In a 2016 piece in The Guardian, cosmologist Martin Rees – British Astronomer Royal, former President of the Royal Society and current member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – asks whether we should feel “optimistic or anxious” about the vast documented ecological, biological and geological changes associated with the then buzzword “the Anthropocene epoch”.[i] He answers by providing us with an intellectual experiment: what if, all along, aliens had been observing us from space? On the one hand, these aliens would have witnessed changed patterns of vegetation due to agriculture, a redistribution of species due to domestication and mass extinction, a runaway rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and global warming nearing a tipping point where melting ice would alter all coastlines drastically. On the other hands, they would also notice rockets launched from the planet’s surface to orbit the Earth and even journey to distant planets. Crisis and progress in one.
From this fancy, Rees conjures two possible futures, one pessimistic and one optimistic. The “darkest prognosis for the next millennium”, on the one hand, is that “bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere”. On the other hand, however,
Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvelous than what’s led to us. The dawn of the Anthropocene epoch would then mark a one-off transformation from a natural world to one where humans jumpstart the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities, that transcend our limitations and eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth.
As Reese himself notes, our current situation is one where any prognostic scenario sooner or later will verge upon science fiction. What we know for certain is that things will inevitably change, even by simply staying the same. At this point, there is no status quo, since the status quo itself is the impetus for catastrophe.
As a consequence, during the last decade, eco-theory has been marked by a growing acceptance of the fact that the decisive event of global warming is already here. As Timothy Morton, one of the most influential voices in recent debates, put it in his 2007 break-through book Ecology without Nature, “the catastrophe, far from being imminent, has already taken place”.[ii] We are not waiting for a possible disaster that may or may not take place but rather for the intensification, and the repercussions, of a process already set in motion.
As indicated by Reese, two of the most often recurring scenarios in science fiction – apocalyptic dystopia and space colonization – are turning into realistic models of a not so far future. Each provide a dominant strand in recent works on how we, as humans living today, should relate to the social, political and cultural consequences of global warming.
The optimistic point of view, focusing on opportunity and technological progress, is found in a Marxist futurist utopian strand which may very well be labelled “space communism”. In his influential PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2015), economy writer Paul Mason even employs Bolshevik thinker and writer Alexander Bogdanov’s sci-fi novel Red Star (1908) as an inspiration for the kind of post-capitalist society Mason presents as a possible and desirable outcome of the current situation. In Bogdanov’s novel, the hero is transported to Mars where he is introduced to a socialist utopia, where resources are plentiful, consumption is free, and work is voluntary and performed out of curiosity by highly educated information workers. Like the Astronomer Royal, Mason finds the current crisis ripe with opportunity to achieve such a state of new social and individual well-being.
Mason’s thesis is that societal transition becomes possible due to a combination of internal conflicts and external pressures. Currently, capitalist society is failing internally due to the new conditions of technological reproduction associated with information technology and the digital revolution. Since many commodities today may be produced and distributed at close to no cost, the scarcity of goods at the heart of traditional economical models is replaced by free and abundant supply. At the same time, the system is also suffering stress due to external shocks caused by the burning of fossil fuels, global warming, ageing populations and migration flows. From these internal and external pressures, capitalist society as we know it is about to breakdown. But, in Mason’s view, we also possess the means to meet these challenges. Thus, the combination of ecological and economic crisis and advances in technology allows Mason to envision the coming possibility of a new cyber-socialist order aimed at “a zero-carbon energy system; the production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs; and the reduction of necessary labour time as close as possible to zero”.[iii] Thanks to a fully automated economy, work becomes voluntary, and goods and services free and abundant.
Such an order becomes even more embellished in influential writer and journalist Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (2019), in which the author reiterates the assertion that the “crises of this century are either an existential threat to humanity, or the birth pangs of something better”.[iv] Bastani’s premise is that innovations in information technology and robotic automation are bringing about a third major “disruption”, comparable to the advent of agriculture and the industrial revolution. As in Mason, the cheap and easy reproduction of information will lead to a post-scarcity state of zero work and extreme supply for all – at least as long as the means of production are redistributed from private owners to social commons – due to the fact that most labor will be performed by machines powered by an endless supply of cheap and clean solar energy. As the reign of fossil fuels ends, global warming also comes to an end.
The most spectacular aspect of this seemingly fantastic scenario regards the achievement of post-scarcity in natural resources. In contrast to traditional environmentalism, Bastani does not argue for a restricted use of such resources in order to reduce our negative impact on the environment. Instead, he suggests that we start “mining the sky”, thus flooding the mineral market with metals to such an extent that the market collapses and hoarding for profit becomes impossible. While Bastani admits that we are already reaching our earthly limits in terms of metal extraction, he also assures us that space offers a cornucopia of mineral wealth. In particular, he refers to the asteroid 16 Psyche, located between Mars and Jupiter, and composed of titanic amounts of iron, nickel, copper, gold and platinum which could be extricated. To demonstrate the feasibility of such an enterprise, Bastani points to the private initiatives already in the works at companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin.
It should be clear that the utopias of space communism come strikingly close to, and even are duplicated from, the current hopes and promises offered by the neo-liberal market and its confidence in rapid technical solution. The impetus of space communism seems to be an attempt to move past traditional environmentalist discourse to paint intensified exploitation and expanded colonization as a virtue rather than a sin. Thus, space communism does not break with the values and norms of modernity – related, for example, to conquer, progress, innovation and mass production – but rather intensifies them.
Along these lines Bastani warns us against the supposedly dominant idea that “the only way to save our planet [is] to retreat from modernity itself”.[v] Instead, he launches a program for living “the good life” which is strangely similar to current consumerist ideology:
Under [fully automated luxury communism] we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent – if we so wish – to those of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic of history as the feudal peasant and medieval knight.[vi]
Such declarations are obviously based on a strong, but not fully articulated, idea of what the “good life” consists of. The result is contradictory. On the one hand, Bastani charges all forms of anti-utopianism for being caught in what cultural theorist Mark Fisher famously called “capitalist realism”, or the belief that there is no viable alternative to capitalism.[vii] On the other hand, his own perception of what makes life meaningful is entirely caught up in, and restricted to, the contemporary ideal of the affluent 1%. In fully automated luxury communism, existential significance equals the Instagram arcadia of globetrotting foodie extravaganza, albeit raised to cosmic proportions.
The darker, or pessimistic, prognosis, on the other hand, demands another view on goodness. In contrast to space communism, we may term this strand “Earth conservatism”, as it replaces the cosmic line of flight with a call for terrestrial groundedness. In the aptly named Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2017), philosopher Bruno Latour criticizes the current tendency to dismiss any sense of belonging – “to want to stay put and keep on working one’s plot of land, to be attached to it” – as necessarily reactionary.[viii] As Latour argues, what is needed is not a nomadic ideology of liberated uprootedness but a sense of attachment that is anchored, neither in the local (as in nationalist protectionism) nor the global (as in fossil-driven neo-liberal capitalist expansionism), but in the terrestrial.
Instead of extending the futurist-modernist project into space, Latour argues for a responsible relationship between human and Earth that would be able to engender the possibility for continuous existence by acknowledging how we rely, so to speak, upon the ground under our feet. Whereas space communism carries the torch of liberal Enlightenment by wanting to set us free from our terrestrial bounds, Earth conservatism rather finds meaning precisely in our dependency and boundedness. Consequently, in the call for everlasting modernization, Latour finds a false demand to choose between the old and the new. Or, as he summarizes the standpoint of “the modernization front”:
The past was no longer what allowed passage, but what was simply surpassed, outdated. To debate this choice, to hesitate, negotiate, take one’s time, was to doubt the arrow of time, to be old-fashioned.[ix]
Criticizing the modernist fetish of futurity, Latour labels the transhumanist credo of “those who want to escape from the problems of the planet by moving to Mars, or teleporting themselves into computers, or becoming truly post-human thanks to the marriage of DNA, cognitive science, and robots” as an unattainable form of “neo-hyper-modernism” which simply speeds up the driving force behind the current crisis although it has proved to lack a productive direction.[x] As an alternative, tradition becomes an integral part of “the good life”, since it is not simply dismissed as always being obsolete per definition but rather is consideres as what makes possible “any form of transmission, inheritance, or revival, and thus of transformation”.[xi] For Earth conservatism, existential conditions are not determined primarily by information but by semiosis and meaning-making; and for Latour, it is in the historical and anthropological archives that we are able to discover alternative “attitudes, myths, and rituals” that may prove to “become precious models for learning how to survive in the future”.[xii] In brief, the preservation of Earth relies on the preservation of our semiotic relations to Earth.
While Latour seems to find little relief in the kind of tech-optimism so attractive for space communism, he still provides a mostly hopeful perspective on the ability for us humans to manage the future. A more explicitly pessimistic version of Earth conservatism is instead presented in writer Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (2015), as it starts from the conviction that “we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything” about global warming, and the terse assertion: “We’re fucked.”[xiii] For Scranton, the problem is not to find a way out of the current situation, or even to stay with the trouble, but rather to adapt to the volatile reality of certain ecological and civilizational collapse. Coming to grips with such a situation is like coming to grips with one’s own mortality – that is, the very finitude which transhumanist tech-fetishism sets out to abolish. If the time for potential solutions has already passed, there is little hope in the “imaginary tomorrows” promising space colonies, immortality, or “consumer satiety in a wireless, robot-staffed, 3D-printed techno-utopia”.[xiv]
For the conservative position, the technological possibilities of information is less assuring than the existential potentials of significance. As sudden technological solutions are ruled out as a viable option, the possibility of adaptation – that is, of finding meaning in an already dying world – is rather placed in the rehabilitation of cultural traditions, philosophy and the humanities. For Scranton, human survival will consequently come to depend on our ability to “accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths, and work to nurture the variety and richness of our collective cultural heritage”.[xv] It is by connecting to our heritage that we are able to extend ourselves into the future:
Attending to the historical and philosophical genealogies of our current conceptual, symbolic structures of existence helps us recognize who we are, who we have been, and who we might become. […] The record of that wisdom, the heritage of the dead, is our most valuable gift to the future.[xvi]
Instead of progress: suspension, contemplation, meditation. Instead of production: preservation, maintenance, mediation.
[i] Martin Rees, ”The Anthropocene epoch could inaugurate even more marvellous eras of evolution”, The Guardian, 2016-08-29.
[ii] Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007, s. 28.
[iii] Paul Mason, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, London: Penguin Random House, 2015, p. ???.
[iv] Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto, London: Verso, 2019, p. 59.
[v] Bastani, p. 189.
[vi] Bastani, p. 189.
[vii] Cf. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester: Zero Books, 2009, p. 2.
[viii] Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime , trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge: Polity, 2018, s. 53.
[ix] Latour, p. 88.
[x] Latour, p. 30.
[xi] Latour, p. 88.
[xii] Latour, p. 75.
[xiii] Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, San Fransisco, Ca.: City Lights, 2015, pp. 16–17.
[xiv] Scranton, p. 76.
[xv] Scranton, 2015, p. 24.
[xvi] Scranton, 2015, pp. 98–99.