Subversive Intelligence

Another great picture done with the iPhone X Portrait mode.  This was a rescued bird at the Texas State Aquarium.  The majesty of these animals is unmatched.
Photographer: James Lee | Source: Unsplash

If you read or watch any mainstream media source that deals with facts instead of imaginary threats, you will notice the constant invocation of two civilizational threats: automation and climate change. This is mainstream media btw, not leftie radical sources; you know we are in a genuine crisis when hunks on TV look you in the eye and say we are all going to die.

AI and climate change: one economic, the other ecologic. One taking our jobs and the other destroying our home. I believe the two are actually the same, the worldly reflection of the platonic duality between information and energy. Unfortunately, while the mainstream is beginning to recognize the seriousness of our situation, they aren’t willing to take the necessary steps to adapt and flourish in the new world that’s being born.

The threat is recognized by the radicals knocking on the mainstream’s door: it’s increasingly common to say we need systems change. But who is going to do it and what skills are needed to do so? I find that even the most trenchant critic of the current system has conventional views on how it needs to be transformed: they say we need a radical transformation of our societies, but they assume that we already have the skills to do so; we only need powerful obstacles to get out of the way and let the innate intelligence of people, especially young people, to emerge out of the shadows.

That’s a romantic thought but a false one. We need to cultivate a form of subversive intelligence that is attuned to the changing conditions. That cultivation needs conscious, collective effort.

What form should that subversive intelligence take?

I have some thoughts on that matter and I have even written about it on other occasions though it’s only today that I am using the term “subversive intelligence” to describe the mindsets we need to cultivate. Here are a couple:

  1. The Design of Knowledge
  2. The Software Eaten World

Here are some more readings — that’s a continuously updated list.

Take those writings and readings with a grain of salt though; chances are much of what we read today will be flawed in its presentation of the world to come, just as the writers of the early industrial era couldn’t have predicted our capacity to order a computer from China with a click or two.

Take that uber-pinko Karl Marx. He started writing his famous book in the early days of capitalism. According to that canonical source of truth, i.e., Wikipedia, James Watt’s steam engine was invented between 1763 and 1775. Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. In other words, somewhere between 85 and 73 years after the steam engine. Meanwhile, the first functioning electronic computer, i.e., ENIAC, was first completed in 1945, so we are 73 years past the deployment of that technology. Why am I saying this? When Marx and Engels wrote their pamphlet, industrial capitalism was just beginning to show its impact on England and Europe. 1848 was also the year of the social unrest across Europe but it was a long ways away from two worlds wars, several revolutions, decolonization and all the other consequences of the mechanical age. Nevertheless, they were right in pointing out that industrial capitalism was a really big deal and that it would change the world.

Similarly, we are at a relatively early stage in the development of intelligent capitalism, i.e., capitalism powered by information and machine learning. Not so coincidentally, we are also at an early stage of panic over climate change and ecological collapse more broadly. The two go together. We may or may not agree with Marx’s vision, but he was absolutely right (and he wasn’t alone in saying so) in pointing out that the real impact of industrial capitalism wasn’t in the new gadgets and gizmos that enter our lives but in the social relations transformed through this influx. Global capitalist society is nothing like the pre-industrial societies it has replaced.

Intelligent capital will cause an equally dramatic shift in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even as individual gadgets come and go. Some of the symptoms of this shift are already upon us: we know surveillance is going to be big, automation bigger and climate change is going to be huge.

What else?

For one, it’s not just social relations that will change in this time. Natural relations, i.e., the relationship between humans and other beings on earth and also the relations between the other beings themselves will also change. Actually, natural relations have already changed. What else do we mean by the anthropocene? What does it mean when the majority of the world’s land area is being used for agriculture?

I think it’s only a matter of time before we consider all earthly activities as part of the human system, which is to say that the earth system and the human system are increasingly going to merge. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Before we rush to judgment, let’s first try to understand the levers that control these systemic changes.

Really. I have resolutely left-wing sympathies, but the honest thing is to understand this new condition before passing judgment, especially if our long-term goal is to shine a crystal ball on the future and in doing so, unleash genuinely transformative forces. But that’s a ways away.

Some more snippets:

– Life in knowledge societies is mediated by flows of information and the networks that host those flows. It’s impossible to imagine making a simple widget without information mediation, let alone a complex product like a phone or an airplane. It’s equally impossible to imagine life without constant sharing of personal data and constant surveillance by corporations and nation states. Information technologies are technologies of living par excellence.

– In fact, no Stalinist state has ever had the level of intrusion in people’s lives that we see today being willingly shared and aggregated via social media. Informational life spawns many worries such as:

  1. The Future of Work: some are worried that robots will take our jobs. Others are worried that capitalists will use the threat of automation to reduce wages in the few jobs that remain.
  2. Full Spectrum Surveillance: that our lives are monitored and monetized second by second and further, surveillance fragments our working lives so that we can work for Uber in the morning and Walmart in the afternoon.
  3. Inequality Amplification: we are less likely to have data about the needs of underprivileged and marginal communities and people in those communities are even less likely to have the skills to make use of that data. Data poverty threatens to combine with larger concerns over automation to increase inequality.

Let’s not forget the utopian imaginations of abundance, of a life devoted to creation and enjoyment as machines perform all the drudgery. We can’t discount the power of this artificial city on the hill. If AI and Data spawn apocalyptic and utopian visions, we need a liberation theology to bring that vision to the people. That’s the driving ambition of subversive intelligence.


The Great Unsettling


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.

Climate Reality
Photographer: Patrick Hendry | Source: Unsplash


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?

Settler Humanity

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.


Computing Climate Change

Photographer: Markus Spiske | Source: Unsplash

In my previous essay, I arrived at an unoriginal idea: that the computer is a mental telescope through which we can view the world. I didn’t say the universe is a computer because that would be really unoriginal but more importantly, because I am not interested in the universe. I am interested in the world, or more accurately, worlds, the personal and collective realities experienced by humans and other creatures.

To be honest, my love for the world can be traced to the German word for it: umwelt. If you tell someone you are interested in the world, they are likely to look at you funny but if you tell them you’re a weltist, and suddenly you are halfway important. I make worlds for a living, what about you?

Back to the mental telescope: now that I have a hammer, I am looking for nails.

Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

I am reading Paul Edwards’ wonderful book on the role of computer models in the creation of climate science. There are many many things to say about the book. If I have the time, I might review the book in detail one day, but for now, let me stick to the main insight I gleaned from reading the tome: all the structures of modern climate science are products of the computer era. Obviously true for the data collected in observatories and sensors across the world and the computer models that crunch that data, but less obviously so for the international organizations created to make sense of that data and the political controversies surrounding the impact of global warming.

Don’t believe me? Consider two pieces of evidence:

  1. The IPCC report.
  2. The main line of criticism: climate change is “only a theory.”

The White Space of Truth

Click on the link to the IPCC report, check out the summary for policy makers and if you’re feeling really masochistic, download the PDF and read it. And then step back and ask yourself: how come I am able to access years of work by a network of scientists across the world with a click of a button? Do you think any of this would have been possible without the internet?

Computing via design has also changed our perception of reliability and truthfulness. This is what the IPCC website used to look like:

IPCC website October 2018

I am not talking about 1995. This is what the website looked like in October 2018 when the IPCC released the blockbuster 1.5° C report. It’s as if the scientists intoned to themselves: “we are in the business of producing the truth and we don’t care how it looks.” When I first downloaded the 1.5° C report, the document was clearly a PDFed word document. Yes, the future of the planet depends on the design sensibilities of Bill Gates.

Here’s how the website looks like today:

IPCC website April 2019

They must have hired a UX consultant: clean layout, lot’s of white space, readable fonts. The new design sensibility is reflected in the report as well; it’ no longer a PDFed word document. Bill Gates has morphed into Steve Jobs.

What’s my point?

The IPCC report is an artifact of the computer era: its manufacture and distribution follows the patterns of knowledge production in the 21st century. Truth needs the facts, but it also needs a feeling: in the age of alternative facts, any vehicle of the truth should feel trustworthy and accessible. White space and clean lines promote trustworthiness and accessibility. The shift in design sensibilities reflects a new awareness of the terrain the report inhabits: that it’s inherently a political document and therefore must seduce its readers as much as it conveys the facts.

It’s Only a Theory

The US right wing pioneered a line of critique that one might call “it’s only a theory,” first to dispute evolution and then to cast doubt on anything that endangered the bottomline of their capitalist masters: smoking, pollution, climate change. The doubters recognize that everyone believes two things:

  1. Math
  2. Facts

If a claim is deductively true (or appears close to being so) everyone believes it. If a claim can be directly verified, everyone believes it. This is not the place to ask about the meaning of “deductively,” “verify” and “belief.” I will pretend as if these are terms that you may not be able to define but you know a case of deduction, verification or belief when you see it.

Magical science happens when 1 and 2 above combine seamlessly. Physics manages to make that happen every once in a while. The General Theory of Relativity is a good example: Einstein himself proposed three tests of the theory that followed directly from his theoretical principles and in 1919 the bending of light was directly verified to Einstein’s everlasting fame. Theoretical physics of the Einsteinian variety is a priestly science: rational magic that dazzles the faithful.

In comparison, climate science is a proletarian discipline, grounded in thousands of data collection efforts and an even larger number of computer models. Unlike General Relativity which sprung unaided from the mind of a genius, climate science exposes its innards to the world. Like other entrails, the sight isn’t pretty. The data sets are noisy. They are in different, incompatible formats. Ocean acidity measurements collect one kind of data. Air temperature readings collect another kind of data. Historical records are full of gaps. Similarly, the computer models have to simplify the real world in order to be tractable. You need higher order models to calculate whether the simplifications of the lower order models omit important parameters. The edifice is laid one brick at a time. Infinite regress looms on the horizon. Both the facts and the models are manufactured with great effort.

Climate Science is an archetype of the late twentieth century-early twenty first century knowledge economy where the widget is manufactured via the labor of thousands (if not millions) of unknown workers, mediated by computing devices and managed by large multinational institutions that not only have a marketing and sales budget, marketing and sales may be as important as manufacture.

It’s not romantic science but it’s eminently useful and eminently political. That’s a big part of what the computer is doing to knowledge.

No different from Google.


The Climate of Conservatism

Every day we hear about how Republicans deny climate change and how their racism drives their immigration policies.

What if the two were one and the same? After all, since they are in power, they are privy to national security assessments of climate change related impacts — more so than the opposition — and shooting at caravans is a rational response for racists under such circumstances.

I find the division between climate deniers and science backed progressives useless at best and dangerous at worst.

A historical comparison shows why. A hundred years ago, as it became clear that industrial capitalism was here to stay and it was changing societies at breakneck speed, workers started organizing for their share of the new wealth.

At that time too, there were “deniers,” i.e., people who denied the rights of workers to organize and protest. In other words, unionize. The deniers weren’t really denying the truth of the new system that had come into being; instead, their denial was really an assent of a vicious response to the needs of workers.

To be a denier in 1918 (give or take a few years) was to be a backer of fascism via Mussolini and Hitler. Why do we expect this time to be any different? Anyone who sees the world clearly recognizes that massive changes are afoot. The only question is how to react to these changes.

The election of Bolsonaro & Trump, the ubiquity of surveillance, the demonization of immigration and minorities and so on are better read as the conservative response to climate change — and world change more broadly — than as a return to some medieval or tribal values.

They are reading history as well or better than progressives are; it’s just that they’re choosing to respond differently.


Stop Comparing Climate Change to the Second World War

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Patriotic War

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

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

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

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

One War among Many

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

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

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

Soft Power

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

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

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

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

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

The Energy Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Followership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle then goes on to say:

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

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

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


Planetarity: the ABCs of our planetary future

TL;DR: Planetarity == Solidarity with all beings on this planet. If that piques your interest, read on….

On January 1st, I took on the minor ambition of reimagining our planetary condition as my new year’s resolution. It’s best seen as a counter-revolutionary manifesto. Wait, what? You didn’t think we were living under a revolutionary regime, did you? You would be right in thinking so if you only heard our great leaders, but don’t pay attention to what they say and ask what they (and we) do and have been doing for the last two hundred years. Industrial society is a revolutionary regime headed by the Carbon Liberation Front, aka the People’s Republic of Exxon, Aramco and Gazprom.

Trotsky wanted us to live in a permanent communist revolution, but the liberation of the proletariat is nothing compared to the liberation of carbon, which is the one liberation theology that unites socialists, communists, capitalists, fascists and every other istist. Unfortunately, the carbon revolution is running out of gas (and steam). What comes next?

We are entering an era of existential politics, where the current obsessions of government such as taxes are going to be replaced by the elemental obsessions of air, water, food & climate. That thought entered my head about a year ago. A few months later, when I read David Wallace-Wells’ spectacular piece of climate pornography and learned that it was the most shared article in the history of New York Magazine, it struck me that I am not the only person in the world thinking about existential politics. Every hurricane, every fire and every drought increases the ranks of my fellow travelers. It’s only a matter of time when instead of worrying about Russian spying we will start worrying about oceans eating away our lands — we should be doing so already, but soon we will be forced to do so.

We aren’t used to inviting oceans into the senate but the survival of the human species depends on a politics that embraces the non-human world.

Don’t we know that already? Isn’t the interrelation of all beings the oldest Indian insight that’s been tweeted by every new age guru in the world? Yes, but there’s a new twist: the interrelation of all beings has left the concert grounds of Woodstock and is on its way to the halls of power and money. We are at the cusp of organizing a planetary liberation struggle.

I don’t need to tell you that a politics in which oceans and glaciers get a vote will be radically different from our current one. Existential politics will completely transform our idea of society; in fact, I think we will need to rework the basic categories through which we experience the social — history, freedom, production and most importantly, the category human.

What happens when the human bubble bursts. In any case, shouldn’t we be poking it until it does?

I am of two minds here.

Yin says: if humans are a geological force as the anthropocenic scientists claim, the natural is being assimilated into the social.

Yang responds: if human survival is at stake because of climate collapse, the social is being assimilated into the natural.

So what’s the right image: is the earth a giant factory or is the revenge of Gaia upon us? My gut says both images are true and my head adds that we can’t answer such questions systematically. In fact, we don’t even have the right terms in which to formulate an answer.

I consider that lack of categories to be a challenge rather than a problem: it’s exciting to imagine a radical expansion of the political to include earthworms and sheep along with blue collar laborers in Michigan and subsistence farmers in Madhya Pradesh. While we continue to write history as if it were that of humans alone (and until recently, of certain human cultures alone), the actual story of our times has always been more than human. While Earth-huggers have been talking about the intrinsic value of the non-human world for decades, now the expansion of the political sphere can be motivated on hard-edged grounds as well (see halls of power above). If you don’t believe me, consider that a few centuries ago, only kings were considered sovereign but now, throughout the world, we take for granted (in principle, if not in practice) that people are sovereign.

Why did that happen?

The transition from kingdoms to democracies is certainly a sign of moral progress, but it’s also a necessity — you simply can’t run a modern society along feudal lines: the changes in production, trade and consumption necessitated a new kind of society with an altered distribution of power. Similarly, the dramatic shifts we are seeing now necessitate a transition.

A transition to what?

Answer: to a planetary politics based on solidarity across species boundaries, a planetarity. Don’t ask me what planetarity is, I am not going to give away the season in the pilot 🙂 Instead, let me introduce the ABCs, the three planetary themes that I will be tracking throughout:

  1. A for Animals: we can’t talk about the politics of the planet without talking about how we treat our fellow planetarians, which is to say, horrendously. Our treatment of animals, especially in factory farms, is easily the greatest moral failure of human society. On the flip side, expanding political rights to the nonhuman world is a key marker of planetarity.
  2. B for Brains: if physical machines and the factories that housed them marked the transition from a feudal to the industrial society, then planetary politics will be marked by intelligent machines and the networks that house them along with their biological counterparts.
  3. C for Climate: many of my friends like to think of climate change as a moral crisis — civilization as we know it is about to end! what are we going to do about it! — but my view is that the moral crisis lies elsewhere, i.e., in our treatment of the nonhuman world. Instead, climate change is a human crisis that points out the limits of the complexity that can be handled by our current socio-technical systems.

There are plenty of people who think of each one of these themes separately; animal rights activists, roboticists and climate scientists come to mind, but my goal is to juxtapose them.

Why so?

Well, for one, because they are actually related; to give just one thread connecting the three, note that whatever machines and automation have done to human labor, they have completely destroyed animal labor, so if we want to understand what machines might do post intelligent automation, we might want to look at what mechanization did to animals. And of course, it’s the exhaust from these machines (including the methane coming from mechanized factory farms) that’s the underlying cause of climate change.

Second, each one of these themes adds a lens that illuminates the other two; for example, what if we look at climate change primarily from the point of view of the non-human world, might it start looking like a good thing? I am sure the end of human civilization will be applauded by the billions of pigs and chickens who live out their lives in crates the size of their bodies before they are slaughtered. Why shouldn’t we be taking their side? Extending political and moral rights to the non-human world can be justified on hard-edged grounds, a strategy the animal rights world can learn from the climate action world.

Third, drawing out the connections between these three helps us understand the planetary system in the Anthropocene, for it has many moving parts and no single theme can hope to capture the complexities of the system. In fact, the political embrace of the planet is the greatest complex system challenge of all time and should be of interest to scholars and thinkers for that reason alone. Just as the genesis of the modern nation state went hand in hand with the collection of statistics (and spurred much of its development), the planetarity of the future will go hand in hand with the development of big data and associated machine learning techniques.

If there’s one place where the three themes come together in an orgy of evil, it’s the modern factory farm: animals engineered to be automatons, living a life of ubiquitous surveillance and unchecked violence with the flatulence from all that misery warming the planet as a whole.

If there’s one place that planetarity has to destroy, it’s the factory farm.

PS: By the way, I am not talking about planetarity as a holist — no forest and tree metaphors were harmed in the production of this article. These three themes — they aren’t the only ones of course — aren’t like three blind men and a planetary elephant. There’s no seamless transition from one to the other. However, there is productive insight to be obtained by focusing on each theme individually, seeing where they cohere and where they clash with the other two and finally in noticing what lies beyond all three.

Or so I think. More accurately, or so I imagine, for what follows is as much speculation as analysis; after all, I am trying to peer past a veil that hides a mutation. I might imagine sensing the world through an earthworm’s skin or giving those earthworms a vote (of some kind); there’s more than a little bit of fiction science to be found here.

Originally published at