By the middle of the century, we may all boil to death in our own bodies. It would only take seven or eight degrees of global warming. “If you take a meteorology class, the wet-bulb temperature is calculated by basically taking a glass thermometer, putting it in a tight wet sock, and swinging it around your head,” the paleoclimatologist Matthew Huber told Wired last week. “So when you assume that this temperature limit applies to a human, you’re really kind of imagining a gale force wind, blowing on a naked human being, who’s doused in water, and there’s no sunlight, and they’re immobile, and actually not doing anything other than basal metabolism.” Even with those assumptions, we are only nine degrees of global average temperature short of lethal levels, where human beings just sitting on a doomed planet, very wet and still, will overheat in their own bodies no matter what they do. “You cook yourself, very slowly,” Huber explained.
In other news, Amazon is buying Whole Foods for slightly less than fourteen billion dollars.
Since the announcement of the deal last week — which will make Jeff Bezos just a major pharmaceutical company short of owning everything the average middle class American needs to live — several stories have worried over what this will mean for Whole Foods’ thousands of service workers. “Whole Foods is known for its human touch: smiling cashiers, bakers offering free samples, baristas pouring kombucha on tap,” the Washington Post, which is also owned by Jeff Bezos, reported last week. “Amazon is known for replacing stories with Web pages and workers with algorithms.” While Amazon claims it has no plans to liquidate current Whole Foods employees, the company will not commit to hiring more in the future, and as the whole retail industry moves inexorably toward automated check-out, even whims as mighty as Bezos’ will ultimately bow to the inevitable. “[Even] if the company sheds in-store employees, a structuring could involve new hiring elsewhere,” the Post assures us. This is no doubt heartening news for any cashiers who are also qualified for jobs in high-end information technology. Learn how to code, before the machine learning destroys 90% of the coding jobs, and yesterday’s “learn how to code!” liberals become tomorrow’s “The coding jobs aren’t coming back” tough-truth tellers.
We are working in the shadows of two doomsday clocks.
The link between the twin crises of automation and ecological collapse — and the way that the outcome of each would invariably shape the outcome of the other — is the subject of the 2016 book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, a work of social science fiction by sociologist Peter Frase. The worst of these “futures,” what Frase terms “exterminism,” comes when unmitigated ecological collapse coincides with an automated workforce under the narrow control of capital, with the vast majority of human beings left to the wind, “a world where scarcity cannot be totally overcome for all, but can be overcome for a small elite.”
“The rich will sit secure in the knowledge that their replicators and robots can provide for their every need,” Frase writes. “What of the rest of us?” Frase argues, persuasively, that a world ravaged by disease and hunger brought on by climate change, combined with the total independence of the wealthy from the need for human labor, will lead to mass extermination. “In a world of hyperinequality and mass unemployment, you can try to buy off the masses for a while, and then you can try to repress them by force. But so long as immiserated hordes exist, there is the danger that one day it may become impossible to hold them at bay. When mass labor has been rendered superfluous, a final solution lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor. …An exterminist society can automate and mechanize the process of suppression and extermination, allowing the rulers and their minions to distance themselves from the consequences of their actions.” The Bezoses and Thiels of the future will not even have to get their hands dirty. In his conclusion, Frase points out that this isn’t so implausible. The descendants of the exterminators may not even feel too guilty about it. How, after all, did North America come to provide such an abundant home for the children of European conquerors?
The central tenet of the political left is that the world can be won by the organization of the working class. The ongoing mission to reconstitute that class into a revolutionary body was never predicated on some reactionary belief in the purity and virtue of The Worker, but on the fact that it is workers, and workers alone, who have both the incentive and the power to demand a society dedicated to the material dignity of all people. Work stoppages and strikes can cripple businesses and disrupt the day-to-day function of society. They can imperil the easy generation of profit. So long as workers can do that, they have leverage, and so long as they have that leverage, the managers and dupe-servants of capital will do everything in their power to stymie and divide the solidarity of the working class. So far these efforts have been successful. They have been so successful in recent decades that even the notional left wing has grown suspicious of appeals to class politics, preferring to keep their hands clean of any association with the uneducated and unwoke. But before, we could take some solace in the idea that solidarity and political revolution were inevitable. Although every day under the depravity of capital was another day of needless human suffering, we could tell ourselves that would win, eventually. It was only a matter of time and we had all the time in the world.
The most disturbing revelation of the 21st century has been that we do not have all the time in the world, not least of all because the world may not have all that much time. We are working in the shadows of two doomsday clocks. The first counts down toward automation, the moment when the antagonism between capital and labor is permanently resolved in favor of the ownership class, whose tireless and uncomplaining automatons will eliminate the last vestiges of their dependence on anyone who might want food or medicine in exchange for their labor. In popular culture, automation dystopia only occurs when the robots don’t work the way they’re meant to, when they rise up and kill their masters. But for most of us, well-behaved robots are dystopia too, and wide paranoia about their violent, revolutionary potential says more, I think, about the anxieties that owners have toward the workforce they’re trying to replace.
The second clock counts down toward environmental catastrophe. So long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system of the first world, it is inevitable. This is partly a structural matter — an economy predicated on endless growth cannot stop growing; the politics produced by such an economy can barely stick to half-measures they’re so scared of hampering GDP growth — but they are mundane, too. Climate change, even the kind where men boil in their own bodies, does not destroy the whole world. Not every patch of land goes underwater, even in the worst case. The world of 2050 may not be able to support seven billion human lives, but there will always be enough food and medicine and air conditioning for the narrow set who can afford it. By then, we may have robots that will be good at helping everyone find food, but I suspect we will have robots that are good at putting down food riots. Disease will take care of the rest.
There will always be enough food and medicine and air conditioning for the narrow set who can afford it.
I do not think that the situation is hopeless. Despair is not a useful mood in politics, even if it is the most honest mood on offer. But we must reckon with the scale of our emergency. We cannot rely on steady progress, on charts that show general improvements in the rate of global poverty and war. Progress as currently constituted, even progress as it would move under unimpeded Democratic government, will not move fast enough. The timeline is not forever anymore. Halfway there isn’t anywhere if the stakes are all or nothing. I do not want to despair but on the precipice of these dual catastrophes, we find ourselves in a world where even the preferable party of the United States proposes combating climate change with “market-based solutions,” while they salivate over a French president who says he wants to run France, a society of human beings, “like a start-up” racing toward a liquidity event. A world where Whole Foods says they are “beyond” unions, and in virtue of their fairly generous benefits are still the kinder partner in their marriage with Amazon, a company best known for letting its warehouse workers freeze. A world where the dream of a middle class life for every consumer is not only undercut by the permanent global violence that keeps our treasury bills strong, but by our reliance in matters as basic as maintaining the supply of consumer products on debt slaves, living and working in California.
Recent years have seen the beginning of the collapse of the liberal-managerial world order, but what rises up to replace them as the managers of capitalist society? One possibility is the pure reaction of Donald Trump, nationalism and eugenics of the ad hoc variety. The other is the vampiric libertarianism of Peter Thiel, with UBI given out in exchange for young blood, and eugenics powered by the best data in the world. I am as encouraged as anyone by the resurgence of left wing ambition in the United States, and by the very real possibility that 2017 will see a socialist like Jeremy Corbyn in control of a core western government. But there is very little time and it is hard to see how even these hopeful signs can win the future fast enough.
What can we do? I don’t know. Organize the workers. Demand justice. Win the future. I haven’t given up but I have no idea where we can even begin in time. We live in a world in which we watch angry college students shout fuck you and fuck off at their professors and see tough guy alt-righters get triggered by Shakespeare after browsing fan fiction that the former secretary of labor wrote about himself. Perhaps the most fitting end is that metabolic Easy-Bake Oven. We don’t even have to get up and our insides will burn themselves out soon. “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm,” wrote Graham Greene half a century ago. We got here by a thousand years of malicious innocence. The klaxons of catastrophe are going off all around us, and nothing within our power appears capable of making them silent again.
Over the weekend, concerns arose that the Amazon-Whole Foods acquisition might run afoul of anti-trust laws. The story is especially juicy because Donald Trump, the official source of all our scandals and emergencies, said back in January that Amazon would have “problems” under his watch. Will he abuse his regulatory power? Maybe there’ll be more congressional testimony. Maybe it’ll be on prime time.