“What we desperately need is an appropriate level of shock and anxiety concerning a specific ecological trauma—indeed, the ecological trauma of our age, the very thing that defines the Anthropocene as such.”
– Excerpts from Morton, Timothy. “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Posthumanities)
This study called A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction splashed messily into the press over the past week. It made headlines because it received funding through a grant from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and it predicts the thorough collapse of human society. It doesn’t take much digging to find a literary parallel to this story. Isaac Asimov wrote an extensive and wondrous thought experiment on predicting social change on a large scale called the Foundation series.
Foundation is set 10,000 years in the future, but the series bears a plenty of resemblance to the predictions of doom today. A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction is both humbly and grandiosely named. What it seeks to do is layout a mathematical formula – the also comically named Human And Nature DYnamics (HANDY) – that can predict the sustainability (or collapse) of a society based on its resources and economic inequality.
In Foundation, Hari Seldon predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire and a 30 thousand year dark age. Here Safa Motesharrei, the applied mathematician behind A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction basically predicts that we are headed for something similar unless we “reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption.”
Asimov predicted more or less the same. In A Minimal Model, the authors Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay, recall the falls of complex societies like the Roman Empire, the Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, the Mesopotamian Empires, and the Han Dynasty. I’m sure Asimov was drawing similar parallels – the Galactic Empire is obviously stratified into oblivion, bloated with bureaucracy and aristocracy, reliant on unsustainable practices – just like the “advanced” societies of our world.
The big difference between the situation of the Foundation protagonists and the predictions made by doomsayers today is that we can’t exactly bug-out to a planet at the far end of the galaxy. The Foundation series could be read as an early example of prepper literature. The problem with the prepper bug-out is that you’re not really escaping anything. You’re still in the world, and as Timothy Morton said above “the concept world is no longer operational.”
In apocalyptic writings the conclusion is usually foregone – I mean they are apocalyptic after all. But usually apocalyptic writings have an after – a post-apocalypse. Paradoxically, anyone preparing for the apocalypse is inevitably preparing for the after – but the nature of real apocalypse suggests that there isn’t an afterwards.
The quote from Morton, taken from his recent book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, recalls another science fiction touch stone:
Emperor Palpatine asks Luke to “witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station” – the Death Star stands for the careless world-destroying capability of technology. World destruction is far from science fiction – though perhaps we require the fiction part to come to terms with it:
“The end of the world has already occurred. We can be uncannily precise about the date on which the world ended. Convenience is not readily associated with historiography, nor indeed with geological time. But in this case, it is uncannily clear. It was April 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine, an act that commenced the depositing of carbon in Earth’s crust—namely, the inception of humanity as a geophysical force on a planetary scale. Since for something to happen it often needs to happen twice, the world also ended in 1945, in Trinity, New Mexico, where the Manhattan Project tested the Gadget, the first of the atom bombs, and later that year when two nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These events mark the logarithmic increase in the actions of humans as a geophysical force.”
Excerpt From: Morton, Timothy. “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Posthumanities).” iBooks.
While we usually think of terraforming as science fiction – shaping a planet to suit our needs – it’s actually been happening since the first time anybody picked up a shovel and started to dig. In the first Foundation book, a character suggests that they should really “weather condition the planet.” Of course, we’ve also weather conditioned our planet – we just didn’t realize it. What would James Watt have done if he could predict the effects of a couple hundred years of massive scale combustion powered capitalism? Would have invented the steam engine?
You can imagine Safa Motesharrei reading the Foundation series as a kid and planning out his trajectory to be the great Psychohistorian of his time. In Foundation, psychohistory is plagued by the observer paradox – if a population knows about psychohistory it becomes more difficult to model. Also, it’s difficult to model the actions of individuals or small populations, since it’s probability based – Asimov uses the analogy of modeling the behavior of a gas: it’s difficult to predict the movements of individual particles, but it’s easier to predict the movement of the whole.
It appears that HANDY has skirted those problems. In Foundation Hari Seldon, “found the field [of Psychohistory] little more than a set of vague axioms” and “left it a profound statistical science.” Here with A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction, if we’re not getting trolled, we have a mathematical model that promises to be able to predict with some accuracy when and if a society will collapse. The end of the world has already happened – but maybe with the help of the observer’s paradox and the ability to see into the future we can do something about it.
Robert Smithson writes in his essay Entropy and the New Monuments, that “Many architectural concepts found in science-fiction have nothing to do with science or fiction, instead they suggest a new kind of monumentality…” Smithson’s most famous works demonstrate the obvious: people’s ability change the planet. But works like Spiral Jetty do something that many sculptural other works can’t: demonstrate ecology – the oikos, or house, that everything, including the work lives in. As the level of the Great Salt Lake rises or falls the work itself is submerged or visible, the lake changes to orange as it is taken over by algae, the work itself gradually erodes.
Of course, the most monumental monument – the most awful earthwork by far – is the thorough destruction of the ecological house. If marking is the primary mode of making meaning, then we’ve made maximal meaning through thoroughly marking the surface of the earth with carbon, and thoroughly marked our epoch as a mass extinction event, and thoroughly marked the substance of reality.
Later in the Foundation series, the plan – that 1,000-year plan to get civilization back on track – goes off track. What starts off as a kind of thought experiment in a hypothetical science of social prediction comes down to a complicated deus ex machina — the forces of good working behind the scenes to assure that the universe protects humanity. Not only does this turn unfortunately corrupt the regal authority of mathematics – it locates humanity in a privileged ontological position.
Timothy Morton ascribes to the Object Oriented Ontology of Graham Harman – basically antithetical to the metaphysics of the Foundation. An oversimplification would be to say that OOO simply refused to privilege people metaphysically – but that in practice becomes more complicated.
What am I getting at with all of this? Apocalypse is an incredibly seductive subject – whether it’s the voidish charm of a universe wiped clean of humanity due to ecological cataclysm or the Fight Club style societal reboot – everybody’s interested in end times. The funny thing is, in an entirely science fiction kind of coincidence, the doom of global warming and the doom predicted by HANDY both require some of the same changes to avert or minimize.
This column kicks off an ecocritical examination of apocalypse in literature, film, and other media.