Context is King!

Think about it first..

It amazes me how long an insight can take to fully develop, sometimes simmering for years while the pieces fall into place. I feel like this when it comes to the importance of context. I presume I’ve known the word since I was a youngster, thrown in with a jumble of other words I might occasionally see fit to use. Over the past decade, I have become increasingly aware of its relevance and value. At this stage, I can think of few more important words or concepts.

In this post, I’ll extract highlights on my path to greater awareness of contextual importance, and its relevance to the present predicament—using a few metaphors to help paint the picture.

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Our Ugly Magnificence

Image by 12019 from Pixabay

Several sources recently made me aware of a Techno-Optimist Manifesto clumsily assembled on social media by one of the world’s many billionaire nobodies. I didn’t get far before dismissing it as a delusional toddler tantrum. This impression was later reinforced via references to 50 billion people, space colonization, and thousand-fold increases in terrestrial energy. The part I did see told me almost all I needed to know, in the line: “We are told to denounce our birthright—our intelligence, our control over nature, our ability to build a better world.”

Birthright? Hmmm. Calls to mind blood and soil. It’s all there: destiny, rights, self-flattery, obsession with control, and the hubris that we build the world—and can do it better, in fact. This is textbook human supremacy, which I believe is what got us into this mess! Doubling down will only make the loss more severe and catastrophic, in my view.

I have pointed before to the excellent essay by Eileen Crist on the topic of—call it what you like—anthropocentrism, human exceptionalism, or human supremacy. Part of the essay walks us through a disconcerting thought experiment about techno-social success of the sort that many today preach and seek:

…assume for the sake of argument that social justice is achievable on a planet of resources—a planet used, managed, and engineered to be productive for human beings. Let’s posit, along these lines, that humanity recognizes the folly of the unequal distribution of resources and decides to share the so-called commonwealth […] fairly among all people. This thought experiment discloses the second reason that social justice is untenable without a radically new relationship between humanity and the more-than-human-world. Consider the following analogy: that Adolf Hitler had won the war and the Third Reich achieved global rule. People of Nordic descent established their dominion, while “inferior human stock” was exterminated, assimilated, or put to work; the Aryan race succeeded in founding its Golden Age, with its members enjoying, more or less equitably, all the amenities of the good life. Now map this thought experiment onto the achievement of a just world for all humans (regardless of race, ethnicity, class, caste, religion, gender, etc.), within a civilization built upon the subordination of the Earth’s nonhumans and the appropriation of their oecumene (a.k.a. the wild)—a human world that, in order “to raise all ships,” required the unavoidable side effects of (mass?) extinction, global ecological depredation, and techno-managerial planetary oversight; required, in a word, an occupied planet. Does this scenario not describe a victorious Human Reich—with all its members partaking equitably of the world’s resources?

Compelling. The brilliance is putting ideals that seem to be on opposite extremes—equity for all (humans) and its vile antithesis of Nazi racism—in the same basket as both being comparably exploitative of an underclass. The feeling of whiplash is similar to what one experiences when recognizing that the most extreme on the political left share some common ground with the most extreme on the political right on an issue like drug legalization.

It’s unfortunate that we need to reference the worst atrocities against humans in order for the larger-scale atrocities against life to even register as a thing. Extinction rates are up a thousand-fold, and huge fractions of life are disappearing under human domination, but collective outrage only seems to emerge when one human group embarks on elimination of a sub-group of other humans, regardless of the relative magnitude.

What I thought I might try is to express the underlying beliefs of techno-optimists (those stalwart heroes of modernity) in language that I perceive would get general nods from most members of our society. In what follows, I have thought carefully about each sentence, and will point out later why every one of them is wrong—and I’m not talking about spelling or grammar (at least I hope those are okay).

It might be fascinating to pass the next section (four paragraphs) to others in your circles and see if it raises objections. To facilitate that, here is a link to a separate page that contains the same text in isolation, with minimal context. I would want every sentence to raise objections. But I’m guessing that most statements will go down easy, swallowed as familiar and correct mythology.

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Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

No, the title does not refer to fast felines. I’m talking about the humans of modernity, who I characterized as “rule breakers” in the last post. The context was in considering an encounter between a speeding vehicle and a deer, concluding that the deer did nothing wrong by wandering onto a road, and does not deserve a death penalty. The road is in the wrong, by being there. The car is “wrong” by being—contextually speaking—an impossibly fast instrument of death. And, of course, the humans did something wrong by operating so far out of line with what the rest of the community of life is prepared to handle by the rules of evolution and of living on this planet.

Sometimes, an old-timer will say something like: If man was made to fly [or swim, etc.], God would have made him with wings [or gills, etc.]. Aha, the modern human will say: but God gave us big brains so we can engineer wings [scuba equipment, etc.]—never asking whether it will do net good or net harm to the community of life. This is what I mean by cheating.

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Deer in the Headlights

Too late to stop. Must hit deer or car. Pick a lane.

Do the Math readers have surely noticed a new bone I like to gnaw of late: human supremacy. For me, this started in early 2022 with a post that I called at the time Human Exceptionalism. Since then, I recognize that humans are indeed exceptional, as are other species—each in their own ways. In the 20 months since writing the “exceptionalism” post—bolstered by things I’ve read in the interim—my sense has only strengthened that the perception of separateness began in earnest when we started mastering land and beast via agriculture and herding, became far more pronounced during the Enlightenment, and now is the chief engine behind modernity and the meta-crisis. I recommend a magnificent book chapter by Eileen Crist from 2015 (republished at Resilience) that was missing from my life these past 8 years. At this point, I would far sooner try to address the root problem of human supremacy than engage in any talk of technology—which simply becomes a tool to effect human supremacist aims to the ultimate detriment of all..

If we could somehow stamp out human supremacy, I believe that humans would spontaneously organize differently, prioritize the more-than-human world, begin to place more value on the far future, set aside science/technology fetishism to focus on deeper values, and—in short—become wiser. Many of the ills caused by modernity would simply melt away under a new worldview, accompanied by a complete overhaul of how we think, know, and live. Many of the actions of today would seem unthinkable and repulsive under a non-supremacist worldview.

So how might we stamp out human supremacy? One step is to employ tools that help us recognize it in ourselves. Are you a human supremacist? I was. No doubt I still harbor aspects of the scurrilous affliction, embedded as I am within modernity. My apologies (and respect) if you happen to be the rare bird who has escaped the cage, but the safest assumption for now is that you are indeed a human supremacist—whether you recognize it or not—as that’s what our culture produces en masse. If you don’t like the suggestion that you’re a human supremacist, then good! That’s a great starting place, and I could hardly ask for more. Most racists bristle at being called racist, which is adorable in a contemptible sort of way.

This post proposes a crude test for deep-seated human supremacist attitudes. It has echoes of the classic “trolley problem,” and I hate myself for that. But the setup is not as hypothetical or unlikely. Also, rather than the intractable weighing of (sacred) human lives against action/inaction, I think this one has a clearer logical resolution.

The Scenario

Two cars rapidly approach each other on a two-lane road that for a short span has no shoulders (e.g., guard rails, steep bluffs). Shortly before the cars reach each other, a large deer suddenly pops out into one lane and freezes. It is too late to brake in time to avoid hitting the deer, so the only choice on the part of the unlucky driver is to plow into the massive deer at windshield height or swerve into the oncoming car for a destructive head-on collision and near-certain death of those in both cars. In order to bypass the effect of self-preservation, let us stipulate that the driver in the lane with the deer will die either way, and knows this. Which choice makes sense? Is it obvious to you?

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Are WE Lucky?

What if we ask a rough-skinned newt, assigning it greater importance than is customary?

To prevent the reader from wondering if they have the wrong blog, I will warn that this post starts in an unfamiliar voice. In some respects, it reflects a younger me. But mostly it channels views familiar to modernity, by no coincidence.  We start with a guy (of course) hogging the microphone.

Space is cool. Astronauts are badass. Maybe me too, someday.

What we’ve learned is amazing—we have tamed so much—our reach and control are ever-increasing.

Information and analysis are accelerating: we’re on our way to mastering everything.

We have learned to outmaneuver all limits. Nothing can stop us from having it all—even immortality may be in the cards soon.

We are so lucky to have pulled ourselves out of the muck—no longer mere animals.

We are so lucky to be as clever as we are: ingenious innovators.

We are so lucky (and brilliant) to have found the fossil fuels that powered our ascent—but that’s just the start.

What’s this you say? Growth can’t go forever on a finite planet?

Well, not to worry: did I mention that space is cool, and that it is in our nature to skirt past limits?

What’s that? Space colonization is a juvenile fantasy, you say?

No, I can’t prove that it’s destined to happen. But why would the burden of proof be on me, when it’s so obvious that’s where we’re heading? What relevance is it that we have no examples even remotely close to sustainable living in space over long durations?

What’s this? Fossil fuels are finite and likely to decline this century?

No matter. Renewable energy: solar, wind, nuclear!

Don’t be a pest. It’s beside the point that nuclear is not renewable—you know what I mean: unlimited energy awaits. Fusion, then.

Wait: too many things at once:

  1. Of course unlimited energy is a great thing—why the hell wouldn’t it be?
  2. Why should it be relevant that we’ve never built solar panels or wind turbines without fossil fuels?
  3. What does it even matter if these technologies use ten times the mined resources as fossil fuels? Earth is enormous.
  4. Surely, you jest that we don’t have ways to make concrete and steel, carry on our mining practices, support air travel and global shipping without fossil fuels. I can probably find a cute demonstration blasting each of these, or at least imagine them—which is theoretically enough.
  5. I don’t understand the relevance of your point that most of our 8 billion people are fed by the fruits of fossil fuels for fertilizer and mechanization: we’ll just do something different/better!

So don’t get hung up on fossil fuels! Yes, they are causing climate change, but that’s just another hiccup that we’ll master and tame in the usual heroic fashion: just look at the explosion of solar and wind and electric cars (now roaring up to a few percent penetration!). We’re lucky, remember! Fossil fuels are just a stepping stone to an even richer future. Failure is not an option, say I: we’re increasingly capable and increasingly in control. Our destiny is clear: just look at how far we’ve come! This trajectory must continue. To think otherwise ludicrously ignores a centuries-long trend—even if you do claim to rest your argument on biophysical reality and not on an inheritance-spending extrapolation lasting only a handful of human lifetimes. It’s only your toxic (lack of?) imagination and lack of faith that threatens our greatness: we have to believe in order to mold reality to our dreams.

Hey—how dare you! Give. Me. (grunt) Back. That. MICRoph…

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