On Accumulation and Risk
This week’s exploration of accumulation is sponsored by The Sciences of the Artificial.
A common refrain, almost axiomatic in my circles is: ‘why don’t they believe the science?’ Why don’t people take vaccines? Why don’t they believe in climate change? Why aren’t scientists taken to be the canaries in the coal mine that they are? Some of it has to do with organized misinformation by corporations, politicians and others whose interests are in conflict with the consequences of scientific investigation. These conflicts of interest are well known and well documented.
I want to propose another set of reasons: that our planetary thoughts are deeply impoverished. We only know the planet through the ‘safe’ knowledge of the natural sciences and have no access to other riskier forms of knowledge. We are immersed in risky knowledge of the globe and its organs such as states and markets, making our acquaintance with them through many media forms such movies, novels, documentaries etc and through the arts of speculation that allows us to play the stock market. Much of it is snake oil, but the net effect is profound: we are able to immerse ourselves in the globe as beings among other global beings and accumulate wealth and waste at global scale.
In short: we sense the globe and make sense of it well before we are asked to give truthful accounts. Riskier, deliberately speculative knowledge is essential for an immersive experience of planetary reality.
Last week, I raised the specter of accumulation and its ability to rouse the planet from its millennial slumber. Risky business, this accumulation.
Why has accumulation gone hand in hand with risk? What do we do about catastrophic risk?
Shahrazad might have a thing to teach us. Or her Italian avatar: Marco Polo.
In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.
So begins Italo Calvino’s imaginary take on Marco Polo’s expedition to China in ‘Invisible Cities.’ The Great Khan was much tickled by Polo’s tales, first in the real world and then in Calvino’s metaverse. Where else would he go, having conquered the known world?
The Khan is a sad man, trapped in a cage of his own making. But save a thought for Marco Polo, telling tall tales to the emperor. A risky affair even in virtual reality. What if he hates your stories and the game stops at 358 out of a possible 1001? What if he believes your yarn and wants to visit a mythical land of your making? I just said ‘land’ but it’s not land per se that concerns Calvino and his cohort. Cities in the sky will do as well as their grounded counterparts. Socrates is a cousin of Sindbad in this urban imagination, in whose streets and bazaars and squares we spin our yarns: some for entertainment, others for wisdom.
‘Let me tell you a story’ and ‘let me ask you a question’ are opening gambits of the same trickster.
Cities tell us it’s possible for humans to live in harmony with strangers, but plagues and conquests remind us that any attempt to change the world can bite us in the ass on the return trip. Until recently our trips were short, from my house to the neighbor’s and on a special occasion, to the town market. It would have been impossible to believe that entire nations, or even more expansively, the entire globe, can be engineered for collective flourishing. From Hirschman’s “Rival View of Market Society”:
The megamaya of our accumulative desire brings wealth at scale and unintended effects at even greater scale. That was the problem with the first phase of capitalism in the 19th century, when the colonization of Asia and Africa made Europe rich, but not only did imperialism exploit and impoverish Asia and Africa, it eventually brought total war back to Europe. But even WWII wasn’t truly planetary warfare. The credit for that achievement goes to the - as yet unrealized - thermonuclear war.
Herman Kahn was rumored to be the model for Dr. Strangelove in Kubrick’s famous movie. We have forgotten doctrines such as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), but his book is a sober (legit question: should we ever be sober about the possibility of complete annihilation?) exploration of doomsday scenarios. Kahn echoes Hirschman’s historical analysis, for he says:
but soon after, he qualifies that triumph with:
All of this was written during the post-war boom; so neither the end of the cold war, the rapid expansion of neoliberalism and the threat of climate change were on top of his mind, but we can agree with him: we must anticipate, avoid and alleviate crises before they become catastrophes.
The cold war got us used to planetary risk, but the institutions it spawned were niche institutions, designed for adversarial war against an identifiable enemy and not for collaborative labor to cure our accumulation addiction. But its treaty frameworks, international institutions and crisscrossing networks of information and energy are what we have as the starting point for future systems that constrains the globe and governs the earth.
What system of knowledge will help us dissolve the globe into the earth? What stories should we weave to avoid the emperor’s wrath?
Books and articles cited today and to be read over the next few weeks:
Herbert Simon: The Sciences of the Artificial.
Horta & Seale. The Annotated Arabian Nights.
Hirschman: Passions and Interests & Rival Views of Market Society.
Herman Kahn: On Thermonuclear War.