I have written a few hundred essays over the last five years, with a year and a half in the middle being devoted to a single text, the Mahabharata. I might start the Jayary again this fall, prompted by a seminar I am organizing this semester.
The Mahabharata is unique in that it starts with a post-apocalyptic scenario: a great war has ended, killing everyone except for seven survivors, a death toll of millions. There’s recognition that the old order has ended, that it was unsustainable and that its end came despite the societies of that time being led by people considered “good” by the standards of the time.
Perhaps we too are such a society, led by regimes with some legitimacy but collectively heading towards a transition that we can’t plan for or avoid. What form will that transition take? What will be washed away? Those are the questions that I keep returning to, provoking a meandering journey through the forty two gates of knowledge.
To put it simply, there’s an itch I want to scratch, but each time I scratch one spot, it starts itching in another. I don’t want the itch to go away, but I would like to know the source of the irritation.
Mission accomplished last week: I found the source. I bet you’re itching to learn what I found. Here’s a clue:
Elrond: “This peril belongs to all Middle-Earth. They must decide now how to end it.”
Elrond: “The time of the Elves is over — my people are leaving these shores. Who will you look to when we’ve gone? The Dwarves?
Gandalf: “It is in Men that we must place our hope.”
One of my (many) favorite lines in the Lord of the Rings, describing a world that’s about to pass. If you haven’t read the books, here’s the premise: the dark lord has emerged from his hideout and is gathering his forces. If he wins, game over: everyone’s dead or his slave. If the good guys manage to defeat him, the dharma of the elves is fulfilled and they have to fade away.
Either way, one yuga is over and another is about to begin.
Fast forward a few thousand (or is it million?) years and we are at a crossroads once again. Just as the elves had to fade away after Sauron’s defeat, we might have to fade away too: except that we are the good guys and the bad guys, so if our bad guys win, we are all done for and if our good guys win, we will have to make away for something else.
What I don’t know is whether the future will transform the world we have created over the last seventy five years after the end of the second world war, or the world we have created as a settled species over the last ten thousand years. I tend towards the latter, hence the sensationalist headline:
The age of men is ending.
Whether it’s a rejection of the last 75 years or of the last 7500, we are in for a great unsettling.
Let’s get rid of the Sauron scenario first: I am not thinking apocalyptically. Major violence is almost certain, but I am skeptical about futures lacking in humanity altogether.
Let’s say all of Eurasia outside Siberia becomes uninhabitable because of climate change and Russia refuses to change its immigration policy in response, leading to pitched battles over migration and settlement. How many people do you think will die? A few hundred million? A billion? It would still be a smaller loss, relative to population, than what happened in China over the 13th century after the Mongol invasions, when a population of 120 million collapsed to 60 million over six decades.
Even if we are left with a human population of 4 billion in 2100 — undoubtedly the outcome of the greatest disasters in the history of humanity — it will still leave enough humans that the species is not threatened. In other words, whatever happens, there are going to be people left on earth. Lots of people.
The real question is: who will they be and how will they live?
For most of human history, we were a mobile species. It’s only with settled agriculture sometime in the last ten thousand odd years that we became “rooted.” It’s fair to say that what we call history is nothing but the chronicles of settler humanity; even when they were conquered by nomadic tribes — the Mongol invasions for example — it was in order to loot or skim off the wealth created by settler humanity.
In fact, the concept of wealth is a settler concept; a mobile species has no reason to accumulate.
Settler humanity has won to such a large extent that for most people including me, the only ways of life are rural or urban, i.e., agricultural settler humanity and industrial/post-industrial settler humanity. Non-settler humanities — often captured by the blanket term “indigenous peoples” — are barely 5% of the human population and every single one of them lives at the mercy of settlers.
I will not recall the long and torturous expansion of settler humanity across the globe, the waxing and waning of agrarian and industrial civilizations. We can say that all of that came to a head in the second world war, at the end of which were two “final settlements” that vied for support across the world: communist society and liberal democracy.
In the history we have written so far, one of them won and the other lost. I am thinking that’s that not the final verdict for they were both heading towards the wrong finish line.
When the Soviet Union fell, scholars such as Fukuyama thought we had arrived at a secular, this-worldly end of all times. In that moment of triumph, liberal capitalist democracy represented the end of history, a city on the hill that approximates the universal ideals of settler humanity. Which is to say that after an agonizing journey filled with disease and violence and predatory social relations that extracted wealth from the majority of toiling humans, we had created the institutional framework that made most people happy most of the time.
I think Fukuyama was right, in that all that toil and struggle produced a brief period under US hegemony when it seemed like a global settler human will become the universal ideal. Unfortunately, that ride into the sunset turned out to be a short stroll to the edge of the abyss. Instead of a final settlement, we are the beginning of a great unsettling, where every idea, ideal and institution of ours will be questioned, rejected, transformed or destroyed.
To give just one example: do you think we can continue to live in a world of sovereign nation states when hundreds of millions of people are desperate to migrate with their lands running out of water and their oceans frosting their fields with salt?
I have a hard time believing in that settled future.
There are many many other unsettlings waiting to happen and I hope to chronicle some of them. While there are many objects that catch my fancy, ultimately, my essays are a dairy of the great unsettling. And when I turn to the Mahabharata, I read another era’s retelling of their great unsettling and the painful recreation of a world worth living. That’s the source of my itch.
There’s still uncertainty over what will be unsettled: will it be the post-world war liberal order or will it be all of human history? I tend towards the latter, which is what I mean by the claim “the age of men is ending,” but even a rejection of the last seventy five years will be a great unsettling.
Caveat: Dramatic claims need extraordinary evidence. I am not arrogant enough to think one essay is enough evidence in the court of the cosmos. I am arrogant enough to think that an essay can make that claim vivid enough that further evidence will make it plausible and ninety three volumes later, lay the foundation of a cult in my name.
Meanwhile, as an educator, the great unsettling prompts some questions about learning to live through the shift –
how to imagine life as we enter that phase?
what skills will help us navigate its uncertainties?
and most importantly for me professionally — how will the world of knowledge be unsettled?
I will leave you with a diagram that captures my answer to that question.
Today is the 1st of February. Let’s just say I took January off and am now ready to take on a year long writing project. What’s it going to be?
No surprise, it’s the same project as last year. Way back at the beginning of last year, I said I wanted to investigate the concept of Samsara, the wheel of time and space in which we find ourselves. Some think Samsara is infused with suffering; others embrace our worldly condition and ask us to enjoy it while we can. Why are we finite? Why do we grow sick and die?
The Buddha left the comforts of home in pursuit of these questions. Did he answer those questions to everyone’s satisfaction? Is there anything new under the samsaric sun? Disease and sickness haven’t gone away, though we are better at curing some of them than we were back then. Death refuses to budge from its full stop at the end of the sentence.
Then there are new phrases like Anthropocene that hint at a new phase of our samsaric condition. While it’s always been true, it’s never been more apparent that our welfare seems inextricably bound to the welfare of other beings on this planet and the governance of our bodies has to incorporate the governance of both our interior and exterior landscape. From the bacteria in our guts to the whales on our beaches, we have to pay attention to the samsara of all creatures. Everything that shares a worldly destiny in fact.
That’s the question I want to explore this year. It’s a question about the nature of the world as seen from the inside, a cosmic earthworm’s (CW) point of view rather than a cosmic eagle’s. Pay attention to that cosmic earthworm for a moment as he hides from the cosmic eagle. The eagle is the eye of science, the view from so far above that it might as well be nowhere. The cw is the exact opposite — a being embedded deeply and firmly in the ground.
The universe belongs to the eagle. Samsara, to the earthworm. The eagle is Star Trek. CW is Earth Trek. Behind the cw is an even bigger conceit — that we can create a new field of knowledge by:
setting aside the default assumptions of the current dominant framework,
borrowing concepts from traditions that don’t adopt these default assumptions and reshaping these concepts to suit our needs
inventing new concepts and tools as we go along while:
making sure that all our moves are well motivated and feel “right.”
It may or may not work, but a journey that features bacterial minds and banana republics as stopovers promises to be interesting.
We want to be crawling along with the cw to the four corners of the earth, asking questions that chew at the boundaries of every scholarly discipline. Why? Because we can’t answer questions about how to govern this planet unless we also understand the needs of its inhabitants. The first requires us to expand our political sphere from nations to oceans. The second requires us to look at the minds of butterflies and banana trees. In other words, we will have to trace the connections that bind living beings to each other, to peer into their worlds and to create institutional structures that lets those worlds flourish.
I remember being awed by the voice over in Star Trek (“To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations”); I still the sentiment was right but the target of exploration was wrong. It’s terrestrial existence — Samsara in so many words — that’s ripe for exploration. The key to new knowledge is through the world of beings.
I want to say that the single greatest development in human affairs in the post war period (i.e., after 1945) is the entry of the nonhuman. In fact, we could say that the period starts with a bang: with the bursting of the nuclear bomb. With those two explosions, it became clear that the non-human was a permanent force in human affairs. Will civilization end? Will we be smart enough to overcome this crisis? We don’t know but whether we overcome it or not is besides the point. The fact is that the nonhuman has entered the human arena and will not go away.
There’s never been a time after 1945 when a non-human apocalypse hasn’t been part of our everyday lives. We lived in the nuclear shadow for half a century but that’s gone now — not that the threat has been completely removed — and it’s been replaced by climate catastrophe.
Nuclear holocausts are nothing like climate collapses. Solving the nuclear weapons crisis is nothing like addressing climate change. Therefore it’s important not to confuse the entry of the non-human into our affairs with any specific manner in which they do so.
You may want to extend rights to animals. I may want to protect rainforests. He may want to focus his efforts on carbon sequestration. Fine. Go right ahead. But collectively they constitute a new condition and in my view the condition comes first. That’s why there are so many ways of articulating this insight. For example:
We have broken the world and now we own it. The most common interpretation in my circles, which leads to books like “The End of Nature.” This is the Pottery Barn version of the insight.
We have a whole world of riches to exploit — that we can now hack the world all the way from molecules to continents. immortality is within sight. This is the singularity university version of this insight.
A reduced version of 2 but much more influential in practice is the idea of Globalization — that we can all become richer and more connected by exchanging goods, services and ideas across the world. Globalization describes the lived reality of much of the world right now, though it goes without saying that it’s lead to as much division as connection.
Increasingly, the single most important line of interpretation of our planetary condition — closely related to 1 and 3 above but much more all encompassing — is the Anthropocene, i.e., that we live in the age of humans. In this interpretation, humans have become a geological force, commanding energies and material flows at the scale of tectonic forces.
There’s always the possibility that we have been infected by a bug that spreads through cat videos, that what we think of as our planetary condition is just the beginning of the age of bacteria. Except that every age has been the age of bacteria.
It’s a bit like European expansion into the rest of the world. Starting with Columbus’ voyage to the Americas, Europeans colonized much of the earth. That lead to dreadful catastrophes such as the genocide of the Americas and Atlantic slavery and later, the colonization of India and Africa, but independent of the moral consequences of that expansion, from 1492 onwards the societies of Europe were tied to societies elsewhere in real time. European parliaments had to debate the rights of Native Americans, Black people, Indians and anyone else who came under their thumb. Their factories were fed by cotton coming from the tropics. Their newspapers and travelogues were full of stories about these new peoples.
Similarly, the nonhuman world penetrates our lives today. Every newspaper runs stories about bacteria and how they might be involved in regulating brain function. Every newspaper talks about climate change. Every newspaper talks about robots taking our jobs. We are only half a step away from geoengineering the climate.
However it happens, the economics and the politics of the future will involve shaping the earth and recognizing the extent to which we are shaped by it. The human abstracted from the planet is no longer a viable category. To be human now is to be a member of a category stabilized by the non-human. How long will that stability last?
Slightly longer version: The Anthropocene is the culmination of liberalism and it’s a Ponzi scheme.
I started writing this essay as a way of understanding the term “Anthropocene” and its consequences for our understanding of an even more weighty term, namely, “society.” Google tells us that Anthropocene is a rocketship concept in the marketplace of buzzwords:
While much of the discussion has revolved around the “cene” and when it started and how it will end, there’s almost no discussion of the “anthro” half of the term. It’s assumed that anthro is an unproblematic category, that whether we start the anthropocene when humans tamed fire, domesticated animals and plants, started living in cities, started burning coal and then oil or when the carbon dioxide concentration reached 400ppm, it’s the same human, i.e., since our biology hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, the debate about the anthropocene is about drawing lines around when it truly became a cene.
Not everyone agrees, obviously. Clearly, there’s a major difference in cenic power between a !Kung tribeswoman in the Kalahari and Donald Trump making America great again. Since much of the ppm increase has come post-industrial revolution and correlates strongly with capitalist expansion, some have thought to rebrand the term as Capitalocene.
There’s clearly something right about the rebranding exercise — without capital we wouldn’t have seen the fire and the fury that continues to consume our world. However, it too leaves the anthro untouched — is anthro so clearly an unproblematic and undifferentiated “biological” category that it’s not worth probing?
I find that hard to believe. For one, there are no undifferentiated categories period. Scientific and mathematical investigation pretends that pure definitions exist, but if anything, cognitive science has shown that categories themselves are many splendored creatures.
Then there’s the additional fact that some of the greatest contributions to carbon emissions come from cows, pigs and other nonhumans who are tortured and slaughtered for human benefit. It’s almost as if the nonhuman world has despaired of humans ever listening to the voice of reason and are conspiring — openly, I might add — to use the only weapons they have, i.e., their behinds, to conduct a suicide attack on human societies.
Key point: while the biological clearly informs our theoretical understanding of what it is to be human, it’s the social that we experience on a day to day basis, i.e., our day to day intercourse (in every sense of that word) with other humans and as I will argue, with other beings. Asking who’s the “anthro” in the anthropocene is asking us to reconsider what it means for us to be social beings and, in particular, to reconsider what “society” means.
If the anthropocene teaches us anything, it’s that every stripe of nonhuman — from cows and pigs to hurricanes and oceans — is knocking on the doors of society and asking us to let them in. We will get there, but not quite yet. Why not? I want to understand the structures that are preventing us from doing so.
I don’t think it’s only capital. The problem is bigger; it lands squarely on the anthro- in the anthropocene. Don’t believe me? Consider these two graphs. The first is a graph of carbon emissions by year (starting 1900):
The second is a google n-gram of the phrase “Human Rights” over the same period:
The two look pretty similar don’t they? I am suggesting (insinuating, really) that the anthro- in the anthropocene and the human- in human rights aren’t two different categories, but rather ontological twins joined at the hip. Or put another way, the human being — the being whose rights are being protected — is being produced in a manner that leaves the non-human in ontological limbo. We have no hope of addressing the climate inferno that will cap the anthropocene without understanding the ontology of “human” as a category.
We have to uncover the ontology of the human, but not in the classic sense of the fundamental categories of being but an empirically and historically grounded production of a new category (“human”) through processes that consume both energy and information.
Think of it as a metaphysical factory that burns oil and bits and extrudes a shiny human on the other side. That metaphysical factory is a ponzi scheme — it expands its market by including more and more beings as people but every time it does so, it wreaks havoc on those outside the door.
Note: What follows is a collage of ideas. Some will turn out to be wrong. Others will turn out to be too offensive. The survivors will blossom into proper articles and books that I will convert into fame and fortune. Meanwhile, I am in prototyping mode. Therefore, arguments will be flawed, analogies incomplete and evidence retractable. Live with it.
A Special Transmission
Chan Buddhism (better known as Zen in much of the world) has an origin story; it claims to be a “special transmission outside the scriptures.” We can dispute whether Chan is more special than other transmissions and also observe that it spawned a rich literary legacy for a tradition fiercely opposed to the power of words, but the basic idea is simple to understand — the standard model of liberation was ossified and it was time to take a sharp koanic knife to it.
In what follows, I want to turn that koanic knife upon our current ideology of liberation — the apparatus of state & market, democracy and human rights etc — in the context of three problems that this apparatus can’t solve: climate change, general ecological collapse and nonhuman suffering.
In fact, the apparatus is a Ponzi scheme that gained strength by burning fossil fuel, extracting the earth and confining animals to factory farms. Its capacity to liberate human beings is directly proportional to its capacity to oppress every other being, but unfortunately, karma being what it is, there’s a limit to how much we can play this ponzi game of liberation before the whole system collapses. Which is increasingly looking like the inevitable outcome.
Another way of putting it: while the modern era liberated us from thinking humans are the center of the heavens, it doubled down on thinking humans are at the center of the earth. Further, the same cognitive forces are at play in the process of cosmic liberation and terrestrial oppression.
While the yin-yang of cosmic liberation and terrestrial oppression appears to be a claim about how we have acquired knowledge about heaven and earth, I intend it to be a political claim, i.e., a thesis about how we need to radically transform the way we run our earthly show. After all, politics is the most successful means through which we have brought together collectives to achieve freedom. If science is the dominant modern perspective on the cosmos, politics is the dominant modern perspective on terrestrial affairs. Therefore, terrestrial oppression is a direct consequence of bad politics. It is also, I will claim, a direct consequence of bad science, starting with the widespread scientific practice of sticking to heaven and not intervening in earthly affairs.
Some scholars think it’s enough to bring science into democracy. I believe we have to go much much further — we have to disassemble much of what we call science and much of what we call politics and then hope that unlike Humpty Dumpty, it can be put together again. Or rather, like the Banach-Tarski paradox, we should tear up the old egg and reassemble it at twice the size. That’s our koanic knife.
I started writing this essay after watching Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel,” and in its aftermath trying to understand the extraordinary and almost complete absence of concern about the nonhuman world in the climate movement.
In contrast, the climate movement is firmly within the modern camp with the usual themes of scientific rationality (hence the importance of “Standing with Science”), capitalist development with a touch of sustainability and democratic mobilization turning into “policy” where experts dispense advice to their elite comrades on how to save the earth while making boatloads of money.
How did this extraordinary reversal happen — a 180 degree shift of a deep critique of modernity into the next stage in its evolution? The answer, I will argue, is ponzism. Ponzism is a metaphysical scam, a way of being that scales and mutates as new forms of energy are tapped, a scam that expands by wearing a mask of benevolence while looking for new investors while simultaneously multiplying the number of victims many times over.
Ponzism started as a European ideology grounded in the uniquely scientific and rational character of their civilization, but it’s a fickle ideology. It has no allegiance to the West as the decimation of the working class there has shown — sweatshops and machines are more obedient than unionized labour. China might soon become the hub of ponzism. Why stop with China — ponzism may not even have allegiance to human beings. The long term future of ponzism might lie with robots and AI — with the matrix and planetary mechanization coming together in one gigantic orgy.
You may or may not believe in conspiracy theories, but it’s clear that the human world is expanding into the nonhuman at breakneck speed — we can engineer microbiomes and if our geoengineers are to be trusted, microstorms as well. If so, everything from a cell to a cloud is a future investor or victim.
Having ridden out the imperial era of European colonization and the Cold war era of the nuclear arms race, we are now in the stage of ponzism I call Aiag, the opposite of Gaia. If Gaia was the mythical European mother goddess, the earth-being who maintained life-friendly conditions on this planet, Aiag is the actual theology of western civilization, a theology whose goal is to burn the planet in the service of humanity and then cry when you realize that inventing better air conditioners is useless when your house is burning. Aiag starts as a servant of human nature but soon squeezes every living creature like a planetary python. Ponzism is keenly aware of Aiag and is waiting to jump ship from the fossil fuel driven human world to a green ponzism whose control over the earth is at a level deeper than anything we have seen before.
While the dangers of Aiag worship have been well understood since the beginnings of the industrial revolution — it’s time to inhale William Blake if you haven’t done so yet — the protests were at the margins until the end of the second world war. Since then, the critique of modernity has become a staple of social science and humanities departments worldwide though that has done absolutely nothing to stop the rapid spread of the Aiag cult throughout the world in the name of development.
Why have we failed? Why has Aiag won and Gaia lost? Why does the anthropocene simultaneously induce an intoxicated scream of human dominion and the paralyzing fear of apocalypse?
One word answer: ponzism.
Aiag sounds (to me, if not to you) like a Carlos Castaneda book turned into a Hollywood blockbuster. We don’t have to entertain shamanic visions just yet; there’s plenty of unremarkable historical analysis to be done first, for whatever we believe about its future we can’t understand ponzism’s past without understanding its origins in the west, especially the post second world war west.
I am continuously amazed at the tricks pulled by western magicians to keep ruling the world: when you protest against racism, they give you human rights; if you protest against Eurocentrism, they will give you globalization; if you protest against pollution they will give you renewable energy.
A system that started with the genocide of the Americas, progressed with the slavery of Africa, gained strength with the imperial plunder of the whole world and crescendoed in an orgy of violence that ended with the use nuclear weapons is still seen as the repository of progressiveness and liberation. For every Napoleon, there’s a Marx; for every Hitler, there’s a Stalin. It’s as if the magicians made a secret pact amongst themselves to play gods and devils to keep us entertained.
And even when all of those ideas went up in flames at the end of the second world war, the didn’t die: instead, they have come back with renewed force as sustainable-multicultural brainwash. And I am even more amazed that the rest of us continue to fall for these tricks. How did they manage to sucker us so completely? What’s the source of this hypnosis?
There’s a reasonably adequate explanation of the hypnotic effect of the west: manufacturing consent. While I agree with Chomsky, there remains a puzzle: how is it that the hypnosis successfully transitions from regime to regime even as we move from coal to oil to solar and from colonialism to national sovereignty and beyond? The history of science offers an instructive lesson: as Kuhn pointed out in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientific concepts sometimes receive wholesale rejection when the new ideas are considered incommensurate with the old. Yet, physics remains physics and science remains science. The ship of science continues to sail the seas while replacing its sails with smokestacks and its wooden boards with steel plates.
Now generalize that story of scientific renewal to the political-social system that dominates our world and ask the same question: how is it that the west commands our ideas even as the ideas themselves are rejected again and again?
Note: I fully understand that the term “west” is a crude and reductive term for a complex network of ideas and ideologies.
I received a hint when I saw Gore’s Inconvenient Sequel, which is not surprising because I have a bigger problem with the saviors than with the haters. I know where I stand with men marching down the streets of Charlottesville shouting “we will not be ignored.” They don’t like me. A man who makes movies about saving the world is a more complicated story. In one of the key moments of Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Sequel,” Gore talks to his buddies, Elon Musk and Larry Summers. Gore wants Musk to give his solar technology to the undeserving people of India, who are otherwise reluctant to sign the Paris accord. I can do no better than quote the New Republic article on the topic:
Al Gore whips into action — by pulling out his cell phone. He dials Larry Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary, and says, “Elon suggested I call.” Naturally, the former vice president is on a first-name basis with the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. But Elon Musk is more important to Gore as the chairman of SolarCity, which The New York Timesdescribes as “the nation’s leading installer of rooftop solar panels and a renewable energy darling.” Gore is thus connected with SolarCity’s president, and asks him to give the company’s intellectual property to India, free of charge. “SolarCity could be the corporate hero of Paris,” Gore says into the phone. “Think about it.” The company eventually agrees, and India signs the agreement. Gore saves the day — and perhaps the planet.
Gore’s benevolence extends beyond India to the rest of Asia. Here’s a clip from the official trailer:
Notice how our Gore comforts a slightly built Asian man — the video has the man saying “I feel so scared” in a shaky voice — followed by scenes of destruction from other unwests. Meanwhile, here’s a shot of the people who will solve the problem:
Let me tell you something: we’re not that scared and we don’t need your comfort.
Al Gore’s a politician attempting a late-innings come back — of course he’s going to inflate his contribution to anything. Stopping climate change is the obvious next step for the man who invented the internet. Fair enough, so let’s take a look at another recent climate change blockbuster, Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything.”
Klein’s book is meticulously researched. She has footnotes and references for every fact and story. A quick search reveals that her book has about fifty instances of the term “India.” Does she quote Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari’s Churning the Earth, the definitely book on how globalization and capitalism are impacting the environment in India?
Klein’s oversight could be just that, an oversight. Could be, but the book doesn’t reveal or explain ideas originating in the unwest. After watching Gore strut on stage or reading Klein’s anti-capitalist rebellion, you’re none the wiser about unwestern imaginations. Did they wonder about the changing seasons? Do they understand what’s happening to their earth, or are they too scared to have a coherent thought?
The cast changes but the story remains the same: the fight between Good and Evil is always inside the moral arc of the west. When the west succeeds it is because the west uniquely progressive and capable of assimilating criticism and dissent. When the west fails, it is temporary because the west is uniquely progressive and capable of assimilating criticism and dissent. There’s a magic wand at its core that waves all troubles away.
It’s this western liberal order that’s supposed to save us from fascism, climate collapse and bad daytime TV.
The Sun Rises in the West
The west’s lasting propaganda has been how it is the universal origin of utopias and dystopias, especially those at a planetary scale, the motto being “genocide and civilize.” The brainwashing has worked well — whether Star Trek or 1984, the only acceptable global imagination is western and the only institutions with universal reach are western. No wonder an organization called “The United Nations” has four out of its five permanent members and most of its head offices in Euro-America. Then there’s the constant struggle over whether capitalism is better than socialism or socialism better than capitalism without asking why our social imaginations stop with these two ideas.
If pushed, a liberal intellectual will admit that a Yanomami tribal has their own ontology, their own idea of freedom, their own carving of the universe at its joints, but that appreciation stops at the boundaries of the Amazon. Closer to my home, a Naomi Klein might appreciate Gandhi as an emissary for peace, but she would never consider reading Hind Swaraj as a blueprint for addressing the economic structures of the world. Earth saving agreements are still signed in Paris by men in suits.
Innovation as usual assumes that answers to our prayers will come from the social imagination of London and New York, the intellectual imagination of Cambridge and Oxford and the technological imagination of Silicon Valley or their subsidiaries in Beijing and Bangalore. We continue to write books like the Anthropocene Project:
Williston identifies that we are now in ‘the human age’-the Anthropocene-but he argues that this is no mere geological marker. It is instead best viewed as the latest permutation of an already existing moral and political project rooted in Enlightenment values. The author shows that it can be fruitful to do climate ethics with this focus because in so many aspects of our culture we already endorse broadly Enlightenment values about progress, equality, and the value of knowledge.
That, in essence, is everything I find disagreeable in this world, for the idea that the the “European Enlightenment” (I can’t utter that phrase without sniggering) is uniquely devilish and uniquely angelic continues to set the boundaries of the acceptable. Liberal multiculturalism (or even multispeciesism) is utterly inadequate — we have to recognize the real differences and not subsume them under a creaking propaganda machinery.
So let me start with a different premise: the time for western leadership is long gone, including the leadership of brown and black men in suits. We don’t need more intersectionality and inclusivity or more black and brown representation in the race to save the earth. Or some other progressive slogan. Every framing of our earthly condition within modern political, moral and scientific institutional structures should be demolished. If you have any remaining doubts:
Human rights: wrong.
United Nations: wrong.
Stand with Science: wrong.
We don’t need the leadership of the heterodox-orthodox, the Chomskys, Foucaults and Kleins. I don’t doubt the subtlety of their thoughts or their courage but they are our peers and followers, not our leaders. They accept the guilt of the imperium but continue to reinforce the unique universality of western ideas and ideals.
We can no longer accept that position.
I do have a sneaking sympathy for the dregs of western academia, the anthropologists, cultural theorists, cognitive linguists, animal studies scholars and Science and Technology Studies “anthropologists of the modern” who work in grantless cubicles with no prospect of tenure because they dare train their critical eyes on a system that claims to capture everyone else in its gaze. Everything else being equal, if articulating an unwestern position gets you ridiculed in the New York Times, banishes you from Harvard or systematically excludes you from NSF funding, you must be doing something right.
Then there are the truly heterodox such as Blake, Thoreau, Uexkull, Naess, Lovelock, Maturana, Alexander and others who saw the machine as it was growing in strength and wanted nothing to do with it. They are western shamans, the anti-prometheans. With their help we can still access the world beyond the machine while retaining our commitment to truth.
You might respond: isn’t the universality of the west true in practice, if not in theory? Isn’t the Indian constitution based on similar western documents? Isn’t China ruled by a communist party? For pragmatic reasons, global accords use concepts that have global reach and only the descendants of the European enlightenment are so blessed. Yeah, but where do those blessings come from? What underlies the energy and vigor of their spread? What structures help it replicate and propagate? I believe there’s a simple answer to these questions: it’s a Ponzi scheme.
Therefore, instead of calling it enlightenment, let’s give it a different name: Ponzism, i.e., a way of thinking that spreads by bringing new suckers into the pyramid — and a much larger strata of new victims below the suckers- until the matrix collapses under its own contradictions. Bernie Madoff didn’t set off to rob people at gunpoint — as every budding ponzist will tell you, opening a bank is a better way of making money off other people than robbing a bank. In the same way, our fossil-fuel burning, factory-farm eating human peaksterism is driven by a vision of flourishing.
Therein lies the problem. We often hear that the underlying problem is greed, especially organized capitalist greed. Greed is surely destructive, but I think it’s not only the negative side of humanity that’s the problem. It’s the positive side too. It’s not the thugs and crooks I am worried about, but the dreamers and leaders. Through them, we have inherited a false self-understanding of humanity and what it means to have a good life.
To reiterate the obvious, the end of history wasn’t meant to be a negative outcome: it assumed that liberal democracy, globalization of trade and finance were good things. Unlike naked power grabs, ponzism is seductive. It portrays a city on the hill where fully furnished apartments are available to those willing to pay a price. That’s why ponzism feels good in the short term and even in the medium term. It’s only in the long run that we see the effects of the ponzi scheme, first on the suckers and then on the winners.
The losers, of course, feel it from the beginning.
But what’s the alternative? I don’t know. A structure that’s infiltrated everything from cells to societies is bound to be complex; just describing the contours of ponzism will occupy my energies for a while. Ponzism is like an aging king who can only survive by sucking the blood of young children. Better to let him die a peaceful death and birth a new networked and fluid world.
By the way, there’s no running away from ponzism to some wholesome repository of ancient wisdom. I can’t speak for other parts of the world, but India is (literally — 100,000 + farmer suicides a year) at the bleeding edge of ponzism, which we have taken to with a vengeance. That’s because we were trained well. Indians have a long acquaintance with ponzism; or rather, Charles Ponzi had a much more dangerous predecessor in India: Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Note: Macaulay’s colonial and postcolonial legacy is a complicated topic, and I may say more about Macaulay further in this series.
If you want your questions answered now, Aseem’s wonderful essay will tell you all you need to know, but for my purposes, it’s enough to acknowledge that Macaulay was successful beyond the dreams of avarice. Post-liberalizationshining Indians are perhaps the biggest sucker class in the world — desperate to get into the ponzi scheme, destructive of everything valuable in their own traditions while claiming to save them from the foreign hand, vengeful and close-minded without any creativity or aesthetic impulse whatsoever. Here’s an interview that captures the desi ponzi mindset. The man wants to make India into a great power; reading his wisdom tells us how ponzism spreads its poison through the dual pincers of the State and the Market.
Fortunately for my work and unfortunately for the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, we have the opportunity to see ponzism take charge in real time in shining India — the first phase has already been completed and we are now in phase two — the Empire Strikes Back stage of ponzist development. Or should I say the Empire State Building stage of ponzist development. Exhibit A in desi ponzism is UB City in central Bangalore. Looks a lot like a certain building in New York city doesn’t it? Except that it was built seventy five years after the original and is 1/3rd the height of the NYC landmark.
That’s the ambition of desi ponzism — “Make in India” a century too late and one third as big.
There was the briefest period of introspection after the second world war before ponzism took charge once again. As Europe lay in ruins at the end of the second world war, decolonization started in earnest, the horrors of the gas chambers and the nuclear bomb turned the dream of scientific and technological progress into a nightmare and people throughout the world began their journey towards self-determination.
I think ponzism would have collapsed if the United States hadn’t emerged as a hegemonic power with an attractive narrative, the “American Way of Life”. Starting in the 1950s, it became possible once again to believe in progress and enlightenment, powered by fossil fuels of course, or the hand-me-down version of progress in what was then a newly coined term “Third World Development.”
Thirst for carbon defines post-war Ponzism, a thirst that turned into a flood when the cold war ended and China came into the American system.
Fine, but isn’t all of that in the past of the enlightenment? Isn’t the new regime of universal human rights and sustainable development truly better? Isn’t a future filled with solar panels and electric cars the real end of history?
It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Every thinking person acknowledges some version of the anthropocene and the dangers of climate change but in the very next breath leading scientists and policy makers endorse responses that reek of the mentality that brought us to this pass. For example, here’s a danger we might want to address before it’s too late: why is it that geoengineering is increasingly becoming the go-to solution for runaway climate change? The answer is simple as soon as we recognize the ponzist frame: it’s the cognitive character of ponzism to propose cures worse than the disease.
Sooner or later, the response to the earth striking back at our greed will be to try to control it even more completely.
I have no doubt that ponzism will seek to turn this latest crisis to its advantage — a stockpile of green utopias and dystopias is being built in preparation for the next transition in which data replaces oil and algorithms replace machines as the main engines of ponzism. The green ponzi is the culmination of colonialism:
First step: imperial colonization
Second step: globalized colonization
Third and final step: anthropocratic colonization
Imperial colonization ended with the second world war. Globalization was prepped during the cold war but it was unleashed in full force after the Soviet Union fell apart. Now we know globalization is dead — the election of Trump killed an ailing beast — so the only way to propagate ponzism is by turning the dial to green. We see new rhetorics emerging as ponzism attempts the transition to a global “sustainable” regime — a typical example is the slogan “it’s not about polar bears, it’s about people.”
The shift from eurocentrism to globalization to sustainable planetary management clarifies the theology of Aiag — it’s ultimately an account of human nature with the rest of nature revolving around it like a Ptolemaic sun. The modern system claims to have unshackled itself from the anthropocentric superstitions of the past but in fact it’s being revealed as the most anthropocentric system ever created.
An anthropocentric system powered by fossil fuels. However, ponzism is ready to ditch its allegiance to fossil fuels — while claiming to be terrified of the anthropocene, green ponzism desires to replicate and strengthen its anthropocentric bias. Unfortunately, the ponzist account of human nature is overripe — it’s rotting from within as well as without. We have to turn to the metaphysics of energy in order to understand that rot.
The entire edifice of left-right/human rights/capital-social/I’m so liberal belongs to the past, for even the good parts are products of fossil fueled societies. Let me say that one more time: fossil fuels power the mental energy behind ponzism so that the social imagination of liberal democracy and human rights is as much a product of despoiling the earth as Exxon Valdez.
Our fossil fuel powered civilization is an unstable pyramid. McNeill has keenly spotted that the pyramid is predatory while protecting its instabilities.
These aren’t new facts; but as they say, “it works well in practice, but does it work in theory?” While the empirical investigator looks at the trends in energy use and supply, the theorist wonders whether those energy trends come with a tacit account of human nature. And if so, what’s that account of human nature and what does it mean when human nature falls apart?
Do I believe that ponzism is our dominant vision of human nature, a vision that’s been put into practice throughout the world? Yes I do.
Do I believe that the ponzi scheme is tottering? Yes I do.
What comes next? It’s very hard to predict, especially the future.
The empirical scholar — McNeill being one, Ian Morris’ “Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels” being another — works out the relationship between energy sources and social and political institutions. It’s undoubtedly exciting to trace the history of society, and the history of politics and ethics through the lens of energy. But is there a deeper relationship? Is there an intrinsic relationship between an energy regime and the social furniture of the universe? I think so — and therefore, we must investigate the metaphysics of energy.
Consider the strength of climate denial in the US; it’s no surprise that the US is also the world’s biggest ecological shark. But the ecological shark label doesn’t tell us why the resistance to climate change is so deep or why it’s expressed in laughably irrational ways. Why are people so caught up in the fossil economy? I can understand the rational calculations behind the Exxon CEO denying their impact on climate, but why are people rising out of the woodwork and lashing out at those who want to replace their gas guzzlers with electric trucks? These are questions of ontology as much as of psychology.
The Ground and the Figure
Let’s come back to where we started: why is the nonhuman world absent in discussions of climate justice? Let me answer that question by asking another: who has been the biggest loser of the Aiag theology of the industrial revolution?
Before machines took over, labor was as much animal as human. Horses pulled carriages, oxen pulled ploughs and so on. Mechanization finished off the blue-collar animal for good and since liberal politics has no room for non-humans, there was no rhetoric that cows and horses and pigs freed of drudgery will now lead lives of luxury. Instead, they were carted off to factory farms where they lead lives of unmitigated misery.
If I was a cow, I would welcome climate catastrophe as the only way of ending the human yoke, just as a colonized Asian or African would have welcomed the mutual orgy of European violence in the second world war as the only way of ending the imperial yoke.
There’s this Grist piece that says we should be feeding cows more oregano to prevent them from farting, seeing as methane from cow farts are one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Since Americans can’t live without their burgers, the only way to solve the emissions problem is to put cows on a diet. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone invents a violent anal-raping machine that extracts cow methane at the source and the contraption is hailed as an earth saving device.
Factory farms are among the biggest sources of carbon emissions and the solution is to shut them down entirely rather than find technological fixes for their effluents. Here’s where you see Ponzism at its peak — for the absence of concern for the inhabitants of factory farms is a cognitive feat, a reversal of the usual relationship between figure and ground.
Normally, if I am walking towards a beautiful painting in a room filled with sunlight, I will pay more attention to the painting and less attention to the dust particles dancing in Brownian motion. Unless we reverse the figure-ground relationship and view the dancing particles as the object of interest and the painting merely the background for the dance.
That’s because in all of our senses, we find it easy to focus on visible objects and have trouble paying attention to their context. With climate change, it’s the opposite: there’s an enormous international system geared to track what’s otherwise invisible. We find it easy to protest the silent release of carbon into our atmosphere and track its movements from day to day. In contrast, there’s almost no infrastructure to track the completely visible (and hearable and smellable) suffering imposed on the 56 billion farm animals killed for human consumption every year. There’s no Paris protocol against factory farming. Trump can’t gain any extra votes in Michigan by striking down an international treaty to end the farming of cows.
It is as if — and I know the comparison is loaded — the people of Germany complained day in and day out about the pollution from the gas chambers without asking what’s happening within them. Factory farming is as much a product of the fossil fuel age as Hummers are, down to the copycat design of the car assembly line based on slaughterhouses in the midwest. Then why is factory farming the neglected twin, despite being attached at the hip to climate change? Because we have a selective interest in the affairs of this planet and ponzism cleverly exploits that attention deficit disorder.
In summary, we aren’t trying to stop climate change or end inequality or save the planet. As the term “Anthropocene” suggests quite explicitly, the real problem is colonialism with a human face.
Post 1945 ponzist colonization has spread beyond the west; well beyond the human world in fact. All in the name of “human welfare” or “development.” In this new regime, all human beings are in the sucker class and every other creature on this planet is a victim. That’s the real meaning of the term “anthropocene,” which should be renamed anthroponzi.
Let’s admit it: ponzism suckered us into buying the nation-market dream.
What does the complete colonization of the earth mean for us? Who will help us digest that reality? The climate crisis isn’t just a crisis of economy or society, but also of science and philosophy. Ponzism’s intellectual basis was fed by springs constructed by Hobbes-Descartes-Hume-Kant-Hegel-Darwin-Marx — — — and it’s time to go drink somewhere else.
We know ponzism is a failed civilization — it can only survive by increasing the number of suckers and multiplying the number of victims by an even greater number. It’s unlikely we will succeed in changing its course before it devours the earth but at least we can identify the problem for what it is. Lenin wrote a prescient book in response to an earlier ponzist era, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” Lenin was right, but he underestimated the underlying ponzist energies. It’s time to update Lenin’s book with a new title: “Anthropocene: the Highest Stage of Ponzism.” To wit:
Ponzism is a colonizing force.
The anthropocene is ponzism claiming all of humanity as its investor class — anthropocene = anthroponzi.
The struggle to save the earth is a continuation of anti-colonial struggles, except that the colonizers aren’t only in the west and most of the victims aren’t human.
If the ponzism hypothesis is correct, we have to adopt a very different attitude towards the world we live in. For example, it means that terms like social justice have to be radically transformed if not entirely abandoned, for what is society if not yet another manifestation of the human bubble? Addressing anthroponzism and the transition out of the metaphysics of the fossil fueled world is the key task of anti-colonialism today. Let me end with a quote from Marisol de la Cadena’s “Indigenous Politics”:
In Latin America indigenous politics has been branded as “ethnic politics.” Its activism is interpreted as a quest to make cultural rights prevail. Yet, what if “culture” is insufficient, even an inadequate notion, to think the challenge that indigenous politics represents? Drawing inspiration from recent political events in Peru — and to a lesser extent in Ecuador and Bolivia — where the indigenous–popular movement has conjured sentient entities (mountains, water, and soil — what we call “nature”) into the public political arena, the argument in this essay is threefold. First, indigeneity, as a historical formation, exceeds the notion of politics as usual, that is, an arena populated by rational human beings disputing the power to represent others vis-à-vis the state. Second, indigeneity’s current political emergence — in oppositional antimining movements in Peru and Ecuador, but also in celebratory events in Bolivia — challenges the separation of nature and culture that underpins the prevalent notion of politics and its according social contract. Third, beyond “ethnic politics” current indigenous movements, propose a different political practice, plural not because of its enactment by bodies marked by gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality (as multiculturalism would have it), but because they conjure nonhumans as actors in the political arena.
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?
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.
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:
A sign that the human question is important once again and
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.
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.
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.