The Anthropocene is a Ponzi Scheme
Photo by Joshua Brown on Unsplash
TL;DR: Anthropocene = Ponzi Scheme.
Slightly longer version: The Anthropocene is the culmination of liberalism and it’s a Ponzi scheme.
I started writing this essay as a way of understanding the term “Anthropocene” and its consequences for our understanding of an even more weighty term, namely, “society.” Google tells us that Anthropocene is a rocketship concept in the marketplace of buzzwords:
While much of the discussion has revolved around the “cene” and when it started and how it will end, there’s almost no discussion of the “anthro” half of the term. It’s assumed that anthro is an unproblematic category, that whether we start the anthropocene when humans tamed fire, domesticated animals and plants, started living in cities, started burning coal and then oil or when the carbon dioxide concentration reached 400ppm, it’s the same human, i.e., since our biology hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, the debate about the anthropocene is about drawing lines around when it truly became a cene.
Not everyone agrees, obviously. Clearly, there’s a major difference in cenic power between a !Kung tribeswoman in the Kalahari and Donald Trump making America great again. Since much of the ppm increase has come post-industrial revolution and correlates strongly with capitalist expansion, some have thought to rebrand the term as Capitalocene.
There’s clearly something right about the rebranding exercise — without capital we wouldn’t have seen the fire and the fury that continues to consume our world. However, it too leaves the anthro untouched — is anthro so clearly an unproblematic and undifferentiated “biological” category that it’s not worth probing?
I find that hard to believe. For one, there are no undifferentiated categories period. Scientific and mathematical investigation pretends that pure definitions exist, but if anything, cognitive science has shown that categories themselves are many splendored creatures.
Then there’s the additional fact that some of the greatest contributions to carbon emissions come from cows, pigs and other nonhumans who are tortured and slaughtered for human benefit. It’s almost as if the nonhuman world has despaired of humans ever listening to the voice of reason and are conspiring — openly, I might add — to use the only weapons they have, i.e., their behinds, to conduct a suicide attack on human societies.
Key point: while the biological clearly informs our theoretical understanding of what it is to be human, it’s the social that we experience on a day to day basis, i.e., our day to day intercourse (in every sense of that word) with other humans and as I will argue, with other beings. Asking who’s the “anthro” in the anthropocene is asking us to reconsider what it means for us to be social beings and, in particular, to reconsider what “society” means.
If the anthropocene teaches us anything, it’s that every stripe of nonhuman — from cows and pigs to hurricanes and oceans — is knocking on the doors of society and asking us to let them in. We will get there, but not quite yet. Why not? I want to understand the structures that are preventing us from doing so.
I don’t think it’s only capital. The problem is bigger; it lands squarely on the anthro- in the anthropocene. Don’t believe me? Consider these two graphs. The first is a graph of carbon emissions by year (starting 1900):
The second is a google n-gram of the phrase “Human Rights” over the same period:
The two look pretty similar don’t they? I am suggesting (insinuating, really) that the anthro- in the anthropocene and the human- in human rights aren’t two different categories, but rather ontological twins joined at the hip. Or put another way, the human being — the being whose rights are being protected — is being produced in a manner that leaves the non-human in ontological limbo. We have no hope of addressing the climate inferno that will cap the anthropocene without understanding the ontology of “human” as a category.
We have to uncover the ontology of the human, but not in the classic sense of the fundamental categories of being but an empirically and historically grounded production of a new category (“human”) through processes that consume both energy and information.
Think of it as a metaphysical factory that burns oil and bits and extrudes a shiny human on the other side. That metaphysical factory is a ponzi scheme — it expands its market by including more and more beings as people but every time it does so, it wreaks havoc on those outside the door.
Note: What follows is a collage of ideas. Some will turn out to be wrong. Others will turn out to be too offensive. The survivors will blossom into proper articles and books that I will convert into fame and fortune. Meanwhile, I am in prototyping mode. Therefore, arguments will be flawed, analogies incomplete and evidence retractable. Live with it.
A Special Transmission
Chan Buddhism (better known as Zen in much of the world) has an origin story; it claims to be a “special transmission outside the scriptures.” We can dispute whether Chan is more special than other transmissions and also observe that it spawned a rich literary legacy for a tradition fiercely opposed to the power of words, but the basic idea is simple to understand — the standard model of liberation was ossified and it was time to take a sharp koanic knife to it.
In what follows, I want to turn that koanic knife upon our current ideology of liberation — the apparatus of state & market, democracy and human rights etc — in the context of three problems that this apparatus can’t solve: climate change, general ecological collapse and nonhuman suffering.
In fact, the apparatus is a Ponzi scheme that gained strength by burning fossil fuel, extracting the earth and confining animals to factory farms. Its capacity to liberate human beings is directly proportional to its capacity to oppress every other being, but unfortunately, karma being what it is, there’s a limit to how much we can play this ponzi game of liberation before the whole system collapses. Which is increasingly looking like the inevitable outcome.
Another way of putting it: while the modern era liberated us from thinking humans are the center of the heavens, it doubled down on thinking humans are at the center of the earth. Further, the same cognitive forces are at play in the process of cosmic liberation and terrestrial oppression.
While the yin-yang of cosmic liberation and terrestrial oppression appears to be a claim about how we have acquired knowledge about heaven and earth, I intend it to be a political claim, i.e., a thesis about how we need to radically transform the way we run our earthly show. After all, politics is the most successful means through which we have brought together collectives to achieve freedom. If science is the dominant modern perspective on the cosmos, politics is the dominant modern perspective on terrestrial affairs. Therefore, terrestrial oppression is a direct consequence of bad politics. It is also, I will claim, a direct consequence of bad science, starting with the widespread scientific practice of sticking to heaven and not intervening in earthly affairs.
Some scholars think it’s enough to bring science into democracy. I believe we have to go much much further — we have to disassemble much of what we call science and much of what we call politics and then hope that unlike Humpty Dumpty, it can be put together again. Or rather, like the Banach-Tarski paradox, we should tear up the old egg and reassemble it at twice the size. That’s our koanic knife.
I started writing this essay after watching Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel,” and in its aftermath trying to understand the extraordinary and almost complete absence of concern about the nonhuman world in the climate movement.
Let me start with the latter, for I will soon shift to the former. There was a time in the sixties and seventies with the enormous popular interest in unwestern modes of life, the beginning of the Deep Ecology movement and the publication of Naess’ Ecosophy T, the publication of Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis when it was clear that the underlying problem wasn’t about the relative merits of capital and labor but the very foundations of industrial and post-industrial civilization.
Or simply put, the problem was modernity.
In contrast, the climate movement is firmly within the modern camp with the usual themes of scientific rationality (hence the importance of “Standing with Science”), capitalist development with a touch of sustainability and democratic mobilization turning into “policy” where experts dispense advice to their elite comrades on how to save the earth while making boatloads of money.
How did this extraordinary reversal happen — a 180 degree shift of a deep critique of modernity into the next stage in its evolution? The answer, I will argue, is ponzism. Ponzism is a metaphysical scam, a way of being that scales and mutates as new forms of energy are tapped, a scam that expands by wearing a mask of benevolence while looking for new investors while simultaneously multiplying the number of victims many times over.
Ponzism started as a European ideology grounded in the uniquely scientific and rational character of their civilization, but it’s a fickle ideology. It has no allegiance to the West as the decimation of the working class there has shown — sweatshops and machines are more obedient than unionized labour. China might soon become the hub of ponzism. Why stop with China — ponzism may not even have allegiance to human beings. The long term future of ponzism might lie with robots and AI — with the matrix and planetary mechanization coming together in one gigantic orgy.
You may or may not believe in conspiracy theories, but it’s clear that the human world is expanding into the nonhuman at breakneck speed — we can engineer microbiomes and if our geoengineers are to be trusted, microstorms as well. If so, everything from a cell to a cloud is a future investor or victim.
Having ridden out the imperial era of European colonization and the Cold war era of the nuclear arms race, we are now in the stage of ponzism I call Aiag, the opposite of Gaia. If Gaia was the mythical European mother goddess, the earth-being who maintained life-friendly conditions on this planet, Aiag is the actual theology of western civilization, a theology whose goal is to burn the planet in the service of humanity and then cry when you realize that inventing better air conditioners is useless when your house is burning. Aiag starts as a servant of human nature but soon squeezes every living creature like a planetary python. Ponzism is keenly aware of Aiag and is waiting to jump ship from the fossil fuel driven human world to a green ponzism whose control over the earth is at a level deeper than anything we have seen before.
While the dangers of Aiag worship have been well understood since the beginnings of the industrial revolution — it’s time to inhale William Blake if you haven’t done so yet — the protests were at the margins until the end of the second world war. Since then, the critique of modernity has become a staple of social science and humanities departments worldwide though that has done absolutely nothing to stop the rapid spread of the Aiag cult throughout the world in the name of development.
Why have we failed? Why has Aiag won and Gaia lost? Why does the anthropocene simultaneously induce an intoxicated scream of human dominion and the paralyzing fear of apocalypse?
One word answer: ponzism.
Aiag sounds (to me, if not to you) like a Carlos Castaneda book turned into a Hollywood blockbuster. We don’t have to entertain shamanic visions just yet; there’s plenty of unremarkable historical analysis to be done first, for whatever we believe about its future we can’t understand ponzism’s past without understanding its origins in the west, especially the post second world war west.
I am continuously amazed at the tricks pulled by western magicians to keep ruling the world: when you protest against racism, they give you human rights; if you protest against Eurocentrism, they will give you globalization; if you protest against pollution they will give you renewable energy.
A system that started with the genocide of the Americas, progressed with the slavery of Africa, gained strength with the imperial plunder of the whole world and crescendoed in an orgy of violence that ended with the use nuclear weapons is still seen as the repository of progressiveness and liberation. For every Napoleon, there’s a Marx; for every Hitler, there’s a Stalin. It’s as if the magicians made a secret pact amongst themselves to play gods and devils to keep us entertained.
And even when all of those ideas went up in flames at the end of the second world war, the didn’t die: instead, they have come back with renewed force as sustainable-multicultural brainwash. And I am even more amazed that the rest of us continue to fall for these tricks. How did they manage to sucker us so completely? What’s the source of this hypnosis?
There’s a reasonably adequate explanation of the hypnotic effect of the west: manufacturing consent. While I agree with Chomsky, there remains a puzzle: how is it that the hypnosis successfully transitions from regime to regime even as we move from coal to oil to solar and from colonialism to national sovereignty and beyond? The history of science offers an instructive lesson: as Kuhn pointed out in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientific concepts sometimes receive wholesale rejection when the new ideas are considered incommensurate with the old. Yet, physics remains physics and science remains science. The ship of science continues to sail the seas while replacing its sails with smokestacks and its wooden boards with steel plates.
Now generalize that story of scientific renewal to the political-social system that dominates our world and ask the same question: how is it that the west commands our ideas even as the ideas themselves are rejected again and again?
Note: I fully understand that the term “west” is a crude and reductive term for a complex network of ideas and ideologies.
I received a hint when I saw Gore’s Inconvenient Sequel, which is not surprising because I have a bigger problem with the saviors than with the haters. I know where I stand with men marching down the streets of Charlottesville shouting “we will not be ignored.” They don’t like me. A man who makes movies about saving the world is a more complicated story. In one of the key moments of Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Sequel,” Gore talks to his buddies, Elon Musk and Larry Summers. Gore wants Musk to give his solar technology to the undeserving people of India, who are otherwise reluctant to sign the Paris accord. I can do no better than quote the New Republic article on the topic:
Al Gore whips into action — by pulling out his cell phone. He dials Larry Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary, and says, “Elon suggested I call.” Naturally, the former vice president is on a first-name basis with the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. But Elon Musk is more important to Gore as the chairman of SolarCity, which The New York Times describes as “the nation’s leading installer of rooftop solar panels and a renewable energy darling.” Gore is thus connected with SolarCity’s president, and asks him to give the company’s intellectual property to India, free of charge. “SolarCity could be the corporate hero of Paris,” Gore says into the phone. “Think about it.” The company eventually agrees, and India signs the agreement. Gore saves the day — and perhaps the planet.
Gore’s benevolence extends beyond India to the rest of Asia. Here’s a clip from the official trailer:
Notice how our Gore comforts a slightly built Asian man — the video has the man saying “I feel so scared” in a shaky voice — followed by scenes of destruction from other unwests. Meanwhile, here’s a shot of the people who will solve the problem:
The color of the iceberg matches the color of the audience. Inconvenient Sequel regurgitates the plot of every Hollywood movie: when the going gets bad, heroes rise from the west to save the world. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.
Let me tell you something: we’re not that scared and we don’t need your comfort.
Al Gore’s a politician attempting a late-innings come back — of course he’s going to inflate his contribution to anything. Stopping climate change is the obvious next step for the man who invented the internet. Fair enough, so let’s take a look at another recent climate change blockbuster, Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything.”
Klein’s book is meticulously researched. She has footnotes and references for every fact and story. A quick search reveals that her book has about fifty instances of the term “India.” Does she quote Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari’s Churning the Earth, the definitely book on how globalization and capitalism are impacting the environment in India?
Klein’s oversight could be just that, an oversight. Could be, but the book doesn’t reveal or explain ideas originating in the unwest. After watching Gore strut on stage or reading Klein’s anti-capitalist rebellion, you’re none the wiser about unwestern imaginations. Did they wonder about the changing seasons? Do they understand what’s happening to their earth, or are they too scared to have a coherent thought?
The cast changes but the story remains the same: the fight between Good and Evil is always inside the moral arc of the west. When the west succeeds it is because the west uniquely progressive and capable of assimilating criticism and dissent. When the west fails, it is temporary because the west is uniquely progressive and capable of assimilating criticism and dissent. There’s a magic wand at its core that waves all troubles away.
It’s this western liberal order that’s supposed to save us from fascism, climate collapse and bad daytime TV.
The Sun Rises in the West
The west’s lasting propaganda has been how it is the universal origin of utopias and dystopias, especially those at a planetary scale, the motto being “genocide and civilize.” The brainwashing has worked well — whether Star Trek or 1984, the only acceptable global imagination is western and the only institutions with universal reach are western. No wonder an organization called “The United Nations” has four out of its five permanent members and most of its head offices in Euro-America. Then there’s the constant struggle over whether capitalism is better than socialism or socialism better than capitalism without asking why our social imaginations stop with these two ideas.
If pushed, a liberal intellectual will admit that a Yanomami tribal has their own ontology, their own idea of freedom, their own carving of the universe at its joints, but that appreciation stops at the boundaries of the Amazon. Closer to my home, a Naomi Klein might appreciate Gandhi as an emissary for peace, but she would never consider reading Hind Swaraj as a blueprint for addressing the economic structures of the world. Earth saving agreements are still signed in Paris by men in suits.
Innovation as usual assumes that answers to our prayers will come from the social imagination of London and New York, the intellectual imagination of Cambridge and Oxford and the technological imagination of Silicon Valley or their subsidiaries in Beijing and Bangalore. We continue to write books like the Anthropocene Project:
Williston identifies that we are now in ‘the human age’-the Anthropocene-but he argues that this is no mere geological marker. It is instead best viewed as the latest permutation of an already existing moral and political project rooted in Enlightenment values. The author shows that it can be fruitful to do climate ethics with this focus because in so many aspects of our culture we already endorse broadly Enlightenment values about progress, equality, and the value of knowledge.
That, in essence, is everything I find disagreeable in this world, for the idea that the the “European Enlightenment” (I can’t utter that phrase without sniggering) is uniquely devilish and uniquely angelic continues to set the boundaries of the acceptable. Liberal multiculturalism (or even multispeciesism) is utterly inadequate — we have to recognize the real differences and not subsume them under a creaking propaganda machinery.
So let me start with a different premise: the time for western leadership is long gone, including the leadership of brown and black men in suits. We don’t need more intersectionality and inclusivity or more black and brown representation in the race to save the earth. Or some other progressive slogan. Every framing of our earthly condition within modern political, moral and scientific institutional structures should be demolished. If you have any remaining doubts:
Human rights: wrong.
United Nations: wrong.
Stand with Science: wrong.
We don’t need the leadership of the heterodox-orthodox, the Chomskys, Foucaults and Kleins. I don’t doubt the subtlety of their thoughts or their courage but they are our peers and followers, not our leaders. They accept the guilt of the imperium but continue to reinforce the unique universality of western ideas and ideals.
We can no longer accept that position.
I do have a sneaking sympathy for the dregs of western academia, the anthropologists, cultural theorists, cognitive linguists, animal studies scholars and Science and Technology Studies “anthropologists of the modern” who work in grantless cubicles with no prospect of tenure because they dare train their critical eyes on a system that claims to capture everyone else in its gaze. Everything else being equal, if articulating an unwestern position gets you ridiculed in the New York Times, banishes you from Harvard or systematically excludes you from NSF funding, you must be doing something right.
Then there are the truly heterodox such as Blake, Thoreau, Uexkull, Naess, Lovelock, Maturana, Alexander and others who saw the machine as it was growing in strength and wanted nothing to do with it. They are western shamans, the anti-prometheans. With their help we can still access the world beyond the machine while retaining our commitment to truth.
You might respond: isn’t the universality of the west true in practice, if not in theory? Isn’t the Indian constitution based on similar western documents? Isn’t China ruled by a communist party? For pragmatic reasons, global accords use concepts that have global reach and only the descendants of the European enlightenment are so blessed. Yeah, but where do those blessings come from? What underlies the energy and vigor of their spread? What structures help it replicate and propagate? I believe there’s a simple answer to these questions: it’s a Ponzi scheme.
Therefore, instead of calling it enlightenment, let’s give it a different name: Ponzism, i.e., a way of thinking that spreads by bringing new suckers into the pyramid — and a much larger strata of new victims below the suckers- until the matrix collapses under its own contradictions. Bernie Madoff didn’t set off to rob people at gunpoint — as every budding ponzist will tell you, opening a bank is a better way of making money off other people than robbing a bank. In the same way, our fossil-fuel burning, factory-farm eating human peaksterism is driven by a vision of flourishing.
Therein lies the problem. We often hear that the underlying problem is greed, especially organized capitalist greed. Greed is surely destructive, but I think it’s not only the negative side of humanity that’s the problem. It’s the positive side too. It’s not the thugs and crooks I am worried about, but the dreamers and leaders. Through them, we have inherited a false self-understanding of humanity and what it means to have a good life.
The dominant positive vision of what it is to be human is a ponzi scheme that combines capitalism in the economic realm (renamed “development” when you’re buying water in Dharavi instead of iPhones in Malabar Hills ), human rights in the moral realm and some form of liberal democratic rule in the political realm. Ponzism doesn’t even stop at the human; it describes the cyborg-human and posthumanist trends (see this book by Harari for a recent version of propaganda passing off as progressivism) and others.
To reiterate the obvious, the end of history wasn’t meant to be a negative outcome: it assumed that liberal democracy, globalization of trade and finance were good things. Unlike naked power grabs, ponzism is seductive. It portrays a city on the hill where fully furnished apartments are available to those willing to pay a price. That’s why ponzism feels good in the short term and even in the medium term. It’s only in the long run that we see the effects of the ponzi scheme, first on the suckers and then on the winners.
The losers, of course, feel it from the beginning.
But what’s the alternative? I don’t know. A structure that’s infiltrated everything from cells to societies is bound to be complex; just describing the contours of ponzism will occupy my energies for a while. Ponzism is like an aging king who can only survive by sucking the blood of young children. Better to let him die a peaceful death and birth a new networked and fluid world.
By the way, there’s no running away from ponzism to some wholesome repository of ancient wisdom. I can’t speak for other parts of the world, but India is (literally — 100,000 + farmer suicides a year) at the bleeding edge of ponzism, which we have taken to with a vengeance. That’s because we were trained well. Indians have a long acquaintance with ponzism; or rather, Charles Ponzi had a much more dangerous predecessor in India: Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Note: Macaulay’s colonial and postcolonial legacy is a complicated topic, and I may say more about Macaulay further in this series.
If you want your questions answered now, Aseem’s wonderful essay will tell you all you need to know, but for my purposes, it’s enough to acknowledge that Macaulay was successful beyond the dreams of avarice. Post-liberalization shining Indians are perhaps the biggest sucker class in the world — desperate to get into the ponzi scheme, destructive of everything valuable in their own traditions while claiming to save them from the foreign hand, vengeful and close-minded without any creativity or aesthetic impulse whatsoever. Here’s an interview that captures the desi ponzi mindset. The man wants to make India into a great power; reading his wisdom tells us how ponzism spreads its poison through the dual pincers of the State and the Market.
By Prateek Karandikar — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5689624
Fortunately for my work and unfortunately for the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, we have the opportunity to see ponzism take charge in real time in shining India — the first phase has already been completed and we are now in phase two — the Empire Strikes Back stage of ponzist development. Or should I say the Empire State Building stage of ponzist development. Exhibit A in desi ponzism is UB City in central Bangalore. Looks a lot like a certain building in New York city doesn’t it? Except that it was built seventy five years after the original and is 1/3rd the height of the NYC landmark.
That’s the ambition of desi ponzism — “Make in India” a century too late and one third as big.
There was the briefest period of introspection after the second world war before ponzism took charge once again. As Europe lay in ruins at the end of the second world war, decolonization started in earnest, the horrors of the gas chambers and the nuclear bomb turned the dream of scientific and technological progress into a nightmare and people throughout the world began their journey towards self-determination.
I think ponzism would have collapsed if the United States hadn’t emerged as a hegemonic power with an attractive narrative, the “American Way of Life”. Starting in the 1950s, it became possible once again to believe in progress and enlightenment, powered by fossil fuels of course, or the hand-me-down version of progress in what was then a newly coined term “Third World Development.”
Thirst for carbon defines post-war Ponzism, a thirst that turned into a flood when the cold war ended and China came into the American system.
Fine, but isn’t all of that in the past of the enlightenment? Isn’t the new regime of universal human rights and sustainable development truly better? Isn’t a future filled with solar panels and electric cars the real end of history?
It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Every thinking person acknowledges some version of the anthropocene and the dangers of climate change but in the very next breath leading scientists and policy makers endorse responses that reek of the mentality that brought us to this pass. For example, here’s a danger we might want to address before it’s too late: why is it that geoengineering is increasingly becoming the go-to solution for runaway climate change? The answer is simple as soon as we recognize the ponzist frame: it’s the cognitive character of ponzism to propose cures worse than the disease.
Sooner or later, the response to the earth striking back at our greed will be to try to control it even more completely.
I have no doubt that ponzism will seek to turn this latest crisis to its advantage — a stockpile of green utopias and dystopias is being built in preparation for the next transition in which data replaces oil and algorithms replace machines as the main engines of ponzism. The green ponzi is the culmination of colonialism:
First step: imperial colonization
Second step: globalized colonization
Third and final step: anthropocratic colonization
Imperial colonization ended with the second world war. Globalization was prepped during the cold war but it was unleashed in full force after the Soviet Union fell apart. Now we know globalization is dead — the election of Trump killed an ailing beast — so the only way to propagate ponzism is by turning the dial to green. We see new rhetorics emerging as ponzism attempts the transition to a global “sustainable” regime — a typical example is the slogan “it’s not about polar bears, it’s about people.”
The shift from eurocentrism to globalization to sustainable planetary management clarifies the theology of Aiag — it’s ultimately an account of human nature with the rest of nature revolving around it like a Ptolemaic sun. The modern system claims to have unshackled itself from the anthropocentric superstitions of the past but in fact it’s being revealed as the most anthropocentric system ever created.
An anthropocentric system powered by fossil fuels. However, ponzism is ready to ditch its allegiance to fossil fuels — while claiming to be terrified of the anthropocene, green ponzism desires to replicate and strengthen its anthropocentric bias. Unfortunately, the ponzist account of human nature is overripe — it’s rotting from within as well as without. We have to turn to the metaphysics of energy in order to understand that rot.
The entire edifice of left-right/human rights/capital-social/I’m so liberal belongs to the past, for even the good parts are products of fossil fueled societies. Let me say that one more time: fossil fuels power the mental energy behind ponzism so that the social imagination of liberal democracy and human rights is as much a product of despoiling the earth as Exxon Valdez.
As J.R McNeill writes in “Something New Under the Sun,” his history of the environment in the twentieth century:
Our fossil fuel powered civilization is an unstable pyramid. McNeill has keenly spotted that the pyramid is predatory while protecting its instabilities.
These aren’t new facts; but as they say, “it works well in practice, but does it work in theory?” While the empirical investigator looks at the trends in energy use and supply, the theorist wonders whether those energy trends come with a tacit account of human nature. And if so, what’s that account of human nature and what does it mean when human nature falls apart?
Do I believe that ponzism is our dominant vision of human nature, a vision that’s been put into practice throughout the world? Yes I do.
Do I believe that the ponzi scheme is tottering? Yes I do.
What comes next? It’s very hard to predict, especially the future.
The empirical scholar — McNeill being one, Ian Morris’ “Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels” being another — works out the relationship between energy sources and social and political institutions. It’s undoubtedly exciting to trace the history of society, and the history of politics and ethics through the lens of energy. But is there a deeper relationship? Is there an intrinsic relationship between an energy regime and the social furniture of the universe? I think so — and therefore, we must investigate the metaphysics of energy.
Consider the strength of climate denial in the US; it’s no surprise that the US is also the world’s biggest ecological shark. But the ecological shark label doesn’t tell us why the resistance to climate change is so deep or why it’s expressed in laughably irrational ways. Why are people so caught up in the fossil economy? I can understand the rational calculations behind the Exxon CEO denying their impact on climate, but why are people rising out of the woodwork and lashing out at those who want to replace their gas guzzlers with electric trucks? These are questions of ontology as much as of psychology.
The Ground and the Figure
Let’s come back to where we started: why is the nonhuman world absent in discussions of climate justice? Let me answer that question by asking another: who has been the biggest loser of the Aiag theology of the industrial revolution?
Before machines took over, labor was as much animal as human. Horses pulled carriages, oxen pulled ploughs and so on. Mechanization finished off the blue-collar animal for good and since liberal politics has no room for non-humans, there was no rhetoric that cows and horses and pigs freed of drudgery will now lead lives of luxury. Instead, they were carted off to factory farms where they lead lives of unmitigated misery.
If I was a cow, I would welcome climate catastrophe as the only way of ending the human yoke, just as a colonized Asian or African would have welcomed the mutual orgy of European violence in the second world war as the only way of ending the imperial yoke.
There’s this Grist piece that says we should be feeding cows more oregano to prevent them from farting, seeing as methane from cow farts are one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Since Americans can’t live without their burgers, the only way to solve the emissions problem is to put cows on a diet. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone invents a violent anal-raping machine that extracts cow methane at the source and the contraption is hailed as an earth saving device.
Factory farms are among the biggest sources of carbon emissions and the solution is to shut them down entirely rather than find technological fixes for their effluents. Here’s where you see Ponzism at its peak — for the absence of concern for the inhabitants of factory farms is a cognitive feat, a reversal of the usual relationship between figure and ground.
Normally, if I am walking towards a beautiful painting in a room filled with sunlight, I will pay more attention to the painting and less attention to the dust particles dancing in Brownian motion. Unless we reverse the figure-ground relationship and view the dancing particles as the object of interest and the painting merely the background for the dance.
That’s because in all of our senses, we find it easy to focus on visible objects and have trouble paying attention to their context. With climate change, it’s the opposite: there’s an enormous international system geared to track what’s otherwise invisible. We find it easy to protest the silent release of carbon into our atmosphere and track its movements from day to day. In contrast, there’s almost no infrastructure to track the completely visible (and hearable and smellable) suffering imposed on the 56 billion farm animals killed for human consumption every year. There’s no Paris protocol against factory farming. Trump can’t gain any extra votes in Michigan by striking down an international treaty to end the farming of cows.
It is as if — and I know the comparison is loaded — the people of Germany complained day in and day out about the pollution from the gas chambers without asking what’s happening within them. Factory farming is as much a product of the fossil fuel age as Hummers are, down to the copycat design of the car assembly line based on slaughterhouses in the midwest. Then why is factory farming the neglected twin, despite being attached at the hip to climate change? Because we have a selective interest in the affairs of this planet and ponzism cleverly exploits that attention deficit disorder.
In summary, we aren’t trying to stop climate change or end inequality or save the planet. As the term “Anthropocene” suggests quite explicitly, the real problem is colonialism with a human face.
Post 1945 ponzist colonization has spread beyond the west; well beyond the human world in fact. All in the name of “human welfare” or “development.” In this new regime, all human beings are in the sucker class and every other creature on this planet is a victim. That’s the real meaning of the term “anthropocene,” which should be renamed anthroponzi.
Therefore, our struggle is the continuation of an anti-colonial struggle which had a fake reprieve in 1945. It turns out that Gandhian anti-colonialism was right in its critique of modernity but terribly wrong in championing nationalism as the answer to colonialism. National sovereignty means nothing when the national elite have exactly the same ponzist beliefs as their colonial masters.
Let’s admit it: ponzism suckered us into buying the nation-market dream.
What does the complete colonization of the earth mean for us? Who will help us digest that reality? The climate crisis isn’t just a crisis of economy or society, but also of science and philosophy. Ponzism’s intellectual basis was fed by springs constructed by Hobbes-Descartes-Hume-Kant-Hegel-Darwin-Marx — — — and it’s time to go drink somewhere else.
That’s why the response to anthroponzism cannot come from retired NASA scientists and philosophers read by Bjork alone. To give just one alternative, Gandhi and Tagore discussed most of the underlying issues in their famous debate a century ago.
We know ponzism is a failed civilization — it can only survive by increasing the number of suckers and multiplying the number of victims by an even greater number. It’s unlikely we will succeed in changing its course before it devours the earth but at least we can identify the problem for what it is. Lenin wrote a prescient book in response to an earlier ponzist era, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” Lenin was right, but he underestimated the underlying ponzist energies. It’s time to update Lenin’s book with a new title: “Anthropocene: the Highest Stage of Ponzism.” To wit:
Ponzism is a colonizing force.
The anthropocene is ponzism claiming all of humanity as its investor class — anthropocene = anthroponzi.
The struggle to save the earth is a continuation of anti-colonial struggles, except that the colonizers aren’t only in the west and most of the victims aren’t human.
If the ponzism hypothesis is correct, we have to adopt a very different attitude towards the world we live in. For example, it means that terms like social justice have to be radically transformed if not entirely abandoned, for what is society if not yet another manifestation of the human bubble? Addressing anthroponzism and the transition out of the metaphysics of the fossil fueled world is the key task of anti-colonialism today. Let me end with a quote from Marisol de la Cadena’s “Indigenous Politics”:
In Latin America indigenous politics has been branded as “ethnic politics.” Its activism is interpreted as a quest to make cultural rights prevail. Yet, what if “culture” is insufficient, even an inadequate notion, to think the challenge that indigenous politics represents? Drawing inspiration from recent political events in Peru — and to a lesser extent in Ecuador and Bolivia — where the indigenous–popular movement has conjured sentient entities (mountains, water, and soil — what we call “nature”) into the public political arena, the argument in this essay is threefold. First, indigeneity, as a historical formation, exceeds the notion of politics as usual, that is, an arena populated by rational human beings disputing the power to represent others vis-à-vis the state. Second, indigeneity’s current political emergence — in oppositional antimining movements in Peru and Ecuador, but also in celebratory events in Bolivia — challenges the separation of nature and culture that underpins the prevalent notion of politics and its according social contract. Third, beyond “ethnic politics” current indigenous movements, propose a different political practice, plural not because of its enactment by bodies marked by gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality (as multiculturalism would have it), but because they conjure nonhumans as actors in the political arena.