TL;DR: Planetarity == Solidarity with all beings on this planet. If that piques your interest, read on….
On January 1st, I took on the minor ambition of reimagining our planetary condition as my new year’s resolution. It’s best seen as a counter-revolutionary manifesto. Wait, what? You didn’t think we were living under a revolutionary regime, did you? You would be right in thinking so if you only heard our great leaders, but don’t pay attention to what they say and ask what they (and we) do and have been doing for the last two hundred years. Industrial society is a revolutionary regime headed by the Carbon Liberation Front, aka the People’s Republic of Exxon, Aramco and Gazprom.
Trotsky wanted us to live in a permanent communist revolution, but the liberation of the proletariat is nothing compared to the liberation of carbon, which is the one liberation theology that unites socialists, communists, capitalists, fascists and every other istist. Unfortunately, the carbon revolution is running out of gas (and steam). What comes next?
We are entering an era of existential politics, where the current obsessions of government such as taxes are going to be replaced by the elemental obsessions of air, water, food & climate. That thought entered my head about a year ago. A few months later, when I read David Wallace-Wells’ spectacular piece of climate pornography and learned that it was the most shared article in the history of New York Magazine, it struck me that I am not the only person in the world thinking about existential politics. Every hurricane, every fire and every drought increases the ranks of my fellow travelers. It’s only a matter of time when instead of worrying about Russian spying we will start worrying about oceans eating away our lands — we should be doing so already, but soon we will be forced to do so.
We aren’t used to inviting oceans into the senate but the survival of the human species depends on a politics that embraces the non-human world.
Don’t we know that already? Isn’t the interrelation of all beings the oldest Indian insight that’s been tweeted by every new age guru in the world? Yes, but there’s a new twist: the interrelation of all beings has left the concert grounds of Woodstock and is on its way to the halls of power and money. We are at the cusp of organizing a planetary liberation struggle.
I don’t need to tell you that a politics in which oceans and glaciers get a vote will be radically different from our current one. Existential politics will completely transform our idea of society; in fact, I think we will need to rework the basic categories through which we experience the social — history, freedom, production and most importantly, the category human.
What happens when the human bubble bursts. In any case, shouldn’t we be poking it until it does?
I am of two minds here.
Yin says: if humans are a geological force as the anthropocenic scientists claim, the natural is being assimilated into the social.
Yang responds: if human survival is at stake because of climate collapse, the social is being assimilated into the natural.
So what’s the right image: is the earth a giant factory or is the revenge of Gaia upon us? My gut says both images are true and my head adds that we can’t answer such questions systematically. In fact, we don’t even have the right terms in which to formulate an answer.
I consider that lack of categories to be a challenge rather than a problem: it’s exciting to imagine a radical expansion of the political to include earthworms and sheep along with blue collar laborers in Michigan and subsistence farmers in Madhya Pradesh. While we continue to write history as if it were that of humans alone (and until recently, of certain human cultures alone), the actual story of our times has always been more than human. While Earth-huggers have been talking about the intrinsic value of the non-human world for decades, now the expansion of the political sphere can be motivated on hard-edged grounds as well (see halls of power above). If you don’t believe me, consider that a few centuries ago, only kings were considered sovereign but now, throughout the world, we take for granted (in principle, if not in practice) that people are sovereign.
Why did that happen?
The transition from kingdoms to democracies is certainly a sign of moral progress, but it’s also a necessity — you simply can’t run a modern society along feudal lines: the changes in production, trade and consumption necessitated a new kind of society with an altered distribution of power. Similarly, the dramatic shifts we are seeing now necessitate a transition.
A transition to what?
Answer: to a planetary politics based on solidarity across species boundaries, a planetarity. Don’t ask me what planetarity is, I am not going to give away the season in the pilot :) Instead, let me introduce the ABCs, the three planetary themes that I will be tracking throughout:
- A for Animals: we can’t talk about the politics of the planet without talking about how we treat our fellow planetarians, which is to say, horrendously. Our treatment of animals, especially in factory farms, is easily the greatest moral failure of human society. On the flip side, expanding political rights to the nonhuman world is a key marker of planetarity.
- B for Brains: if physical machines and the factories that housed them marked the transition from a feudal to the industrial society, then planetary politics will be marked by intelligent machines and the networks that house them along with their biological counterparts.
- C for Climate: many of my friends like to think of climate change as a moral crisis — civilization as we know it is about to end! what are we going to do about it! — but my view is that the moral crisis lies elsewhere, i.e., in our treatment of the nonhuman world. Instead, climate change is a human crisis that points out the limits of the complexity that can be handled by our current socio-technical systems.
There are plenty of people who think of each one of these themes separately; animal rights activists, roboticists and climate scientists come to mind, but my goal is to juxtapose them.
Well, for one, because they are actually related; to give just one thread connecting the three, note that whatever machines and automation have done to human labor, they have completely destroyed animal labor, so if we want to understand what machines might do post intelligent automation, we might want to look at what mechanization did to animals. And of course, it’s the exhaust from these machines (including the methane coming from mechanized factory farms) that’s the underlying cause of climate change.
Second, each one of these themes adds a lens that illuminates the other two; for example, what if we look at climate change primarily from the point of view of the non-human world, might it start looking like a good thing? I am sure the end of human civilization will be applauded by the billions of pigs and chickens who live out their lives in crates the size of their bodies before they are slaughtered. Why shouldn’t we be taking their side? Extending political and moral rights to the non-human world can be justified on hard-edged grounds, a strategy the animal rights world can learn from the climate action world.
Third, drawing out the connections between these three helps us understand the planetary system in the Anthropocene, for it has many moving parts and no single theme can hope to capture the complexities of the system. In fact, the political embrace of the planet is the greatest complex system challenge of all time and should be of interest to scholars and thinkers for that reason alone. Just as the genesis of the modern nation state went hand in hand with the collection of statistics (and spurred much of its development), the planetarity of the future will go hand in hand with the development of big data and associated machine learning techniques.
If there’s one place where the three themes come together in an orgy of evil, it’s the modern factory farm: animals engineered to be automatons, living a life of ubiquitous surveillance and unchecked violence with the flatulence from all that misery warming the planet as a whole.
If there’s one place that planetarity has to destroy, it’s the factory farm.
PS: By the way, I am not talking about planetarity as a holist — no forest and tree metaphors were harmed in the production of this article. These three themes — they aren’t the only ones of course — aren’t like three blind men and a planetary elephant. There’s no seamless transition from one to the other. However, there is productive insight to be obtained by focusing on each theme individually, seeing where they cohere and where they clash with the other two and finally in noticing what lies beyond all three.
Or so I think. More accurately, or so I imagine, for what follows is as much speculation as analysis; after all, I am trying to peer past a veil that hides a mutation. I might imagine sensing the world through an earthworm’s skin or giving those earthworms a vote (of some kind); there’s more than a little bit of fiction science to be found here.