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Samsara

Settled Unsettling

Leave taking

I have always wondered why the Buddha left his wife and child and went into the forest. The usual explanations are pretty patriarchal aren’t they, e.g.,
– that he was escaping from the bonds that tie us to this earthly life.
– Attachment brings suffering. etc.

Here’s how that story is told: A sensitive young man is brought up in the lap of luxury. He is the favored child of his father, who doesn’t want him to be exposed to the cruel ways of reality. A new father, he goes for a ride with his charioteer, and is exposed to disease, deprivation and death. What does he do? He goes back home, takes leave of his sleeping wife and child and heads off to the forest, to meditate and to end the cycle of suffering. Six hard years of practice and asceticism later, he becomes the Buddha, the Tathagatha, the Enlightened one.

Something does not compute.

Why would a sensitive man, a royal to boot, flee upon seeing disease and deprivation? Why not stay and work for the welfare of his subjects? I know that his father was not a king but the tribal chief of a republic but still, Siddhartha had the mandate to change the world and not just study it.

Further, why did Siddhartha leave his family? No royal personage has ever had childcare responsibilities. When was the last time you saw the Dalai Lama changing diapers? How many religions have been founded by women leaving their families behind?

Tennis on the Outside

There’s also the possibility he never went into the forest. My mother wanted me to play tennis. I wanted to play cricket. So I used to wear my tennis uniform every evening, walk around the corner and take a long detour to the park where my friends were putting bat to ball. Tennis on the outside, cricket on the inside. Everyone was happy.

Perhaps the Buddha also switched cricket for tennis, and went to study theater at the Pataliputra School of Arts and came back six years later with a dramatically better ability to deliver his lines. Or perhaps he was struggling to write a PhD thesis on Postvedic studies. Six years is about the time it takes to get a doctorate and it’s easy enough to confuse passing one’s defense for Nirvana.

Settled Unsettling

We can’t really imagine what it’s like to escape civilization. Maybe there’s a place or two in the Amazon or the forests of Borneo where you can check out of Hotel California, but most of us can’t leave. Settler civilization is a world spanning enterprise.

In contrast, the Buddha’s world was still learning the ways of settler humanity. The forest started at the outskirts of the city, sometimes right in the middle. Which also means that alternatives to settlements were right there, requiring no more than an hour or two of walking.

We are taught the Buddhist path as a series of insights into the nature of reality: impermanence, dependent origination etc, but in human terms, the greatest achievement might have been the creation of the Sangha, the first major monastic tradition in the world.

What does it mean to create an institution around traveling monks?

It’s a strange combination. Large scale institution building is a settler thing; who else would agree upon the rules for coordinating actions of people who don’t see each other? But the early forest monks, including the Buddha, were unsettlers by definition. In combining the rule making of institutionalized life and the leave-taking of forest life, the Sangha created an interface between the settled world and the unsettled world, an existential Narasimha.

Zen takes that merger to the extreme – rigid discipline combined with koan practices of unsettling every belief. People create the most amazing things.

The sangha is an experiment in settled unsettling. But now that experiment has run its course. Capitalism, i.e., the supreme achievement of settler humanity, has absorbed all traditional forms of unsettling: creativity has become innovation, dhyan has become mindfulness.

The only real alternative to settler humanity in the last two hundred years has been politics and revolution, but even that dream is attached to the hip to the nation state, the second most important achievement of settler humanity.

How can we unsettle the state and the market? Which forest will teach us that trick?

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The Great Unsettling

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jayjayrobertson/5724336908

Introduction

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

Apocalypse?

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.

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Every Utopia becomes a Dystopia

A Map of Utopia

I remember Reagan saying to Gorbachev “Tear down this wall.” Sorry, that’s fake news. Or at least white lie news. There’s no way I could have heard a live conference in West Berlin in 1987. It was probably past my bedtime in Delhi. I also have a memory of reading it in some magazine or the other. Perhaps Time. Perhaps Newsweek. Or because it was international news, I might have even read it in an Indian magazine like India Today. Frankly, since the news conference has posthumous fame — after the wall actually fell — there’s a good chance that all my memories are from reading about the event years later. When I say “I remember Reagan saying…,” I mean that the perceived importance of the event combined with my imagination has created a vivid “memory” of an event.

Well, most memory is like that. We don’t store the facts as is; instead we compress and transform every event to suit our needs. Selective understanding is crucial to living a sane life today, when we are deluged with information 24/7.

So what is a true memory?

There’s a famous thought experiment in epistemology called the Gettier paradox. Here’s a version I like:

Imagine you’re watching the 1984 Wimbledon finals with McEnroe facing Connors. Unfortunately, the broadcaster has lost contact with his TV van and doesn’t have a live feed anymore. Someone has a clever idea: why not broadcast a recording of the 1982 final instead which had the same cast?

So you’re watching the 1982 final while thinking you’re watching the 1984 final. In this version Connors wins. You go to sleep thinking Connors has won. Let’s say that Connors won the 1984 final (actually, McEnroe won in 1984; for the record, I supported Connors) and when you open the newspaper in the morning, you read the headline “Connors defeats McEnroe again.”

Your belief that Connors has won is a true belief despite being arrived at via a flawed route. Something is wrong when you can arrive at true beliefs through mistaken means isn’t it? Of course, Gettier’s thought experiment is a contrived situation. How likely is it that exactly the same type of prior event is available as a substitute for an actual one?

Tennis match twins might be hard to find but the use of memories as evidence is all too common — in testimony, in arguments between spouses, in story telling. When I tell the jury that I saw that man pull the trigger, what if never saw him shoot the victim. What if I am combining the knowledge that the man is a known hoodlum, the actual experience of shots being fired and reading headlines in the local newspaper?

Here’s the question: even if the man was the murderer, is my testimony valid? Further, if much testimony is confabulation, is any testimony valid? Especially in a murder trial where the jury is one color and the defendant another? And the final dystopian possibility — what if our social media feeds are full of posts that prime our memories to be one way rather than another. Can we trust our own minds?

I want to explore that internal dystopia in future essays. For example:

can technology help us certify memories? what would a process of certification look like? let’s say it takes the form of “bitcoin meets the brain.” Is that a techno-utopia or a techno-dystopia?

But we aren’t there yet. I am still a few decades behind that brave new world. But it does seem as if every utopia becomes a dystopia sooner or later. And then replaced by the next utopia. Let’s start with 1945. The second world war had just ended. Hundreds of millions dead, entire populations genocided, atom bombs burst.

The Soviet Flag over Berlin

Never again they said. Let’s form the United Nations and give a seat at the table to everyone. Some more prominently than others, i.e., those who were on the winning side of WWII. Decolonization started in earnest; India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, though that utopian moment happened in parallel with its own dystopian partition whose effects we feel to this day.

Anyway, the European powers who brought us two world wars lay defeated; even the victors. In their stead were two confident new powers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Each had its theory of progress, of delivering material prosperity to its citizens and eventually the world. When he said energy will become too cheap to meter we believed him. Unfortunately, that energy can flow smoothly out of an outlet or burn the sky. Even more so if you have ten thousand of them. That’s what led to:

US and Soviet tanks face off

I can’t believe how close the US and the USSR brought us to the end of times, but we were lucky; the nuclear winter never came despite several close runs. And then Reagan came to Berlin and asked that the wall come down. And it did, a couple of years after he asked!

When I first came to the US in the nineties it was an unrivaled power. For twenty plus years, it ruled the world, the most powerful country that has ever existed. It expanded market capitalism everywhere, most prominently in China but also in India. Globalization as we know it is a product of American power. I owe the writing of this essay in a cafe in Bangalore to the fall of the Berlin wall. Yes Brandenburg Gate, No Foxconn.

When 9/11 happened, the headlines across the world were “we are all Americans.” While that headline was meant as a mark of solidarity, it was truer than we think. The world of startups and markets, of Hollywood storytelling. The possibility of progress backed by global networks of influence and immense military power — who doesn’t want that in some form?

Fukuyama’s flawed masterpiece

So much so that it became possible to write a book called “The End of History” which claimed that market driven liberal democracy is the final solution to the problem of political order. In this reading, human history is a series of attempts at prosperity that collapse in violence (Rome, Han China, Gupta India) and we continue to look for a solution that combines peace and power in a manner acceptable to most.

Fukuyama thought that solution was found in 1989. Let’s call it EOH (End of History) liberalism. That we can all ride into the sunset in our Cadillacs.

Who would have thought in 1992 that the most powerful nation in history would elect Trump in 2016, that EOH liberalism would be replaced by ethno-nationalism in every major country in the world? That it would be possible for Vladimir Putin to declare in a recent interview that liberalism has “become obsolete.”

Why did that happen? Is there an intrinsic tendency for a utopian bubble to be succeeded by a dystopian abyss?

I don’t know if there’s a universal principle of that kind, but I believe it’s important to understand the internal and external contradictions that are bursting the EOH bubble. Of which two are the most important:

  1. EOH Liberalism was deployed on networks — of goods and information — and these networks became instruments of concentration and inequality instead of decentralization and democratization that we were promised. Why?
  2. EOH Liberalism hastened the exploitation of the nonhuman world that supports all human life and economic activity. If I may say so, it is a UX designed for easy extraction.

Could we have predicted the two? Yes, and many did, but they weren’t heard loudly enough. Perhaps because we didn’t want to hear what they were saying or perhaps because they weren’t saying it the right way.

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Geocracy

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Institutions

Institutions are the mechanism through which we impose collective order upon our lives. Some institutions are tacit, such as customs, habits and rituals. Why do people in many cultures drink and write with their right hand? Is there a law on the books that says so — usually not. Others are explicit — laws, contracts and constitutions for example.

Some institutions are old: think of the ten commandments; other institutions are new — we are just beginning to understand the institutional structure of social networks and algorithmic judgments.

And of course, the institutions that command our attention are closely tied to the technologies we have on hand. Constitutional rule needs writing. Algorithmic governance requires hypertext and computing.

Written or oral, old or new, inscribed on stone tablets or electronic tablets, institutions have left their mark on history. Every era is associated with its own set of institutions. Aristocracy has the divine right of kings, democracy has parliaments. What comes next?

What era are we in today and what institutions does that era need?

The claim is that we are now living in the anthropocene, an era in which humans are a geological force. While the beginning of the anthropocene is contested, if we take a objective metric such as command over energy and material flows, the anthropocene is a post-world war II development. While we killed off the wooly mammoths well before WWII and agriculture took over large parts of the earth’s surface in the premodern era, we weren’t titans straddling the earth before the development of the military industrial complex.

But I have a problem with the term “Anthropocene.” I understand the reason for calling it so, but geological comparisons have a way of denying agency to humans (and therefore make it much harder to assign responsibility as well). Geological terms also have a way of denying agency to the nonhumans whose fates are now inextricably intertwined with us.

Calling our current era the Anthropocene places us in a continuum with the cretaceous period and the pleistocene, and in doing so, it naturalizes a range of human acts that are firmly within the political. If anything, it’s more interesting to turn meteorites and dinosaurs into political agents than to remove all agency and responsibility from humans. We can’t understand our current world without understanding the political economy of matter, energy and information. The Orangutans we are wiping out in the name of biofuels deserve a better term.

What term?

We need a term that reflects the earth straddling impact of humans. It also has to be a term that reflects the agency of the various beings who live on this planet and finally, the institutions we want to create to negotiate this new order.

I believe that term is Geocracy. Geocracy starts with the knowledge that humans are world straddling animals; that the Earth is in Human Hands. Another starting point: that we have multiplied the possibilities for chaos and catastrophe through our relations with the nonhuman world. Geocracy is politics returning to first principles, i.e., the widest angled lens that offers understanding of our planetary predicament, which is:

  • Human control over energy and information flows across the earth and
  • Distribution of the value generated by that control
  • Violence that ensues from that control

Of course, we aren’t the only agents who affect change — arguably we are just vehicles for competing species of bacteria. But I am not a bacterium.

The Entry of the Nonhuman

I want to say that the single greatest development in human affairs in the post WWII period 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. 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. The fact is that the nonhuman has entered the human arena and will not go away. After 1945 we have always lived under the shadow of an apocalypse forced upon us by the nonhuman world — could be nuclear weapons, could be robotic overlords or more recently, climate catastrophe but some calamity induced by the human interaction with the nonhuman world is always present.

Not that nuclear holocausts are anything 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 solution. You may want to extend rights to animals. I may want to protect rainforests. He may want to focus his efforts on carbon sequestration.

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 that point on 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 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 planned engineering at a global scale. 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 — and one might argue, this is the first time that we have truly been human — is to be a member of a category stabilized by the non-human.

How long will that stability last?

We will have to look beyond the horizons of liberal politics (and its detractors such as communism and fascism) in order to understand that question, for liberalism is the primary institution through which the human has been stabilized.

Beyond (Neo) Liberalism

We need more politics, a better politics. That politics should start from first principles.

Politics has a bad name in most circles I inhabit, both in India and in the US. There’s a brand of technocratic politics of the Larry Summers kind that’s admired but for the most part politicians are ridiculed. We are reaping the harvest of that neglect. As far as I can see, there are two ways of approaching the gap between life and politics:

  • Involve oneself in the hurly burly of everyday political life : this or that election, the passing of a bill, a march for one’s favorite cause.
  • Articulate politics from first principles

Both have their uses, but the second is more conducive to the written word than the first so I am going to stick to first principles in these essays. Here’s the first principle:

Liberalism does a better job of exporting its violence by using the nonhuman world as its target instead of the authoritarian who draws the boundary a little closer, within the human world itself. Nevertheless, the two are structurally similar (I wouldn’t say identical).

I might even argue that the liberal order is more dangerous: it’s harder to argue against and because of its overt concern for human welfare, there’s the possibility that we will step unknowingly into catastrophe like the proverbial frog in the boiling cauldron.

It’s possible that the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States will hasten the extinction of the human species. It’s also possible that the election contributes nothing more than the usual run of wars that every American president starts or continues. It’s even conceivable that by pulling the United States away from its manifest destiny, Trump will do us all a favor.

Whatever the case may be, the neoliberal order is tottering. That it’s tottering is a good thing. It’s possible that it will be replaced by something worse. It’s possible that it will be replaced by something better. I don’t know which one of these will come true. It’s very hard to predict, especially the future. What future?

The future of geocracy. Power over other humans, power over other creatures and power over the earth.

What does the US election have to do with human power? How is a wave for Trump in Michigan related to a general human stance toward the nonhuman world? Isn’t it a category mistake to compare the election of a right wing authoritarian with an abstraction?

Human affairs are influenced by their context. The debate is over what is a legitimate part of the context and what can be safely neglected. For example, it’s uncontroversial to say that Trump’s election has something to do with the failures of industrial capitalism in the US.

However, does his election have something to do with ongoing fossil fuel extraction? Does it have something to with factory farming? In other words, why should we stop at the social? Why not include the natural in our analysis of human affairs? After all we are the dominant species on earth today; to give just one number, humans control between 25 and 38% of NPP (Net Primary Production) today. Isn’t it obvious that control over that much energy and information needs new institutional structures?

What institutional structures though?

Our new geocratic institutions should be as interested in energy and information flows as they are in GDP figures. Then there’s the technical shift from normal distributions to distributions with fat tails. As a result, we can articulate a different idea of populations than the one available to the theorists of our current democratic institutions. That shift in our understanding of probability and statistics, in turn, inspires an entirely different idea of human which can accommodate the nonhuman.

It’s possible that these shifts can be accommodated within the structures of liberalism, just as the New Deal era incorporated labor demands within liberal politics. There’s a lot of interest in a Green New Deal in the United States and chances are something like a global green deal will be necessary to address the climate crisis. One reason to be skeptical of liberal solutions is because China isn’t a liberal society, so whatever we do at the global level will have to include their visions of political order. The fallback is to institute technocratic solutions at the global scale but that strikes me as less than optimal.

More about those technical shifts in future essays; let’s start with a few surface features of geocracy.

In 2016, human control is global, concentrated in a few individuals and institutions and spatial distributed horizontally as well as vertically; horizontally across the earth’s surface and vertically from the scale of cells to the scale of societies. Having said that, let me turn my eyes to the very top of the pyramid. It shouldn’t surprise us that in 2018, thirty years after the end of history, the largest countries in the world are ruled by authoritarian leaders: Jinping, Modi, Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin. It should also not surprise us that rise in authoritarianism is tied to economic and financial globalization, widespread surveillance, factory farming and climate collapse. In fact, these four are defining features of human power today. Let me expand on that a bit more; our control over the earth is:

  1. Grounded in a vision of human welfare — we have as much, if not more, to fear from angels as from demons.
  2. In turn, that conception of welfare is (ultimately) based on two “thermodynamic” elements: energy and information. Fossil fuel energy and financial information are the dominant modes of the two elements. Surveillance comes a close second to finance.
  3. It is extractive and inefficient by design. Again, because human power is articulated within a framework of human welfare, the inefficiency, extraction and intrusion are justified because of their benefits to us.
  4. While welfare is graded within the human community with some people doing extremely well and many others doing terribly, the full force of human violence is directed towards the non-human world.

If New York’s fifth avenue is the epitome of human welfare — I know some will dispute that claim — then factory farming and fossil fuels are the devil’s factories. We can’t understand the racism and the nativism of human society without understanding the factory farming machine that feeds it, the fossil fuels that power it and the computer networks that measure it.

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The Anthropocene is a Ponzi Scheme

Photo by Joshua Brown on Unsplash

TL;DR: Anthropocene = Ponzi Scheme.

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.

Making People

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.

Aiag

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.

Let me start with the latter, for I will soon shift to the former. There was a time in the sixties and seventies with the enormous popular interest in unwestern modes of life, the beginning of the Deep Ecology movement and the publication of Naess’ Ecosophy T, the publication of Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis when it was clear that the underlying problem wasn’t about the relative merits of capital and labor but the very foundations of industrial and post-industrial civilization.

Or simply put, the problem was modernity.

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.

Inconvenient Sequels

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 Times describes 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:

The color of the iceberg matches the color of the audience. Inconvenient Sequel regurgitates the plot of every Hollywood movie: when the going gets bad, heroes rise from the west to save the world. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.

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?

No.

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:

  • Left-Right: wrong.
  • 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.

Ponzism

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.

The dominant positive vision of what it is to be human is a ponzi scheme that combines capitalism in the economic realm (renamed “development” when you’re buying water in Dharavi instead of iPhones in Malabar Hills ), human rights in the moral realm and some form of liberal democratic rule in the political realm. Ponzism doesn’t even stop at the human; it describes the cyborg-human and posthumanist trends (see this book by Harari for a recent version of propaganda passing off as progressivism) and others.

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-liberalization shining 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.

By Prateek Karandikar — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5689624

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:

  1. First step: imperial colonization
  2. Second step: globalized colonization
  3. 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.

Fossil Metaphysics

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.

As J.R McNeill writes in “Something New Under the Sun,” his history of the environment in the twentieth century:

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?

  1. 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.
  2. Do I believe that the ponzi scheme is tottering? Yes I do.
  3. 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.

Planetary Colonialism

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.

Therefore, our struggle is the continuation of an anti-colonial struggle which had a fake reprieve in 1945. It turns out that Gandhian anti-colonialism was right in its critique of modernity but terribly wrong in championing nationalism as the answer to colonialism. National sovereignty means nothing when the national elite have exactly the same ponzist beliefs as their colonial masters.

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.

That’s why the response to anthroponzism cannot come from retired NASA scientists and philosophers read by Bjork alone. To give just one alternative, Gandhi and Tagore discussed most of the underlying issues in their famous debate a century ago.

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:

  1. Ponzism is a colonizing force.
  2. The anthropocene is ponzism claiming all of humanity as its investor class — anthropocene = anthroponzi.
  3. 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.