The Globe and the Earth So Far
and two upcoming detours
Today’s update is both a retrospective and a prospectus, or in plain English: where we have come from and where we are going.
Swimming into our Ken
I used to be fond of Keats but my feeling for the sound patterns of English has changed over the years. But a new planet - our own planet - is swimming into our ken and it’s time to speculate with wild surmise. And we will be biking off road to meet stout Cortez.
Three Steps to Accumulation
In making sense of this planet as a dwelling, we have to start with the Globe, which is the fullest expression of human dwelling upon this planet. While the Globe straddles the Earth today, it’s a miniscule % of the Earth’s possibilities and unless we provincialize the Globe, we won’t open our eyes to the paths taken by others.
That’s step one.
But how does the Globe straddles the Earth? What makes the Globe a ‘force of nature’? My answer to that question has to do with accumulation, whose features make the Globe grow and grow. I wrote about two of those features: cooperation and contradiction. I should have written about cities as the third feature of accumulation but haven’t managed to do so yet. Cooperation, contradiction and cities are three aspects of the dynamics of accumulation, i.e., systems through which accumulation increases and decreases.
That’s step two.
There’s also the hint of step 2.5, of looking at cooperation & contradiction (not cities) beyond the globe into domains such as logic. That’s a parallel story.
The contradiction between the Globe and the Earth is the defining contradiction of our times. It’s manifested in two distinct avatars so far: in the nuclear holocaust avatar and in the climate crisis avatar. More avatars remain to be discovered.
Exploring the accumulative contradiction between the Globe and the Earth is a looong step three. I will come back to that step when I am more confident of taking it. But this being the age of distraction, I will take a couple of detours first.
First stop: fiction.
Amitav Ghosh laments that fiction isn’t keeping pace with fact. “Where’s the fiction about climate change” he says, and in case you don’t understand, “The climate crisis casts a much smaller shadow on literary fiction than it does on the world. We are living through a crisis of culture – and of the imagination.” Since his lament many literary authors have stepped into the breach - Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Ministry of the Future’ being the most prominent. I haven’t read it, but I guess I should.
But why should fiction write about climate change by writing about climate change?
Feels too literal for a crisis of the imagination. There are so many other ways to make the planet swim into our ken. The planet Solaris if not the Earth. I have been meaning to read Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’ for a long time (can’t believe I’ve never read it!). It’s a novel about a sentient planet, so fits right in. I have already mentioned Calvino’s Invisible Cities and a new translation of the key stories in the 1001 Nights. Throw in some Borges and we ready to imagine a new planet.
Which we might need soon cuz:
Where did the Globe come from? Another way to ask the same question: “when did the Anthropocene begin?”
There are many answers to this question. The one I prefer begins in 1945, with the end of WW-II and the beginning of the nuclear age and the Cold War. WW-II was itself a total war, in which control over land, sea and air were fiercely fought. We think the war ended with peace in 1945 and then even more peace in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I used to think that, just as I used to think India’s colonization ended in 1947. There’s truth to both claims, but both were wrong in crucial aspects. The colonization of India and the Earth by accumulation accelerated after 1945; the end of the war actually removed some contradictions preventing accumulation. Take a look at the annual carbon emissions chart: we have added more carbon between 1945 and now than all of human history before then.
We just shifted the main target of our colonial extraction away from human nations to the non-human world (with plenty of sub-national communities being affected as well). So 1945 is a banner year for the Anthropocene. But there’s at least another answer to the origins of the globe. It began in 1545 with the discovery of silver in Potosi (that’s stout Cortez’s doing).
But the story for at least another two hundred years wasn’t of European conquest alone: for why did Europeans want the silver in the first place? Paying for Chinese goods was one major reason, and the Chinese didn’t want any of Europe’s manufactures while silver was in great demand in China as a currency, so Potosi was literally a city on the hill for the Spanish crown. Not so much for the people who lived there...
The global silver trade between the Americas, Europe and China from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries was a spillover of the Columbian Exchange which had a profound effect on the world economy. In fact, many scholars consider the silver trade to mark the beginning of a genuinely global economy, with one historian noting that silver "went round the world and made the world go round." Although global, much of that silver ended up in the hands of the Chinese, as they accepted it as a form of currency.
There’s a story to be told about three S’s: Silver, Slaves and Sugar, that starts in 1545, with Chinese (and less so Indian) demand for silver driving the Atlantic slave trade which then branches into sugar. A slightly later date -1571- is offered for related reasons.
Silver was going to China on both routes: West across the Pacific as well as East across Europe and India, which tickles me into floating a Sino-centric theory of the globe at the beginning and end of our five act tragedy. The book I want to read:
There was no conscious plan, but looks like both detours will be taking me to China. Didn’t Calvino’s Marco Polo take the Mongol-Chinese emperor on an imaginary tour of the world’s cities? And didn’t the Mongol empire’s conquest of Eurasia make it possible for Europeans to become aware of the market for silver in China? And wasn’t the murderous king Shahriyar beguiled by Shahrazad, the king of India and China?
Is there a silver treasure hiding behind the its 1001 doors?
Across Eurasia, gunpowder empires and merchant empires arose during the (European) middle ages. Everyone knows that European merchants slowly took over the government of guns and inaugurated the age of Capital. But what about China, the recipient of much of the silver mined in the Americas? I wonder if the European age is bookended by another in which the Red Star shines brighter than anyone elses.
But beyond the rise and fall of empires - Ming, Spanish, Mughal - is the rise of commodities that bind the globe and make accumulation possible. Grain and animals might have been the first: they will fill your stomach and they are valuable as mediums of exchange and stores of wealth. But metal is +1 on almost all counts since it does everything besides fill your stomach: shaped into sword or silver, metal lasts longer, stores better, is easier to transport and you can always point the sharp end of the spear at anyone growing grain.
Makes me think we need a cognitive account of money which shows how it A) changes form while entrenching itself as a medium of exchange, B) an accounting of value & C) a store of wealth. Also: D) an unlocker of passions - Frozen Desire as James Buchan called it, E) a commodity traded for its own sake and for other things and F) combining all of the above, a medium of accumulation and globalization.
But even money might be upstaged by something that is more fluid, more abstract and more conducive to accumulation. Something that might even help us break the barrier between the globe and the earth.
All that when we are finished with the detours and are back to the main story. We have a lot to cover in the garden of forking paths. Let’s dive into Lem’s World.