Archive for February, 2022

The Living Planet Earth – Gaia and Solaris

Friday, February 18th, 2022

The Nutmeg’s Curse; Parables for a Planet in Crisis, Amitav Ghosh, 2021

Out of these processes of subduing and muting was born the idea of “nature” as an inert entity,a conception that would in time become a basic tenet of what might be called “official modernity”. This metaphysic, fundamentally an ideology of conquest, would eventually become hegemonic in the West, and it it now shared by the entire global elite: within its parameters the idea that a volcano can produce meaning; or that a nutmeg can be a protagonist in history, can never be anything other than a delusion or a “primitive superstition”. To envision the world in this way was a crucial step toward making an inert Nature a reality. As Ben Ehrenreich observes; “Only once we imagined the world as dead could we dedicate ourselves to making it so.”

Standing Rock Protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline – Camp became a prayer camp because its lands are a site of ancestral knowledge

Now, as humanity faces the possibility of a future in which living will indeed have turned into a battle for survival, it is becoming increasingly clear that Indigenous understandings of terraforming were, in fact, far more sophisticated than those of today’s techno-futurists.

Exhaustion is a metaphor that occurs often in science fiction stories about terraforming. Swarms of aliens go off to conquer another planet because their own is “exhausted”. It is the same presumption that impels billionaires to plan the conquest of Mars, now that the Earth is “exhausted”…what the Earth is really exhausted of is not its resources, what it has lost is meaning.

He (Tennyson) sees the ascent of his “crowning race” as coming about by the severing of every kind of earthly tie, through the overcoming of everything that links humanity to other creatures and animals. He even proposes what we might call an “end of history” or an “end of the world”…This is man’s final ascent, when all creation ends and he is united with God.

As we watch the environmental and biological disasters that are now unfolding across the Earth, it is becoming ever harder to hold onto the belief that the planet is an inert body that exists merely to provide humans with resources. Instead, the Earth’s responses are increasingly reminiscent of the imaginary planet after which the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem named his brilliant novel, Solaris: when provoked by humans, Solaris begins to strike back in utterly unexpected and uncanny ways.

James Lovelock; “Long ago the Greeks…gave to the Earth the name Gaia or, for short, Ge. In those days science and technology were one and science although less precise, had soul. As time passed this warm relationship faded and was replaced by the frigidity of schoolmen. The life sciences, no longer concerned with life, fell to classifying dead things and even to vivisection…Now at least there are signs of a change. Science becomes holistic again and rediscovers soul, and theology, moved by ecumenical forces, begins to realize that Gaia is not to be subdivided for academic convenience and that Ge is much more than a prefix.”

Other-than-human beings, forces, and entities, both manmade and earthly, could be pursuing their own ends, of which humans know nothing. Gaia, at once bountiful and monstrous, has now assumed a new avatar: Solaris.

It is this compressed time frame (the last 30 years) that has made sure that non humans too are no longer as mute as they once were. Other beings and forces–bacteria, viruses, glaciers, forests, the jet stream– have also unmuted themselves and are now thrusting themselves so urgently on our attention that they can no longer be ignored or treated as elements of an inert Earth.

So the true question then is not whether non humans can communicate and make meaning; rather we must ask: When and how did a small group of humans come to believe that other beings, including the majority of their own species, were incapable of articulation and agency? How were they able to establish the idea that non humans are mute, and without minds, as the dominant wisdom of the time?

The reason why coal powered mills began to edge out their water-powered competitors in the early nineteenth-century was not that coal was cheaper or more efficient. Water powered mills were just as productive, and far cheaper to operate than coal-fired mills. It was for social rather than technical reasons that steam-powered machines prevailed: because, for example, coal-mills allowed mill owners to locate their factories in densely crowded cities, where cheap labor was easily available. “The steam engine” writes Malm,”was a superior medium for extracting surplus wealth from the working class, because, unlike the waterwheel, it could be put virtually anywhere”…In short, steam, and thus coal won out over water precisely because it empowered the dominant classes and was better suited to their favored regime of property.

The role that fossil fuels play in war making is another, monstrously vital, aspect of their enmeshment with structures of power and forms of violence…Today the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States–and probably in the world…A single non-nuclear aircraft carrier consumes 5,621 gallons of fuel per hour; in other words, these vessels burn up as much fuel in one day as a small midwestern town might use in a year…In the 1990s the three branches of the US military consumed approximately 25 billion tons of fuel per year. This was more than a fifth of the country’s total consumption, and “more than the total commercial energy consumption of nearly two thirds of the world’s countries.”…Indeed, the predicament of the US Department of Defense is a refraction of the quandary that now confronts the world’s status quo powers: how do you reduce your dependence on the very “resources” on which your geopolitical power is founded?

Viewed from this perspective, climate change is but one aspect of a much broader planetary crisis: it is not the prime, cause of dislocation, but rather a cognate phenomenon. In this sense climate change, mass dislocations, pollution, environmental degradation, political breakdown, and the Covid-19 pandemic are all cognate effects of the ever increasing acceleration of the last three decades. Not only are all these crises interlinked–they are all deeply routed in history, and they are all ultimately driven by the dynamics of global power.

Just as the Lakota, repeatedly displaced by wars and the rising of dammed waters, were herded into ever shrinking reservations, so too are the refugees of today’s geopolitical wars being forced into zones of containment in North Africa, the Sahara, Mexico, Central America, and islands like Nauru. They too are casualties in a conflict that is not recognizable as war, in the sense defined by Western legal theorists. Yet the parallels with the biopolitical wars of the past are perfectly clear to many indigenous peoples–thus the title of Nick Este’s powerful account of the environmental struggles of the Lakota and their kin Our History is the Future.

Since the adoption in 1989 of the Washington Consensus, the ideologies and practices of settler colonialism have been actively promoted, in their neoliberal guise, by the world’s most powerful countries, and have come to be almost universally adopted by national and global elites. It is those settler-colonial practices that are now being implemented by China, in Xinjiang; by Indonesia in Papua; and by India,in Kashmir and in many of its foreign regions.

And surely it is no accident that today there exists a technology of last resort that many believe will ultimately work in favor of the neo-Europes: geo-engineering. As novel as it may seem, geoengineering is nothing other than terraforming carried literally into the stratosphere; it should by rights be called “strato-forming”. Today some of the richest and most powerful people, and institutions, in the West are openly promoting geo-engineering. Their enthusiasm makes it impossible to forget that “from the mid-eighteenth century onward, modern science explicitly supported empire, defining strategies for colonization.”

This is the great burden that now rests upon the writers, artists, filmmakers, and everyone else who is involved in the telling of stories: to us falls the task of imaginatively restoring agency and voice to non humans. As with all the most important artistic endeavors in human history, this is a task that is at once aesthetic and political–and because of the magnitude of the crisis that besets the planet, it is now freighted with the most pressing moral urgency.

Pope Francis; “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach, it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Shattering the Mythical basis of Anthropology and Archeology – Imagining Alternate Futures and Recovering our Freedom

Tuesday, February 8th, 2022

The Dawn of Everything; A New History of Humanity, David Graeber & David Wengrow, 2021

Father Lallemant:”From the beginning of the world to the coming of the French, the Savages have never known what it was so solemnly to forbid anything to their people, under any penalty, however slight. They are free people, each of whom considers himself of as much consequence as the others; and they submit to their chiefs only in as far as it pleases them.”

The democratic governance of the Wendat and Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee, which so impressed later European readers, was an expression of the same principal; if no compulsion was allowed, then obviously such social coherence as did exist had to be created through reasoned debate, persuasive arguments, and the establishment of social consensus.

An impoverished French aristocrat known as Lahonstan recorded his conversions with a Wendat statesman named Kandiaronk; “In short, they neither quarrel, nor fight, nor slander one another…They brand us for slaves, and call us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having, alleging that we degrade ourselves in subjecting ourselves to one man [the king] who possesses all the power, and is bound by no law but his own will.”

If human beings, through most of our history, have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements, assembling and dismantling hierarchies on a regular basis, maybe the real question should be ‘how did we get stuck?’. How did we end up on one single mode? How did we lose that political self-consciousness, once so typical of our species? How did we come to treat eminence and subservience not as temporary expedients, or even the pomp and circumstance of some kind of grand seasonal theatre, but as inescapable elements of the human condition? If we started out just playing games, at what point did we forget that we were playing?

As indigenous legal scholars have been pointing out for years, the ‘Agriculture Argument’ makes no sense, even on its own terms. There are many ways, other than European style farming, in which to care for and improve the productivity of land. What to a settler’s eye seemed savage, untouched wilderness usually turns out to be landscapes actively managed by indigenous populations for thousands of years through controlled burning, weeding, coppicing, fertilizing and pruning, terracing estuarine plots to extend the habitat of particular wild flora, building clam gardens in intertidal zones to enhance the reproduction of shellfish, creating weirs to catch salmon, bass, and sturgeon, and so on. Such procedures were often labour intensive, and regulated by indigenous laws governing who could access groves, swamps, root beds, grasslands and fishing grounds, and who was entitled to exploit what species at any given time of year.

In fact land ownership illustrates perfectly what Rudolf von Ihering called the state’s monopoly of violence within a territory — just within a much smaller territory than a nation state.

Just as access to violence, information, and charisma defines the very possibilities of social domination, so the modern state is defined as a combination of sovereignty, bureaucracy and a competitive political field.

…in all parts of the world small communities formed civilizations in that true sense of extended moral communities. Without permanent kings, bureaucrats or standing armies they fostered the growth of mathematical and calendrical knowledge. In some regions they pioneered metallurgy, the cultivation of olives, vines and date palms, or the invention of leavened bread and wheat beer; in others they domesticated maize and learned to extract poisons, medicines and mind-altering substances from plants. Civilization, in this true sense, developed the major textile technologies applied to fabrics and basketry, the potter’s wheel, stone industries and beadwork, the sail and maritime navigation, and so on. A moments reflection shows that women, their work, their concerns and innovations are at the core of this more accurate understanding of civilization.

It was precisely this combination of such conflicting ideological possibilities — and of course, the Iroquoian penchant for prolonged political argument — that lay behind what we have called the indigenous critique of European society. It would be impossible to understand the origins of its particular emphasis on individual liberty, for instance, outside that context. Those ideas about liberty had a profound impact on the world. In other words, not only did indigenous North Americans manage almost entirely to sidestep the evolutionary trap that we assume must always lead, eventually, from agriculture to the rise of some all-powerful state or empire; but in doing so they developed political sensibilities that were ultimately to have a deep influence on Enlightenment thinkers and, through them, are still with us today.

We started out by observing that to inquire after the origins of inequality necessarily means creating a myth, a fall from grace, a technological transposition of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis — which, in most contemporary versions, takes the form of a mythical narrative stripped of any prospect of redemption. In these accounts, the best we humans can hope for is some modest tinkering with our inherently squalid condition — and hopefully, dramatic action to prevent any looming, absolute disaster. The only other theory on offer to date has been to assume that there were no origins of inequality, because humans are naturally somewhat thuggish creatures and our beginnings were a miserable, violent affair; in which case ‘progress’ or ‘civilization’ — driven forward largely, by our own selfish and competitive nature — was itself redemptive. This view is extremely popular among billionaires but holds little appeal to any else, including scientists, who are keenly aware that it isn’t in accord with the facts…The more rosy, optimistic narrative — whereby the progress of Western civilization inevitably makes everyone happier, wealthier and more secure — has at least one obvious disadvantage. It fails to explain why that civilization did not simply spread of its own accord; that is, why European powers should have been obliged to spend the last 500 or so years aiming guns at people’s heads in order to force them to adopt it.

…innovation in Neolithic societies was based on a collective body of knowledge accumulated over centuries, largely by women, in an endless series of apparently humble but in fact enormously significant discoveries. Many of those Neolithic discoveries had the cumulative effect of reshaping everyday life every bit as profoundly as the automatic loom or lightbulb.

Over the course of these chapters we have instead talked about the basic forms of social liberty which one might actually put into practice; (1) the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings; (2) the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others; and (3) the freedom to shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones…It is clear that something about human societies really has changed here, and quite profoundly. These three basic freedoms have gradually receded, to the point where a majority of people living today can hardly comprehend what it might be like to live in a social order based on them.

There is nothing particularly primordial about such arrangements (murder of entire populations); certainly there is no reason to believe they are in any sense hardwired into the human psyche. On the contrary, it’s almost invariably necessary to employ some combination of ritual, drugs and psychological techniques to convince people, even adolescent males, to kill and injure each other in such systematic yet indiscriminate ways.

Time and again we found ourselves confronted with writing which simply assumes that the larger and more densely populated the social group, the more complex the system needed to keep it organized. Complexity in turn, is still often used as a euphemism for chains of command, which means that as soon as large numbers of people decided to live in one place or join a common project they must necessarily abandon the second freedom — to refuse orders–and replace it with legal mechanisms for, say, beating or locking up those who don’t do as they’re told. As we’ve seen, none of these assumptions are theoretically essential, and history tends not to bear them out…complex systems don’t have to be organized top-down, either in the natural world or in the social world.

What is the purpose of all this new knowledge, if not to reshape our conceptions of who we are and what we might become? if not, in other words, to rediscover the meaning of our third basic freedom: the freedom to create new and different forms of social reality?…We know, now, that we are in the presence of myths.