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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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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 kasturirangan.com.