Terror, black mirrors, and the era of threats

What do we really fear most? Death or eternal life? The answer seems obvious, but looking at modern, popular culture suggests we have new fears in this STEM-driven era. This discussion was largely inspired as as a response to a paper by Bendell[1], which suggests that sustainability’s first premise – at this point – should be one of imminent collapse.

The paper is worth quoting at length:

“Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy

The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. The approach of the paper is to analyse recent studies on climate change and its implications for our ecosystems, economies and societies, as provided by academic journals and publications direct from research institutes.

That synthesis leads to a conclusion there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers.

The paper reviews some of the reasons why collapse-denial may exist, in particular, in the professions of sustainability research and practice, therefore leading to these arguments having been absent from these fields until now.”

Jem Bendell

Terror Management Theory

The Great Explainer everyone’s sleeping on?

There’s a school of thought in sociology called Terror Management Theory (TMT) which offers interesting explanations of human behaviour. TMT argues that awareness of our own mortality induces terror in us, and we respond to that terror by managing it in different ways – hence the name! How we manage that terror has profound and far-reaching social consequences, even to the point we erect entire social institutions to mediate and manage our fears. This “management” varies, but the theme doesn’t – immortality is the goal.

This might manifest as a literal belief in immortality (religious beliefs about the afterlife, for example, and the institutions that maintain them) or as figurative expressions of it: infamy, posterity, legacy – some aspect of your memory or ‘self’ living on. This is Marilyn Monroe stuff: “The legend ever lives”. Although they don’t offer a literal afterlife, culture and cultural institutions can offer a different kind of permanence that’s real enough for people to enshrine and revere; a figurative immortality –another way we can find peace despite knowing this will all end someday.

What’s always struck me about TMT is that sustainability can promise immortality too. The notion of sustaining over time – and in one especially optimistic conception, of sustaining indefinitely – is essentially the idea of literal immortality at the species level. That thought makes my head spin, because if TMT were true then surely, we’d be embracing sustainability wholeheartedly! Instead of a religious afterlife that requires faith, or an imperfect approximation of permanence through culture and legacy, here we have the science and technology-based version of immortality for our new STEM-based era.

ModernMeme
This meme seems appropriate here. Confused? Know Your Meme

So why are we not embracing it? Why are we moving so slowly on any number of sustainability-related issues? Why are we managing our terror so sub-optimally, according to the theory?

Maybe it’s because sustainability, in the context of TMT, subverts the very concept of “management” itself. Instead of managing our terror by reaching for a faith-based afterlife or an imperfect cultural approximation, this time we can “manage” that fear by eliminating the source of it – and once we do that, there’s nothing left to “manage”. TMT becomes a ladder we would throw away after ascending to new heights. It’s a whole different conceptualization of management to suggest that we can alleviate our fears by removing the source – a kind of TMT 2.0.

It comes down to starting assumptions, ultimately. TMT as we know it assumes that annihilation is inevitable and maps out our responses accordingly. TMT 2.0 assumes that “with strange aeons even death may die”[2] and maps out a different set of responses.

I’m mentioning all this because the same thing is happening in the article I’m responding to (Bendell, 2018). The context has changed from a kind of social management towards the narrower discipline of organisational management, but the same “subversion” of what management means is being driven by starting assumptions. Essentially, this article isn’t that novel. It’s just the original TMT assumption – collapse is inevitable.

Earlier I talked about the existentialists, and they’re another group of many within the discipline of philosophy that could inform this research, too. The concept of collapse and annihilation may be depressing, but philosophy and many other fields have offered up some very good options on how to manage that – different kinds of peace we can arrive at; ones that don’t resemble the options that TMT lays out.

Culture, too, can offer more than what TMT describes. Take this beautifully simple exchange from the show Six Feet Under

“Why do we have to die?”

“To make life important.”

Maybe it’s as simple – and stupid – as that? There’s peace in that idea.

It is the final episode of the first season of HBO’s Six Feet Under, and no sequence could better sum up the series’ central theme – or its legacy. One minute, it’s funny – refreshingly cold and darkly humorous – and the next it’s deadly serious. Neither element would be as strong without the other: the humour would be too morbid without the occasional touching moment, and the touching moments would be too saccharine without the bite. Just as people have to die to make life important, people on Six Feet Under joke to make the serious moments matter. Death can be just as funny as life.[3]

NateSFU
A scene from the TV Series Six Feet Under. Image courtesy of HBO.

Protect me from what I want?

Annihilation may be depressing, but immortality can be terrifying.

Protect me from what I want, Jenny Holzer, 1982

Perhaps something else is going on too. Maybe, in this STEM-driven era of alarmingly rapid technological progress, our reluctance to embrace sustainability is driven by an even deeper fear than annihilation – in fact, the inversion of it – a fear of immortality.

If you’ve watched Black Mirror, particularly the most recent season, you might still be shuddering at the thought of having your consciousness uploaded to an inanimate object and being trapped for an eternity inside a prison designed by someone who wanted to torture you. Notably, if you know the show well, you’ll realize I could be talking about many episodes there – it’s a recurring theme that creator Charlie Booker is really trying to drive home, and I don’t think it’s an accident he wants to push this concept so hard.

It’s a genuinely heinous concept: eternal torture. Watching it unfold in the show can be deeply, existentially unsettling. Interestingly, this is pretty much the idea of “hell” in religions – the same institutions that offer heaven up as an alternative afterlife.

Returning to the earlier comparisons of TMT 1 and 2: If it’s true that modern sustainability, driven by science and technological progress, can offer us a literal heaven, then it’s also true it could bring us a literal hell! More simply, if there is a STEM heaven, then there is a STEM hell, and Black Mirror shows us many visions of what that could look like. I think Booker’s point, in at least some cases, is that complete annihilation isn’t such a terrible outcome. A mercy kill, of sorts. If someone was trapped inside a machine designed to torture them and was effectively stuck there for an eternity, you would turn it off, wouldn’t you?

Or maybe Booker’s point is a simpler one: we are losing control of technology, and the consequences are going to be dire beyond imagining.

MonkeyHug
In the Netflix series Black Mirror, someone’s consciousness is capture and effectively imprisoned in this stuffed monkey toy. The toy is only capable of a few basic phrases, including – most horrifically – the catchcry that “Monkey needs a hug”. The “literal hell” Black Mirror captures is deeply disturbing. Image courtesy of Netflix.

welcome to the Apeilicene

The closing section of Graham Turner’s[4] revisitation of the Limits to Growth is interesting because he doesn’t just conclude that collapse may be underway but lays some of the blame for that on our preoccupation with climate change. Other threats like resource constraints could end up being even more serious, he argues, even more so since we have not given them enough attention.

Unfortunately, scientific evidence of severe environmental or natural resource problems has been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces...Somewhat ironically…the scientific and public attention given to climate change, whilst tremendously important in its own right, may have deleteriously distracted from the issue of resource constraints, particularly that of oil supply

… A challenging lesson … is that global environmental issues are typically intertwined and should not be treated as isolated problems. Another lesson is the importance of taking pre-emptive action well ahead of problems becoming entrenched.

Regrettably, the alignment of data trends … indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.

Graham Turner, Is global collapse imminent?

Turner’s point can be applied even more broadly. Technological progress is advancing in ways we are struggling to control, and that could pose severe, even existential threats to us. AI, automation, big data, surveillance, genetic engineering, biohazards, nuclear warfare, cyber warfare – the list of potential threats we face of an existential kind are perhaps an even more worrying acceleration than rising global temperatures? Or are they also perhaps in a sense the same threat, as Morton suggests, just differently understood?

The concept of the “Anthropocene” only captures the idea of climate change and human-driven ecological impact, perhaps another term like Apeilicene – the era of threats – better captures the trajectory we are on, and how we should respond. Naturally, a focus on threats alone may deprioritize focusing on assets and opportunities, but that doesn’t mean innovation isn’t possible, or that framing our situation as a terrible and looming crisis can’t still yield positive results. Consider how much innovation past wars and crises have driven, and the advanced nature of military technology and other inventions birthed from a profound necessity. Then again, consider that a “War against Nature” is exactly the thinking that drove us to this perilous place (as the idea of a metabolic rift suggests). Our situation is so complex and bewildering, it’s not even clear how we should think about it at a fundamental level.

Surviving the Apeilicene will require thinking about sustainability in many ways all at once. It will require a combative focus, a defensive, resilience-based mentality. Yet it will also require adaptability, and the ability to recognize not just problems and weaknesses but also opportunities and strengths.

We must rethink what an existential threat can be, too. Annihilation is just one negative outcome. Eternal torture, as discussed, is an infinitely more dire existential threat. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s paper on “existential risk prevention” provides a fantastic matrix of different types of existential threat – capturing perfectly the kinds of outcomes that Booker’s Black Mirror describes and so many more. Creating a rigorous map of outcomes according to varied types of existential threats allows us to see that yes, perhaps we’re living in the Apeilicene after all. Will Steffen’s famous ‘Great Acceleration’ graph paints a trend towards exponential changes across a range of areas. It would be interesting to consider if the threats (and types of threats) against us are multiplying at similar rates, and what the implications of a trend – if one exists – might be.

GreatAccelSteffen
Will Steffen, an ANU academic, has famously charted the “Great Acceleration” – a series of simultaneous and exponential increases in human productivity and consumption[5].

Praxis and epistemology

An era of renewed interest in the truth

Kelly Anny Conway once famously stated she was giving “alternative facts” to a journalist. Although in this case, she was demonstrably lying, the statement (and other developments from the Trump Administration) have since reignited public interest in the concept of truth and verifiability – and perhaps more broadly, remembering the problem of Australia’s infinite coastline, the idea of the paradox. The phrase “alternative facts” has its own Wikipedia page[7] and “post-truth” was declared 2016’s Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries[8].  Despite the often-negative nature of these incidents, what they represent may be a positive development. Perhaps, with rationality now threatened, we will see a reassertion of its value? The media, for example, now increasingly stresses the importance of one of its core purposes – to state the truth.

KACad2
(Left) U.S. Counsellor to the President Kellyanne Conway and (Right) A New York Times ad playing on the phrase “alternative facts”.

Our era represents a renewed interest in the debates around epistemology – what is true, what can be verified. Alternative facts, fake news, and the gaslighting[9] of the public by powerful figures are all driving forces behind a rising anti-intellectualism, a distrust of experts, and a fragmentation of our shared reality. Are we in a post-Enlightenment crisis? And if so, what are the opportunities that will bring with it?


Footnotes

[1] Bendell, J. (2018). Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy. Carlise, UK: Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS).

[2] Lovecraft, H. (1928). The Call of Cthulu. 11(2). New York: Popular Fiction Publishing Company.

[3] Armstrong, J. K. (2015, August 21). Six Feet Under: ‘It made it okay to laugh at death’. BBC Culture.

[4] Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

[5] Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O., & Ludwig, C. (2015). The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, 2(1), 81-98.

[6] For all the facts and alternative facts, see what Wikipedia has to say, for the moment. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_facts

[7] BBC News. (2016, November 16). ‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. BBC.

[9] “…[the] tactic of getting people to question their direct experience is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call “gaslighting”. A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality. Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them.” From: Azarian, B. (2018, August 31). Trump Is Gaslighting America Again — Here’s How to Fight It. Psychology Today.