Spacetime and the limits of human knowledge

Last night, while doing some math research for fun (and isn’t that just like me?), I found out that the universe is flat.

By which I mean: the geometry of space-time has now been measured. It’s within 0.4% of flat-Euclidean, as per expectations arising from our current best theory of the Big Bang.

Some of you reading this might be tempted to reply with “Yeah, kid, we already know. Nice of you to catch up!”

But we *didn’t* know. We only assumed. Until some astronomers figured out an ingenious way to measure it. Here’s how:

– Take the expected size of quantum fluxuations in the early universe, given what we know of the first few attoseconds after the Big Bang.

– Extrapolate to the current age of the universe.

– Look for signs of those fluxuations in the cosmic microwave background. Measure their angular width.

– Compare measurement to prediction.

And the winner is: flat-Euclidean, not spherical, and not hyperbolic. Within the margin of error.

This isn’t the last word: in the future, some new method might be devised, or a more accurate measurement might be made.

But here’s the point that kept me up all night.

In a spherical universe, human mortality and the speed of light prevents us from being able to explore all the universe in a single human lifetime. But supposing both those barriers are overcome*, it may be possible for someone to know all that there is to know. For however far you travel in any direction, you always end up back where you began. You’d always get back home. Science and philosophy could some day end.

But our current best science says we live in a flat-Euclidean universe, where, if the limits of mortality and the speed of light were overcome*, you could explore as much of the universe as you like, and always return home. (Aside: this is also true of a hyperbolic universe.)

And that felt like a comforting thought.

But at the same time, I also troubled. For it also means the limits of our potential knowledge might correspond 1:1 to the limits of our tolerance for fear of the unknown. Anything might be out there. The curvature of spacetme won’t protect us.

The above doesn’t account for dark energy and the accelerating expansion of spacetime. But the correspondence there is that: the further you travel from home, the harder it is to get back. You’d need more energy to return home than you needed to reach your furthest distant point: for in the time it took to travel that far, the line behind you “stretched”, and got longer. The limits of our potential for knowledge might correspond 1:1 to the limits of our tolerance for loneliness.

A few years ago, I studied the math of that, and of the likelihood that some day all matter and energy will be eaten by black holes. That also gave me a few nights of existential dread.

The point is here much like my earlier remarks about the Fermi Paradox. Claims about cosmology correspond to claims about the human condition. I’ve been thinking a lot about those correspondences lately, and wondering if anyone out there feels the same.

*Footnote: those barriers probably won’t be overcome, except perhaps in science fiction.

Link: A flat Universe from high-resolution maps of the cosmic microwave background radiation

Link: Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe

[Image: Guillermo Ferla, unsplash dot com.]

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The Fermi Paradox Is Personal

Today, for my work-in-progress science-fiction novel, I’m researching the Fermi Paradox.

Before you ask: No, I’ve never seen a UFO, and I find the conspiracy theories about government cover-ups implausible.

I’m researching the Fermi Paradox because last night, while walking in the forest seeking inspiration, it occurred to me that: for every possible solution to the paradox, there is a corresponding proposition about human nature and/or the human condition.

In other words, every possible solution to the paradox is personal.


1: “the aliens are deliberately not contacting us.” = “they don’t like us, we’re not good enough for them; there’s some reason why they’ve judged us unworthy to know them.”

2: “They’re too far away to contact us, or for us to detect them.” = “We will be alone forever.”

3. “It’s the nature of life to destroy itself before reaching its fullest potential.” = “We are by nature flawed and foolish.”

4. “They failed to overcome an extraordinary civilizational or evolutionary obstacle, and so never developed to a level where they could contact us, or we could detect them.” (ie. ‘great filter’ hypothesis) = “Our biggest challenges as a species and/or as a civilization are yet to come. We, too, might fail to overcome the same obstacles.”

5. “They’re all hiding from each other.” (ie. the ‘dark forest’ hypothesis) = “We are by nature violent and paranoid.”

6. “They’re here, but the government keeps them secret.” = “My government thinks that I’m untrustworthy and stupid, or prone to panic, or that for some other reason I don’t deserve to know the truth.”

7. “They’re here, but they reveal themselves to very few people, perhaps according to a first-contact plan.” = “If I am not among those who get to see them, then I am unworthy, unimportant, undeserving, or for some other reason there’s nothing special about me.”

8. “They’re not contacting us because they wish to ‘contain’ us, to prevent our wars from spilling out into space.” = “We are a violent, war-like, and dangerous species.”

9. “There are no aliens.” = “The massive responsibility to craft or to discover the meaning of life falls to us, and us alone.”

Notice the tragic character of each of these propositions; tragic in the sense that they provide no validation, no reason for us to feel good about ourselves. Some even provide a footing for a kind of grim pseudo-intellectual misanthropy: the modern version of Original Sin.

And to tie a ribbon on it: if tomorrow the aliens revealed themselves to all humanity, the search for meaning would only get more complicated, and not simpler. We would have a new immensity of ‘the other’ to face, and we’d have to invent whole new ways to configure ourselves and respond.

So! This weekend is the first in around six weeks in which I will have no visitors. Perfect for a hike to the lake, and for cooking a nice dinner for myself, and for fitting these thoughts into the theme of the novel – and for finding a way to turn that tragedy into something beautiful. As I think we all must do.

[Image by Brandon Siu, from unsplash dot com. There’s a setting in my novel which looks like this.]

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Brendan’s review of Barbie (2023)

Tonight I saw Barbie.

I think people are going to be watching this movie, talking about it, finding inspiration in it, arguing about it, loving it, hating it, thinking about it, studying it, and in some way engaged by it, for decades to come. It is possibly the most existentialist-themed film to come out of Hollywood in a long while.

Yes, it’s a feminist film too. That much is obvious going in. The “It is literally impossible to be a woman” speech needed to be there, even if it’s not an especially new message— some variation of it has crossed my social media stream almost every day for many years.

I get that that message needs to continue to be said until the people who need to get it finally get it.

But I think the existentialist theme is the more interesting one. At the beginning of the film, Barbie is an object. She’s so perfect, that she isn’t even interesting. She lives in herself, but not *for* herself. And Ken is an object, too: in fact he wants to be an object, for as the narrator tells us he feels entirely unfulfilled unless Barbie is looking at him. He lives neither in himself nor for himself. So far, Barbie-land is fine, if a little weird. And then, Barbie drops the existential question: “Any of you guys ever think about dying?”

At that point, I felt able to settle into my seat in the cinema and enjoy myself, able to ignore that I was the only guy in the cinema who had gone to see it alone. Don’t believe me? I’ll photograph my ticket for you. But then, wouldn’t that be a Ken-ish thing to do? That is, to need to be seen as something, and to feel that need so deeply as to feel empty and angsty without it?

(Whoa, I think I just had an out-of-movie experience.)

I love that Barbie’s quest is a quest for realisation, a quest for the real. I love that Barbieland is Plato’s Cave. That the real world is messy, complicated, and a little dangerous. That Ken craves Barbie’s gaze so deeply, he organizes a patriarchal takeover of Barbieland in order to get it— and then he doesn’t get it, because he finds himself neck deep in a Hegelian master-servant dialectic. I love that Weird Barbie is a shaman. That Allan sees both early-film Barbieland, and the Ken kingdom, for the dead ends that they are. I love that Barbie accidentally finds herself on a quest for God— that is, Ruth Handler, her creator. And most of all, I love that Barbie decides what she wants is “to be part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made.”

That’s what I want too, Barbie. That’s why studied philosophy.

In fact I love something else about this film more than that. I love that all over this planet, millions and millions of girls are going to watch this film, thinking that they’re in for a semi-escapist, feminist-themed, family comedy film, about nothing more consequential than a toy. And on one level they’re going to get that film. But they’re *also* going to get an introduction to several of the most important and influential ideas in existentialism and phenomenology. They’re going to learn about the patriarchy. And Plato’s Cave. And Sartre and de Beauvoir’s Le Regard, and Le Regard Masculaine. And Hegel’s Dialectic. And the social construction of identity. And Hume’s Bundle Theory. And Heidegger’s being-towards-death. And Brechtian meta-theatricality. They’ll even get a touch of Marxism— but not too much, as Barbie is still a corporate IP, and the film is full of product placements. They’ll see an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Pinnochio. And the goddess Innana. And they’ll get a demonstration from Barbie, Ken, and Gloria, of what speaking from the heart, and from a place of pain, can look like, and how it can be healing.

And on most of these themes, the film doesn’t just “ask the question”. It takes a stand. It picks a side. It builds the argument. And it’s too busy dancing to care if you disagree.

I hope that a generation of boys will watch this film, and see how absolutely ridiculous Ken looks when he’s running his Ken kingdom. (Aside: in that phase of his story, he looked, moved, and spoke like all the bullies who made my life miserable in primary school and high school.) I hope that in watching this film, they’ll see there are ways to be a man that don’t involve perpetuating the patriarchy. And it’s up to us to find them. Although I worry that some of those boys watching this film will grasp that self-aware Barbie, living both in herself and for herself, doesn’t need Ken. And then they, too, might throw a patriarchal temper tantrum, as Ken did for a while. Perhaps they’ll tape a Bible to a baseball bat, and trash a Barbie dollhouse with it?

Oh, I see. That happened. Oh dear.

Incidently, I was not the only Ken in the cinema tonight. But all the others who I could see, were there with their kids, and they looked like they were fulfilling a family duty and very uncomfortable doing it. One of them was in a hurry to leave, when the credits rolled. But credit to them, for showing up anyway, for their kid’s sake if not for their own.

As for me, I’m glad I saw this film. And I’m glad I saw it in a cinema. I think that I have work to do, now. People with whom to relate to better. And meaning to create. Also, questions to ask, concerning what it means to create meaning.

All right, those are my off-the-cuff thoughts for tonight. Let me know what you think, too. And if any of you know someone in the cast and crew, thank them for me, please.

[My review of Barbie was first published on Facebook, where it was shared more than 14,000 times. I still feel astonished about that fact.]

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Midjourney and the Hyper-Real

Here’s a problem with AI-art, that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.

It has nothing to do with copyright issues, or what images it “scrapes” off Google, etc.

One of my favourite philosophical concepts is “the hyper-real” – a concept created by French phenomenologist Jean Beaudrillard, in his Simulacra And Simulation (1981). A short version of the concept could go like this: the hyper-real is the copy, the diagram, the model, the representation, etc., which (1) has no original reality for its foundation, and/or which (2) people prefer to the original reality.

Think of how shopping malls represent an idealised middle-American small town business district, with all the trash, dog poop, bad weather, car exhaust, etc., removed. Or, think of a safari ride at an amusement park which has animatronic animals and monsters instead of real ones.

AI-generated art, it seems to me, is another iteration of the hyper-real.

I myself started playing with it a few months ago, with a tentative plan to use it for an RPG project I am almost ready to publish (until some friends pointed out to me the copyright issues).

Using an AI art generator is a lot of fun. It hits at least two aesthetic satisfaction-needs. (1) the need to create, as the user of the tool must be inventive, experimental, and sometimes original, with their text-prompts; the resulting art does become, in some sense, a product of the user’s choices and efforts. And (2) the need for surprise, as the tool produces something which resembles, but doesn’t precisely match, what the user might have had in their mind’s eye; the art arising from not only the user prompt but also a random-number seed and the tool’s training database.

After a few days of this, I began to notice the AI was doing something to my own mind.

Other images on my social media, including photographs and graphic designs, images which I knew beyond reasonable doubt were not AI-generated, began to feel to me as if they were AI-generated. I saw a friend’s selfie, and I immediately considered three or four text-prompts to feed into Midjourney which could have created that selfie. Everything in my visual field of view, if it was inside the frame of a computer monitor, began to feel like an AI-generated image. I’d look at someone’s holiday photos of a rainbow, and I’d say to myself “I can make a better one of those.”

But could I? Is there a human element to art, design, photography, and so on, which AI-generated art displaces? And how is it that I, or others, might come to prefer art, design, and photography which lacks that human element?

At the same time, the real world, outside the frame of a monitor, became boring. Perhaps part of that is due to the season: it’s the opening days of winter here, the sun is low, and sets early in the afternoon. Still, within a week or so of using Midjourney, I found that reading a book, cooking in my kitchen, or taking in the paper-and-pencil or canvas-and-paint art created by students at my college, became tasks instead of pleasures. They began to feel like a kind of waiting-room, where things got put on hold until the chance to play with the AI came round again.

This isn’t good for me. I should not want to live in a world of machine-manufactured Platonic forms. I should want to live — well, where, exactly? Such is the conundrum.

Some amount of this has perhaps always been a small risk for anyone involved in a creative endeavour: writing a novel, for instance, opens a world to the writer herself, providing the same sense of creative-agency and of surprise which feeds so well into “flow” (per the research of Italian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi starting in 1975).

But with an AI art generator, this can happen a lot faster. And it can happen to the detriment of the artist’s own creative capacity.

I noticed this when I made some AI images of characters in my own novels. At first, I enjoyed the surprise of seeing the faces of my people “for the first time”. And when I found one result unsatisfying, I tossed it out, tweaked my prompt, and got another.

But after a few hours, it occurred to me that I was letting the AI tell me what my people looked like. And that discovery felt uncomfortable. It should be me who decides what my characters look like, not an algorithm. But, alas, after a few weeks of this, in my mind’s eye some characters looked like what the AI designed them to be, and I could feel how they were subtly different than how I imagined them before. More than that: I also forgot how I used to imagine them.

Now, it could be argued that the experience is, perhaps, comparable to a writer who describes a character to a human artist, and then enjoys both the collaboration and the surprise that goes into the finished portrait. But, again, with an AI the process is much faster, and can be subject to multiple iterations, with unsatisfying iterations discarded.

A certain human quality, perhaps the quality of collaboration and discourse between free imaginative minds, or a quality of authorship and signature and legacy and dasein (design?), is partially replaced with a kind of Darwinian filter.

The circumstance reminds me of what it was like when I bought my first digital camera. Previously, I enjoyed photography with 35mm film. I had to line up my shots, take time with compositions, and be judicious with my limited resources. (I usually had only enough money for one or two rolls of film at a time.) With my first digital camera, I had memory enough to take ten times more pictures. So I no longer took the time to select angles and compositions and foreground-background objects with care. And I threw out the pics that I didn’t like. It was the hand of Darwin, influencing my way of seeing things, influencing my creative choices, influencing the frame of my reality.

Again, this has probably been going on ever since the printing press replaced the human scribe, and the photograph replaced the portraitist. The technology only allows it to happen much faster.

The overall point of this is not to cast more aspersions on a species of software which is still in its effective infancy, and which may turn out to have helpful and ethically noncontroversial uses. Film-makers might use it to put together storyboards, for example. Graphic designers or writers might use it to make mood-boards for their illustrators to find inspiration.

Rather, my overall point is to say that AI-generated art is another step in the already-well-underway process of transforming more and more of our world into a hyper-reality. I find that prospect uncomfortable: but I shall have to express my reasons for that another day.

My point is also to cast into greater seriousness certain questions in aesthetics and in phenomenology, such as:

  • Is there an human element that an AI art generator displaces? What is it?
  • As with the aforementioned inventions (printing press, photographic place), we all had to adjust ourselves, up our games, and carry on. And with those technologies we probably did just fine. But how shall we have to adjust ourselves this time, as the speed and the nature of the technology inserts itself ever more deeply into the very sense of reality itself?
  • If we outsource our imaginations to the machine, what shall become of our capacity for complex problem-solving? For originality and creativity? For the sense of wonder? For consciousness itself?
  • Does anyone know what reality is anymore?
  • Does anyone care?

In case anyone is curious to see them, here are some of my Midjourney character portraits and settings from the unpublished (at this time) SF novel mentioned above. I invite you to guess who the main protagonists are, who are the villains, who is the main POV character most of the time, who is that person’s anima and who is the shadow. The little boy is one of the adults as a child.

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Game Design Notes: The Flag of the Commonwealth of Summerland

I’m working on a tabletop RPG project which imagines if Robert Kirk’s “The Secret Commonweath of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies” (1815) had a scientific enlightenment and became a democratic republic. One of my questions: what would the flag look like?

It must be simple, easy to recognize, iconic, and (most important) modern, since my Commonwealth of Summerland is an early modern society. Musketeers instead of knights and crusaders. And instead of kings and nobles, there’s an elected senate and a charter of human rights. So, the flag must have no mediaeval heraldry, no excessive ornaments, no fanciness-for-the-sake-of-fanciness.

At first I thought of making a variation of the sun flag seen in the 1973 film The Wicker Man: simple, iconic, easy to recognize, clearly evoking values like life, happiness, magic, goodness, fertility. But then again, a variation on that theme might seem too cliché. (And, anyway, the community of Summerisle did conspire to kill that policeman…)

Looking further: I took inspiration from the flag of France: a revolutionary flag, in which the colours of the city of Paris close in on the white of the monarchy. That design became a template for modern nation-building around the world for generations to come.

I also took inspiration from the flags used by present-day anti-war and anti-corruption activists in Belarus and in Russia: white, with a red bar horizontal across the centre (Belarus) or a blue one (Russia; it’s the Russian flag with the blood removed). This fits with the history of the fantasy world I’m creating.

The flag of France could also be interpreted as representing the revolutionary values of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. My flag should represent something comparable. I had already created a draft of the Summerland Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but I had not yet simplified it down to a motto. What did my fairyland revolutionaries fight for? Liberté, fraternité, egalité? Peace, order, and good government? No taxation without representation? Or did they rally to a motto like the one used by the 1968 Paris Uprising? “L’imagination au pouvoir!” All power to the imagination— the ability to imagine a better world.

My Summerlanders want freedom, safety, inclusion, optimism, knowledge, beauty, love, all the good things in life that everyone wants. Most of all they want life: the value that underlies and makes possible all other values; the one value which, quite literally, no one can live without. They want life to overcome the Spiral of Tyrants. Their revolution, both scientific and cultural, began when they discovered they live on a planet with a sentient ecosystem. Thus I hit upon the motto. Life always overcomes.

That motto immediately suggested to me that the flag needed only two colours. A colour for life, and a colour for that which life always overcomes.

Thus I wanted the colour green, because it’s a symbol for life recognized around the world: the green of forests and farms, the green of trees, grasses, and vegetables. But green would fade into the background in my Summerland: an army on the march through the forests and meadows of the Thousand Valleys, for instance, could raise the flag on the road, and from a distance it would look like they raised a burlap sack. So the flag should be visible: it can’t disappear into the background.

The colour for what life always overcomes seemed obvious, when I considered that design requirement: it should be white. Green and white make for a sharp contrast with each other; and one of them will contrast with any background. The flag would be instantly visible. White can represent the clean, orderly, perfect, monological, sterile, oppressive, and stagnant world created by the Tyrant Kings. Green, representing the messy, organic, growing, changing, diverse, ecological, inter-related, inter-dependent, and above all living world of Summerland, cuts across the white, always overcoming it.

As it happens, the map of my Summerland fits this flag as well. The territory of the Commonwealth is an area called The Thousand Valleys, bordered on its north and south by mountain ranges. So this flag fits the fictitious geography, too.

I considered whether to add a white rose to the design: a nod to the German anti-Nazi resistance movement of WW2. I may still do so later. But now I had a design I was completely happy with. The design you see here.

Maybe someday, if my novels, philosophy books, and games become more popular, people might put this flag on their T-shirts, or sew it on the arms of their jackets, or hang it from their booths at fantasy and science fiction conventions. Maybe if they’re asked what it means, they’ll say it means they believe that life overcomes oppression: and that this is an aspiration as much as it is an observable fact. I know it’s too much for me to hope for. I am a simple nerd with more critics than supporters, and I’m shouting into a gymnasium full of people shouting at each other. But one can hope. Life always overcomes. It is a motto of hope.

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Clarence Comfort, My Grandfather. 1921-2022.

Two days ago, my grandfather died. He was a great man; he was one of the greatest men I have ever known.

In August of last year, when he and my grandmother celebrated their 70th anniversary, I contributed the following to a family memoir. I still stand by this; it is all I can think of to say about him at the moment. I hope it is enough.

In the year 2020, I turned 46. It’s not enough time to know you, my grandparents. I can name the many gifts you gave me over those years: forests and rivers to explore, woodcrafting skills, a swimming pool to share, a long hike in the forest to learn the different names for trees and ferns, a hike that ended with Grandad and I walking waist-deep in the river with our pants thrown over our shoulders, an extra bed when I needed it while I worked my first job at the university, maple syrup harvested from the same forest, and the chance to help tap the trees with you and Jude to make the sweetness flow. There was the gift of the example of your natures: welcoming, curious, industrious, firm when necessary, and fun-loving, which freed us to explore and to discover. I could name these gifts and their influence on me, and to thank you for them. But to speak less of myself and more of you, then I should also speak of the generosity in which you gave those gifts: the gentle hands, the warm voices, the unconditional love.

We Myers kids and Fletcher kids must have been loud and messy and horrible when we were children, visiting your forest and tracking our mud across your carpets. I once held open the back door of the house and called for Buddy the dog to run in, then run out, then run in, then run out, until Buddy himself realised I was being horrible to him and he stopped listening to me. It is also entirely possible that Jude and I destroyed rather a lot of the forts that your Boy Scouts built in your forest, just because they were built by the scouts and not by us. Yet you weathered this childishness in us with more patience and grace than we deserved.

As an adult I learned that you often had a rough life: the sort of roughness that would turn lesser people into cynicism and misanthropy. Yet here you are, in the year 2020, having survived it— having more than survived it, for you come to this year still possessing your good minds and hearts, your impish sense of humour, a circle of family and friends, and hundreds if not thousands of people who owe their prosperity and happiness and the best memories of their lives to you. You are like marathon runners for kindness, endurance athletes for integrity and compassion. There ought to be statues of you in every city, stories and songs of your life taught in schools, so that all shall be reminded that people of unconditional goodness still exist in this world, and that Clarence and Dorothy Comfort, my grandparents, were the best of them.

On behalf of myself and my partner Andrea, we wish for you many more years of peace and happiness and love, and we hope to visit you soon.

As it happened, my grandparents got less than one year together after I wrote that for them.

But he left the most wonderful legacy. And indeed, such a legacy is what he wanted.

“Heaven is here on Earth. When we die, our reputation lives on. If it is good, then that is our Heaven or if it is bad then that is our hell… Life after death is the effect that we leave to those that follow.” — from his memoirs.

His official obituary may be found here.

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Review of The Ministry For The Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Review by Brendan Myers.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For The Future is a 2021 novel about a global diplomatic and humanitarian institution by the same name, commissioned to be the voice of future generations whenever there’s any kind of international trade or legal or diplomatic negotiations going on. Since the most important problems that future generations are likely to face all have to do with climate change, the novel follows the Ministry’s people as they try to persuade the world to do something about it, as soon as possible. Their main obstacles are the climate crisis itself, as well as the apathy of others, some of whom remain apathetic even while a flurry of man-made natural disasters happen all around them, and sometimes to them. It’s a high-concept story painted on a very big canvass, with a lot of moving parts, a highly experimental style, and delivered with a sense of great urgency. It is, to be quite ‘frank’ (you’ll see), a difficult book. It asks the reader for a lot of attention and patience. But being a novel by KSR, you know when you read it that you’re in the hands of a master. So, the big question for the reader has to be: is it worth it to keep reading?

Let’s try some easier questions. What genre is it? Science fiction? Climate fiction? Is it even fiction? It’s rather hard to say. And is that a strength of the novel, or a weakness? Also hard to say. Never mind, those questions were not any easier at all.

So what is it?

First of all, it’s like a master class in all the things your editors and writing coaches told you not to do. Linear-that-feels-like-nonlinear storytelling. Major plot events taking place off stage. Unlikeable main characters. Telling and not showing. Whole chapters where nothing happens. Dialogue scenes where we’re not told who is doing the talking. Yet somehow, by the power of KSR, it works.

Science fiction is, among other things, the branch of literature where some kind of plausible but as-yet-nonexistent science and technology figures into the plot in some important way. The featured science is usually physics, chemistry, biology, or engineering, corresponding to the four most common themes of science fiction: space travel, time travel, artificial intelligence, and aliens. But it can be any kind of science. The featured science at the centre of Asimov’s Foundation, for instance, is sociology. At the centre of Dune, it’s political science, and ecology. So, what is it in KSR’s The Ministry For The Future? It’s economics, with a dash of glaciology. That caught me by surprise.

Good SF surprises. In Rob Sawyer’s Calculating God, the featured science is paleontology.

But science fiction is ultimately about people— like all good fiction, of any kind. And in The Ministry For The Future, there’s a lot of people. The first major character we meet is called Frank—

Don’t all of KSR’s novels have a Frank in it?

All the ones I’ve read so far. Who are you, and what are you doing in my book review?

I’m your co-reviewer. A part of your brain that we segmented like a hard drive, so you could have someone to riff with you. Hey, if KSR can write a book like this, you can write the review this way too.

Okay, But everyone will think I’m being pretentious.

And they’d be right. But never mind them. Now, what were you saying about Frank?

He goes from being a sympathetic well-meaning fellow trying to help his neighbours survive an unsurvivable situation, to being a traumatised and unlikeable wildman with very little agency and not much personality. Things mostly happen to him, and he adapts, or fails to adapt, as the case may be.

Who else?

The next major character we meet is Mary, the head of an international scientific and diplomatic organization, the very Ministry named in the book’s title, who also has rather little agency— because her Ministry has rather little agency. At least at first. Her job is not so much to come up with the plan, as to bring the people with the plan together with the people who can make the plan happen. Her story was the backbone of the novel: on her rested the possibility of an answer to the novel’s dramatic question.

Which was?

“Will the Ministry find a way to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and persuade the world to do it?”

I thought good novels are about people, not institutions.

They can be about both. This one is about both. But it’s mostly about people.

Who else, then?

There’s maybe a dozen others who appear in only one or two chapters. Refugees, trapped in a refugee camp, some of them after fleeing a fishing ship where they were slaves in all but name. A waitress in LA, when the city is drowned in a flood. Various scientists in Antarctica, testing the water beneath an ice sheet. A photon, leaving the sun and coming to Earth. The global market, introducing itself to the reader like a kind of mortal god. It seems KSR wants to tell a global story, since the climate crisis is itself a global story: decentralized, widely distributed across space and time, showing different faces to different people. The Ministry gives you the big picture, these vignettes and walk-on characters show you the small.

And it shows how the climate crisis wrecks their lives in different ways?

Absolutely wrecks them. That’s just about the correct word here. The first chapter itself— I can spoil it because it’s been given away as a preview in lots of places on the web— shows Frank surviving a horrific heat wave in India. And I mean horrific. Like, the scene is inflicted on the reader.

Like the climate crisis itself, then.

Nor is it the only such unnatural-natural disaster we get thrown into.

Sounds rough.

When science fiction looks into the future, it does so either in the mode of aspiration, or in the mode of warning. It’s either Star Trek, or it’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Most of this book is warning. All good writing is activist writing: that is, writing that wants to change something about the real world we live in. KSR wants no more climate skeptics and climate agnostics. No more fence sitters. We can’t roll dice with humanity’s future anymore. So, to drive that point home, he gives us a warning. But also an aspiration. A stick, but also a carrot.

So if the climate disaster scenes are the sticks, what is the carrot?

Carbon quantitative easing.


Like I said.

I was expecting giant space mirrors. Or some kind of tech-magic that sucks carbon out of the air and turns it into gold. Or a fleet of rockets that carries the human race to another planet.

The era of the pulps was a long time ago. And anyway, one-shot solutions to distributed problems do not exist.

So, no dashing Heinlein-esque heroes fighting alien monsters then?

Well, there is the guy who runs the Ministry’s black-ops wing. But we don’t see much of him, nor much of what he does. It all happens behind the curtain. Of our main heroes: one of them is a basket case, the other is a diplomat. The rest are just trying to get by.

And the alien monster?

Is the climate crisis itself.

Do Mary and Frank defeat it?

Not telling, because spoilers.

Shit. Well, then. What did you say that carrot was?

Carbon quantitative easing.

What’s that?

A kind of global cryptocurrency that pays you for doing things that suck carbon out of the atmosphere, or that prevent its release. The novel will explain it for you.

So, is it a novel, or an an economics textbook?

It’s a kind of history textbook from the future. Both fiction and nonfiction, both story and textbook.

Maybe that’s why rather a lot of nonfiction publishers are promoting the author these days. The Economist. SETI. The Long Now Foundation. Bioneers. Wired. Jacobin. The Guardian. It’s as though his marketing team is securing his stature as a one of the top public intellectuals of our time. A kind of influencer for activists and policy wonks instead of for fashionistas on Instagram.

Jealous, are we?

No. I don’t begrudge him success. I just want to know when my turn is coming.

So, envious, then.

Maybe a little. But let’s get back to the book.

Yes. Did you even like it? Given all the things you’ve said so far, I can’t really tell.

Yes, I liked it. I’m glad I read it. In fact I gave a copy to my partner, so she could read it too. But I probably won’t read it twice. For one thing, it’s very dark. Who in this Coronavirus-exhausted, anti-intellectual culture of ours wants to read a book that requires a working knowledge of hard fields like economics and climate science, a strong tolerance for disaster journalism and stylistic experimentalism, and some open-mindedness to geo-engineering and global institution-building?

You did.

Yeah, but I’m exactly that kind of nerd. Can’t say there are many more such nerds out there like me.

Should I read it, even if I’m not one of those nerds?

Yes, you should. But after you’re done, maybe go read something with more likeable main characters. Phillip Pullman’s The Book Of Dust, for instance.

Doesn’t that novel also include a massive climate disaster? A flood that covers most of England?

Oh yeah, it does. Never mind.

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The Climate Reckoning Is Not Happening — Or, Has Reality Become Too Painful To Face?

Looking to the future, can we ask when The Wild Ride will end and The After will begin? I think it will end on the occasion when the climate crisis reaches a peak of destructive immensity beyond anyone’s ability to reasonably doubt it. The important words in that last sentence are ‘beyond anyone’s ability’. Let us call this event The Climate Reckoning. It will be an end to complacency, an end to willed ignorance, an end to denial. And then it will be a mobilization: we will get down to the work of surviving what remains of the climate crisis and emerging from it somehow better than before, if we can. Meanwhile, in the time between today and the Reckoning, there will be billions of preventable deaths, billions of preventable species extinctions, billions of preventable ecosystem collapses.

Some might say this reckoning has already begun. We have widespread recycling and composting programs in major cities. The fraction of the global electricity supply produced by renewables (solar, wind, and hydro) grew from ~2,500 terrawatt hours in the year 2000, to more than 6,000 TWh in 2018. There are numerous popular movements to lobby governments and influence civil society toward acknowledging and acting on the climate crisis: Extinction Rebellion, for example. Green Party candidates regularly get elected in Europe and in Canada. And in the midst of the Wild Ride there have been many international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, notably the Paris Accord (2016), the Copenhagen Accord (2006), the Rio+20 conference (2012).

But consider the following events which also took place between the years 2000 and 2020:

• Wild fires in Brazil, sub-saharan Africa especially Angola, Cameron, and Congo, as well as California USA, Alberta Canada, and Australia.

• Hurricane Katrina.

The collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica, the melting of the Arctic ice cap, and the Greenland ice sheet.

• In mid 2010, a United Nations summit in Aichi, Japan, identified twenty global biodiversity targets. By mid 2020, none of those targets had been met.

Events like these demonstrate that the climate reckoning is not happening. Powerful voices in our society and culture, including politicians, industry leaders, religious leaders, and celebrities, continue to speak and act as if these were all random and natural events. Tragic and sorrowful events, to be sure. But unconnected to any wider pattern. Definitely unconnected to the way we produce energy and consumer goods, or the way we dispose of our waste. And therefore prompting no need to change anything about the way we live.

The managers and executives of the industries that are destroying our planet are perfectly and completely aware of what they are doing. But as long as it’s profitable for them to do it, and as long as they can insulate themselves from the consequences, they will keep doing it. For example: at a meeting of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, secretly recorded by one of the participants, oil company executives discussed the need to change, not themselves or their industry, but instead to change people’s minds and attitudes toward oil and gas. “Climate change,” said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, “is the prism through which everything is being viewed… We have to be comfortable talking about it, talking about how we are part of the solution through natural gas. And again, hitting people with emotions, hitting them where they’re— where their heart is. The activists are doing this when they talk about banning fracking in Colorado. They don’t show explosions. They don’t show rigs. They show women and children. We have got to begin playing at that same emotional level or we will not win these battles.” (Source.) So long as attitudes like this remain prominent among the powerful, the climate reckoning will not occur.

Furthermore, we have seen how those well-publicised global environmental conferences produced no results. This is by design, not by accident. The text of the Paris Accord and the Copenhagen Accord commits the signatory nations to nothing, because all of its targets were non-binding and there are no prescribed sanctions for countries that miss them. In 2017, the United States withdrew from the Paris Accord anyway. Emissions of greenhouse gases continued to rise, even while the COVID-19 pandemic reduced GHG emissions from cars and aircraft. Civic recycling programs, while popular and helpful, have not stemmed the tide of waste. In some sense civic recycling programs have served as a distraction: they allow people to believe they are doing their part as individuals, while the nation as a whole does nothing.

Consider, as a specific example, the wildfires which struck the eastern coast of Australia from late 2019 to early 2020. A season of record-high daytime temperatures, regularly above 40 degrees C, and the worst drought in decades, created the perfect conditions for the largest and most destructive bushfires in all of Australia’s history, far outstripping the better-publicised wildfires which damaged the Amazon basin, California, and Cameron, earlier in the year. From October of 2019 up to January 2020, every Australian state had large uncontrolled bushfires. By the first days of 2020, more than 5.9 million hectares of bush has been destroyed, entire towns completely destroyed, tens of thousands of people displaced, nineteen people killed, and 28 people were missing. The military was called in to help with evacuations and firefighting work. On New Year’s Eve, thousands of evacuees in New South Wales, the area hardest hit, fled to the coast and huddled together overnight on beaches or in small boats, trapped between the fires and the ocean, waiting for larger ships to come and rescue them. An estimated half a billion animals and plants were killed, and over the surrounding oceans the heatwave raised water temperatures enough to kill most marine wildlife. Ash and dust from the fires fell as far away as New Zealand, more than two thousand kilometers away.

Without exaggeration, though it may seem absurd to say it: the wildfires of that season were the most destructive environmental catastrophe in the history of Australia since its colonization by Europeans. But may I draw attention to two more facts about them that are relevant to my argument. The first is that the wildfires had been predicted twelve years previously, by the authors of an environmental impact study commissioned by the Australian government. The same researchers provided an update in 2011 which warned: “Even an increase of 2°C above pre-industrial levels would have significant implications for the distribution of rainfall in Australia, the frequency and intensity of flood and drought, the intensity of cyclones and the intensity and frequency of conditions for catastrophic bushfires.” The second and more salient fact for my argument is that even while the fires were burning, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly denied the severity of the fires and denied their connection to climate change. “We have faced these disasters before,” he said, waving the fires away as though they were normal and unimportant. Two days later, after receiving some angry heckling from citizens for his comments, he acknowledged the necessity to review “all contributing factors” including climate change. But in the days that followed, he continued to deny direct links between the wildfires and climate change, and repeated his government’s support for the fossil fuel industry and his opposition to any emissions-reduction plan. Twenty-four people were charged with arson in relation to the bushfire crisis. But at the same time, an online disinformation campaign exaggerated the role of arson in the crisis, in order to muddy people’s understanding of the relationship between the bushfires and the climate crisis.

The general point: even when a major climate disaster strikes an affluent, well-educated, developed and modern nation populated mostly by White people— the kind of nation one would expect to get the most media attention and to do the most amount of work to protect at least themselves if no one else— still there is no Climate Reckoning. The crisis carries on.

From March of 2020 and through to the autumn, most everyone hid in their homes, as if they no longer wanted to look at the world, as if they were tired of it, and also afraid of it. We told ourselves we are quarantining to slow the spread of a new pandemic disease called Covid-19. And, of course, we are. But are we also hiding from reality itself?

Has reality become too painful to face?

(A more fully footnoted version of this text is part of my forthcoming book, “Ecology And Reality”.)

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Bill and Ted Face the Music: a study of GenX and Millennial tension?

Have you seen the trailer for the new Bill And Ted movie coming out? It gave me an awful feeling. Not that it wouldn’t be fun– in fact I think it will be great fun, and I plan to see it soon after release.

But the trailer made me wonder if it’s a film about the fractured relation between GenXers (like myself) and millennials.

Here’s Bill and Ted, who when they were young thought they would save the world, and who find in their middle age that they’ve done basically nothing about it. They’ve been living by a perfectly wholesome and decent moral mantra: ‘be excellent to each other’ and ‘party on dudes!‘ But it isn’t working for them anymore. They’re feeling the pressure of the responsibility to save the world, and at least one of them is feeling disaffected by it.

They have two millennials for daughters, who are still energetic, ambitious, and adventurous, as their fathers were at that age. They’re old enough to be angry about things and to take responsibilities; yet perhaps not yet old enough to become jaded and cynical. And so they embark on a world-saving adventure of their own.

I have a feeling that this will be a film about how GenXers like myself fumbled the ball. There are lots of reasons for that– the small size of the cohort, the three different recessions that hit us as we entered the workforce, the boomers who screwed us just as hard as they’re now screwing the millennials, etc. Nonetheless, we fumbled it. Whatever we did to try and save the world, it wasn’t enough: we still have a climate crisis, income inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the whole wild ride. And now, we have Nazis, too. Actual Nazis, marching in the streets again, armed, Roman saluting, and waving the American flag. No wonder the millennials are picking up the ball and running with it, and leaving us GenXers behind.

I gave most of my 20s and 30s to social causes and movements that accomplished very little, and now seem to want nothing to do with me anymore. My whole experience of participating in public life, in these last few years, has been coloured by this creeping feeling of being left behind.

So, Bill and Ted, like me and maybe other GenXers too, must face the music– a wonderful metaphor for facing ourselves and our ineffectiveness. I hope that while Bill and Ted’s daughters go on to save the world, Bill and Ted themselves discover they still have something they can do to help.

Something that being excellent and partying on can provide.

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How shall we face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis?

These are the first several paragraphs of my work-in-progress book on philosophy and ecology. Some other draft selections from the book can also be found here and here and here. I invite your comments! -Bren.

How should we human beings face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis? And what might that question mean?

If this question has to do with finding out whether or not the present climate crisis is real, then this is a question for scientists. And the scientists of the world have already given their answer: Yes.

If this question has to do with what technological or political changes must be made to overcome the crisis, then this is a question for engineers, politicians, and citizens.

But if the question has to do with the way we frame our reality as human beings, especially in the fields of human nature, the future of civilization, and the meaning of life, then this is a question for philosophers like you and me, and a sorely neglected one; it is the question I aim to answer in this book.

King Mountain trail, Gatineau Hills Park, as I photographed it in 2018.
Facing the Earth from a lookout point on King Mountain trail, Gatineau Hills Park, as I photographed it in 2018.

It is a question of the very deepest human significance, as it touches upon nearly every field of philosophical enquiry: our sources of knowledge, our moral decisions, our conception of reality, our feelings and emotions, our sense of identity. It is also a question of great urgency, as the climate crisis has the potential to disrupt all our customary ways of acting and thinking in relation to the earth. For millennia we have taken for granted the stability of climates, the fertility and productivity of landscapes, the strength of ocean currents, even the breathability of the air. It is entirely possible that in the near future, due to the climate crisis, all of these assumptions, and many more, will no longer be reliable. And so we shall have to think of new ways to understand and to configure how we face the earth.

The evidence of that impending unreliability is readily available. To choose but one salient example: since the year 2000, the global average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen by an average of twenty parts per million (ppm) every year; this is the fastest rate of increase in the last 800,000 years. In May of 2018, the NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory detected a concentration of 411.25 ppm, the highest ever recorded. In the 19th century, before the industrial revolution, global CO2 concentration was about 280 ppm during warm periods, and about 180 during ice ages; the current trend is 100 times faster than any trend since the end of the last ice age. The significance of these facts is not only that CO2 is has heat-retention properties which contribute to global warming and the instability of global climates. It is also that CO2 is poisonous to animal life on earth. A human being exposed to CO2 levels of 2,000 ppm or higher will experience nausea, headaches, disorientation, and insomnia: we will be no longer physically capable of sustaining any kind of society or civilization. At 5,000 ppm or higher, we will die. Thus the question, ‘How shall we face the earth, under the conditions of the climate crisis?’, is not only of philosophical curiosity; it is a question of life-or-death seriousness.

The sense of the name ‘Earth’ which I think belongs in my question is twofold. First, it is the Earth that is a planet in space. In this sense the Earth is not a singular self-contained world, but rather it is an inhabitant of a cosmic environment, and a frighteningly small such inhabitant compared to the unthinkable vastness of the universe. It is worth noting in passing that we have known about the true size of the universe for less than a century. It was only in 1925 that Edwin Hubble, drawing on Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s work on Cepheid variable stars, realised that the Andromeda spiral nebula was in fact another galaxy, 2.5 million light years beyond our own. And it was only in 2004 that the Hubble Space Telescope took the Ultra Deep Field photograph, showing that an area of space thought to be empty was in fact teeming with distant galaxies, some of them 13 billion light years away.

Second, it is the Earth of the famous ‘Circle of Life’, the food webs by which nutrients and energy pass from prey animal to predator, and from dead predator to soil. This is also the Earth whose ecosystems act as regulators of numerous life-necessary environmental conditions, such as atmospheric temperature and chemical composition, ocean salinity and acidity, the moderation of the weather, and a large host of other similar conditions. I think this second sense is the one that matters more, for my purpose, because this is also the Earth that we human beings are in a position to enrich or to disrupt, to aid or to destroy.

Now, it may seem obvious and not controversial to say that since we depend on this Earth for air to breathe, food to eat, water for drinking and cleaning, temperature and pressure that remains within our body’s range of tolerance, and so on. And that therefore we should relate to the Earth in a way that, at least, does not permanently damage the processes that provide our air, food, water, temperature range, and so on. But I think this argument, by itself, is unsatisfying. For one reason, it is, prima facie, a case of the naturalistic fallacy. But for another reason: even if there was a more sophisticated version of the argument which avoids the naturalistic fallacy, the argument seems to make the Earth itself disappear from the realm of the significant, so to speak. It is to suppose that so long as we are doing whatever is required to not damage the Earth’s capacity to provide the ecosystem services we need, then we do not otherwise need to think about the Earth at all. It is to treat the Earth the same way you might treat the plumbing and wiring in the walls of your house: You probably don’t think about the plumbing in your house at all, until there’s a leak. Is there no other significance to the Earth beyond that of the ecosystem services that it provides to us? (Ecosystem services— a cold and corporate word that has become the standard in government environmental policy, but at least has the virtue of precision.) Do we feel no need to care about it, except when its systems of life-support break down?

Human beings, in our long history, did not always think of the Earth as a bio-chemical service provider. In many of the world’s oldest mythologies, the Earth is a deity, often a mother-goddess, in Her own right. Some stories say the Earth is the direct hand-crafted work of a deity, and so the way we treat the Earth is bound together with the way we think of the creator. Stories such as these suggest that we can have a personal relationship with the Earth: for example, a relationship of reciprocity, in which the Earth offers Her ‘ecosystem services’ (again that cold word!) in exchange for our thanksgiving, expressed in songs, poems, offerings, and the designation of sacred groves and territories where human industrial-productive activity is strictly regulated if not altogether forbidden. Many writers have suggested that civilization lost an important dimension of consciousness when we (or a majority of us) lost our animist world views, and that the solution to our present environmental crisis must somehow involve the re-adoption of an animist world view. The trouble with this argument is that it seems to ignore the strong reasons why most modern societies let go of those animist views regarding the Earth. It is praiseworthy to take inspiration from the past, but foolish to want to return to the past.

In this book I hope to show what it really means to say ‘we are all connected to each other, we are one with the Earth.’ We have known about this fact, this thought, this relationship, for millennia. But we so rarely examine this relationship to any serious depth, facing with honesty the logical aporias involved like the two mentioned above, or any others that may appear. In this book I plan to do exactly that. I also hope to show how that relationship is troubled by the climate crisis, and how it might be healed.

So, thanks for reading all the way to the end. As mentioned, this is a work-in-progress and therefore it’s likely to appear very different when it’s done. I invite your comments!

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