Reading Freya Mathews & Bruno Latour

I have been reading two extraordinary and very different writers lately who are both engaged with questioning Modernity -the capitalist, industrial civilizational model which we are all so familiar with here in the West – and which can now be found just about everywhere in the world as a “modernization front,” as Latour terms it.

To demonstrate one small place where these writers overlap and yet are very different in their approaches, here are two quotations:

“The present global environmental malaise has come about, at least in part, according to the argument in the previous chapters, because we moderns, the people of the industrialized nations, no longer revere our world or engage communicatively with it. Over the last three hundred years or so, we have been taught to see the ground of being in materialist terms, as in itself void of significance and presence – as mere externality without an animating principle of its own.”  Freya Mathews, Reconsidering Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture, 49.

“It would not be wrong to define the Moderns as those who believe they are materialists and are driven to despair by this belief….When everything is submerged in matter there is no raw material, no accessible reality, no experience to guide us.” Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, 105-106. Continue reading “Reading Freya Mathews & Bruno Latour”

Thanksgiving

Here in the crazy US it is Thanksgiving again, a holiday that, in its simplest form – taking some time to gather with family and friends to share a meal in the spirit of gratitude – is based on the most benign of impulses.

I am grateful today for the monarch butterflies that at least here on the ranch seem especially numerous this November. Continue reading “Thanksgiving”

The Speech

About six months ago my friend and mentor Donna called to ask if I would be willing to give one of the keynote speeches at this yearʻs agricultural conference.  Donna is one of those people with excellent people skills, which means that it is very difficult to say No to her: one because she will already have cultivated a relationship with you; and two, she will come armed with persuasions tailor-made to your psychology.  She will appeal to your higher instincts for public service and your lower instincts for ego-gratification.  Also of course it was an honor to be asked. So I agreed to give a  speech. Continue reading “The Speech”

On the Mauna

“I think,” my daughter Ua said gravely, ”I want to go up on the mauna.”  In Hawai’i, these words have a distinct and edgy meaning lately.

The mauna (mountain) she was referring to is Mauna Kea, where an encampment of kia’i (protectors/protestors) of the mauna have halted construction of a cutting-edge telescope  by occupying the access road. Continue reading “On the Mauna”

A Review of of Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth

“How could we deem ‘realistic’ a project of modernization that has ‘forgotten’ for two centuries to anticipate the reactions of the terraqueous globe to human actions? How could we accept as “objective’ economic theories that are incapable of integrating into their calculations the scarcity of resources whose exhaustion it had been their mission to predict? How could we speak of “effectiveness’ with respect to technological systems that have not managed to integrate into their design a way to last more than a few decades?  How could we call “rationalist’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving an inhabited world to their children?” – Bruno Latour

Our rationality is leading us…to where? If rationality is a mental discipline, a method, then we must ask what purpose does it serve?  Where does it begin and where does it go to? If we don’t know in what our rationality is rooted and where it is leading us, then what good is it?  Or if our rationality is leading us somewhere that we don’t want to go, then it is worse than useless.

The anthropologist and historian of science, Bruno Latour, has written a political essay: Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime. This brief but fascinating book begins by invoking the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “From the 1980’s on, the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began to shelter themselves from the world.  We are experiencing all the consequences of this flight, of which Donald Trump is merely a symbol, one among others.  The absence of a common world we can share is driving us crazy.” Continue reading “A Review of of Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth”

The ambiguous dreams of the techno-optimists

“Here’s one of my scenarios.  Let’s say there comes a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls.  There are a trillion souls in the box, all virtualized.  In the box, there will be molecular computing going on — maybe derived from biology, maybe not.  But the  box will be doing all kinds of elaborate stuff.  And there’s a rock sitting next to the box.  Inside a rock, there is always all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of subatomic particles doing all kinds of things.  What’s the difference between the rock and box of a trillion souls? The answer is that the details of what’s happening in the box were derived from the long history of human civilization, including whatever people watched on YouTube the day before.  Whereas the rock has its long geological history but not that particular history of our civilization.

Realizing that there isn’t a genuine distinction between human intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine that future — the endpoint of our civilization as a box of a trillion souls, each of them endlessly playing a video game, forever.  What is the ‘purpose’ of that?”

  — Stephan Wolfram, in Possible Minds, 25 Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockton.

What is the purpose indeed.

Let’s just say that I hope we don’t have to wait until we’ve uploaded ourselves into some kind of general artificial intelligence to ask what the point of all this is. What is the purpose of all of our civilizational striving, our technological competitions, our race towards AI? Is it technological enabled ‘immortality’? Do we really want to put our souls in a box? But is this not the telos that our civilization seems to have chosen – this strange sterile vision of a purified, virtualized selves somehow made incorruptible through information technology? Our powers of symbolizing, of turning life into symbols, are turned upon ourselves. Do we not already treat each other – with our social media and big data – as symbols to be manipulated for profit?

As Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying in defense of his Blue Origin space project in the New York Times: “‘We will run out of energy,” Mr. Bezos said. “This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.’ At that point, to remain on Earth would require rationing and declining opportunities. But the rest of the solar system offers virtually limitless resources. ‘Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy.’”

In other words, if we refuse to renounce the cult of growth and figure out how to live within the limits set by this planet in these humble, imperfect, contingent biological bodies, then ipso facto we must escape both bodies and planet in a technological rapture, more or less as described by Bezos and Wolfram.

Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t find these visions appealing. Nor am I convinced that such goals will bring the best ROI, if we must speak in such terms. Why are we allowing ourselves to be led towards goals (AI, space colonialism) that are, at best, questionable and by leaders who seem rather stunted in their understanding of the possibilities and purpose of Life on Earth?

Four Earthly Ways of Being

I was at dinner with four women a few weeks ago to discuss  protecting a nearby place of significance – what we would call a wahi pana.  It is a ravishingly beautiful spot: a hanging valley overlooking the ocean, with groves of ancient native trees, flowers, ferns, orange trees, ginger, and bamboo.  Most of the time there is a stream running through it, which, in this semi-arid district with its porous volcanic soils, is a wonder in itself.  Naturally, this spot so blessed by nature was inhabited and beloved by the kanaka maoli  – the native Hawaiians – for long centuries, until contact with the West decimated their population and nearly destroyed their culture.  More recently, in the last few decades, it has been a religious retreat site.  The Tibetan Buddhist philanthropists who currently own the land have other priorities on the mainland U.S. and so were talking of putting the property on the market.  It was feared that the land could fall into the hands of owners who would treat it in the usual American way and plop down a trophy house so as to command  the most sweeping view of the coastline.  This would be a gut-wrenching desecration of the tangible and  intangible qualities of the little valley. Continue reading “Four Earthly Ways of Being”