The Adventures of Vatman

Aren't straight lines boring? I have been zagging about climate change, animal rights and other planetary calamities for several months. It's getting to be burdensome. Time to zig. Or rather, it's time to zigback to a topic I continue to think about in a parallel universe, a world without care or worry, a topic that’s sent a few paychecks my way: the study of the mind.

Note: A zigback is like a flashback but in parallel instead of serial. Where a flashback takes you to an event in the past, a zigback takes you to a parallel world in the present. What's zigzagging? 

For much of the twentieth century, language captured the attention of philosophers the world over, going so far to say that the problems of philosophy are nothing but the problems of language in disguise. While introducing Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell says: 

"Starting from the principles of Symbolism and the relations which are necessary between words and things in any language, it applies the result of this inquiry to various departments of traditional philosophy, showing in each case how traditional philosophy and traditional solutions arise out of ignorance of the principles of Symbolism and out of misuse of language."

Wittgenstein reiterates the same point when he ends his book with: 

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

One can only be silent for so long. There's a kind of speech that's a finger pointing at the moon. I can never speak with certainty about another being's feelings; even other human beings are opaque to literal alliances and other creatures are doubly resistant to literal speech. Mythical speech can correct some of these errors but in the process of doing so we realize that language isn't everything. 

That realization had a collective dawn towards the end of the millennium when the philosophy of mind replaced the philosophy of language as the dominant subfield, a dominance that continues to this day. It seems obvious to us now that the mind subsumes language. After all, linguistic phenomena are just one type of mental phenomena; philosophers of mind also study consciousness (arguably the coolest kid on the block), perception, emotion, attention and any number of other mind-laden entities.

The party line is that the mind is going to reign for a while, that the key puzzles of consciousness are resistant to solution. I believe that's true, but a time comes when resistant puzzles, however tantalizing, are set aside in favor of other questions and paradoxes. What's considered important need not be the same as what's considered challenging. The reign of the new king is almost over. Some of us think we have reached peak consciousness, that philosophical storms currently on the horizon will upend the mind’s position at the top when the winds blow landward. 

What’s blowing?

Indulge me as I zigzag through an answer with thought experiments, arguments and stories. All I can say for now is the new regime will subsume our mental concerns just as language was swallowed by the ocean of mental activity.

Another Note: This being a zigzag course, I am not going to talk about the philosophy of mind alone - the zags through our planetary responsibilities will continue to race along on tracks three and four.  

Brains in a Vat

Chances are, you have heard of brains in a vat. If not, here’s the basic idea: let's say you’ve been troubled by a nagging cough for the last few weeks. Being the cautious kind, you get yourself tested. After one look at the test results, the GP passes you on to a pulmonologist who, in turn, invites an oncologist to the second meeting. The oncologist reveals you have incurable lung cancer. Only a few months to live. He wants you to undergo one final test just to be sure. You retire to the oncologist's waiting room. 

While leafing through the latest issue of Mortality Now - conveniently stacked in large quantities in the waiting room - you notice a call for participants in a mind-blowing study. A silicon valley startup is prototyping its immortality as a service platform. You might just be the ideal participant.

The startup’s promise: they will remove your brain from your body and give it a new house in a climate controlled underground chamber in Oregon with plenty of water and electricity to feed and clean your brain for eternity (i.e., until VC funding runs out); further, they promise your brain will receive the freshest, most nourishing sensory inputs every day - some days you will travel the Himalayas meeting yogis meditating in ancient caves, other days you will dive beneath the ocean on top of a sperm whale.

Organic eternity.

The only problem: the brain transfer is irreversible - they have to dispose of your body once the brain is removed (while omitting to mention that your brain is part of their IP and will be sold off when investors start looking for returns).

Not a problem for you: your body is collapsing anyway. On the 4th of July 2020, you become Oregon's newest resident, BR1701, better known as Vatman.

These are your stories.

The Weather Outside

Having dealt with old-age homes recently, I know the key to successful retirement is routine garnished with variety. Vatman’s hosts have taken that adage to heart: every week is the same and every week is different.

On Mondays they take their vats on a trip to the Grand Canyon, which is to say, they live-stream their proprietary drone’s passage through the gape in the ground and feed it to the vat’s sensory interfaces. This being a first world retirement home, you can also communicate with the drone operator and ask him to navigate the drone as you see fit. He's just a kid sitting in a Palo Alto Starbucks; he will do what he's told. 

Except that this Monday (July 6th, 2020) is your unlucky day- Russian hackers have taken control of the drone’s operating system and have diverted it to Democratic party headquarters. Fortunately, the company has plenty of drone footage stored on AWS. Without revealing a thing, they start piping in last year’s trip taken on July 1st 2019. As the CEO texts the somewhat troubled drone operator: how would vatman know the difference? Duh. Make it so. 

Meanwhile, you’re having a good time zooming through the canyon. When drone does one of its 360 degree spins, you notice storm clouds are brewing. Thunderclouds have always made you anxious. You want to get back to safety (what does that even mean when you’re stuck in a chemical bath in Oregon?) and you ask the drone operator to fly the drone back to its base. Meanwhile, in a lucky coincidence, another drone owned by the CIA has annihilated the errant Russian hackers. They were working out of the same building in Damascus (cheap rent, great food, lots of clients) as an ISIS handler.

With the hackers gone, your drone operator regains control of his vehicle and starts live streaming today’s trip once again. In a second lucky coincidence, while the clouds that made you uneasy were from last year’s trip, it turns out that thunderclouds are brewing at this very time in the Grand Canyon. They sure look ominous. You feel like vomiting and tell the operator to stop. The operator sympathizes with your unease and steers the drone out of the canyon before the rain starts.

All's well with the world. You want to heave a sigh of relief, but you can’t since you don’t have nostrils or a chest. Damn. Instead, you thank your operator, close your mental eyes and wait for tomorrow’s snorkeling trip to the Bahamas.

1. Was your belief about the storm clouds over the canyon a true belief?
2. Was it your belief that caused the drone operator to move the drone?
3. Were his actions appropriate to the circumstances?

Parting Thoughts

An enduring puzzle in the philosophy of mind is that of mental causation, i.e., how can a thought or a feeling cause changes in the world; for example, how can the burning sensation caused by accidentally placing one’s hand on a hot plate cause you to move your hand?

In our story, the belief, i.e., the anxiety caused by thunderclouds, belongs to vatman. The action was controlled by the drone operator. How is it possible that a belief housed in a brain disconnected from the world can cause changes in that very world? Causation without connection seems like an impossibility. At the same time, if your complaint didn't cause the drone operator to move the joystick, what did?

We can also ask a meta-version of the same question: if all brains are disconnected from the world, which is to say, if all of us are really brains in vats, how can we ever make anything happen, and even if we do, how do we know if what we have done is the thing worth doing?

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FFreedom: Ending Factory Farming

Ethics in the Anthropocene

In a previous essay, I introduced factory farming as the great moral crisis of our current era. In that essay, I juxtaposed factory farming with climate change (the two are related, with factory farming being one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions). In this essay, I am going to dig deeper into the relationship between moral and material conditions. Does a specific form of energy use come with a moral calculus? Does it come with a metaphysics? I believe so, and my beliefs are stated right at the beginning and repeated once again towards the end of this article: 

  1. We live in the most anthropocentric era ever. 
  2. Fossil fuels power the engine that produces an anthropocentric world - human rights and oil exploration are two sides of the same coin. Factory farming is the most egregious manifestation of this anthropocentrism. 
  3. The transition from fossil fuels to alternative (renewable) energy sources should go hand in hand with the end of factory farming and the flourishing of all beings. 

Now for the main story....

Our moral condition is intimately tied to social and technological conditions. There was a time — perhaps in prehistory, perhaps as recently as three hundred years ago — when we could afford to neglect the nonhuman world entirely — the human impact on the rest of the earth was small enough that we can treat it as a rounding error. It was possible to define the human as a stand-alone species, a disinterested witness admiring the spectacle of nature.

That condition has changed. Today, to be human is to be more than human. Now that human freedom is accepted the world over as a desirable outcome, it’s time we set our sights on other freedoms, freedoms that aren’t human freedoms even if they will eventually help us flourish as well. One freedom in particular: the end of factory farming, which, I will argue is deeply connected to another freedom: the end of fossil fuels.

I use the term “FFreedom” to denote these two moral demands, demands that expand our traditional conception of human freedom into the nonhuman world. We often hear that the underlying problem is greed, especially organized capitalist greed. Greed is surely destructive, but in this article and in subsequent articles, I want to argue that it’s not just the negative side of humanity that’s the problem. It’s the positive side too.

The problem lies in our self-understanding of humanity itself and what it means to have a good (human) life. What it means to be free.Our fossil-fueled, factory-farmed world is like a giant sacrifice at the altar of humanity. While our violence on the nonhuman may not matter, it should, for it destabilizes our uber-humanity. On the flip side, a factory farm free and fossil free world will contribute to human as well as nonhuman flourishing. That’s why there are two F’s in FFreedom: fossil free; factory farm free.

From Marx onward, we know that the reign of capital is doubly unstable:

  • Economic booms and busts are inevitable
  • Wars, especially total wars, are inevitable 

The anthropocene intensifies those two instabilities and adds a third:

  • Total collapse is inevitable

Here's the main premise of planetarity: The anthropocene and its instabilities won't go away until we replace discussions of the "human condition," i.e., the circumstances in which only human beings exist and flourish with the "organic condition," i.e., the circumstances under which all beings on this planet exist and flourish. Further, it's clear that the nonhuman is beating down the social doors anyway - whether it's ocean surges that flood cities, designer microbiomes or the streams of data that connect our insides and outsides together, our fate as a species is now directly connected to the wellbeing of the earth. Politics has never been more important than it's today.

Industrial Life

Let’s start with the foundational transformation of the modern era: the industrial revolution. Was it a good thing or a bad thing?

Before we answer that question, we have to ask: good for whom? We can argue for eternity about whether the industrial revolution was good for people or not. Those who are for the revolution will talk about the ease of our modern lives, the advances in health and education and the vast plethora of gizmos that make our lives safer, faster and more interesting..

Those who are against the revolution will talk about the sweatshops and wage slavery that’s been the backbone of industrial manufacturing, the destruction of lives and livelihoods that came in the way of progress and the general alienation that characterizes modern life.

After all, I am writing this essay on a computer, and that wouldn’t have happened without the discoveries in basic science and technology that made mass manufacturing the standard form of production after the industrial revolution.

And so it goes.

What’s without a doubt is that the industrial revolution was an unmitigated disaster for all the other creatures that share the earth with us. If they’re wild creatures, they have seen their habitats shrink to nothing, putting them over the brink of extinction in many cases and living close to it in many others.

If they are domesticated - what a word! - their fate is often much worse: forced to live in unspeakable conditions in factory farms until they are killed in equally hellish circumstances. Or experimented upon in labs in the name of science.

The only creatures that have had anything close to an upside are pets but even there, it’s only the animals lucky enough to be chosen as our companions that (arguably) live a good life. Their unlucky siblings suffer the same fate as the rejects from factory farms.

All of this in the name of human welfare: as they say, a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. I say “in the name of human welfare” very carefully, for who could be against human welfare?

When we talk about the impending disasters of climate and ecological collapse, we talk about human greed: of oil companies maximizing profits, of capitalists privileging robots over humans, of governments that invade in the name of democracy. Some of us also talk about animal rights and animal welfare, of extending privileges to nonhumans that currently only protect humans.

There’s nothing wrong in any of those claims. Of course we have to protest energy companies looking for new oil fields. Of course we have extend rights to other species. No doubt about it. Note, however, that those who protest energy companies rarely protest cruelty to animals. And the other way around. It could be that everyone has limited time and energy and can only be effective in a narrow domain.

True enough, but what if the fossil fuels and factory farms are symptoms of the same disease? Wouldn’t we want to address the root cause? Put another way, where does the problem stem from? Is it the greed of oil companies? Of chicken farmers? Or is it something else? There's a long queue for people who think oil companies are evil. A shorter queue for people who think chicken farmers are evil. But the general assumption is that the goodness in humanity makes up for these lapses. That the world would be perfect if all of us embraced true human values. 


But here’s an alternate hypothesis: that the disasters we are fearing (or ignoring) flow out of our goodness as much as our badness, that our human values are a problem precisely because they’re human -

  • That replacing oil refineries with wind farms will only kick the real problems down the road.
  • That capitalism itself is a sign of anthroprocentrism run amuck, even as we congratulate ourselves on not believing in angels and demons.
  • What if the problem isn’t humans being bad but humans being human?

Philosophers are usually reluctant to derive OUGHT from IS, but an analogy to a previous era of oppression might clarify how the moral is deeply related to the material.

Ending Slavery

There were no shortage of moral causes in the mid nineteenth century - colonialism was expanding into India and other parts of Asia and Africa, the treatment of laborers in the mills of Manchester and elsewhere was horrible and the Victorian era greatly expanded the reach of patriarchy.

Then there’s slavery, which stands out as the worst evil in this crowded field of misery; ending it was the great moral cause of the nineteenth century. While racial oppression continues to this day, we can say with some certainty that the world is better today than it was a hundred and fifty years ago.

While we see it primarily as a moral cause - as it surely was - it’s impossible to disentangle slavery from other shifts in the material economy. For example, while the importation of slaves to the United States ended in 1808, the black population of the United States increased from about 700,000 in 1790 to about 4 million in 1860. In other words, the enslaved population exploded in an era which increasingly accepted its moral repugnance.

Isn’t that a contradiction?

Yes it is, if understood only in moral terms. However, consider this material fact: Eli Whitney introduced the cotton gin in 1793, and the production of cotton went from 1.5 million pounds in 1790 to over 2000 million pounds in 1860. There’s a direct correlation between the increase of the slave population and the increase of cotton production, even as the “efficiency” of production (as measured by cotton/slave) increased throughout this period.

In other words, we can’t understand the extent and duration of slavery without bringing in shifts in technology and modes of production. While we can assess slavery purely as a moral calamity, we can’t understand the resistance to the ending of slavery or its ultimate demise (which required the bloodiest war in US history) without reference to material conditions.

To use a physicists turn of phrase, moral statics can be pure, but moral dynamics, i.e., changes in the conditions of justice, are deeply intertwined with material conditions. I might go on a limb and say Marxian theory gives us many of the conceptual tools that help us understand moral dynamics within the human sphere (i.e., race, gender, labor etc).

Back to FFreedom

Like slavery in the nineteenth century, our awareness of animal sentience and personhood has increased in the last fifty years (say, after the publication of Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” in 1975) but so has factory farming: several fold increase in large mammal production (e.g., cattle and hogs) and orders of magnitude increase in poultry and fish, so much so that factory farming rival transportation for its impact on greenhouse gas production. How do we incorporate the energy economy into our understanding of factory farming?

Energy use isn’t the only factor; we can’t understand factory farming as its currently practiced without bringing in biotechnology and yield maximization in animals bred for dairy or slaughter. While these factors are well understood individually, together they reveal a mode of planetary production that’s qualitatively and quantitatively different from the industrial mode that spawned Marxian theory and its competitors. Despite attempts by theorists such as Timothy Morton to expand Marxian theory to the planet as a whole, I believe the attempt is bound to fail - there’s no simple replacement of class by species. Planetary production is driven by networks of energy and information, not the clanging of steam engines. As machines change, so do mechanisms of explanation.

Of course, one can challenge animal welfare laws or fight for the rights of dolphins without worrying about theoretical frameworks, just as one can fight for better pay and safer working conditions without buying into an account of the laboring class versus the capitalists. Surely that work needs to continue. Nevertheless, I believe a new theory is important for at least two reasons:

  1. Theoretical reflection makes explicit the tacit conditions of our times and that in turn helps design new institutions that can respond to those conditions. You couldn’t transition from the divine right of kings to liberal democracy without philosophers imagining that new condition.
  2. It’s easier to align actors interested in animal rights, climate change, food sovereignty and globalization if we can draw explicit links between the energetic and informational basis of these seemingly disparate movements, which, in turn, is necessary for a truly transformative politics.

Terrestrial Ignorance

The crisis of society isn't an isolated crisis - it's just one of the many ways in which we are struggling with our terrestrial existence - in short, we have an excellent grasp of cosmology and a terrible grasp of being earthbound. Copernicus onward, we no longer consider humans to be the center of the cosmos, but if anything, we consider ourselves even more central on earth. So to end at the beginning: 

  1. We live in the most anthropocentric era ever. 
  2. Fossil fuels power the engine that produces an anthropocentric world - human rights and oil exploration are two sides of the same coin. Factory farming is the most egregious manifestation of this anthropocentrism. 
  3. The transition from fossil fuels to alternative (renewable) energy sources should go hand in hand with the end of factory farming and the flourishing of all beings. 

Let me finish with a few words about the first of these three claims. In this case, I believe the diagnosis is pretty straightforward - while Copernicus and Galileo helped us liberate the heavens from God, their lineage has done nothing to liberate the earth from man. In fact, that lineage has made conditions on earth much worse for most beings. While we have bought into the myths of progress and enlightenment and how we don't believe that angels dance on the head of a pin or that the sun rotates around the earth, we actually live in the most anthropocentric era ever.

Consider the dominant activity of the modern era - business. Trees and foxes can't do business with you. They don't own property, they can't start companies and they can't bribe politicians. A lion can't purchase antelope meat and an antelope can't purchase lion insurance. Of course, it's not just business that excludes the nonhuman; so do all of our political institutions. Lions can't lobby for antelope quotas and antelopes can't vote their own lion-free party into power. Useless as labor, cute as companions but not productive in any real sense, the only thing that an animal can do is surrender its flesh for food or donate its body to science. I am using the terms "surrender" and "donate" as euphemisms of course. The engines of society are all anthropocentric. All our efforts to extend rights to the nonhuman world founder on this basic fact of political economy. 

The anthropocene is nothing but the culmination of imperial-capitalist expansion except that we miss its primary victim. Yes, it's true that entire human cultures have been destroyed in its wake, but the one constant in the march of imperial-capital has been its success in converting every nonhuman into an object that serves a function outside its own world: food, fur, furniture, you name it. Therefore, the violence at the heart of capital shouldn't be read primarily as class-conflict but as ecocide.

Of course, it's not capital alone whose violence needs to be read that way - remember the four pests campaign that headlined Mao's "Great Leap Forward" that turned out to be one of the main contributors to a catastrophic famine. In other words, it's not only capitalism that's at fault but the logic of the modern world as it pertains to terrestrial existence.

Endnote: As you can see, I am mixing terms and concepts such as class and capital that lie within the social and other terms and concepts such as ecocide and nonhuman that lie within the realms of the natural. We will have to develop new concepts that don't balk at these disciplinary crossovers.

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?