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The Fourth Revolution
The Light Age is the Dark Age, part two
By now, you might have heard about the rising threat of ‘eco-fascism’. If you haven’t you soon will, because the number of people warning about this alarming new danger to civilisation seems to be growing exponentially. In publications right and left and neither you’ll be able to read long expositions of the origins and intentions of this frightening movement, which seems to be taking root all over the world.
Those essays and articles could be rolled into one easily enough, and sometimes it seems like they have been. The formula is always the same, and can be usefully applied across the political spectrum. Start with talk of the ‘rising tide of authoritarianism’ all over the world, as evidenced by ‘populism’, Brexit, Georgia Melloni, Viktor Orban, Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, Joe Biden or any other leader you don’t like. Move on to explore how much of this ‘rising authoritarianism’ is reflected in environmentalism, as evidenced by Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, the Green New Deal, the Great Reset, Bill Gates, Greta Thunberg or [insert name of bête noire here]
After this, list the historical inspirations for these new green authoritarians: Ted Kaczynski, Pentti Linkola and Dave Foreman should do for starters. Dig into the most miserable chans and reddits of the Internet and ‘expose’ a few anonymised avatars promoting race war in the name of the planet. Mention the Christchurch shooter. Use the phrase ‘dark undercurrent’ a lot. Quote Murray Bookchin. Chuck in the names of a couple of nature writers from the 1930s who became fascists. Mutter darkly about ‘blood and soil’ and how Hitler was a vegetarian. Did you know there was an organic garden at Dachau? It makes you think. If you’re lucky.
Having got here, you can move on to the meat of the thing: sombrely intoning about the ‘new threat to democracy’ which is represented by this ominous movement. Depending on where you’re coming from, you can now explain how these new eco-authoritarians represent either [a] a threat to our God-given right to drive, mine, manufacture, fly, burn oil and freely enjoy the glories that only Western Progress can provide, or [b] a threat to diversity, equality, human rights, LGBTQIA++ people, refugees, ‘global justice’ and a woman’s right to choose. Either way, the conclusion will be much the same: a non-specific but ominous call for more monitoring of ‘problematic’ views, more work to tackle ‘radicalisation’, more ‘hate speech’ or anti-protest laws and probably more Internet regulation. For the safety of us all, of course.
The problem, though, is that actual ‘eco fascism’ is notable mostly by its absence. Dark corners of the Internet aside - you can find any craziness there, after all - it’s hard to find a single ‘eco fascist’ anywhere out in the real world. No public intellectuals, no writers, no philosophers, no politicians, no popular movements embrace anything of the kind. Plenty of people get the label applied to them of course - without the prefix, the word ‘fascist’ has been a meaningless, all-purpose insult for decades - but they all reject it. I was in and around the green movement for a long time, but I never met an eco-fascist, though I did have the pleasure of being called one.
So why all the dire warnings? I can think of two possible explanations.
One is fairly straightforward: there is something we can’t bear to look at, and we are trying to distract attention from it by screaming at the people who are pointing it out. The thing we are avoiding is the thing that we used to call ‘nature’, and the reality that we are trying to distract attention from is that we are part of it, we live inside it and that everything we do to it we also do to ourselves. Change the climate out there and it changes in here. Erode the soil, erode your soil. Poison the oceans, poison your culture. This is how it works, and this is what we are now facing.
And we cannot face it; even those of us who think we can. Whatever we think our politics are - and they are likely to be the least important thing about us - we have no idea what to do about the coming end of the brief age of abundance, and the reappearance, armed and dangerous, of what we could get away with denying for a few decades: limits. Those who point these limits out - and who point out, especially, that the very existence of industrial modernity might be the root cause of the problems we currently face - can expect to be smacked down with the worst insults our culture can conjure.
This is one explanation for the mysterious rise of the ghostly eco-fascists. But I think there might be another. This is that the phrase ‘eco fascist’ is a label which is increasingly being applied to the wrong kind of environmentalist: those who offer up a vision of humanity and nature that involves roots, traditions, smallness, simplicity, a return to previous lifeways, or any other kind of challenge to Machine modernity. This in turn is contrasted with the right kind of green: that which is modern, global, progressive and - most importantly of all - friendly to the onward march of the technological society.
Nearly a decade ago, I wrote an essay called Dark Ecology, about the state of environmentalism. In it, I wrote about the emergence of a tendency in green circles which I labelled ‘neo-environmentalism.’ The neo-greens - who preferred to call themselves ‘ecomodernists’ - emerged as a reaction to the traditional green movement, which in its infancy had been relatively conservative, low-tech and focused on the human scale. The neo-greens rejected all this as backward, impractical and even dangerous. The ‘new environmentalism’ they declared, in manifestoes like this one, would be, as we might now say, ‘grown-up.’
In ‘Dark Ecology’ I described the neo-greens like this:
The neo-environmentalists are distinguished by their attitude to new technologies, which they almost uniformly see as positive. Civilisation, nature and people can be ‘saved’ only by enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, geoengineering and anything else with the prefix ‘new’ that annoys Greenpeace. The traditional green focus on ‘limits’ is dismissed as naive. We are now, in [Stewart] Brand’s words, ‘as Gods’, and we have to step up and accept our responsibility to manage the planet rationally through the use of new technology guided by enlightened science …
Sucks to be right, as I believe the kidz say on the Interweb.
Since I wrote that essay, the neo-greens have, as I suggested they would, mounted an effective corporate takeover of most of the environmental movement. Examples of what we might call Machine Environmentalism have been embraced by the corporate sector, big NGOs, global institutions and most of the intellectual class, most obviously in the ‘Green New Deals’ that are popping up like summer daisies in all corners of the globe. Meanwhile, as I also glumly predicted, the green movement is splintering into camps, determined by attitudes to the kind of intrusive and novel technologies that the Machine Greens are pushing as our final means of salvation.
In Britain, for example, this divide has been illustrated recently by attitudes to green pundit George Monbiot’s latest book, which embraces the neo-green vision. In the humbly titled Regenesis, Monbiot, an urban vegan intellectual, makes a case - based, naturally, on the ‘peer-reviewed science’ - for the ‘end of most farming’ and the replacement of much of its output with vat-grown, bacterial ‘food’ manufactured via ‘industrial biotechnology.’ The vast acreages of land which have been stripped of their farmers can then be ‘rewilded’ in various Monbiot-approved ways, which mainly seem to involve growing forests for always-on urbanites to go wolf-spotting in at weekends.
In promoting a high-tech, globalised food system (perhaps overseen by the world government he has previously argued for), and casually calling for the destruction of the basis of post-Neolithic human civilisation, Monbiot offers a perfect example of what a neo-green future will look like: utopian, hyper-urban, technological, rational and most of all, ‘efficient’. What matters now, as he explains, is mathematics:
It’s time we became obsessed by numbers. We need to compare yields, compare land uses, compare the diversity and abundance of wildlife, compare emissions, erosion, pollution, costs, inputs, nutrition, across every aspect of food production.
Welcome to what the greens have become.
A number of actual farmers who are also first-rate thinkers have taken aim at Monbiot’s Machine Green dystopia in recent months (Simon Fairlie, Chris Smaje and John Lewis-Stempel offer some of the best critiques), but while they might win the battle they are, for now at least, losing the war. Industrial biotechnology is joining the growing list of other ‘green’ innovations which are set to cut our world of megacities and glowing screens off even further from the real world.
Only last month, the pioneering Finnish ‘solar food’ company championed by Monbiot as part of the future of food was given EU permission for ‘industrial deployment of relevant infrastructure in the hydrogen value chain’ as part of the ‘European green deal.’ In plain English, this means that they now have permission to roll out production of their new ‘sustainable protein’. The company says that the production hub in which it produces this ‘novel food’ - a laboratory which it calls ‘Factory 01’ - is part of a ‘food revolution’ which will, for the first time in history, detach food production from the land, the farmers who work it and the culture it creates. Excitable admirers are already explaining that this may give us the ability to one day 3D-print our own food. I’m salivating already.
Older, crustier greenies like me, labouring under the yoke of a pre-modern sensibility which makes us reluctant to eat the sludge and live in the pod, might feel that something has gone terribly wrong with the numbers-obsessed rationalism that underlies this new, corporate-friendly green technocracy. But we have no five point plan of our own, and we can’t peer-review our intuition, so our complaints don’t convince anybody who matters. And now that the localists, the distributists, the deep ecologists, the neo-Luddites, the peasants, the small farmers and anyone else whose human-scale vision actually interferes with the march of Progress have been usefully designated as ‘eco fascists’, we are able to behold the only legitimate form of environmentalism which remains: a globalised, technocratic, ‘progressive’ push for ‘sustainability’, led by intellectuals, entrepreneurs and professional activists, following The Science down a path which just happens to lead to the triumph of the Machine.
Earlier this year I wrote an essay exploring the shared roots of the allegedly anti-capitalist left and the corporate world. Both, I suggested, had their common source in a worldview which sought the elimination of all borders, boundaries and limits:
Progressive leftism and corporate capitalism have not so much merged as been exposed for what they always were: variants of the same modern ideal, built around the pursuit of boundless self-creation in a post-natural world. The Canadian ‘red Tory’ philosopher George Grant once observed that ‘the directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.’ These days, they have abandoned their separate vessels and are sailing downstream in a superyacht together, while the rest of us gawp or throw rocks from the banks.
The green movement, long ago co-opted by the left, has now been co-opted too by technocrats. For this reason, the neo-green (or should we say soylent green?) food future can’t be viewed in isolation. It is only one aspect of the unfolding phenomenon which has been dubbed the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ - a revolution in which the Machine Greens, wittingly or otherwise, are playing a key part.
Dreamt up, like so many other catchy corporate catchphrases, by the World Economic Forum in 2015, the Fourth Revolution is a way of describing our historical moment, and it’s not a bad summary of the state we’re in. In a book of the same name, produced that same year by Foreign Affairs journal to accompany the annual Davos gathering of politicians, business leaders and Bono, the inescapable Klaus Schwab makes his case:
We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society.
Schwab, a man whose prose style could make a Martian invasion sound boring, goes on to outline human’s three previous revolutions, and the coming of their successor:
The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.
The rest of the book, made up of offerings from various scientists, engineers, politicians and philosophers, explores the implications of this ‘blurring of lines’ between created and uncreated, natural and artificial, wild and tamed. Now that we inhabit what the neo-greens like to call the ‘Anthropocene’ - now that we are, in H. G. Wells’s formulation, Men Like Gods - what do we intend to conjur with the thunder and the lightning that pours forth from our just and rational fingers?
All of the contributors stress that overcoming the old-school distinction between the digital and the natural is the essence of the thing. Neil Gershenfeld, for example, defines the ‘digital fabrication revolution’ - the one which will soon be growing our tank-bred bio-sludge dinners - as ‘the ability to turn data into things and things into data.’ Gershenfeld writes of the potential ability to build a home-made drone that can ‘fly right out of the printer’. That printer will eventually be able to ‘make all its own parts’, so that the tech being used to build physical things out of digital data will itself become self-replicating. Every home will become a lab which can whip up anything we desire, from junk food to sex dolls.
This kind of ‘distributed solution’ (the actual problem remains mysteriously vague) is the essence of the coming Internet of Things, and its associated Internet of Bodies, which I wrote about here last December. ‘Intelligent’ buildings, wearable sensors, implanted chips: six years ago, when this book was written, these may have seemed radical. Today, it feels as if they have been almost normalised. Partly this is because of the ubiquity of Amazon Alexas, Smartphone apps and endless, boosterish narratives about the exciting future that AI is building. And partly it is because the covid pandemic, as I wrote back in December, was used as a trial run for precisely the kind of technologies - smartphone-enabled passports, under-the-skin microchips, digital population tracking, media-driven narrative control, psychological ‘nudging’ - which are now increasingly sold to us as a means of ‘saving the planet.’ It is no coincidence that some of the loudest proponents of Machine Environmentalism were also fanatical supporters of the covid biosecurity state. We have been trained to like what is coming - or at least to shrug our shoulders and accept its inevitability.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution explores everything from the creation of artificial life through synthetic biology (spoiler: it’s already happened), digital finance, gene editing, the morality of robotics, the ‘new world order’ of the ‘second machine age’ and the future of cities. Not all of the contributors are starry-eyed about what is unfolding, but all agree on the breathtaking speed of it. This rapid transformation is surely one reason that the world seems so unstable, confusing and manic as the 2020s unfold. All that is solid melts into bytes and is transformed into data. Then you can print it out at home in any shape you please. Behold: liberation!
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Fourth Revolution, though, is what has been called ‘datafication.’ The book’s chapter on ‘Big Data’ explains that the knowledge available to each of us today on the Internet dwarfs that which would have been available in the Great Library of Alexandria, the greatest repository of learning in the ancient world. ‘Today’, intone the authors, ‘there is enough information in the world to give every person alive 320 times as much of it as historians think was stored in Alexandria’s entire collection — an estimated 1,200 exabytes’ worth.’
But size, as they explain, isn’t everything:
Big data is also characterized by the ability to render into data many aspects of the world that have never been quantified before; call it “datafication.” For example, location has been datafied, first with the invention of longitude and latitude, and more recently with GPS satellite systems. Words are treated as data when computers mine centuries’ worth of books. Even friendships and “likes” are datafied, via Facebook.
Here we see the same ‘obsession with numbers’ that George Monbiot demands of us as we contemplate how to produce our food and live in our landscape, and it reveals the elision between Machine Environmentalism and the elite-driven tech revolution it is part of. What we can see is that both achieve their goals through the process of datafication: the quantification of everything. The pattern of reality will be transformed into bits and bytes, comparisons and yields, numbers and statistics, until even novels and friendships and meadows and family meals on winter nights can be measured and compared and judged for their relative contributions to efficiency and sustainability.
There is a rift here, and we should gaze deep into it, because there is something down there that we need to make out. It is the ancient rift between those who embrace the mindset of ‘datafication’ and those who are repelled by it. It is a very old rift - ‘datafication’, in the form of sums and the written language they are recorded in, is one of the foundations of civilisation - and I suspect it can never really be healed, because it marks the border between two distinct ways of seeing. In my last essay I wrote of them as the ratio and the nous, but we could just as well call them left and right brain, mythos and logos, or - perhaps most simply - the sacred and the profane.
The Fourth Revolution, and the Machine Environmentalism which it contains, offer us a profoundly profane vision of the world. Life in this understanding is not a sacred thing - what does ‘sacred’ mean after all? - but an engineering challenge. It is something which can be studied, quantified and constantly tweaked until we arrive at the most efficient version, best suited to our needs and designed to achieve maximum efficiency, equality and progress. The world of Big Data is a world in which an astute study of The Numbers can always help us arrive at the right conclusion.
All of this may be done with the best of intentions (or it may not) but the things which cannot be measured will, of course, be left out of the equation, and the things which cannot be measured happen to be the stuff of life. Love. God. Place. Culture. The profound mystery of beauty. A sense of being rooted. A feeling for land or community or cultural traditions or the unfolding of human history over generations. Song. Art. They’ll ‘datafy’ all of this soon enough, no doubt, or try to. But the kind of people who think that the Great Library of Alexandria contained ‘exabytes’ worth of information’ rather than the collected fruits of hard-won wisdom are lost before they ever sit down to their datasets.
If you have ever wondered why climate change has so utterly dominated the green debate to the exclusion of so many other problems which stem from industrial society - mass extinction, soil erosion, the collapse of human cultures, ocean pollution, fill in the blanks - then the answer, I think, is here. Climate change is a problem amenable to numerical questions and technocratic answers which go with the grain of a Machine culture. It is, furthermore, a problem which, almost by definition, can only be solved by elites. If you can’t read or understand the ‘peer-reviewed science’ then you are open to being intimidated into fearful silence by those who can, or claim they can. And those people - drawn, as all green ‘thought leaders’ are, from the upper strata of society - will bring with them a worldview which treats the mass of humanity like so many cattle to be herded into the sustainable, zero-carbon pen. If you’re wondering where you’ve heard this story before, just dig out your dirty old covid mask. It will all come flooding back.
Interestingly, some of the progenitors of the Fourth Revolution are themselves uneasy about where some of it is leading. Even Klaus Schwab, who these days is often lazily presented as a volcano-dwelling Bond villain pulling the global strings, admits to unease at the speed and scale of change, and how our ‘quintessential human capacities such as compassion and co-operation’ might be eroded by deep shifts like these:
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, finally, will change not only what we do but also who we are. It will affect our identity and all the issues associated with it: our sense of privacy, our notions of ownership, our consumption patterns, the time we devote to work and leisure, and how we develop our careers, cultivate our skills, meet people, and nurture relationships. It is already changing our health and leading to a “quantified” self, and sooner than we think it may lead to human augmentation.
Even as he promotes it, Schwab can see what is coming. Google maps and smartphone apps were always just the beginning. We are headed into a Brave New World of all-knowing Smart homes and vat-grown sludge for breakfast, and every step along that road will make perfect rational sense. A Panopticon world, remade at the nano level by the allegedly well-meaning, lies just around the corner. C. S. Lewis understood the trap well:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
What the Fourth Revolutionaries never seem to grasp is that the question you ask will frame the philosophy you develop. If your question is ‘how can we remove all this atmospheric carbon to avoid what these computer models say is coming?’ then the answer can only lead you to a globalised technocracy. If, on the other hand, the question you ask is ‘how can we build lives which offer us meaning, in alliance with the rest of nature?’ then you may be led in a very different direction.
It is the first kind of question that a Machine society will always ask, and there will always be endless, multiplying justifications for asking it. Ecology, equality, feminism, democracy, public health, growth, security, the war on terror/crime/drugs/whatever: there is always a reason for Big Data, the techno-security grid, the Internet of Bodies. The control is always necessary to prevent a greater evil. Even a movement which once challenged this grim way of seeing has today been bought and sold by it.
For at least two hundred years we have been thoroughly undermining the foundations of all of our assumptions. Now, new cracks in the masonry are appearing daily. Can we caulk them up with vat-grown eco-sludge and hope they don’t spread? Can Big Data come to our rescue? What can we measure, manage, monitor, to help us escape from this? You know what I think, though I often wish I didn’t. We are living now through what may be the final triumph of Rational Man. The tower he has made has nearly touched the very roof of the world. Every old story can tell us what will happen next.
This week: Live in Barcelona!
If any of my readers happen to be in Barcelona, Spain, tomorrow or Friday, I’m appearing a couple of times at the city’s Festival of Fantastic Literature. My novel Alexandria is published in Catalan this month, and I’ll be in the city to plug it.
On Thursday 3rd I’ll be interviewed onstage about the book and my wider fiction trilogy. On Friday 4th I’ll be on a panel with other authors talking about ‘fantasy literature in Europe’. Come along if you’re around.