhabitable Earth David Wallace-Wells laid out just how ugly things could get if we exceeded the IPCC’s projections.

Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size.    

Critics of Wallace-Wells accused him of engaging in disaster-porn, of robbing us of the confidence that climate change was a tractable problem, or even the faith that our species had a future at all. Yet that was precisely the point. Civilization needs its Noahs in the unlikely event the storm proves a deluge.  

We might actually be very lucky that those prophesying disaster are so good at storytelling. For while both the Ecomodernists and proponents of a democratic Anthropocene have given us excellent novelists- Ramez Naam, Kim Stanley Robinson– among those warning of catastrophe can be counted some of the best new novelists of our young century, writers such as Paolo Bacigalupi, Paul Kingsnorth, and Roy Scranton.

It is Roy Scranton’s non-fiction meditation on what he believes to be our civilization’s inevitable collapse, Learning to die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization that I’ll primarily deal with here. Purdy has been trenchantly dismissive of the case Scranton makes that we need to “learn to die” as “a suggestive but, upon scrutiny, meaningless gesture”. That is unfair.   

Scranton is working under the assumption that not only will we reach the high end of the IPCC’s projection, we might even blow beyond them. This really would bring death, not only to billions of human beings but to our civilization as we have known it. It would constitute a dark age far more substantial than any collapse from history, and might even result in the death of our species, especially if accompanied by wars between nuclear powers.

The idea that industrial civilization and the biosphere might ultimately prove incompatible is no less philosophically coherent than the views of either Purdy or the Ecomodernists. Purdy, as he argues in his book After Nature, wants us to jettison the sharp division between ourselves and the natural world to embrace a more full version of the world where we accept our human impact and relate to the world as beings within it. It’s an attractive view parts of which he sees implicit in the writings of Thoreau. The problem is we have long left the world of Thoreau’s “stone tools and potsherds” to enter the period of what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”, entities of such scale and complexity that they they escape our ability to fully control or even understand.

Whenever I want to get a better picture of the scale of human-created hyperobjects I think back to an observation made by Yuval Harari that the world’s domesticated animals, taken together, weigh not only double that of all the human beings on earth, but are seven times the weight of all of the world’s large land animals combined, or that there are more chickens in Europe than all of that continent’s wild birds taken together.

The answer of Ecomodernists to the development and environmental destruction wreaked by hyperobjects is to argue that we are already and need to continue decoupling from nature. The littorialization of humanity- the mass movement all over the world of populations to the coasts combined with the emptying out and rewilding of the interiors of the continents Ecomodernists point to as evidence that civilization is evolving in ways more sustainable for the rest of the natural world. They’re made even more optimistic due to the fact that urbanization has been linked to a decline in population growth.  

Yet such decoupling remains a faith. It’s not clear that we could ever hermetically seal human civilization from the biosphere, or what the ethical costs to such a separation would be. It’s not even clear if we should  as a matter of aesthetics and human flourishing.

Scranton’s Learning to die is premised on the fact that both Purdy and the Ecomodernists are wrong. The effects of industrial civilization on the rest of nature and their threat to our way of life are far more substantial than any idea of a democratic Anthropocene contains, and we are too late to innovate our way out of the path we are on with our utter dependence on a carbon based economy to sustain the vast technological web in which we are entangled.

Is the catastrophe of 5 degrees or warmer temperature destroying our civilization likely? Probably not, but there are too many unknowns to simply dismiss the warning as mere fiction: the move away from fossil fuels could stall or collapse due to economic, political or technological factors, negative feedback loops might prove far more sensitive than scientists currently estimate, human-made warming could engender far more potent natural warming such as the release of methane from melting permafrost, natural carbon sinks could fail- the list goes on and on. (Of course, equally unknowable lucky accidents could await us as well).   

What’s the most meaningful thing you can do if you think your civilization is about to collapse? Build an archive. Scranton is urging us to do something very similar to what people in the days before the cloud would do when their house was burning down and beyond preserving: they saved the photo albums. He wants us to save what he sees as the most valuable thing our civilization has created- its reflection upon itself. The literature and philosophy we have crafted over the millennia as we have grappled with what it meant to be human.    

Like the authors he praises, Scranton’s reflections in Learning to die are ones I find myself continuously returning to for spiritual subsistence drawn to passages such as these:

We are born half-blind, confused, wired into a world we don’t understand. Within the night of this world, we apprehend our future as a field of freedom. We face this freedom as individuals, fully in the present, yet our actions are determined by the past and take on their full meaning only in the future. As we gain in wisdom, individual consciousness reveals its complex entanglements with collective life, history, and the universe. (94)

_______________

This astonishing cosmos is our home. There is no other. There is no Heaven, no Hell, no Judgement, no Elysium. We humans are precocious multicellular energy machines building hives on a rock in space, machines made up of and connected to countless other machines, each of us a microcosm. Trillions and trillions of microorganisms live on our skin and in our stomachs, mouths, intestines, and respiratory tracts while we spin through our lives in innumerable intersecting orbits, shaped and pulled by forces beyond our reckoning. We are machines of machines in machines, and all seeking homeostatic perpetuation and our lives and deaths pass through this great cycle like mosquitoes rising and falling in a puddle drying in the summer sun.  (112)

________________

We are finite and limited machines, but we are not merely machines: we are vibrating bodies of energy, condensations of stellar dust and fire, at once matter and life, extension and thought, moment and frequency. The iron in our blood, the oxygen we breathe, and the carbon of which we are composed were all created in the dying hearts of stars. We are creatures of light, and can find in our history the lineaments of photohumanism going back ancient days, a form thought more powerful than any electronic web, more profound than any merely social media. As was written in the Book of Proverbs, “The human spirit is the lamp of God, searching all the innermost parts.” (115)

Yet I would have little doubt that the survival of our humanist legacy, not as a dead archive but as a living tradition, would have required deliberate effort even absent the existential dangers posed by climate change. Much of our cultural heritage has already been disparaged by the new intelligentsia born in the late 1960’s as being little but the patriarchal reflection of “dead white men”. Our over-priced universities have already become hyper-utilitarian, a post-college course in the “great books” billed as a way to make one’s resume more interesting. The tradition, and this includes the extension of the literary tradition brought about by film, requires the kind of focus and reflection increasingly less likely in a world flooded with ever changing entertainment. For those still exposed to this depth in college and now employed in the desperate hope of paying off their college loans and creating a life, many simply do not have the time such engagement requires. In some respects we are already in a new Dark Age. 

These too are political questions and it is here where Scranton’s almost Calvinist fatalism ultimately fails us. His belief that the time when political action could have halted climate change has passed does not mean that every attempt at politics will also prove a failure. Not only do the individuals who wish to preserve the legacy of photohumanism outside of the universities have a clear project in front of them, those who believe we have been too late when it comes to action on climate change do so as well, and both projects are, thankfully, far more tractable than the other problem before us.

If those who are now proclaiming that there is no escape from our fate really do believe so then they need to start advocating and raising funds for efforts to prepare us for the end of our world. We need something like what Lewis Dartnell does for individuals in his book The Knowledge, but at the level of groups. Cohorts need to be prepared to preserve and reboot all kinds of social legacies, such as medical and agricultural knowledge and not just the beauty of human religion, literature and philosophy.

Given its relatively low costs when compared to, say, transforming our entire energy infrastructure, or reversing the inequality between advanced and developing countries,   such a project of preparing for the worst need not conflict with either Ecomodernism or those hoping for a democratic Anthropocene. Until we really can be sure which of the three Anthropocenes we have wrought the most prudent option remains some combination of the technological, the democratic, and the search for shelter.