• Goddamn.

    by  • September 7, 2011 • Everything Else • 10 Comments


    I have reached for the sword.

    I can’t or won’t tell you how or when.

    Let me then make the argument.

    1) We are at seven billion humans now, expected to rise to at least nine billion.

    2) If everybody lived like an American, we would need about eight planets. For Europeans the number is about four.

    3) Voluntary (individual and community) efforts to reduce environmental impact by changing behavior have been ineffective.

    4) Coercive (government) efforts to reduce environmental impact have been effective in some instances (ozone, dioxins) but not on other big environmental threats.

    5) Therefore, as consumption continues to increase as the rich continue to find new ways to consume, poor people cease being peasant farmers and get jobs, and population continues to rise, we are going to damage the planet extremely severely, perhaps even kill it.

    6) Furthermore, we are giving rise to entirely new classes of threat, including biotechnology and nanotechnology, either one of which could result in massive permanent damage, including completely annihilation, of the world. Our willingness to retain our nuclear capacity speaks volumes about our ability to handle such technologies.

    In the long run, if we are going to survive, there are two unambiguous options.

    A) A peaceful and sane technological breakthrough, such as ultra-cheap solar panels or safe molecular manufacturing, which allows humans to consume at these rates or higher without killing nature by degrees.


    B) Global enforcement of planet-saving environmental policies at the expense of human comfort, at least for those consuming most at the moment.

    I still believe A) is partially possible, in that we may get the technological breakthroughs. However, most of the advanced novel technologies are used for war, and you are likely to see a Terminator from nanotechnology long before a Cornucopia Machine.

    However, B) is much more plausible. The utter destructive, homicidal madness of human beings, as seen in the age of Pol Pot, could arise and turn on hyperconsumers at any time. The bloodshed would be immense, but a planetary interregnum while concerned humans simply tore down the technical foundations of over-consumption to protect the planet is entirely plausible to me – far more so than a simple renunciation of war, and an acceptance of a peaceful high-technology future for humanity.

    This is, fundamentally, what has been kicking my ass. This is the crisis.

    However I roll the dice, I wind up back here, and I can’t find a way out that gels with what I know. The ultratech solution is fine – apart from the nanowar. The peasant revolution is fine, apart from the machete war.

    But all we are doing right now is winching a roller-coaster up and up and up, and the tracks it will roll down go over a cliff, into planetary extinction.

    Why are we doing this? Because the dominant cultures on this planet have believed for thousands of years that the way to a better world lies on the other side of a planetary catastrophe called The Apocalypse, in which various horrors from the divine world are unleashed upon the earth, culminating in a global fascism under a single just ruler.

    The secret impulse in all hearts to destroy the world is a perverted desire to see the face of god, or some similarly benign condition, upon the face of the earth.

    It is bad theology which underlies every belching smoke stack and every abattoir. Nature is not sacred, it is simply the growth medium for humanity, one part to be judged, one part to be saved, to live under unipolar divine law forever more.

    Sacred cow becomes sacred hamburger.

    Bad myths make bad people.

    People like Dick Cheney are demonized. They may, indeed, act like demons, but the special power we afford them, and Hitler, and Mao, and Stalin is the reflected darkness of the Antichrist, the Sum of All Fears, the Adversary, the thing set against God which controls some aspect of the fate of man. We imbue the darker facets of power with a metaphysical horror, an elemental Evil which owes nothing to the pre-Monotheist conceptions of power. A bad king is no longer a bad man, but a facet of The Power Which Opposes, the Heart of Darkness, and eventually, dare we say it, Satan. Our cultural mythology is full of Good Guys, leading us up, and Bad Guys, leading us down. People expect these Agents of Evil to triumph, some literally, creating the need for a just ruler who will reward the innocent and punish the guilty and non-believers. But first the world must die.

    If a Hindu fundamentalist had not killed Gandhi in 1948, at 78, Gandhi would have lead the global campaign against nuclear weapons, for world peace. If he had lived to 100, he would have lived all the way through the 1960s, and perhaps provided us with the spiritual leadership we needed to slip the yoke of these evil dreams, and find happiness and freedom on this earth. Imagine the 1960s with Gandhi at its head.

    Instead, there was no effective force to oppose the settlement we have with the nuclear issue, Mutually Assured Destruction, which lasts to this very day.

    You expect goodness and sanity in a world where we are never more than minutes from complete annihilation if one power group or another presses the red button? The very fact of those weapons is the proof of our madness.

    As it is, I fear a dark path is upon us. The cleansing of the world by fire is a deep, deep myth in India culture – the Kalki Avatar, the incarnation of Vishnu who comes “when Thieves dress as Kings” and puts the lot to the sword to make way for a new age. This may be the mythology which killed Gandhi – a man who wished for Gandhi to make war with the Muslims, or at least maintain the sacred barriers of Caste, rather than ushering in peace and egalitarian freedom for all. I wonder if, perhaps, he was killed because he was not Kalki enough. But now I must ask you something.

    Do you really believe we’re going to turn this thing around?

    Look at the world. We’ve gone crazy. We plod on through our days, and each one of the seven billion of us, or at least the two billion rich, carries a little share of the death of the world and the massacre of the poor within us. One two-billionth share of the death of the world does not seem very much – a hamburger, a six pack and a decent car and house will do it. Our individual shares of the damage seem so small, and so necessary. None of us are responsible because all of us are.

    That sword cuts both ways. We, whose over-consumption is killing the world, bear collective responsibilities for our actions.

    The polluter pays. We say qui bono, “to who’s advantage” and the answer is, “ours.”

    It’s going to get settled by coercive force. It’s probably not going to be governments, because they’re causing most of these problems.

    If the world is to live, it’s going to come down to one of two things, and the interaction between them.

    i) Hail-Mary pass benign technologies, like Nanosolar, arriving without God Help Us technologies like nanowar.

    ii) Effective coercion of polluters and over-consumers from non-state actors. Think Sea Shepherd on steroids.

    Both of these, frankly, call for use of coercive force by people who take the survival of the planet a hell of a lot more seriously than governments, who are the number one threat to it right now, given their nuclear stockpiles and sponsorship of insanely destructive technologies on all sides.

    Corporations are not the problem. Governments which allow them to run amok are the problem. Voters allow governments to run amuck, voters are the problem. Voters = buyers = consumers = We The People are The Problem.

    Because right at the bottom of it, in some narrow little Freudian place, you don’t care what we’re doing to the planet, because when it dies, Jesus comes back.

    Now I don’t know if this analysis is correct. I am going through a dark patch here, and I’m putting this out here for discussion. Perhaps there’s a different explanation.

    But I cannot see, for the life of me, that this doesn’t all root back into the desire to end the world in pursuit of something better than life. That’s what we’re buying at the mall: little unitized packets of the death of the world, packaged into products, and enjoyed not in spite of, but because of, the worldeath they represent.

    Bad myths make bad people.

    When the time comes, as it might, we may all be forced to consider the role of violence and bad mythology at the roots of our culture.

    The world is not guaranteed a future, and neither are we. It may, or may not, all just work out this time, as it has for humanity every other time.

    It is different now, because we ourselves are in charge.

    Nearly everything about cars and houses is controlled by the State, and as a result, they completely suck from an energy and environment perspective. All innovation is crushed flat. Most of heavy industry likewise – subsidies for what is old and dirty, disincentives for what is new and clean. Consider nuclear vs. renewable subsidies, when all costs are taken into account. Are we really so stupid we can’t make a green car and a green house? No! But the aggregated will-to-destroy in people, bad myths, leads us to accept this fate as our own. We will ruin the global economy for futile religious wars in the middle east, but not tax carbon slightly to encourage the move towards a sustainable world – a world with a future.

    I don’t know how you dig 6,000 years plus of bad software out of something without a reformat.

    Maybe Kalki was right.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    10 Responses to Goddamn.

    1. September 7, 2011 at 11:46 pm

      Next, by the way, I’m going to write up my actual plan for the future of Humanity, the infamous “500 years of sex and drugs” post.

      You have been warned.

    2. Nick Taylor
      September 7, 2011 at 11:56 pm

      I think the bottom line is “most people just want to get on with their lives”.

      So I think our problems are to do with institutional flaws rather than anything particularly evil in human nature. When you say it out loud “changing the world through individual consumer choices” just sounds stupid – I don’t think it’s about “us”, I think it’s about “them”… the institutions that profit from, and encourage the biases in our systems that are selfish, and short-sighted.

      Only a handful of people in these institutions have had to warp their moralities so they can do evil. The rest are simply not confronted with the reality of what they do. I know, I used to work in a meat-packing factory… never saw a single animal being killed. I used to work in a law firm, for Ernst & Young, Lloyds. We didn’t know what went on – and would never ever have to meet the eyes of our victims. We weren’t evil, we just didn’t know.

      As far as I can see, the majority of our problems come from two places – 1) corporate money in politics, 2) corporate ownership of the 4th Estate.

      Now 2 is in the process of radical change… there’s a side-effect to the way it’s changing that may not be entirely beneficial (the birds-of-a-feather effect), but the power of the mass media is on the wane. In the “kill or build” dichotomy, we can build our way out of this one.

      Number 1 is a tougher nut to crack.

      re: 6000 years of bad software… given the nature of the software (which is not procedural… I don’t know what it is… memetic?) I’d say the answer is, you change the bad bits with virii. With other memes. It’s how it’s always worked before, and really, it’s the only thing we’ve got.

    3. September 8, 2011 at 2:15 am

      Recently, I calculated how many trees each person would need to plant to offset our carbon emissions. For the whole world, the average is ~200 trees. For the American, it comes out to ~1200 trees (per lifetime of the tree, which can be roughly compared to a human lifetime). Currently, one can have trees planted for a cost of ~$5/tree if ordering more than 100 trees. So for a lifetime cost of $6000, an American can have all of his or her carbon offset. I wouldn’t mind this kind of coercive government effort at all…

    4. zac
      September 8, 2011 at 3:22 am

      my suspicion is that it’s self-regulating, albiet in a way that is profoundly nerve-wracking to those of us who have to see it happen. the system won’t break everywhere at once. the networked nature of the contagion will undermine everything everywhere to some extent, but at some point the network connections will start to fail. then it’s about pockets undergoing their own thermodynamic evolution/de-evolution. the pockets prone to failure states will fail. rapidly. profoundly. with a profound death toll. the ones built on, or having the seeds of, a stable state, will ramify internally, then re-establish the network from those stable nucleii. hooking everything up into a giant feedback loop accelerates the total system towards crisis, but when the crisis hits, the hookups will be the first thing to go, or be terminated for self-preservation. if those sword swingers are looking for targets, those would be it. hit the system junctions that spread and amplify contagion. triage the whole thing and let the parts that will die, die. I’ll take a people-power coup that institutes currency controls and protective tariffs over one that lines up polluters and machine-guns them. I’ll even take a green activist group taking down parts of the system with an enormous bot-net doing DDOS attacks, over molitov cocktails on the trading floor.

    5. September 8, 2011 at 5:30 am

      I’m afraid I’m too often off topic. But this post made me think a little about your spiritual practice and ontological ideas.

      As a death expert you may already be familiar with this 1970 essay by Takeshi Umehara Heidegger and Buddhism if not familiar something to put in your death file.

      I think Christian apocalyptic thinking is very significant, but not the exclusive source of apocalyptic thinking. Of course there are problems of apples and oranges, but Takeshi Umehara essay is interesting in pointing to differences in Western Christian (although he doesn’t mention Islam much of what he says about Christianity and death has much in common)and Zen Buddhist notions of death.

      The really significant part I think is his expression of the need for thinker to talk about how we should think about death.

      You admit to being a most remarkable and exceptional fellow. I concur. I also think that your recent point that violence is pointless at this time seems right. So it’s a surprise to see you begin with your sword drawn.

      Perhaps it’s theatrics to enable people to talk about death. My feeling–and what do I know?–is that raising a sword at the beginning predicts a trajectory for further discussion about death.

      Because you know death so well, you have plenty of options for shaping the direction of discussion. The sword may well cut to the chase very well. But I should hope that you might also develop the path of violence as futile as you encourage people to consider death.

    6. September 8, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      Nick, that’s a really good, accurate gradualist perspective. I hope you’re right.

      Ph0rque, could you write that up somewhere and email me the URL. That’s important perspective, I’d like to be able to link to it in future.


    7. Steve
      September 8, 2011 at 5:00 pm

      Yesterday I got to thinking about this movement-of-movements / plan-of-plans, and realised I thought this:

      We are being quite hard on ourselves. We need not – and, in any case, cannot – do this ourselves, individually or as a group of elite X-Men. It can only happen through the majority, the people of the world seeing it, willing it. Total personal responsibility for each human for their place in the world and the choices they make.

      In immediate terms, setting out the template for change, building the components, spinning the buzz for change – this is all just laying the groundwork so that the forces to come can manifest more clearly, more easily. We cannot force the cultural spark which will connect these components into a genuinely popular global phenomenon. But we can keep piling up tinder, and leaving flints lying around.

      I love the idea about Gandhi leading the hippy movement in the ’60s. But we do not each need to be a Gandhi. There will be another Gandhi along any minute (and I’m not betting on him coming from a western industrialised nation. or being a him).

      We need only be a part of the whole; we need now only act with genuine integrity, such that the path is made clear for the future; we need only to be ready to support, to defend, to promote, the change when it comes, as it passes through the matrices of meaning and connection we have prepared.

      Not sure why I believe this, given that we are in full agreement about the urgency, danger and horror of our current predicament, but, evidently, I do.

      Maybe it’s my Christian conditioning talking:

      “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’… I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you don’t know. He is the one who comes after me…”

    8. September 8, 2011 at 6:12 pm

      We’d make a pretty ace support team for an avatar.

      Send the damn avatar, people!

    9. zac
      September 8, 2011 at 7:47 pm

      we already have an avatar. it’s called ‘the market’, although that’s probably not the god you had in mind…

    10. September 9, 2011 at 2:53 am

      Myths tell you much about what a culture believes about itself, what it aspires to, what it hold dear. A change in the meaning of fundamental mythology, especially that mythology core to the dominant religious traditions, can be a very powerful way to change culture itself.

      About seven minutes into this video where he discusses the Evolution of God:


      Robert Wright talks about the ways in which the three Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have sometimes found belligerence in God and sometimes found their God to be one of Peace. He discusses how in times of Empire the religions have found tolerance between each other because they were able to see how this benefited everyone, as he describes it, a non-zero sum outcome.

      Can the same ideas be used to extend the common mythologies to one that is more tolerant of others? Is there a way to get the major traditions to step outside their belligerence now through this time of common need? Is there a way to change their mythologies? I think so.

      You list two ways to salvation: hail-Mary-pass benign technologies like solar, and coercion. There is another kind of technology which could also do it. Social technology. Like the corporation, or democracy, or the academies of old, a new type of social innovation could be enough to change the dynamics completely.

      How can we ensure that unlike the hippy zeitgeist wave of the 60s, that this wave—the wave that the renaissance hippy millennial monks are dropping in to surf—does not crash and pull back until we have reached the shore?

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