4. Fear and denial today: on the biggest, dumbest experiment in history
This boy may be too young to be singing the blues, but it is hard not to feel that we have long said our goodbyes to the Yellow Brick Road. Let the record of my living being state: I live in fear. And in melancholy. And also, most of the time, in denial. And so, probably, do you. All these, for all of us, are more or less unavoidable, at least intermittently, because the scale of the problems we face is ‘too big for the individual’.
Today, it is not just one country and its citizens that live with this sense of danger. Today, the whole world exists with the sense that there is a danger to that whole world itself. And today, the whole world succumbs to the tendency to deny that sense, and to live as if they do not possess this knowledge, with which they are, accordingly, possessed. For art, as for everyone, this presents a threat, but art is already threatened, and firstly by itself, and so this threat is also a chance: a chance to rediscover and reinvent its function.
But art today – and everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys said, just as everyone is a philosopher, even if the vocation is not ‘equally’ distributed – art must go beyond Kurosawa: we must not only uncover this knowledge and present it in order to transform the situation of this locality or that. Today, the problem is not just from one device, the hydrogen bomb, nor is it even from several devices, or many, but from an entire exospheric system that preys upon and destroys the entire biosphere, and does so in a situation where the culture industry has itself transformed, becoming global, networked and algorithmic, threatening every localization and hence every localized form of knowledge. The function of art today is not just to resist this destruction of localized knowledge: it is to invent new forms of localization and to cultivate forms of knowledge capable of making possible a genuinely solvent and sustainable global economic system – that is, a transformation giving rise to a new anti-entropic cosmological arrangement of those orders of magnitude comprising our planetary situation, situated as it is within an entropic universe. Making this highly improbable transformation possible is the true and only function of art today.
Elon Musk, too, seems to feel these feelings of fear and melancholy. As far as it is possible to tell, his motivation for building Tesla does seem to really be the fear generated by what he calls the ‘biggest and dumbest experiment in human history’, the ‘crazy game’ we are playing by pouring billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. To this we must add the possibility that this crazy experiment is approaching its endgame, the threshold at which even the reduction of carbon emissions to zero may no longer be enough to prevent catastrophe:
Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions – Hothouse Earth. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed. […] The impacts of a Hothouse Earth pathway on human societies would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt, and undoubtedly disruptive.
Given that the leading scientists in the field feel compelled to present a hypothesis of such immense foreboding, contemplating the possibility of soon reaching a point where disaster becomes unavoidable, we can equally comprehend the mindset behind SpaceX: for Musk, the prime motivation behind his attempt to accelerate rocket engineering is the wish to construct an escape mechanism lest this big dumb experiment lead the planet to uninhabitability with no way out.
But what we fear today, and what we deny today, is not just climate change or the anthropogenic destruction of ecosystems: what we equally fear is the destruction of the only means we have of addressing these problems – our collective intelligence, collectively cultivated and applied to making collective decisions. What we are still most in denial about, what we are still not thinking, or that we have barely begun to think (barely becoming a political issue anywhere, for example), is how we have created computational, cybernetic and algorithmic systems that, in the name of commercial imperatives, produce individual and collective stupidity, madness, desperation, fear and, therefore, denial. Ex-President Obama was undoubtedly right when he said recently that Donald Trump must be treated not as a cause, not as a disease, but as a symptom: it is indeed a great mistake and stupidity of the ‘resistance’ to Trump to fail to grasp this fundamental fact, which, by denying it, is bound to produce even greater stupidity and madness, and on all sides. And Obama is right to say that Trump, with whom the world has become possessed, was elected by capitalizing on resentments whose flames have been fanned by politicians for years. But if we agree with his thesis that Trump is a symptom, then it becomes all the more important to ask by what means those flames were and continue to be fanned – fanned with what fans? – and what to do about them.