Archive for May, 2019

I put aside Harari’s book from the previous blog post in favor of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). Mishra’s sharp cultural criticism is far more convincing than Harari’s Panglossian perspective. Perhaps some of that is due to an inescapable pessimism in my own character. Either way, I’ve found the first 35 pages dense with observations of interest to me as a blogger and armchair cultural critic. Some while back, I published a post attempting to delineate (not very well, probably) what’s missing in the modern world despite its obvious material abundance. Reinforcing my own contentions, Mishra’s thesis (as I understand it so far) is this: we today share with others post-Enlightenment an array of resentments and hatreds (Fr.: ressentiment) aimed incorrectly at scapegoats for political and social failure to deliver the promises of progressive modernity equitably. For instance, Mishra describes

… flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities. [pp. 10–11]

Contrast and/or compare his assessment of the recent past:

Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration … swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies … The culture of [frantic] individualism went universal … The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty … individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity … is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications … [S]hocks of modernity were once absorbed by inherited social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions [something mentioned here, too]. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all. [pp. 12–14]

These long quotes (the second one cut together from longer paragraphs) are here because Mishra is remarkably eloquent in his diagnosis of globalized culture. Although I’ve only read the prologue, I expect to find support for my long-held contention that disorienting disruptions of modernity (using Anthony Giddens’ sociological definition rather than the modish use of the term Postmodern to describe only the last few decades) create unique and formidable challenges to the formation of healthy self-image and personhood. Foremost among these challenges is an unexpectedly oppressive information environment: the world forced into full view and inciting comparison, jealousy, envy, and hatred stemming from routine and ubiquitous frustrations and humiliations as we each struggle in life getting our personal share of attention, renown, and reward.

Another reason Mishra provides for our collective anger is a deep human yearning not for anarchism or radical freedom but rather for belonging and absorption within a meaningful social context. This reminds me of Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom (1941), which I read long ago but can’t remember so well anymore. I do remember quite vividly how counter-intuitive was the suggestion that absolute freedom is actually burdensome as distinguished from the usual programming we get about breaking free of all restraints. (Freedom! Liberty!) Indeed, Mishra provides a snapshot of multiple cultural and intellectual movements from the past two centuries where abandoning oneself to a cause, any cause, was preferable to the boredom and nothingness of everyday life absent purpose other than mere existence. The modern substitute for larger purpose — commodity culture — is a mere shadow of better ways of spending one’s life. Maybe commodity culture is better than sacrificing one’s life fighting wars (a common fate) or destroying others, but that’s a much longer, more difficult argument.

More to follow as my reading progresses.

Advertisements

I started reading Yuval Harari’s book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017). Had expected to read Sapiens (2014) first but its follow-up came into my possession instead. My familiarity with Harari’s theses and arguments stem from his gadfly presence on YouTube being interviewed or giving speeches promoting his books. He’s a compelling yet confounding thinker, and his distinctive voice in my mind’s ear lent to my reading the quality of an audiobook. I’ve only read the introductory chapter (“A New Human Agenda”) so far, the main argument being this:

We have managed to bring famine, plague and war under control thanks largely to our phenomenal economic growth, which provides us with abundant food, medicine, energy and raw materials. Yet this same growth destabilises the ecological equilibrium of the planet in myriad ways, which we have only begun to explore … Despite all the talk of pollution, global warming and climate change, most countries have yet to make any serious economic or political sacrifices to improve the situation … In the twenty-first century, we shall have to do better if we are to avoid catastrophe. [p. 20]

“Do better”? Harari’s bland understatement of the catastrophic implications of our historical moment is risible. Yet as a consequence of having (at least temporarily) brought three major historical pestilences (no direct mention of the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) under administrative, managerial, and technical control (I leave that contention unchallenged), Harari states rather over-confidently — forcefully even — that humankind is now turning its attention and ambitions toward different problems, namely, mortality (the fourth of the Four Horsemen and one of the defining features of the human condition), misery, and divinity.

Harari provides statistical support for his thesis (mere measurement offered as indisputable evidence — shades of Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now), none of which I’m in a position to refute. However, his contextualization, interpretation, and extrapolation of trends purportedly demonstrating how humans will further bend the arc of history strike me as absurd. Harari also misses the two true catalyzing factors underlying growth and trends that have caused history to go vertical: (1) a fossil-fuel energy binge of roughly two and one-half centuries that peaked more than a decade ago and (2) improved information and material flows and processing that enabled managerial and bureaucratic functions to transcend time and space or at least lessen their constraints on human activity dramatically. James Beniger addresses information flow and processing in his book The Control Revolution (1989). Many, many others have provided in-depth analyses of energy uses (or inputs) because, contrary to the familiar song lyric, it’s energy that makes the world go round. No one besides Harari (to my knowledge but I’m confident some lamebrained economist agrees with Harari) leaps to the unwarranted conclusion that economic growth is the principal forcing factor of the last 2–3 centuries.

I’ve taken issue with Harari before (here and here) and will not repeat those arguments. My impression of Homo Deus, now that I’ve got 70 pages under my belt, is that Harari wants to have it both ways: vaguely optimistic (even inspirational and/or aspirational) regarding future technological developments (after all, who doesn’t want the marvels and wonders we’ve been ceaselessly teased and promised?) yet precautionary because those very developments will produce disruptive and unforeseeable side effects (black swans) we can’t possibly yet imagine. To his credit, Harari’s caveats regarding unintended consequences are plain and direct. For instance, one of the main warnings is that the way we treat nonhuman species is the best model for how we humans will in turn be treated when superhumans or strong AI appear, which Harari believes is inevitable so long as we keep tinkering. Harari also indicates that he’s not advocating for any of these anticipated developments but is merely mapping them as likely outcomes of human restlessness and continued technological progress.

Harari’s disclaimers do not convince me; his writing is decidedly Transhumanist in character. In the limited portion I’ve read, Harari comes across far more like “golly, gee willikers” at human cleverness and potential than as someone seeking to slam on the brakes before we innovate ourselves out of relevance or existence. In fact, by focusing on mortality, misery, and divinity as future projects, Harari gets to indulge in making highly controversial (and fatuous) predictions regarding one set of transformations that can happen only if the far more dire and immediate threats of runaway global warming and nonlinear climate change don’t first lead to the collapse of industrial civilization and near-term extinction of humans alongside most other species. My expectation is that this second outcome is far more likely than anything contemplated by Harari in his book.

Update: Climate chaos has produced the wettest winter, spring, and summer on record, which shows no indication of abating. A significant percentage of croplands in flooded regions around the globe is unplanted, and those that are planted are stunted and imperiled. Harari’s confidence that we had that famine problem licked is being sorely tested.

“Come with me if you want to live.” That’s among the quotable lines from the latest movie in the Terminator franchise, though it’s not nearly so succinct or iconic as “I’ll be back” from the first Terminator. Whereas the latter has the quality (in hindsight) of slow, implacable inevitability (considering the Terminator is literally a death-bringer), the former occurs within the context of a character having only just traveled back in time, not yet adequately reoriented, and forced to make a snap decision under duress. “I’ll be back” might be easy to brush off as harmless (temporary denial) since the threat recedes — except that it doesn’t, it’s merely delayed. “Come with me …” demands a leap of faith (or trust) because the danger is very real at that instant.

Which quote, I must ask, better characterizes the threat of climate change? My answer: both, but at different times. Three to four decades ago, it was the “I’ll be back” type: building slowly but inevitable given the underlying structure of industrial civilization. That structure was known even then by a narrow circle of experts (e.g., engineers for Big Oil and at the Dept. of Energy) to be a heat engine, meaning that we would ultimately cook our own goose by warming the planet, altering the climatic steady state under which our most recent civilization has flourished and producing a steady loss of biodiversity and biomass until our own human habitat (the entirety of the planet by now) becomes a hostile environment unable (unwilling if one anthropomorphizes Mother Nature) to support our swollen population. All that was if we stayed on course and took no corrective action. Despite foreknowledge and ample warning, that’s precisely what occurred (and continues today).

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in particular, the threat has for roughly a decade shifted over to “Come with me ….” It’s no longer possible to put things off, yet we continue to dither well beyond the tipping point where/when we can still save ourselves from self-annihilation. Although scientists have been gathering data and evidence, forming an overwhelming consensus, and sounding the alarm, scientific illiteracy, realpolitik, journalistic malpractice, and corporate greed have all conspired to grant the illusion of time to react we simply don’t have anymore (and truth be told, probably didn’t as of the early 1980s).

I’m aware of at least three journalists (relying on the far more authoritative work of scientific consensus) who have embraced the message: Dahr Jamail, Thom Hartmann, and David Wallace-Wells. None to my knowledge has been able to bring himself to admit that humanity is now a collection of dead men walking. They can’t muster the courage to give up hope (or to report truthfully), clinging to the possibility we may still have a fleeting chance to avert disaster. I heard Ralph Nader on his webcast say something to the same effect, namely, what good is it to rob others of hope? My personal values adhere to unstinting truth rather than illusion or self-deception, so I subscribe to Guy McPherson‘s assessment that we face near-term human extinction (precise date unknown but soon if, for example, this the year we get a blue ocean event). Simply put, McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona [note my emphasis]. I trust his scholarship (summarizing the work of other scientists and drawing necessary though unpalatable conclusions) more than I trust journalistic shaping of the story for public consumption.

The obvious metaphor for what we face is a terminal medical diagnosis, or if one has hope, perhaps a death sentence about to be carried out but with the possibility of a last-minute stay of execution via phone call from the governor. Opinions vary whether one should hope/resist up to the final moment or make peace with one’s fate. By not telling the truth, I daresay the MSM has not given the public the second option by using the “I’ll be back” characterization when it’s really “Come with me ….” Various authors on the Web offer a better approximation of the truth (such as it can be known) and form a loose doomer network (a/k/a collapsniks). This blog is (an admittedly tiny) part of that doomersphere, which gives me no pleasure.