First Among Equals
There’s something about Elon Musk that really bothers me — I can deal with your ordinary robber baron without any problems, but a robber baron who occupies the summit of human imagination seems too much for a species to bear. I am not being jealous; rather, it’s a worry about what we have become as a species when so-called liberal-progressives glorify an interplanetary imperialist. Then again, liberal-progressives continue to make their pilgrimage to Oxford to pay homage to one of the greatest robber barons of all time — Cecil Rhodes. In a hundred years, they might make a similar trek to Mars on a Musk scholarship.
Let’s just say Musk is the perfect symbol of the sustainable Anthropocene. I am kidding of course; there’s nothing sustainable about the Anthropocene, but we will spend a couple of decades suckering ourselves into thinking that way.
For we think we are first among equals.
Primus inter pares highlights the confusion between two contradictory trends: the end of anthropocentrism and the rise of the anthropocene. Thoughtful people everywhere agree that humans aren’t the centre of the universe, aren’t the chosen species or even the only conscious species. There’s nothing special about us. The human question seems to have been settled: we are ordinary.
And yet, we are increasingly proclaiming that the earth belongs to us, that we preside over the anthropocene like a drunken sovereign, that we control more energy, more land and more flesh than any vengeful god. How is that possible? How can we simultaneously be as unspecial as we have ever been and as powerful as we have ever been? What’s the truth — are we ordinary or omnipotent? We may all have our favorite answer to this puzzle but what’s clear is that the human question hasn’t been resolved yet. In fact, noticing that we are caught between ordinariness and omnipotence is:
A sign that the human question is important once again and
It can’t be “solved” within the current understanding of the human-nonhuman relationship.
We are back to debating the human condition after thinking it’s a done deal, and by human condition, I mean human condition, not just the condition of white male tycoons based in Silicon Valley.
I had been chewing on the human question for several months when I saw Elon Musk’s paper outlining why humans need to establish colonies on Mars. Something about that paper angered me so much that I set aside my normal tortoise mode and became a hare. I am not sure what it is:
yet another rich and powerful white man telling us what he’s going to conquer next
that this particular rich white man is overtly — and genuinely — concerned about climate change and the human impact on our planet.
that this man nevertheless feels the long term solution (at least for people like him!) is to go forth and conquer another planet.
But of course, this isn’t just a statement of ambition, it’s also an extraordinary admission of failure.
At the height of our anthropocenic power, one of the most powerful people on earth is worried that we are finished. If Musk is any guide, the tension between omnipotent and ordinary isn’t only an intellectual challenge but also an existential one. That doubt gnaws at our foundation, for why else would someone attempt to create the most expensive solitary prison ever built? The Anthropocene seems to oscillate between the violent domination of the nonhuman world and the violent rejection of the nonhuman world. It’s as if climate change is resurrecting worries — like those of whites in the American South — that the oppressed will rise up and attack their masters.
So the Anthropocene is characterized by both continuity and difference with the non-human world: after all, we can’t eat their meat or use data from medical experimentation on non-humans if they weren’t like us — everyone agrees that their flesh is our flesh. At the same time, we continue to insist that we are different (but how? — the usual defense replicates the mind-body distinction that lies at the origin of this puzzle) so that we can justify our position at the top of the pyramid.
PS: After I am done with Musk, I might take on the Anthropocene — I mean the term not the situation it refers to, but it’s a term whose universal use for our current predicament is wrong-headed at best.
Originally published at kasturirangan.com.