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I ended last week’s essay with a mention of the polycrisis, a term that’s been popularized by Adam Tooze of late. It’s a dark gestalt where the whole is worse than the sum of its parts, a systemic failure mode. Polycrisis talk is mostly negative (it’s worse than the sum of its parts after all!) but I am here to offer a contrarian opinion: it’s a good thing climate change is being normalized as its linked to other crises.
For example: social media is a major source of fake news that’s corroding democracy. Imagine if the dominant resistance to social media influence was that it’s a plot by a hidden AI matrix to take over the planet. Is such millennial thinking a good thing or a bad thing? It would be totally useless wouldn’t it, for neither does it identify an accurate culprit nor does it offer a path forward. Concern for the planet is essential and worry that we might destroy the basis for all life is a good worry but we want to walk the right side of the fine line between alarm and petrifying fear. On the flip side, we don’t want to embrace a technopositive position in which all we need is to unleash the creative energies of Silicon Valley upon the climate crisis and all will be well. An explicit discourse of normalization in which:
The planet is acknowledged as a planet, not as an extension of human society or its god given playground.
Human social and technical institutions are transformed to induct planetary processes into their spaces of concern and responsibility.
There’s no such thing as ‘economy and ecology’ or ‘nature and society’ — there’s only the planet.
is a good discourse to have.
So how might we design such a discourse?
By first studying how normalizing discourses were institutionalized in the past.
I got my first email account back in the nineties as a side benefit of being a graduate student in the United States. Email was a true novelty - the only people I could mail were fellow grad students and professors in my department. That list slowly expanded to other people at the university I had first met in person - we would exchange emails if we wanted to stay in touch.
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Even if someone in Germany or (rarely) India had an email ID how was I to find out about it? There were no email directories (unlike phone directories which arrived at my doorstep every year in a thick white and yellow package). Outside of my recently minted colleagues, my correspondence was done the old fashioned way - letters written by hand and mailed to the four corners of the world. Pen, paper and phone were the defaults and digital was a thin layer on top of the physical.
Can you believe it?
By the late 90’s I had stopped writing letters altogether; even my parents were on email and there was no going back to the old ways. In the last thirty years we have created a vast cognitive infrastructure normalizing the digital - clicking, flicking and swiping have become part of normal consciousness for the vast majority of humans across the world. And of course this cognitive architecture depends on a similarly vast material infrastructure of fiber optics and server farms. In about a generation, the digital industrial complex has gone from being an accent on a few people’s lives to constituting the world everyone inhabits.
How did this normalization of the digital happen? Will the normalization of climate have the same trajectory (with a starting point of ~ 2016 instead of ~ 1996)? Will the normalization of the planet build upon the normalization of the climate, just as networked digitality built upon thirty years of mainframe and personal computing?
I am not ready to commit to the term ‘worldview’ but if I were, the basic question can be stated so:
How does a new worldview come to be normalized over time?
My commitment phobia comes from sensing ‘worldview’ isn’t quite right. Perhaps its better to resurrect an older and even more controversial term: ‘condition,’ like the ‘human condition.’ Worldview is a view of the world, and therefore, it’s in our heads. Condition is both inside and outside. I like it more. WV or condition, A.O Hirschman has some interesting things to say about them in his book on the Passions and the Interests. From Sen’s preface to the revised edition:
Once the condition is established, it makes sense to tout its advantages in positive terms. Like how a market economy is better than a planned economy because decentralized agents with varied incentives are better placed to take advantage of information they encounter, i.e., a geek who loves playing with computers is much more likely to see the value of personal computing than a large corporation or the government. But that’s after the fact. How does the space for a new condition first get created? That’s where the passions and the interests come into the picture.
Contrast the cold calculation that Montesquieu promotes in Hirschman’s reading versus Alan Greenspan’s infamous defense of irrational exuberance, about as strong a defense of market passions as one might imagine. Capitalism has come full circle.
Idea: can we switch the default register of climate action from passion to interest? Thundering from the pulpit has its uses but why not also make the case that a planetary society is better for everyone, one that would ‘activate some benign human preclivities at the expense of some malignant ones’ of which there are many.
The taming of the passions didn’t happen overnight and certainly not on its own. Here Foucault’s analysis of power is useful, that modern institutions such as the school, the asylum and the factory helped discipline the self and made it ready for the interest driven society (F may not have said the last bit, but we can draw that conclusion).
What about unintended consequences?
These new institutions and new managerial concepts such as ‘population’ may have arisen out of a rational desire to privilege interests over passions but the institution building and population mapping didn’t stop with benign forms of control. Instead, they unleashed passions at a scale no one had ever seen before - the concentration camp, the killing fields, the surveillance state. Scientific racism etc are very much products of the same sensibility that created the census. The assumption that these developments are purely progressive turned out to be the worst possible assumption.
That’s not quite correct.
The extractive aspects of the modern sensibility were always known in the colonies and the plantations. It was only when the poison came back to Europe that metropolitans took notice. Marx had already pointed out at that this new regime was both a) revolutionary in that it transformed everything that came into its domain and b) unstable in the extreme. But Hirschman’s analysis of the passions points to a different source of corrosion:
If the original idea was that the institutions of modernity help interests dominate the passions, Freud inverted the metaphor. Instead of aristocratic interests that ruled over the rabble and kept their passions in check (in this game, the Hobbesian Leviathan plays an important umpiring role), the situation is more like an iceberg with the passions by far the more important and hidden force.
However you see it, the passions (or emotions as we would call them) can’t be separated from a sanitized reason or even subordinated to reasons’ interests. Even that seems like a benign assessment in our cyborg world where interests and passions are algorithmically controlled on a second to second basis. We have reached the limits of the passion-interest regime and its normalization.
The normal is that which is given to us, that we can incorporate into our lifeworld. But that lifeworld has a history, and that which is not given can come to be given. Today, the economy is the given; whether you know crypto futures or carbon pricing or not, there’s a line that connects you to the latest snake oil. Ecology, on the other hand, is mostly beyond the boundaries of the given. Even when its given - say in David Attenborough documentaries - it’s given as if its out there on a distant planet, as if it could be on Mars rather than where we are now. That won’t do.
next: normalizing ecology