Regime Change: The Transition from the Globe to the Planet
Reading for writing
Whether we like it or not, every one of us lives in the shadow of the Globe, the worldwide system of economics, technology, media and politics that delivers food to your stomach and disinformation to your brain. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann simply called it ‘Society’ - note the use of the singular - to indicate an entity that contains all humans along with the material and communicative tissues that bind us together into an autonomous whole.
Aside: Luhmann is famous in ‘second brain’ circles for being a prominent proponent of a method called Zettelkasten, which was his way of taking connected notes on paper. Supposedly responsible for his prolific writing - over 50 books and 550 articles over a long career.
Luhmann’s assumption (or claim?) was that Society is an autopoietic system, i.e., a system whose primary activity is to create itself and lead an autonomous existence. In this view, what society does is primarily driven by its own internal processes and only incidentally affected by the world outside. Society, as the fullest expression of human autonomy, is also the mechanism through which that global human is constituted, a being connected to all other human beings, immune to predation, fear and and disease and that only answers to its own demands. How many of us worry about being bitten by a snake or eaten by a tiger? For Society, these creatures are objects, where an object is an entity outside an autopoietic system that the system uses for its own purposes.
But of course, the dream of Society was only a dream; we can no more seal ourselves off from the rest of the universe than we can live in an glasshouse for eternity. That we are connected to the non-human world around us is a commonplace observation: the real irony - as climate change and the pandemic are telling us - is that the very processes that sustain Society are the ones that have made it porous and vulnerable and brought it to the brink of collapse. Society’s need for autonomy from the Planet is the very thing responsible for ending its autonomy from the Planet. That contradiction is exhibit A for:
Society makes sense only in the light of the Planet
There’s no economy without ecology, there’s no politics without planetics. Even something as other-worldly as religion has to be reinterpreted against the backdrop of our planetary condition. There’s no going back to the Globe- whether our civilization collapses or whether we rise to the occasion.
The regime change from the Globe to the Earth is well under way, but its contours are mostly hidden from us. We will need to cast a speculative eye to discern the Earth’s features as they will reveal themselves in the near future. At the same time, the Earth can’t be studied as if it were ‘natural,’ a rock with a thin layer of life on its surface and nothing else. Studies of the social have revealed:
The metaphysical richness of the human animal, the Dasein, as Heidegger called it.
The material complexity that goes into the self-production of Society.
We need to bring that taste for diversity and subtlety to the study of the Earth. This is a romantic view, both in the small ‘r’ colloquial sense and in the big ‘R’ Romantic tradition sense. It’s the Romantics who first articulated an organic, holistic response to the mechanical tendencies of modernity. As Andrea Wulf says about the influence of the thinkers and poets of Jena:
Many of those who were inspired by the ideas coming out of Jena felt that they lived in a world ruled by division and fragmentation – they bemoaned the loss of unity. The problem, they believed, lay with Cartesian philosophers who had divided the world into mind and matter, or the Linnaeun thinking that had turned the understanding of nature into a narrow practice of collecting and classification. Coleridge called these philosophers the ‘Little-ists’. This ‘philosophy of mechanism’, he wrote to Wordsworth, ‘strikes Death’. Thinkers, poets and writers in the US and across Europe were enthralled by the ideas that developed in Jena, which fought the increasing materialism and mechanical clanking of the world.
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Let me offer a romantic hypothesis:
The pinnacle of the Romantic view, the proper home for our animal selves, is not the nation state but the Earth itself. The planet is where history began and it’s where history ends for the foreseeable future.
Over the next year, I will explore how the visible and invisible hand of the planet helps us make sense of Society. In this exploration ‘trained speculation’ will have as much a role to play as the analysis of facts. My goal isn’t to to explain what’s happening or to predict the future1,but to paint a plausible picture of what might happen. I will be doing a lot of ‘reading for writing,’ i.e., reading books and essays written by others who have something to offer to our planetary turn, with the reading having a specific purpose: writing the planet into society. I don’t know how often I will write - once a week seems like a good rhythm to establish, but expect more frequent missives when I am on the trail of a particularly important idea.
It’s very hard to predict, especially the future — variously attributed to Yogi Berra and Niels Bohr.