The Planet is a Prefix
Nothing in society makes sense except in the light of the planet.
That’s my cult’s slogan.
It was so easy to let the planet disappear into the background or to neglect it altogether. Those days are gone, aren’t they? The carbon revolution has made sure the planet won’t be sidelined. Trotsky wanted us to live in a permanent communist revolution, but the liberation of the proletariat is a footnote to the liberation of carbon, which is the liberation theology that, until recently, united socialists, communists, capitalists, fascists and every other ist.
The carbon revolution exacerbates every other tendency. We’ve never had so many people living together in such close proximity — with so much information and so little knowledge about others. We’ve also never had so many people connected through social media. This new reality will require us all to rethink our relationship with each other and the planet, and will force us to think well beyond terms such as ‘climate justice’ and ‘environmental justice.’ ‘Climate justice’ may already seem to be stretch, but it’s not really. Those who deny the existence of human caused climate change should at least acknowledge that this century will likely see massive suffering due to extreme weather events. It’s only fair to ask rich people to pay a little bit more so that poor countries don’t become uninhabitable. Many people will accept that the claims of unfairness are worth making even if they never do anything about it. Climate justice is within the anthropocentric frame we understand, and within the reach of existing institutions.
I am talking about a much larger expansion of the concept of governance. We are entering an era of existential politics, where the current obsessions of government such as taxes are going to be replaced by the elemental obsessions of air, water, food, heat & climate. This year’s summer in South Asia is a good example - when it’s so hot that you can’t think or work or do anything, you have a very different idea of what it is to order society than before.
The history of the world has seen many different forms of government, from monarchies to totalitarian states, from republics to military dictatorships. But not a single one of them said: let’s invite rivers to the house and oceans to the senate. Can you imagine? I don’t need to tell you that a politics in which oceans and glaciers get a vote will be radically different from our current one. Existential politics will completely transform our idea of society in the light of the planet; in fact, we will need to rework the basic categories through which we experience the social — history, freedom, production and most importantly, the category human.
Take anything we do and add a planetary- in front of it and see what happens. It’s a known sleight of hand. Behavioral economics and behavioral finance shift our practice of economics and finance. Planetary economics and planetary finance will do the same.
It’s exciting to go back to the past and reread them as planetary history. For example: all of us know that horses and other carriage animals were replaced by automobiles. But did we ever stop to think that horses and sheep and pigs were laborers, and of course, once you think about them as fellow laborers, you can also entertain the thought that they deserve the same solidarity that human laborers receive.
We talk about the alienation of human labor from its products, but what about the alienation of human labor from animal labor? How much have we lost because we have stopped working with beings of other species? How much do we have to gain by designing new urban spaces that allow other species as first class citizens? Of course, we could have studied the same questions within environmental history. Is the ‘planet’ necessary as a prefix? Why not be satisfied with the environment? I don’t have a good answer yet, but my instincts say that the bigger tent is the better tent.
Scholars such as Jason Moore working on ‘World Ecology’ are reframing Capitalism as a way of ordering nature, which restated in theological terms says: if the planet is the god, then capitalism is a false form of worship, i.e., our way of mirroring nature in machines in order to extract profit is Satanic. And of course, it’s the exhaust from these machines that’s the underlying cause of climate change.
Of course, once we start the planetary reconstruction, why stop with the industrial revolution? Why not look at our agrarian past and present through the lens of the planet, since the intensive farming of the land and the oceans is the biggest source of ecological damage? Once we put on our planetary glasses, it’s hard not to see the misshapen nature of the spaces we inhabit.
So much for the ‘what’ that’s transformed by adding a planetary prefix; now for the ‘how.’ If there’s one recent technology that’s changed how we organize the world, computing has to be it, with the internet being its most dramatic avatar and the metaverse its fullest imagination.
Does the internet make sense only in the light of the planet?
Here too, I don’t have answers, only instincts. If the planet is a being of beings, then one way to grasp the planet is through those beings. Conversely, as long as we are only human beings, we run the risk of seeing every other being as a resource for our profit making enterprise. It’s only when we see the world from their point of view can we truly empathize with them. Here likes an opportunity that’s both scientific and artistic. Modern literature, especially the novel, helps us inhabit the minds of people who are otherwise quite different from us. The formal apparatus of rights and laws needs a literate population who shares an imaginative commons. The internet - on its good days - helps us extend that commons to people across the world. What if that commons extended to the non-human world? Just as pointing a telescope at the heavens expanded our picture of the universe, pointing the metaverse at other beings will expand our picture of beings and Being.
Who wouldn’t want to be a blue whale for a day?
In short: embracing the planetary as a universal prefix will require a massive cognitive effort on our part, completely transform what it is to be human and spur the development of technologies and imaginations that are still at a nascent stage.