Can we truly think about climate change at all?

Part one of a three-part series on how philosophy contends with our possible annihilation.

Can we truly think about climate change at all?

Part one of a three-part series on how philosophy contends with our possible annihilation.

Alan Butler’s 2017 video installation, “On Exactitude in Science,” is one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in the last few months. The work consists of two screens. On the left plays Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out Of Balance, the 1982 stoner classic of slow motion and time lapse footage of cities and landscapes; complete with pulsing, shimmering Philip Glass soundtrack. On the right: Butler’s shot-by-shot remake, in which he has — somehow, marvelously, painstakingly — reproduced the film in its entirety by modding Grand Theft Auto V.

On paper, reproducing Koyannisqatsi in GTA form sounds like it would be an impressive technical feat — surely nothing more. But when you actually sit down and watch the thing, it turns out to be utterly spellbinding. For long stretches, it can be hard to remember which screen is which: Butler’s land- and city-spaces are so unerringly accurate that I found myself checking left and right to keep my bearings, miming writing with my dominant hand to confirm. But then every now and then — and as the film develops, increasingly often — a human face will enter, and the difference becomes bluntly, laughably obvious.

On the left, commuters walk briskly. People — builders, waitresses, fighter pilots — stand by machines, looking into the camera intently, often slightly uncomfortably. On the right, their doubles simply mill about, almost at random; their faces, at any rate generic, have nothing in them.

The difference is particularly apparent whenever the figures are engaged in any sort of intentional activity: walking or driving, working or playing. In Koyaanisqatsi, factory workers bustle busily at a conveyor belt assembling whatever it is they are producing: attentive to the task in the manner of workers who know they can get fired. In Butler’s facsimile by contrast, his characters simply stare vacantly at a churning machine: some make a sort of vague effort to lean over it, as if miming doing something; one has clearly gone too far, and is slumped on the moving belt as if asleep.

In the following shot, we see on the left a machine churning out hundreds and hundreds of hot dogs — they appear, clearly from somewhere, the result of a causal process which involved any number of people (who knows exactly how many?) doing something. On the right, hot dogs are also produced, but here they simply appear, mounting up almost at random one on top of the other, limited only (one assumes) by the speed at which Butler can click his mouse. In Reggio’s film, a crowd of people sit in a multiplex cinema, munching popcorn, absorbed in a movie. In Butler’s copy, a group of figures are similarly arranged, and go through similar motions — but here they simply sit, their eyes trained on nothing.

Particularly in its most impressive moments — the sped-up footage of commuters gushing out of metro stations; the glowing cityscapes of cars rushing into the night — Koyaanisqatsi presents us with a world that is utterly, dauntingly alive with meaning, fecund with the hum and thrust of the activity of human life. Butler’s copy takes this vision and presents us with its uncanny double: a future world, perhaps — a world in which artificial intelligence has developed to the point that it is able to empty the world of the human entirely, a world where little copies of us are kept around but to no particular purpose, save perhaps the amusement of the machines.

The film is named for a Borges story, a fragment of a tale about a 1:1 map. “In that Empire,” the story goes, “the Art of Cartography attained such perfection that... the Cartographers Guild struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” Later generations, however, decided that the Map was useless, and left it to decay in “the Deserts of the West.” But who knows: if the Map really did coincide with the Empire “point for point,” is it really so clear that it was the Map they discarded, and not the original Empire? At times, as I say, Butler’s facsimile is entirely too convincing. Is it possible someone made a mistake?

Perhaps more than anything, Butler’s installation is a powerful aesthetic response to climate change. It raises all the problems that are of the most terrifying relevance to this series: confronting us with the naked, baffling, utterly decentering reality of the possibility of human extinction. Once we are all gone, so too will everything we ever thought we loved or valued or knew. The arc of history, which people once did (and some still do) conceive of as the story of “human progress,” is revealed as what anyone with working critical faculties and basic empathy (at any rate, essential for critical thought) always suspected that it might be: a stupid and awful puppet show, a charade.

In his early essay “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” written in 1873 and unpublished until after the mental breakdown which rendered him an invalid from 1889 until his death, Friedrich Nietzsche tells us a fable in which, “in some remote corner of the universe... there was once a star on which some clever beasts invented knowledge.” This, Nietzsche claims, “was the highest and most mendacious moment of ‘world history’ — but it was only a moment.” “After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever beasts had to die.”

“One might invent such a fable,” Nietzsche says, “and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life.”

Nietzsche uses “On Truth and Lies” to indict our arrogance; he wants to shatter our pretensions to having access to any “real” knowledge; to the sort of eternal, ideal truth the philosophical tradition prior to Nietzsche had largely traded in. The intellect, Nietzsche tells us, is solely “a means for preserving the individual,” and ‘truth’ as we understand it is merely a social convention, which aids self-preservation not only by maintaining a repository of fixed categories, broadly agreed-upon by all — but also by enabling lying.

“Only through forgetfulness,” Nietzsche tells us, can we ever “achieve the illusion” of possessing some “truth” beyond the finite perspective of humanity. But then again: it is only through this illusion, through this forgetfulness, that we can “live with any repose, security and consistency” at all. The vertiginous effects of recognizing how little our intellect really amounts to, would be enough to drive anyone to gibbering despair. All we have is the concepts and categories, the “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” that we use to understand the world. “What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds.” If Nietzsche were to have grown up in Borges’ cartographical Empire, he would have concluded that its subjects, his fellow Empire-dwellers, had needed the Map in order to derive meaning from any aspect of their world at all. We have, he says, “an invincible inclination” to allow ourselves to be deceived.

Against the prospect of the collapse and obsolescence of everything we hold dear, we need to reaffirm the value of human life.

Nietzsche wants us to turn our thoughts to something, he wants us to consider: what would it really be, what could it be, for the world to be completely emptied, as it is in Butler’s film, of the human? Would this mean anything? Could it possibly mean anything at all?

At our present moment, this question haunts us — it is with us in almost everything we do, in even the slightest decision we make. AI (regardless of whether it in fact does this ) makes it possible to conceive of intelligence beyond human intelligence; still more seriously, the fact of climate change forces us to confront the possibility of the complete destruction of human life. If intellect evolved as a means for preserving the individual, it has now conspired to defeat its own original purpose: every feat of intellect now makes us stupider (literally so — elevated temperatures and increased carbon emissions are strongly linked with diminished cognitive performance); every new technology, brought to us by the pampered tech-buffoons of Silicon Valley, only brings the end nearer. As a society, the people we reward most materially are the ones helping to bring about our destruction the fastest.

This brings us to a particular question: how can we even think about climate change at all? The possibility of human extinction threatens to invalidate all canons of knowledge, all established modes of thought: the old Map lies tattered and useless, disintegrating in some desert far away; in a bleached coral reef, in a drowned city. Can philosophy offer anything useful, in the face of our present crisis?

Arguably, philosophy has its power in its ability to look beyond what is merely present to us right now. As Adorno tells us in his Lectures of Negative Dialectics, “Philosophy consists in the effort to say what cannot be said, to think what we cannot yet think.” And yet, as “Western thought” philosophy is nothing if not complicit in our present situation; in most institutions where philosophy is taught, climate change occupies a far less prominent place in the thinking of the professionals than, say, the question of whether or not a group of particles arranged “table-wise” is really a table, or how professionally acceptable it is to stand up for the rights of trans women. Should we even bother trying to think our way out of the complete destruction of human life? Or should we simply give up on thinking altogether — crack each other’s heads open, and feast on the sweet, sweet goo within?

A second aesthetic response to climate change can serve as a reminder of the dangers of such nihilism. The other week, Grimes — whose recent developmental arc is its own argument for the inseparability of art and politics — announced via instagram that her new album, Miss_Anthropocene, would be “a concept album about the anthropomorphic goddess of climate Change: A psychedelic, space-dwelling demon/beauty-Queen who relishes the end of the world.” “I love Godly personifications of abstract/horrific concepts,” the singer continued, “so I wanted to update the list to include our modern issues... Climate change is something I’m only confronted with in a sad/guilty way.... Reading news and what not... so my goal is to make climate change fun... everybody loves a good villain.” Her recent single, the ploddingly nu metal-ish “We Appreciate Power,” was apparently our introduction to “the pro-AI-propaganda girl group who embody our potential enslavement/destruction at the hands of Artificial General Intelligence.” (Frankly, I prefer Elon Musk’s Harambe rap ).

Grimes’ stance on climate change is willfully and almost shockingly affirmative, leaning in to the version of accelerationism preached by “Dark Enlightenment” guru (and erstwhile academic philosopher) Nick Land, celebrating an image of the future in which everything loving and kind and good and makes our species worthy of redemption is dominated by everything destructive and bad, in which the only people afforded anything even resembling security and comfort would be a neo-feudal class of billionaires kept safe from the climate in bunkers, shielded from their dying, desperate public by the private armies in their pay. But perhaps this is unsurprising. If you’re dating (or rumored to still be dating) a man whose main plan for tackling climate change is “probably I have enough money to realistically colonize Mars,” then maybe it really is possible to see climate change as fertile material for dancefloor bangers, a bit of safe cyberpunk fun.

Indeed, Grimes and Musk are said to have met after they both made the same joke about Roko’s Basilisk, a thought experiment originating on pro-“rationality” forum Less Wrong in which an all-powerful artificial intelligence, originally designed to optimize the human good, goes haywire by deciding (quite in accordance with its own logic) to punish anyone who didn���t dedicate their lives to helping to create it. Roko’s Basilisk has been described as “the world’s most dangerous thought experiment”: just by considering the possibility of Roko’s Basilisk existing, you risk finding yourself one day resurrected in a future totally dominated by this entity, where it will now proceed to torture you forever.

So, should you dedicate your life to helping create the Basilisk? Of course fucking not. If anything, the possibility of something like Roko’s Basilisk existing (and let’s face it: giving the way technology is going, it hardly seems too far-fetched to suppose that an ostensibly benevolent AI would end up torturing us) ought to be a reason (yet another reason!) to fight against it. Against the prospect of the collapse and obsolescence of everything we hold dear, we need to reaffirm the value of human life — human life as it loves, suffers, needs, dies, is born. We need to think in a way that is aligned with human life.

This might be taken as the deepest point of Nietzsche’s essay. Perhaps he is not taunting us with the fleetingness and insignificance of human life and thought; perhaps what he is saying is that the truth simply is human, and nothing more. But if that reading is right, the possibility of our total extinction just invites us to reflect still more urgently on what human life and human thought means. It is time to re-draw the Map with this in mind.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.