Cultivating the Nation

By Rajarshi MITRA - Flickr: Down on the farm..., CC BY 2.0, Link

India is going to the polls in a year or less. After many years of elections being primarily focused on developmental issues, this coming election is a referendum on the nation qua nation, i.e., what is India and who is it for?

For many years, a standard complaint was that the ruling elite was in it for themselves without having the nation in mind. Elites will always look out for their interests but it’s clear that the current ruling dispensation also has a nation building project in mind - and a capital building project and a religion building project that goes with the nation building project. I happen to think that this particular nation building project is both unstable and unjust but I recognize that a nation building exercise is under way.

Therefore, it makes sense to ask the question: what is India? How to build cultivate a new India?

It’s 2018, do we even need to build nations anymore? There’s reason to think the nation is a collapsing category, that the only way to shore its fortunes in the face of teeming forces of capital and climate is to create a smokescreen, i.e., blame the nation’s ills on enemies within and without. No surprise there. Of course, enemy-seeking is guaranteed to create a negative feedback loop that will undermine the nation as such, but we won’t go there; I will accept the nation as a given in this post and its sequels.

Instead, let me turn my irritated gaze toward the second half of nation-building, i.e., the building. It’s an industrial metaphor isn’t it, recalling images of men and women laying down railway lines in Soviet era posters. Wrong metaphor if you ask me. Let’s go for an earthier metaphor: cultivating the nation. Let’s say the nation is a farm that creates bounty if tended well and disaster if tended badly. What kind of farm do we want? So many decisions:

  1. Which crops should we cultivate? For cash or for sustenance?
  2. Is monoculture a good idea?
  3. Should we share our fields with other claimants or should we declare them as pests and try to kill them?

And so on.

Back to the 2019 (2018?) elections.

While I am not in the country right now, I will be spending quite a bit of time there over the next twelve months, and like most Indian citizens, I have a deep interest in the outcome even if I disagree with my fellow Indians as to the shape of a desirable outcome.

Disagreement is a genteel word: at its worst it reminds me of children arguing over whether one side cheated when it threw the ball this way rather than that way. Indian politics is not a genteel sport: it’s not “public reasoning” where both sides argue and then sit down to have tea. It’s a blood sport. We are not talking about theoretical debates over freedom of speech here. Nevertheless, I believe that we can’t have real politics unless we offer political recognition (not political legitimacy) to rabid partisans of every type.

I am a partisan who wants his side to win, but one who recognizes that others are legitimate partisans who want their side to win, which brings me to the question motivating this post: how to create a political commons that recognizes all its occupants even as they might be at each other’s throats?

In my not so humble opinion, we can’t set about the task of nation cultivation unless we answer that question.

I say this because modern liberal political theories and institutions don’t acknowledge the universality of violence in the core of their theorizing, except perhaps in international relations where there’s some discussion of just wars. That’s because the sovereign, i.e., the state acting in the name of the people, is supposed to stamp out all violence that doesn’t stem from the sovereign’s hand - note how the SEP article says at the very beginning “Sovereignty, though its meanings have varied across history, also has a core meaning, supreme authority within a territory.” Isn’t that the idea behind the leviathan? In this scheme, violence by non-state actors is a sign of state failure. Yet, Indian politics is full of violence: from assassinations and murders to strikes and riots, and at least in India, violence is both a strategy for electoral success (1984/2002) as well as being tempered by electoral success (Assam and the AGP for example). 

The Indian state has never been the supreme authority within its territory - neither has the Pakistani state for that matter. In fact, supreme authority is the exception rather than the rule in the annals of statehood. That’s why it’s possible for the RSS chief to say he can deploy a militia faster than the Indian military. The point is not whether the RSS can or not, but what it means when he says so. I guess that means we are a semi-failed state. Nation cultivation 101 fail ho gaya. Fortunately, I am past the age of taking exams so I am willing to ask silly questions about alternative cultivation patterns.

Such as: why is the “state as sovereign” the right imagination of the nation? Or to even more provocative: what’s a just riot? Is that even possible? If not, is it because we have bought into a theory of violence in which only the state can conduct its affairs with a rifle in hand? I mean, when the US congress deliberated with grave concern whether the US should invade Iraq (not once but twice!) and passed resolutions and quoted this and that section of the constitution, was that just? If so, what kind of justice is it that it’s legitimately possible to kill millions at a time but not hundreds? We need to tease apart our assumptions about the relationship between government and the gun.

Not that I am advocating riots; far from it, but it’s wrong to assume that the Indian state will act as a leviathan exerting monopoly over violence and prevent illegitimate non-state violence, i.e., anything besides police action and war. That’s always been a terrible hypothesis about the Indian nation building cultivation project and will increasingly be proven wrong even in those parts of the world where the state plays that monopolistic role today. Not that those parts of the world were immune - it’s just that after the orgy of the second world war, an international leviathan, i.e., the US, prevented internal violence within its direct sphere of moral concern, i.e., North America and Western Europe, while outsourcing violence in its amoral sphere of control to client regimes.

Anyway, much to think about Loksabha 2019, even if you don’t have a direct stake in the outcome of the Indian elections: metaphors of cultivation, ideas of nationhood, ideas of recognition and legitimacy, ideas of right and wrong presence on a given piece of land, and underlying it all, the reality of violence in every sphere. It also offers venue for reflection on some of the most charged terms in the desi vocabulary: himsa, ahimsa and dharma.

PS: Let me also admit that I have an ulterior motive here: I am asking this Indian question as a surrogate for an even larger question: how do we create a political commons for all the creatures on this planet even as some of them are literally at the throats of the others?

The Globe and the Earth, part one

If you have been following some of my earlier posts (here, here and here in case you missed them), you know that I am somewhere between mad and apoplectic about what we humans are doing to the earth and its beings. There's a story behind this epic destruction: I call it the story of the globe and the earth. The globe is the world we inhabit in our cosmopolitan lives, the world of iphones and startups, human rights and fundamentalisms. The globe is centered around the human - even when it pays attention to the non-human (for example, when that dentist shot and killed Cedric the lion) it does so because we are commenting on the human. The earth is the planet that supports the globe: animals, trees, rocks and mountains. 

The earth is profoundly nonhuman. 

Isn't that old news: every biology and physics textbook will tell you the universe is profoundly non-human and humans have occupied this planet for a minuscule portion of its history. We are just one species on one planet in one galaxy. True, but that's pointing out the overwhelming non-humanity of the world of objects. The clash between the globe and the earth is more profound; it's about the profound non-humanity of the world of beings. 

And if you're like me, you agree that the problem isn't purely intellectual - it's existential, for it's clear to anyone who's paying attention that the globe is eating the earth: sometimes literally, when we consume one of the sixty four billion creatures - a vast number that's almost certainly a vast underestimate - that are slaughtered for our palates every year and sometimes metaphorically as we rush headlong into the climate crisis and more general ecological collapse. 

As I contemplated the global feast, I was struck by the thought that this feast is the primary form of dukkha on our blue planet. Way back when the prince of Kapilavastu was exposed to the realities of life and death, he left home to meditate in the forest for six years before he attained Nirvana and became the Buddha. Unlike the Buddha, we don't have a forest into which we can escape: the globe surrounds us on all sides. You need to be a bacterium to live as if the globe doesn't exist. 

If dukkha is the globe eating the earth, we need to update the Buddha's insights for our current condition, don't we? That thought struck me about a decade ago. I believed then and continue to believe now that the categories of Indian thought are the right categories to address the crisis on our hands. Maybe I should hedge it by saying "the right categories for me" but that would be an unbearable dilution. Let's keep it as stated: the globe's conquest of the earth is a challenge for Indian philosophy with consequences for everyone. 

I am equally sure that there's no forest path toward dukkha 2.0; we have to be lost before we can be found. I was reminded of the difficulties of importing our own history into our present during a lecture by a well known academic. I heard her (or was it him?) say "blah blah blah, Derrida dialectical blah blah." Which piqued my curiosity, for we were in Bangalore, not Paris. After digesting that statement for a few seconds, I piped up: "shouldn't you be looking at Nagarjuna as an alternative source of dialectical reasoning?" 

Maybe I didn't make that exact statement, but you know how academics talk. To her credit, the professor gave an honest answer; "I haven't read Nagarjuna," but before she could continue, a voice from the back of the lecture room said with great vehemence "why would anyone refer to Nagarjuna in this context - that would be ahistorical." I felt like saying: "You don't know me at all, but let me tell you something: I like history." The accusation of being ahistorical hurt. Especially because I didn't understand what the accuser meant. Nagarjuna was part of my history wasn't he? It turns out he wasn't. Not in the straightforward way we expect history to work, i.e., a direct line of communication between the past and the present. Time is more alien than space. 

Derrida lived and worked thousands of miles away from Bangalore, but in the twenty first century, he was one flight away. Things might have been the other way around two thousand years ago when Nagarjuna was composing his masterpiece, when a living tradition connected students to their long dead teachers while the palaces of Europe were too far away by bullock cart or horseback to exert any influence. The modern world has annihilated space, but time remains outside its reach. 

I wasn't thinking of space and time while I was seething under the public insult; I just wanted to show that Indian philosophy was relevant to our concerns today. It turns out to be a much much harder problem than I imagined a decade ago. A-historical or not, time is a real barrier, especially when the world has been transformed beyond recognition by forces originating from outside the Indian subcontinent.

Here's a question: do you know when Krishnadevaraya died? Don't worry, I have googled that for you: he died in 1530. Almost modern - a contemporary of Copernicus. Try as I might, I can't imagine myself living like the Vijayanagar king, while I am quite conscious of living in the shadow of Copernicus' legacy. Not only does the earth go around the sun, our modern consciousness revolves around the ideas of Europe.  

What can we do about it?

You could try rejecting the modern world altogether, or at least as much of it as possible. I think Gandhi attempted to do so, but if it was a hard task a hundred years ago, it's impossible now. Plus, it's not clear what that rejection means. History is objective; it changes who you are. Rejecting history isn't as difficult as desiring to be a quadruped instead of the bipedal creature that we are, but it's pretty damn hard. In fact the rejection of history only leads to fundamentalism, which is a particularly modern way of being. Denying our condition leads to pathologies, not a cure.

So thank you anonymous accuser for pointing out a problem I want to address: the problem of history. The problem arrives on our plate in several forms, but here's the version I want to chew on: how to lay claim to an Indian heritage without turning into a caricature? Second, how to lay claim to that heritage on behalf of all beings?

Frankly, I don't think there's any way out of our conundrum without a radical shift in our methods. The conflict between the globe and the earth has reached a fevered pitch. Incidentally, such conflicts are well documented in Indian myths. In another age filled with violence, the unhappy gods and their rivals churned the ocean in their quest for the nectar of immortality. We have to attempt our own version of oceanic meditation. Doing so will throw up all kinds of beasts and poisons, and if we are lucky, will also reveal the nectar of immortality. 

PS: By the way, we Indians have a relatively benign version of this problem. Consider another group of people who were also called Indians, i.e., the various Native American peoples. Their ranks have been decimated, their cities and cultures destroyed. How does a Native American recover their lost world?



The Indian Anthropocene

Photo by Bibhu Behera on Unsplash

When we think of the ABCs of the future, we usually think of western dystopias and utopias. I have myself commented on Musk's oscillation between the earth and Mars. The animal rights/welfare movement starts with names like Peter Singer or Gary Francione but has almost no acknowledgement of the fact that both historically and currently, most vegetarians in the world have lived in the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia. The argument is that they are cultural vegetarians rather than moral ones. Perhaps, but by that count Russia is a true democracy while the UK and the US are only cultural democracies. 

The climate movement is even worse. It's paradoxical Eurocentricity is a consequence of being centered around seemingly universal scientific findings. For example, so much of the discourse in the US is turning apocalyptic, but no one bothers to ask: hasn't that apocalypse already arrived for the many pre-Colombian cultures that thrived in the Americas, let alone the sixth extinction of countless number of species and the daily slaughter of billions of non-humans? Do we declare emergencies only when white people discover a problem of their own creation? To the extent India (or South Asia more generally) is represented, it's either in the form of destitution: lands leached by ocean rise, heat waves killing by the thousands; vague congratulations for solar investments by the government or breathless (literally!) reports about pollution in Indian cities. None of these, either individually, or collectively, form anything like an understanding of the specific challenges and opportunities faced by the subcontinent in the so-called anthropocene. 

The economic and social shifts that contribute to the anthropocene are relatively new in India - post 1947 with most of the important changes happening after liberalization in 1992. When I was a child, most Indian agriculture was organic and local. The marketization of food is a very recent phenomenon. There were no factory farms until recently and even there we will have to pay as much attention to the farming of fish as to avian and mammalian species. Last, but not the least, we have committed enormous damage to our ecologies in the name of development. The moral, social and political terrain of the anthropocene looks different from the subcontinent than the standard model coming out of New York or London. In short, the challenges of:

  • feeding and powering a large population
  • resisting ecological destruction
  • awareness of internal and external conflict and security concerns
  • continuing a historical concern for other animals while acknowledging the caste inflection of many of these practices 

suggest a complete overhaul of what the anthropocene means for us Indians and arguably for everyone else. Such contestation is to be expected - as the debate over the anthropocene heats up (ha ha) we should expect alternative histories and intellectual frameworks. It shouldn't surprise us when Xi Jinping proclaims that China will become an ecological civilization under his permanent stewardship, though every sign points to that civilization being full of electric cars and solar panels made in China but otherwise indistinguishable from technocratic green modernity. 

What's India's take on all this? More importantly, what's Indians' take on all this?


First Among Equals

There's something about Elon Musk that really bothers me - I can deal with your ordinary robber baron without any problems, but a robber baron who occupies the summit of human imagination seems too much for a species to bear. I am not being jealous; rather, it's a worry about what we have become as a species when so-called liberal-progressives glorify an interplanetary imperialist. Then again, liberal-progressives continue to make their pilgrimage to Oxford to pay homage to one of the greatest robber barons of all time - Cecil Rhodes. In a hundred years, they might make a similar trek to Mars on a Musk scholarship. 

Let's just say Musk is the perfect symbol of the sustainable Anthropocene. I am kidding of course; there's nothing sustainable about the Anthropocene, but we will spend a couple of decades suckering ourselves into thinking that way. 

For we think we are first among equals

Primus inter pares highlights the confusion between two contradictory trends: the end of anthropocentrism and the rise of the anthropocene. Thoughtful people everywhere agree that humans aren't the centre of the universearen't the chosen species or even the only conscious species. There's nothing special about us. The human question seems to have been settled: we are ordinary

And yet.

And yet, we are increasingly proclaiming that the earth belongs to us, that we preside over the anthropocene like a drunken sovereign, that we control more energy, more land and more flesh than any vengeful god. How is that possible? How can we simultaneously be as unspecial as we have ever been and as powerful as we have ever been? What's the truth - are we ordinary or omnipotent? We may all have our favorite answer to this puzzle but what's clear is that the human question hasn't been resolved yet. In fact, noticing that we are caught between ordinariness and omnipotence is:

  1. A sign that the human question is important once again and 
  2. It can't be "solved" within the current understanding of the human-nonhuman relationship. 

We are back to debating the human condition after thinking it's a done deal, and by human condition, I mean human condition, not just the condition of white male tycoons based in Silicon Valley. 

Mars or Bust

I had been chewing on the human question for several months when I saw Elon Musk's paper outlining why humans need to establish colonies on Mars. Something about that paper angered me so much that I set aside my normal tortoise mode and became a hare. I am not sure what it is:

  • yet another rich and powerful white man telling us what he's going to conquer next
  • that this particular rich white man is overtly - and genuinely - concerned about climate change and the human impact on our planet. 
  • that this man nevertheless feels the long term solution (at least for people like him!) is to go forth and conquer another planet.

But of course, this isn't just a statement of ambition, it's also an extraordinary admission of failure.

At the height of our anthropocenic power, one of the most powerful people on earth is worried that we are finished. If Musk is any guide, the tension between omnipotent and ordinary isn't only an intellectual challenge but also an existential one. That doubt gnaws at our foundation, for why else would someone attempt to create the most expensive solitary prison ever built? The Anthropocene seems to oscillate between the violent domination of the nonhuman world and the violent rejection of the nonhuman world. It's as if climate change is resurrecting worries - like those of whites in the American South - that the oppressed will rise up and attack their masters.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown 

So the Anthropocene is characterized by both continuity and difference with the non-human world: after all, we can't eat their meat or use data from medical experimentation on non-humans if they weren't like us - everyone agrees that their flesh is our flesh. At the same time, we continue to insist that we are different (but how? - the usual defense replicates the mind-body distinction that lies at the origin of this puzzle) so that we can justify our position at the top of the pyramid. 

PS: After I am done with Musk, I might take on the Anthropocene - I mean the term not the situation it refers to, but it's a term whose universal use for our current predicament is wrong-headed at best.

Stop Comparing Climate Change to the Second World War

In a world where knowledge is king, one should beware of geeks bearing gifts. You probably want to know which geeks I am talking about. Where do I even begin: with Elon Musk wanting to take us all to Mars while selling the rest of us batteries and electric cars? Or with Justin Trudeau acting like a runway model on a state visit to India? Or Bill Gates funding massive geo-engineering? Everywhere we look, we are being sold a version of the liberal imagination that's laughable and scary at the same time. 

While we spend most of planetary concerns worried about the doings of American conservatives, let's not forget the hidden dangers of the standard-alternative model that I see everywhere: a future framed around renewable energy, electric cars and solar farms but in almost every other way the same imperialist-capitalist system that led us to our current situation. IMHO, the standard-alternative is even more dangerous than the fossil fueled society it's criticizing, for it uses the enormous weight of science and technology to convince us that the way out of our current crisis is to double down on the very processes that brought us there. 

The first myth to reject on the way to planetarity is the myth of the heroic (mostly white, mostly male) scientist-technologist who will save the planet while opening vacation resorts on Mars. The struggle for the future is always about whose imagination is etched in stone and whose imagination is cast to the winds. Will the stone be turned into a statue of Elon Musk and his space-faring Tesla? I hope not.

Not that I think we can address the challenge of planetarity by turning to the past, of seeking wisdom from an ancient tradition or returning to ways in which our ancestors lived. The crisis we face is unprecedented; not only do we need to look outside western modernity, we must also set aside the romance of the noble savage or the wise monk. Nevertheless, it's the standard-alternative that's my first target, for it's so widespread, so taken for granted that even the idea of system change is cast within its iron frame. That's why we have to question the increasingly louder calls for a World War II style mobilization.

The Background

On August 15th, 2016, Bill McKibben wrote a deeply felt article in the New Republic called “A World at War,” comparing the devastation wrought by climate change to a world war and inviting a world war like response from the United States. Bill isn’t the only climate activist making the case for a World War Two style mobilization. The Climate Mobilization is founded on this very comparison and their sense of urgency is greater than Bill’s. Then there's the infamous NYMag article by David Wallace-Wells that went all old-testament on our planetary future.

The climate emergency is real. If unchecked, it will end human life as we know it. It’s not clear our current civilization is worth preserving but I live in it and my daughter might have to live in its ruins. So let’s agree that we want a version of the vast human system to survive, even flourish. If so, our response to the emergency has to be monumental. Let’s also agree that we should look to previous responses to civilization ending threats for some guidance.

Yet, I find the comparison to the second world war disturbing at best and nauseating at worst. It’s a matter of some anguish for me to write a polemical essay against the world war two analogies, for I respect Bill and others who are making the world war two claim. I hope this essay offers an opportunity to pause and reflect on their choice of metaphor. Our disagreement starts with the interpretation of the second world war.

The Great Patriotic War

Believe me, I get the logic. Who doesn’t want to compare their struggle with the supreme example of national unity and sacrifice? While I don’t buy the hype around the greatest generation, it was clearly a time when the American populace united against an existential threat. That also happened to be spectacularly evil. 

Except that the US didn’t win the war. The Soviets did, while being led by a man who was pretty nasty himself. If the US sacrificed its men by the thousands on the fields of France and the islands of the Pacific, the Soviets sacrificed their men, women and children everywhere. By the millions.

The Soviets didn’t call it the second world war. They call it the Great Patriotic War, for that’s what it was: a war where the enemy came within shouting distance of the Kremlin, a war in which the USSR lost about twenty six million people, about fifteen percent of its population. In comparison, the US lost about half a million people, less than half a percent. 

Even my country, India, suffered more than the United States. We lost between two and three million people due to starvation. That’s right; one of the US’s allies in the fight against evil let millions starve to death on the streets of Kolkata and elsewhere in Bengal. The war on the eastern front was clearly more important to the British than the lives of brown noncombatants. Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that the war ended with the use of nuclear weapons by the United States. Is that part of the comparison to climate change as well?

One War among Many

While the second world war was (on balance) heroic, I can’t separate it from the other wars in which America has played a role. Doing so makes it clear — at least to a non-American like me — that an imperial thread runs through them all. Apart from the Cold War, which can be justified by quoting Reagan asking Gorbachev to tear down the wall, we have:

Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Congo, Angola, Panamá, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

Quite the long (and incomplete) list isn’t it? Let’s also not forget the euphemistic “war on drugs” which has devastated vast tracts of Columbia and Mexico because of insatiable demand in New York and LA. The rest of the world cowers and hides when America goes to war. It doesn’t matter if it’s a war against terror, a war against drugs or a war against climate change.

Soft Power

While I have much to complain about perpetual war, we know it’s not the cause of the crisis. Just as the drug “war” depends on customer demand on the city streets of America and Europe, the “war” against climate change depends on customer demand in the developed world, but increasingly in China and India as well. Except that the carbon addicts have it better. While we revile those who suffer from drug addiction, we generally applaud those who are addicted to the other carbon compound. 

In fact, carbon addiction is constitutive of our current notion of flourishing. It’s the shadow soft power to the menacing hard power of the US military. The hard power of war is in service of the soft power of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Together, they form an imperial model that I might call the energy empire.

Soft power has its collateral damage too. There’s no doubt that the United States has historically been the greatest contributor to carbon emissions; China has overtaken the United States in recent years, but we also have to take into account the carbon footprint of goods produced in China for American markets.

Even that may change as middle class consumers in China, India and other developing countries develop a taste for the luxuries that Americans take for granted. When Gandhi wrote his manifesto, “Hind Swaraj,” a little over a century ago, he warned that there’s no point replacing the British colonizer with brown overlords; instead, he argued that Indians have to change the modern way of life.

Unfortunately, that modern way of life is like honey to every bee in the world. 

The Energy Empire

European colonization between Columbus and Hiroshima was literal conquest: direct control over lands and people throughout the Americas and Asia — “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” as the famous saying goes.

Land and people are concrete and tangible: it’s this parcel in this town that I own, not that parcel in that city. In contrast, energy is far more abstract: it can be sourced from oil or gas or wind or sun and transported from one end of the earth to another. Try doing that to land.

As a consequence, the energy empire has great advantages over the previous era of direct colonization. There’s no need to replace local potentates with your viceroys. In fact, the energy empire’s dominant mode of interaction is the carrot, not the stick. That's why the Energy Empire has been a better Ponzi scheme than its predecessors. 

Energy being fungible, it’s easy to justify fossil fuel extraction in the name of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s easy for the United States to say that our energy consumption is devoted to keeping our citizens happy. I actually think that’s the honest truth. Further, America doesn’t even have to play the energy empire game as a zero sum game: it’s perfectly fine, even desirable, to invite others to the table. That's why the entry of China into the world system has been central to the growth of the energy empire. While we often draw contrasts between the democratic west and an authoritarian China (and not always in praise of the former), almost everyone fails to make the connection that the full flourishing of the energy empire requires Chimerica. After the cold war ended, Francis Fukuyama wrote a famous book called “The End of History,” in which he argued that liberal, market democracy has won and the rest of the world will fall in line sooner or later. Instead, he should have said that the energy empire has won; while the empire prefers consumption driven individualized market democracy, it’s perfectly compatible with consumption driven single party autocracy. The deep relationship between the US and China is founded in the mutually shared interest in the energy empire.

Here’s my main point: unlike nineteenth century colonization, the energy empire isn’t driven by the one people’s need to enslave another; instead, it’s driven by a fossil fuel backed idea of universal human flourishing. Which is why the imperial nature of the energy empire’s soft power is well hidden. Or I should say, well hidden from the carrot eaters, i.e., the citizens of the empire. The stick is prominent in the lives of those are enslaved and slaughtered to meet citizen’s needs — primarily nonhuman creatures by the billions. This essay is not the place to discuss the intimate relationship between energy imperialism and our inhumanity towards the creatures of the earth. I will let that claim remain undefended; it’s a rain check for a future exposition.

The empire also wages war as an important if well hidden feature of its business model; the way software engineers embed bug trackers in their program. Continuous war at the periphery is the calling card of the energy empire: in Iraq, Libya and Yemen for the major power and internally, in places like Bastar and Jharkhand, if you’re a smaller power like India.

Even the major power isn’t averse to internal war: one glance at the militarized confrontation between armed police and nonviolent protestors at Standing Rock should convince us that the energy empire will respond to its critics with deadly violence wherever it’s challenged.

American Followership

I am sure Bill and others in the climate movement are aware of the dodgy history of American war analogies - the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on terror. In fact, the war analogy is only partial; no one is calling for pitched battles. The war analogists have more regard for the war effort than the war itself.

As Bill says, “Turning out more solar panels and wind turbines may not sound like warfare, but it’s exactly what won World War II: not just massive invasions and pitched tank battles and ferocious aerial bombardments, but the wholesale industrial retooling that was needed to build weapons and supply troops on a previously unprecedented scale.”

Isn’t that a clever reformulation of another national myth? The myth of the innovative American who rolls up their sleeves and solves every problem thrown their way. It’s a myth confirming an unconscious hypothesis we take for granted: that the West in general and the US in particular are the natural leaders of the world. So what if that model of development has brought us to the brink of complete destruction? We will retool our minds and machines and presto, problem solved! 

Call me a skeptic, but I am not convinced. On the contrary. I am sure that we need less American leadership and more American followership. Or even better, accept the leadership of the indigenous peoples demonstrating exemplary courage and forbearance while resisting the energy empire in Standing Rock and elsewhere. The massive shifts we need to address climate change will not come from men in suits sipping wine in Versailles, or by Al Gore talking to his best friend, Elon Musk. We must consider the possibility that our very idea of invention and innovation is shaped by the energy empire even if it's used to make solar panels

Why else would we consider insane ideas such as geoengineering? What style of thinking does geoengineering betray? Are geoengineers planetarians? Absolutely not - they are human supremacists who want to "solve" the problem of climate change by injecting even more anthropogenic control into the system. I don't think it's coincidental that they are all prominent white men. Which is why it's important to ask the planetarian question: who gets to imagine that planetary future? Who will be our leaders in this new terrain? In my explorations, I want to make sure that the Jim-Bill-Al-Elon-Justin (Jim Hansen-Bill Gates/McKibben-Al Gore-Elon Musk-Justin Trudeau, JBAEJ for short) vision of the future isn't the only one. Or even the most prominent one, however well-intentioned and committed they might be. The western system even at its most enlightened cannot be the chief guide on this tour. 

More on going beyond JBAEJ in the next essay in this series; let me end this essay with two quotes from Kyle Powys Whyte:

"A decolonizing approach to allyship must challenge the resilience of settler privilege, which involves directly facing the very different ecological realities we all are dwelling in. Sometimes I see settler environmental movements as seeking to avoid some dystopian environmental future or planetary apocalypse. These visions are replete with species extinctions, irreversible loss of ecosystems, and severe rationing. They can include abusive corporations and governments that engage in violent brainwashing, quarantining, and territorial dispossession of people who stand in their way.

Yet for many Indigenous peoples in North America, we are already living in what our ancestors would have understood as dystopian or post-apocalyptic times. In a cataclysmically short period, the capitalist–colonialist partnership has destroyed our relationships with thousands of species and ecosystems. Zoe Todd and Heather Davis characterize the ecological footprint of colonialism as seismic. The ongoing U.S. colonial legacy includes forcing Indigenous peoples into grid-like reservations that empower corporations and private individuals to degrade our territories; fostering patriarchy and conditions for sexual violence in Indigenous communities; brainwashing Indigenous children through boarding schools; and brainwashing everyone else through erasing Indigenous histories and experiences across U.S. culture, education, and memory."

Kyle then goes on to say: 

"Nobody can claim to be an ally if their agenda is to prevent their own future dystopias through actions that also preserve today’s Indigenous dystopias. Yet how many environmentalists do just this? I do not see much differentiating those who fight to protect the colonial fantasy of wilderness from those who claim the Dakota Access pipeline does not cross Indigenous lands. Indigenous environmental movements work to reject the ancestral dystopias and colonial fantasies of the present. This is why so many of our environmental movements are about stopping sexual and state violence against Indigenous people, reclaiming ethical self-determination across diverse urban and rural ecosystems, empowering gender justice and gender fluidity, transforming lawmaking to be consensual, healing intergenerational traumas, and calling out all practices that erase Indigenous histories, cultures, and experiences.

Perhaps these goals and values are among the greatest gifts of Indigenous spirituality and wisdom. I want to experience the solidarity of allied actions that refuse fantastical narratives of commonality and hope. Determining what exactly needs to be done will involve the kind of creativity that Indigenous peoples have used to survive some of the most oppressive forms of capitalist, industrial, and colonial domination. But above all, it will require that allies take responsibility and confront the assumptions behind their actions and aspirations."

The language of war and the language of wilderness are both the languages of empire. That’s the real reason why I find the use of war terminology unacceptable: it’s the mind of Agent Smith speaking through the mouth of Neo.