Empire and Time

In the south of France lies Chauvet Cave. This subterranean museum contains some of the oldest and best-preserved paintings in the world, offering us a glimpse of life through an incomprehensible abyss of time, to some 30,000 years ago.

The world the paintings depict seems unreal and fantastical: bears and antelope and bison and horses and bulls and rhinos and on the paintings go. Back then, we lived in a much colder and drier place but the sun still shone, so there was still life in abundance and – as the paintings show – incredible diversity.

This art still tells a story. Not only of then, but of now, and of the passage of time in between. A story of changing climates. A story about loss of diversity. What I learned from Chauvet Cave was another story too: one about colonisation and imperialism. A story that questioned the idea of “sustainability” as I understood it.

And I thought I understood it well. I am studying that very subject in detail at my university. But even as a well-versed student in that field, fully immersed in that area, my virtual wandering via online research and YouTube documentaries revealed to me a huge gap in my knowledge.

So, there was a moment. Something I saw that changed me. Not inspiration, but realization. It flashed across my mind, connecting a thousand different thoughts, and asking a thousand difficult questions, inviting reflection on things I’d come to hold close. Things I’d believed in.

That’s the story I want to share – now that finally, I might have found a place to speak it, where others might hear.

It starts with Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, which is an utterly enthralling exploration of this place that I recommend diving into if you have the time. Their on-site film beautifully captures not only the art, but the natural artistry that frames it all. The cave itself is a thing of wonder: everything is crystalline from the slow accumulation of calcite so the walls, and stalagmites and other features of the cave all sparkle in the harsh light of the cameras.

The meticulously preserved grounds of the cave are littered with the bones of many animals, and they too are covered in a mineral snow that glimmers strangely. The camera lingers long enough on these scenes – away from the paintings – to encourage an appreciation of an even greater artist at work here. Quietly and out of view, this artist etched their own stories over the interceding millennia between human visits to this hidden gallery; one that I would argue rivals the Louvre in importance.

I say that because of two paintings there and the story they tell about an entirely different way of life that existed before colonial times. An awe-inspiring culture quite different from ours. The image is of two bulls that look identical, as if painted by the same artist, or around the same time period.  Here is Werner, from the documentary, explaining what you see:

‘…there are figures of animals overlapping with each other. A striking point here is that in cases like this, after carbon dating, there are strong indications that some overlapping figures were drawn almost 5,000 years apart. The sequence and duration of time is unimaginable for us today. We are locked in history, and they were not.’

Werner Herzog, Cave of forgotten dreams

It’s hard to describe what those words and the art itself evoke, because it’s hard to wrap one’s head around this idea. Is it possible that life was so consistent, so continual, that for five thousand years not much changed at all? Is that what the paintings are saying? The questions alone invite a wholly different way of thinking about sustainability to the one I feel I’ve learned about so far. But surely this is one of the most profound examples one can see of sustainability, no?

Two near-identical pieces of art, overlapping, separated by five thousand years. A statement of cultural continuity spanning a frame of time we today – advanced as we consider our culture – would struggle to imagine.  

If that’s a statement, it’s one hell of a statement!

From the perspective of this boringly typical member of a Western culture that is struggling to survive another year – let alone five thousand – this painting is fucking startling. Better yet, keeping in mind my ancestors once called themselves Settlers, I could describe it as unsettling.

Unmoored from the perspective of a civilization that appears all too fragile, verging on catastrophic, we can see another way of life that extended over timespans that feel impossible to us with all of these modern problems we’ve created for ourselves.

The writer and engineer Nick Arvin, whose blog post inspired me to watch the documentary, describes it beautifully:

‘They have been painted in identical style and appear as if they might have been painted by the same artist. But carbon dating has shown that they were created 5,000 years apart. From a modern perspective where paintings styles go from Modern to Postmodern in 50 years, this is difficult to grok. Herzog, in voiceover, suggests that the cave paintings show a people who lived “outside of history,” oblivious to the requirements of constant progress that drive modern civilization.’

Nick arvin, Reading Journal: Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee

To help us wrap our heads around this idea, Arvin then points to another rabbit hole: a short story called Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M Coetzee who approaches the same idea from the perspective of the colonizing force. The book’s narrator is the magistrate of a frontier town in some unknown “Empire” that serves to represent imperialism more generally. Beyond the frontiers, the native people, known as Barbarians, exist in harmony with the land, as did the people who once decorated Chauvet Cave. Coetzee sums up the different worldview of imperialism, contrasting it against Chauvet’s “Two Bulls” in this way:

Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

J.M Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians

These two different conceptualizations of time speak to an insurmountable incongruity between cultures. The “smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons” is contrasted against the “jagged time of rise and fall”. Coetzee’s gorgeously dense imagery transports a litany of ideas but one here rings loudest: the grounding of one’s self in the environment – the cycle of the seasons – the cyclical nature of life and death, set against the refusal to die. A belief in a self that is separated from nature, and thus, can conquer nature and its cycles. The “jagged time of rise and fall” – what we colonialists call history. Call progress. Call success. Call utopia.

Empire’s “submerged mind” has overlooked some things. We can sense it now, in the Apeilicene, as even the things we clutch for in our dreams turn to ash. Turn against us. Turn us against ourselves, and each other. “Save us from what we want”.

As the documentary later describes, these paintings were drawn by homo sapiens, in a time and space they shared with other human species like Neanderthals. The art, it is claimed, was a uniquely human endeavour; not something Neanderthals engaged in. That tells me that even back then, we must have realized (maybe even quite keenly felt) that we were somehow different from our fellow animals – even ones very like us.  

And despite this, or perhaps because of it, these people managed to live for thousands of years in harmony with everything else. Bisons and bulls and bears.  

Now, we see ourselves as fundamentally different and disconnected from nature – an idea that permeates our language, our thought, and our actions.


Stepping away once again from the cave art, we have to appreciate the even greater stories that this landscape tells us, and the questions it makes us ask. In one area of the cave floor there are two footprints: one belonging to a young boy, and another, to a wolf. What could these footprints, etched in calcite and the hardening of time, possibly tell us? Herzog plays out the scenarios: Was the boy being stalked by the wolf? Or were the two perhaps walking together? Perhaps instead, the two imprints – boy, and wolf – are separated by thousands of years?

We cannot know. Nature will not let us know.

She has her secrets, and this, we must respect.


In a sense, it’s easy to understand colonialism, imperialism, and colonisation at a kind of “surface” academic level because they are just ideas with characteristics and features. Ideas like any other. But when people encourage others to “decolonize” their understanding of something, it feels to me like they’re often talking about something else too; something that goes beyond just learning about a new idea and its characteristics. Part of that feels like it’s experiential; that learning about this stuff involves doing and being a part of something. Part of that feels like a radical questioning, where “de-colonizing” might resemble “de-programming”. Not just thinking about things differently, but doing things differently too. Embracing that knowledge over time. Recognizing that we cannot always find meaning in things, that we cannot know all. Camus might smile at that.


Risk and Survival

Survival isn’t everything

The risk-based framework I’ve mentioned elsewhere might appear to leave some things out. Climate change (of a sort) happened once already, and our species did survive it. The end of the Ice Age and the arrival of the Holocene was something that Australian Indigenous peoples, for example, managed to overcome. It even afforded them opportunities to settle in previously uninhabitable areas once covered by ice.

The onset of the Holocene climatic optimum … coincides with rapid expansion, growth and establishment of regional populations across ~75% of Australia, including much of the arid zone.[1]

In a similar theme, birds are dinosaurs. Importantly, they’re not related to dinosaurs, but actual modern-day dinosaurs; the survivors of the mass-extinction event that was a terminal event for most of their kin.

That previous climate change event, and that mass extinction event, might both therefore be examples of endurable risks, using Bostrom’s terminology. The groups at risk (humans, and dinosaurs) were not entirely wiped out. However, in at least the case of dinosaurs, their time as the dominant lifeform on Earth was arguably over once we got a foothold.

Recall Bostrom’s definition of existential risk:

One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

Existential risk doesn’t just require the annihilation of life. It’s enough that the potential for that life is ‘drastically curtailed’ for it to be considered an existential threat. This isn’t the case for Indigenous Australians, of course, who may have even thrived thanks to the effects of the last great changes in climate. For them, the greatest existential risk would sadly come later, in the form of European Colonization. For the dinosaurs though, their future potential was drastically curtailed. Despite this, some still live on as birds (endure, in Bostrom’s terms).

The case of the birds could seem to pose a problem for a framework like the one I’ve built from Bostrom’s ideas, or at least demonstrates that rigid categorization on paper won’t always translate perfectly to the real world. This is because it doesn’t seem to allow for there to be endurable risks that are also terminal, or at least requires some further thinking when we have a risk that can be either terminal or endurable depending on perspective (endurable for the birds, but not the dinosaurs?). Bostrom’s own table, interestingly, only includes examples of terminal risks that involve annihilation, and not “drastic curtailing of potential”. It’s a trickier idea to pin down. How hard is that line between them?

RiskModelBostromR
Adapted from Bostrom’s 2002 paper[2]

We can explore this idea further using the earlier example of transhumanism, which represents another “grey area”. What happens when our species (humans) no longer exists but is replaced by something that is still in some way “human”?

To the same extent that modern birds still “carry the torch” for the dinosaurs, what if some future version of us ends up doing the same for our species? What we define as “terminal” might actually vary according to personal beliefs and preferences, and that reveals the immensely sticky link between risks and threats, and people’s closely held beliefs, values, and norms.

For example, imagine we can upload our brains to machine bodies. This could present a vast new realm of possibilities for us in terms of sustainability. Why terraform Mars when we’ve already seen how well robots can do there?!

MarsRoverCuriosity
Self-portrait of Curiosity located at the foothill of Mount Sharp (October 6, 2015).

If robots can thrive there, maybe we should be more like them?

But then, to some people, the moment we do that, we lose something important about our humanity. The era of the human is effectively over, they say. The point is deeply debatable, and has been debated many times: If we replace enough of ourselves with machines, computers, and technology – to the point we are arguably no longer human – does that mean our species no longer exists? Is it a terminal or endurable event for the human species?

Timothy Morton’s ideas are relevant here too. If we are a kind of cyborg, as he says, then this question isn’t even a theoretical. The same applies to his claim that industrial capitalism is a primitive AI ruling us – a claim that in some senses is quite hard to refute. Are these terminal or endurable events?

A related thought, perhaps another way to think about this, is speciation. This is a term from biology referring to the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution. Speciation has happened with humans before; other species like Neanderthals all share a common ancestor with us – one that speciated at various points. Humans themselves have driven artificial speciation in other species, from dogs to domestic livestock to produce – and we’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years. Technology has often played a key role too, in creating new species of flora and fauna (often to our own benefit). From this perspective, the idea of further technology-driven speciation of humans themselves may be possible, especially if it benefits us – or appears to.

From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology[3] does a great job at providing some specific examples of speciation over time, stretching back millennia: 

GMHarvard
Image from Harvard’s paper[4].

Bringing it all back to Bostrom’s framework, are outcomes where our humanity fades away a terminal event for our species? Or because something else persists, are they endurable in some way?

Transhumans are to humans what birds are to dinosaurs. They may carry the torch of the species forward, but they do leave many things behind in the process. The potential of a flesh-and-bone species to fully flourish may very well be curtailed in a future where we shed our biological limitations and transition to new forms. It might seem a distant possibility relegated to the realm of thought experiment, but it nonetheless presents moments for reflection when it comes to ideas of risk, and especially, the risk of species annihilation. This shows, hopefully, that annihilation can mean quite a few things, and not all are as bad as the word itself might imply.


Footnotes

[1] Williams, A. N., Ulm, S., Turney, C. S., Rohde, D., & White, G. (2015). Holocene Demographic Changes and the Emergence of Complex Societies in Prehistoric Australia. PLoS ONE, 10(6).

[2] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[3] Gabriel Rangel, figures by Anna Maurer. (2015, August 9). From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology. Harvard University Blog. Retrieved from: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/from-corgis-to-corn-a-brief-look-at-the-long-history-of-gmo-technology/

[4] As above.

Defining Risk

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

 –  Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Episode 1.

The wonderful Sagan quote above demonstrates a way of thinking that embraces the complexity we can find in even the simplest thing. In this case, we’re looking at an apple pie, because Sagan was a good American patriot.

He re-frames the pie as something that exists in a broader context – inside a physical universe. He then redefines “from scratch” to mean “from the very beginning of that universe”. This perspective, he suggests, shows us the real recipe for making a pie. And it’s a lot more complicated than just slapping it in the oven for 30 minutes.

In that same spirit, we must consider very carefully how we go about defining the word “risk”. Like Sagan, we must see that this word exists in a broader context, and that coming up with a good definition might take us a little longer than we first thought.

Returning once again to that high-level framework for building a triage-focused, risk-based model of sustainability, the Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) report illustrates an important feature, not fully expressed in Step 1.

  1. Identify candidate issues for consideration.
  2. Develop criteria to rank them.
  3. Apply criteria and develop a ranked list.

If you wish to build a list of risks, you must first define what you mean by “risk”.

Before we can identify candidate issues for consideration (Step 1) we first need a comprehensive definition of risk that ensures we do not forget anything important. I’ve complained at length that sustainability risk discourse focuses too much on environmentalism, which implies there must be other areas being left out of the discussion. In the GCF report, they’ve broadened the definition of risk to include a new category – infinite risks – and demonstrated the importance of areas previously under-explored. This all suggests that defining risk is itself a necessary and important part of building a risk-based model of sustainability. It sounds blindingly obvious, I know, but this pedantic stating of the fact is important!

This first of steps is a deceptively complex and important one: If we don’t define “risk” well enough, we will leave blind spots, some of which could be fatal. In other words, how well we define “risk” will determine our ability to manage it.

Getting strung out over the importance of definitions is often the work of philosophers. Usually that word invokes Ancient Greeks, or some idea of heady thoughts that make you say, “deep stuff dude”. But philosophy can be something more basic too; like thinking hard about what “risk” means – because there are a number of ways we can frame it, and more pragmatically, because if we don’t, we could all die.

Meet Nick Bostrom

There are few better to call in for this job than the philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has written at length on existential risk and is influential in this space. As an example of this, we can see a body of work on infinite risk going all the way back to 2002[1] that eventually culminates in a number of important think tanks using that same framework.

Bostrom’s approach to sustainability and risk is brilliant, and a little bit disturbing. That’s a theme with him and a reason I like his work. That darker underbelly translates into some compelling stories and visions. Sometimes his work feel less like a journal article, and more like science fiction (he has written a paper arguing that we are living inside a simulation, for example). He represents well, I think, the kind of philosophers we’ll need in the Apeilicene.

It’s no accident that his thoughts are echoed in some of the most prominent stories today, such as the film The Matrix or Netflix’s TV series Black Mirror. He very much grounded in our

He’s also quite prolific in this space. The GCF report was co-steered by him, and its ideas about infinite risk in 2015 echo earlier work on “infinite value” from a 2011 paper:

As a piece of pragmatic advice, the notion that we should ignore small probabilities is often sensible. Being creatures of limited cognitive capacities, we do well by focusing our attention on the most likely outcomes. Yet even common sense recognizes that whether a possible outcome can be ignored for the sake of simplifying our deliberations depends not only on its probability but also on the magnitude of the values at stake. The ignorable contingencies are those for which the product of likelihood and value is small. If the value in question is infinite, even improbable contingencies become significant according to common sense criteria.[2]

In other words: infinite risk completely changes with the importance of probability. It doesn’t matter much how unlikely something is, if that something can wipe us out.

Bostrom’s model of risk

Thinking about the GCF report’s formula: Risk = Probability x Impact, their formula can essentially be interpreted out of Bostrom’s passage above.

It’s worth looking in some detail at this model of risk, starting with his 2002 paper[3]. The image below outlines Bostrom’s attempt to distinguish between six ‘qualitatively different’ types of risk.

RiskModelBostrom
Image adapted from Bostrom’s 2002 paper.

The grid is relatively simple. Bostrom uses scope and intensity to differentiate different types of risk[4]. Scope is essentially the same as “scale”. Intensity describes how severe the outcome is; how survivable, or reversible. A personal risk that is endurable is something like your car getting stolen, while a personal risk that is terminal is that stolen car driving into your face at 100km. Local essentially means large-scale, but not global. A genocide in a single country is a local terminal risk.

Importantly, these are all well-known and familiar risks – things that we have dealt with before. That is not to say we are prepared for them necessarily, but that they are known risks. What’s new is the global, terminal risk. The spot marked X. A global-scale, terminal risk (sometimes called an “X-Risk”) is a special type; one Bostrom labels as “existential”. He defines them in the following way:

Existential Risks – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.[5]

As Bostrom argues: ‘risks in this sixth category are a recent phenomenon. This is part of the reason why it is useful to distinguish them from other risks. We have not evolved mechanisms, either biologically or culturally, for managing such risks’[6]. Evolving and developing these mechanisms is no easy task. Why? Because there is no place for the trial and error approach we typically use. We cannot learn from a mistake when its consequences are fatal. Nobody will be left to draw any lessons from it, nor have a world to apply that lesson to.

Our approach is therefore inherently and unavoidably speculative. We are trying to build our capacities for accurate foresight. We are trying to cultivate and encourage the imagination of strange futures. We do this so that we can better anticipate an unknowable future.

Bostrom makes this point in a broader sense too, arguing that the ‘institutions, moral norms, social attitudes or national security policies that developed from our experience with managing other sorts of risks’ may be less useful in dealing with existential risks which Bostrom describes as a ‘different type of beast’[7]. Arguably, some of the best work on existential risk comes from non-traditional institutions and think tanks – groups outside the mainstream. In a somewhat paradoxical sense, they must remain on that fringe; it’s easier to think outside the box when you already live outside of it. In another sense, I do feel that we need to begin paying closer attention to these kinds of institutions and their bodies of work, even if they may seem esoteric or alarmist at times.

Illustrating this forward-looking approach are outfits like the previously mentioned Global Challenges Foundation, as well as their collaborators the Future of Humanity Institute, which focuses on AI development and other so-called “exotic” threats like the risks of molecular nanotechnology. The similarly named Future of Life Institute is yet another think tank devoted to existential risks that focuses (again) on the dangers of unchecked AI development. There are many such groups in existence, and while well-funded and influential, in comparison to the UN’s own stature they are not yet mainstream.

These kinds of groups are newer, and sometimes explore areas well outside of the typical fare of the UN and the frameworks it develops. They exemplify what Bostrom means when he says that institutions experienced with past threats may be less useful in dealing with future ones.

In the future, I hope to look more closely at groups like these; to reflect on the threats they identify as important, to investigate what kinds of thoughts drove them to these conclusions, and to look more pragmatically at anything resembling a “triaged list” they might have developed. A meta-analysis and synthesis of their work would be a good step in building a risk-based model that can enjoy some consensus and attention.

I’ve offered glimpses of this landscape, but honestly only that – glimpses. There is a wealth of work and good ideas here that deserve greater attention from the media, from academia, from policymakers, and from the public. It might be helpful to consider their methodologies too – what frameworks and approaches they use that might be of value in the broader project of creating a triaged list of existential risks. For now, I’ve highlighted just a few notable outfits and thinkers and some of their most important ideas. 


Footnotes

[1] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[2] Bostrom, N. (2011). Infinite Ethics. Analysis and Metaphysics, 10, 9-59.

[3] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[4] A third dimension, probability is also important – especially for any kind of triage to occur. This was evident in the GCF report’s own model. Bostrom points out that probability can be “superimposed” on to the matrix he’s developed. So again, this earlier work seems to align with the later reports coming out of collaborations, like the one with GCF.

[5] You might recall an earlier critique of our definition of sustainability using the word “persist” in “persist over time”– since it doesn’t capture the idea of human “flourishing”. Here, I think, Bostrom captures that idea better! A drastic curtailing of our potential is essentially the antithesis to human flourishing, so its avoidance makes flourishing possible, even more probable. This section not only latches on to Bostrom’s idea of going beyond annihilation as a concern, but tries to address this idea of flourishing, and of maximizing human potential.

[6] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[7] As above.

Terror, black mirrors, and the era of threats

What do we really fear most? Death or eternal life? The answer seems obvious, but looking at modern, popular culture suggests we have new fears in this STEM-driven era. This discussion was largely inspired as as a response to a paper by Bendell[1], which suggests that sustainability’s first premise – at this point – should be one of imminent collapse.

The paper is worth quoting at length:

“Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy

The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. The approach of the paper is to analyse recent studies on climate change and its implications for our ecosystems, economies and societies, as provided by academic journals and publications direct from research institutes.

That synthesis leads to a conclusion there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers.

The paper reviews some of the reasons why collapse-denial may exist, in particular, in the professions of sustainability research and practice, therefore leading to these arguments having been absent from these fields until now.”

Jem Bendell

Terror Management Theory

The Great Explainer everyone’s sleeping on?

There’s a school of thought in sociology called Terror Management Theory (TMT) which offers interesting explanations of human behaviour. TMT argues that awareness of our own mortality induces terror in us, and we respond to that terror by managing it in different ways – hence the name! How we manage that terror has profound and far-reaching social consequences, even to the point we erect entire social institutions to mediate and manage our fears. This “management” varies, but the theme doesn’t – immortality is the goal.

This might manifest as a literal belief in immortality (religious beliefs about the afterlife, for example, and the institutions that maintain them) or as figurative expressions of it: infamy, posterity, legacy – some aspect of your memory or ‘self’ living on. This is Marilyn Monroe stuff: “The legend ever lives”. Although they don’t offer a literal afterlife, culture and cultural institutions can offer a different kind of permanence that’s real enough for people to enshrine and revere; a figurative immortality –another way we can find peace despite knowing this will all end someday.

What’s always struck me about TMT is that sustainability can promise immortality too. The notion of sustaining over time – and in one especially optimistic conception, of sustaining indefinitely – is essentially the idea of literal immortality at the species level. That thought makes my head spin, because if TMT were true then surely, we’d be embracing sustainability wholeheartedly! Instead of a religious afterlife that requires faith, or an imperfect approximation of permanence through culture and legacy, here we have the science and technology-based version of immortality for our new STEM-based era.

ModernMeme
This meme seems appropriate here. Confused? Know Your Meme

So why are we not embracing it? Why are we moving so slowly on any number of sustainability-related issues? Why are we managing our terror so sub-optimally, according to the theory?

Maybe it’s because sustainability, in the context of TMT, subverts the very concept of “management” itself. Instead of managing our terror by reaching for a faith-based afterlife or an imperfect cultural approximation, this time we can “manage” that fear by eliminating the source of it – and once we do that, there’s nothing left to “manage”. TMT becomes a ladder we would throw away after ascending to new heights. It’s a whole different conceptualization of management to suggest that we can alleviate our fears by removing the source – a kind of TMT 2.0.

It comes down to starting assumptions, ultimately. TMT as we know it assumes that annihilation is inevitable and maps out our responses accordingly. TMT 2.0 assumes that “with strange aeons even death may die”[2] and maps out a different set of responses.

I’m mentioning all this because the same thing is happening in the article I’m responding to (Bendell, 2018). The context has changed from a kind of social management towards the narrower discipline of organisational management, but the same “subversion” of what management means is being driven by starting assumptions. Essentially, this article isn’t that novel. It’s just the original TMT assumption – collapse is inevitable.

Earlier I talked about the existentialists, and they’re another group of many within the discipline of philosophy that could inform this research, too. The concept of collapse and annihilation may be depressing, but philosophy and many other fields have offered up some very good options on how to manage that – different kinds of peace we can arrive at; ones that don’t resemble the options that TMT lays out.

Culture, too, can offer more than what TMT describes. Take this beautifully simple exchange from the show Six Feet Under

“Why do we have to die?”

“To make life important.”

Maybe it’s as simple – and stupid – as that? There’s peace in that idea.

It is the final episode of the first season of HBO’s Six Feet Under, and no sequence could better sum up the series’ central theme – or its legacy. One minute, it’s funny – refreshingly cold and darkly humorous – and the next it’s deadly serious. Neither element would be as strong without the other: the humour would be too morbid without the occasional touching moment, and the touching moments would be too saccharine without the bite. Just as people have to die to make life important, people on Six Feet Under joke to make the serious moments matter. Death can be just as funny as life.[3]

NateSFU
A scene from the TV Series Six Feet Under. Image courtesy of HBO.

Protect me from what I want?

Annihilation may be depressing, but immortality can be terrifying.

Protect me from what I want, Jenny Holzer, 1982

Perhaps something else is going on too. Maybe, in this STEM-driven era of alarmingly rapid technological progress, our reluctance to embrace sustainability is driven by an even deeper fear than annihilation – in fact, the inversion of it – a fear of immortality.

If you’ve watched Black Mirror, particularly the most recent season, you might still be shuddering at the thought of having your consciousness uploaded to an inanimate object and being trapped for an eternity inside a prison designed by someone who wanted to torture you. Notably, if you know the show well, you’ll realize I could be talking about many episodes there – it’s a recurring theme that creator Charlie Booker is really trying to drive home, and I don’t think it’s an accident he wants to push this concept so hard.

It’s a genuinely heinous concept: eternal torture. Watching it unfold in the show can be deeply, existentially unsettling. Interestingly, this is pretty much the idea of “hell” in religions – the same institutions that offer heaven up as an alternative afterlife.

Returning to the earlier comparisons of TMT 1 and 2: If it’s true that modern sustainability, driven by science and technological progress, can offer us a literal heaven, then it’s also true it could bring us a literal hell! More simply, if there is a STEM heaven, then there is a STEM hell, and Black Mirror shows us many visions of what that could look like. I think Booker’s point, in at least some cases, is that complete annihilation isn’t such a terrible outcome. A mercy kill, of sorts. If someone was trapped inside a machine designed to torture them and was effectively stuck there for an eternity, you would turn it off, wouldn’t you?

Or maybe Booker’s point is a simpler one: we are losing control of technology, and the consequences are going to be dire beyond imagining.

MonkeyHug
In the Netflix series Black Mirror, someone’s consciousness is capture and effectively imprisoned in this stuffed monkey toy. The toy is only capable of a few basic phrases, including – most horrifically – the catchcry that “Monkey needs a hug”. The “literal hell” Black Mirror captures is deeply disturbing. Image courtesy of Netflix.

welcome to the Apeilicene

The closing section of Graham Turner’s[4] revisitation of the Limits to Growth is interesting because he doesn’t just conclude that collapse may be underway but lays some of the blame for that on our preoccupation with climate change. Other threats like resource constraints could end up being even more serious, he argues, even more so since we have not given them enough attention.

Unfortunately, scientific evidence of severe environmental or natural resource problems has been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces...Somewhat ironically…the scientific and public attention given to climate change, whilst tremendously important in its own right, may have deleteriously distracted from the issue of resource constraints, particularly that of oil supply

… A challenging lesson … is that global environmental issues are typically intertwined and should not be treated as isolated problems. Another lesson is the importance of taking pre-emptive action well ahead of problems becoming entrenched.

Regrettably, the alignment of data trends … indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.

Graham Turner, Is global collapse imminent?

Turner’s point can be applied even more broadly. Technological progress is advancing in ways we are struggling to control, and that could pose severe, even existential threats to us. AI, automation, big data, surveillance, genetic engineering, biohazards, nuclear warfare, cyber warfare – the list of potential threats we face of an existential kind are perhaps an even more worrying acceleration than rising global temperatures? Or are they also perhaps in a sense the same threat, as Morton suggests, just differently understood?

The concept of the “Anthropocene” only captures the idea of climate change and human-driven ecological impact, perhaps another term like Apeilicene – the era of threats – better captures the trajectory we are on, and how we should respond. Naturally, a focus on threats alone may deprioritize focusing on assets and opportunities, but that doesn’t mean innovation isn’t possible, or that framing our situation as a terrible and looming crisis can’t still yield positive results. Consider how much innovation past wars and crises have driven, and the advanced nature of military technology and other inventions birthed from a profound necessity. Then again, consider that a “War against Nature” is exactly the thinking that drove us to this perilous place (as the idea of a metabolic rift suggests). Our situation is so complex and bewildering, it’s not even clear how we should think about it at a fundamental level.

Surviving the Apeilicene will require thinking about sustainability in many ways all at once. It will require a combative focus, a defensive, resilience-based mentality. Yet it will also require adaptability, and the ability to recognize not just problems and weaknesses but also opportunities and strengths.

We must rethink what an existential threat can be, too. Annihilation is just one negative outcome. Eternal torture, as discussed, is an infinitely more dire existential threat. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s paper on “existential risk prevention” provides a fantastic matrix of different types of existential threat – capturing perfectly the kinds of outcomes that Booker’s Black Mirror describes and so many more. Creating a rigorous map of outcomes according to varied types of existential threats allows us to see that yes, perhaps we’re living in the Apeilicene after all. Will Steffen’s famous ‘Great Acceleration’ graph paints a trend towards exponential changes across a range of areas. It would be interesting to consider if the threats (and types of threats) against us are multiplying at similar rates, and what the implications of a trend – if one exists – might be.

GreatAccelSteffen
Will Steffen, an ANU academic, has famously charted the “Great Acceleration” – a series of simultaneous and exponential increases in human productivity and consumption[5].

Praxis and epistemology

An era of renewed interest in the truth

Kellyanne Conway once famously stated she was giving “alternative facts” to a journalist. Although in this case, she was demonstrably lying, the statement (and other developments from the Trump Administration) have since reignited public interest in the concept of truth and verifiability – and perhaps more broadly, remembering the problem of Australia’s infinite coastline, the idea of the paradox. The phrase “alternative facts” has its own Wikipedia page[7] and “post-truth” was declared 2016’s Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries[8].  Despite the often-negative nature of these incidents, what they represent may be a positive development. Perhaps, with rationality now threatened, we will see a reassertion of its value? The media, for example, now increasingly stresses the importance of one of its core purposes – to state the truth.

KACad2
(Left) U.S. Counsellor to the President Kellyanne Conway and (Right) A New York Times ad playing on the phrase “alternative facts”.

Our era represents a renewed interest in the debates around epistemology – what is true, what can be verified. Alternative facts, fake news, and the gaslighting[9] of the public by powerful figures are all driving forces behind a rising anti-intellectualism, a distrust of experts, and a fragmentation of our shared reality. Are we in a post-Enlightenment crisis? And if so, what are the opportunities that will bring with it?


Footnotes

[1] Bendell, J. (2018). Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy. Carlise, UK: Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS).

[2] Lovecraft, H. (1928). The Call of Cthulu. 11(2). New York: Popular Fiction Publishing Company.

[3] Armstrong, J. K. (2015, August 21). Six Feet Under: ‘It made it okay to laugh at death’. BBC Culture.

[4] Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

[5] Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O., & Ludwig, C. (2015). The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, 2(1), 81-98.

[6] For all the facts and alternative facts, see what Wikipedia has to say, for the moment. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_facts

[7] BBC News. (2016, November 16). ‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. BBC.

[9] “…[the] tactic of getting people to question their direct experience is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call “gaslighting”. A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality. Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them.” From: Azarian, B. (2018, August 31). Trump Is Gaslighting America Again — Here’s How to Fight It. Psychology Today.