The times are urgent: let’s slow down
cloud seeding, forever chemicals and rethinking our fuck-up-eries
We desperately, urgently need to talk about this: Our continued existence depends on our capacity and will to really, really, really slow down and think about the consequences of our frantic and globally consequential actions. We must learn to practice radical foresight. To live according to longtermism, which is the theme of this week’s podcast chat with the existential risk expert William Mackaskill, more of which soon, but here’s the link…
In fumbly, non-academic, non-bro-caster language the gist is this:
We have evolved technologically at a pace too fast and too greedy for our clunky ability to hold a collective ethical conversation around where such evolution could and should take us, and who its leaders should be. We have forged ahead myopically and immaturely without debating and answering, together, things such as:
“Is this what we bloody want?”
“Is the tech twerp who now controls the attention of 3.5 billion people a good faith actor; do we want him in control of our wellbeing?”
“Are we operating outside biological symbiosis if we do XYZ and, if so, are we prepared for the planetary consequences of such a fucking-with the natural order of things?”
The upshot is this: We have created technologies and scenarios - AI, biotechnologies, a too-hot climate, etc - that have an exponential life of their own. Unchecked and unmoderated as they are, they are very possibly (a one in six chance, according to Toby Ord) going to lead to our extinction. Or at least to a very miserable, inhuman future.
A case in point…
I have just this week found a juxtapositioning of headlines that illustrate this phenomenon almost comically (in the frighteningly absurd sense):
This is from a Vox article. It explains that such rain would be created by “cloud seeding” - shooting chemical flares full of silver iodide into storm clouds which “force” them to rain. In short, it’s raping a cloud.
The article points out that scientists “still don’t know exactly how life-changing cloud seeding will turn out to be”. Which makes me pretty confident scientists also don’t know how life-destroying it will turn out to be.
And then, in the same week, we have…
Not safe. Anywhere….
OK, I’m not suggesting the two “discoveries” are causally linked.
What I’m highlighting is that we now have poisonous water (a big deal and potentially life-ending) because we clearly didn’t think through the effect of those poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) when we rushed to create our non-stick pans and our perfumed world. There was no slow, considered collective ethical discussion.
And my bet is we are failing to do the same with this mad idea to chemically rape clouds. (You might want to read about other bioengineering ideas currently being developed and implemented without foresight and public discussion, such as stratospheric aerosol injection which entails injecting sulphuric acid droplets into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s radiation back into space. I thought it was a joke, too, at first…)
Will we ever learn?
(Which is not a throw-away line.)
Slowing down and taking care of ghosts
The headline of this post - “The times are urgent: let’s slow down” - comes from poet and academic Bayo Akomolafe, who I referred to in my ‘letter last week.
Bayo has a knack for writing essays and speeches that become memes and quotables. Last year he wrote an open letter delivered at a global summit hosted by Developing Europeans’ Engagement for the Eradication of Poverty, with this golden line as its title. It derives from an African wisdom, he tells us.
“In ‘hurrying up’ all the time, we often lose sight of the abundance of resources that might help us meet today’s most challenging crises..Slowing down is taking care of ghosts, hugging monsters, sharing silence, embracing the weird…
“The idea of slowing down is not about getting answers, it is about questioning our questions.”
I’m questioning a lot of the questions (and lack of questions and dialogue) bubbling around me. I will be following up on such questioning via interviews on my podcast and musing here.
Transhumanism is one example. This is the science of technologically enhancing ourselves and life such that we can avoid death, work (robots will take over), pregnancy (external wombs are predicted by the end of this century) and memory lapses (implants currently being developed will see us memorise slabs of wikipedia without flinching in coming decades). It will mean we can have non-human partners and non-human sex. I have an interview with a proponent of it coming up and she finds the above exciting, But, again, where are the ethical questions, like, “Is this what we want?”
Apparently transhumanism is a done deal. A posthuman future is as close to a decade or two away. But - wait! - I haven’t seen the dialogue that fleshes out the longterm implications of such fundamental meddling? I wasn’t consulted. Were you?
Same with funnelling billions into moving to Mars. Have we thought this through, people? Who are we allowing to do the spiritual check on this one? Are we going to conduct a 360 on it? Will we take as long as it takes to arrive at the right outcome for the species? As we sail in our ships to a barren planet will we turn around to the Pale Blue Dot and think of Carl Sagan’s poetic ode to Earth?
“That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
(On a mote of dust…a stellar line, right?)
Closer to the present, we have a slightly more progressive government in power in Australia now. But despite their climate rhetoric, they still have 116 fossil fuel projects in the pipeline. We should be consulted on this. There should be dialogue because, cop this, these projects will produce 5 per cent of global industrial emissions per year and result in a 30 per cent increase in emissions within Australia. There goes our Paris Agreement.
We humans have a “single action bias”, which sees us shutdown a difficult or complex issue once we’ve responded once with some trifle action, usually because this one action reduces our worry or vulnerability enough to enable us to carry on (and forget said difficult issue). Further, second actions can often be complex, messy and require contradictory impulses.
Our single action voted Labor in. Our messy secondary actions should be to keep protesting and to barrage our local MPs demanding a mature, ethical dialogue on the longterm consequences of allowing these projects to go ahead, in conjunction with a just transition and so on. Mercifully, the Albanese Government seems more capable of nuanced and collaborative dialogue than the other mob. We need to dance with this dynamic, push Labor to allow us to help them make the hard decisions with them. (My dad would encourage folk to join LEAN, the Labor Environment Action Network.)
Of course, dialogue doesn’t mean we don’t need to throw babies out with bathwater. Quite the opposite Some of these technologies could lead us to the untold wellbeing and expansiveness that the transhumanists speak of if we choose to steer and modulate them through a mature ethical lens, which is the theme of my chat with Will Mackaskill this week.
OK. This really is just a thought-starting rant. More refined thoughts will follow.
But to finish, an Einstein quote:
“If I only had one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes in defining the problem and one minute in resolving it". There we go!