Feb. 24th, 2015

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Workpoints towards “Tipping Points in the Anthropocene Era, Part Four”

There are no workpoints yet for Part Three, about human interaction and human creative practice. The problems are almost impossible to phrase correctly, never mind keep in mind simultaneously. Despite the common pressures imposed by globalized economies, human beings differ in background, environmental situation, and a multitude of other factors. It is easy to point out how minimum-wage discount-store employees in a Midwestern American city might have some financial stresses in common with corporation-employed copra dryers in a Pacific coral-atoll culture, but difficult to explicate the anxiety-provoking similarities and equally crucial differences between landlord-owned housing threatened by high rents and worker-owned housing threatened by rising sea levels literally lapping at the foundations. A particular minority-religion group in parts of Central Asia is being assisted into modernity by a global foundation, while members of the same minority group a few hundred miles to the south are threatened with physical extermination. Members of relatively disempowered ethnicities in advanced industrial societies are currently pointing out that the same structures of privilege operate throughout the social order: historically oppressed ethnicities receive only adequate rewards for doing the same work for which historically dominant ethnicities receive disproportionately great rewards, for example—even though all of them receive compensation that the less well employed of all ethnicities can only envy. There are disputes as to whether these ethnic disproportions deserve more recognition than gender-based disproportions, which are also a matter of historically disenfranchised and historically dominant categories of human beings. It is very difficult to talk about all these things at the same moment, while keeping in mind that environmentally caused cancers and lung diseases also affect different parts of the social order in different degrees, just as rising sea levels have a more immediate impact on those who live by the water—who on some coastlines are very rich, and on others, extremely poor. Discussion of these variables is rendered even more difficult by the inevitability of emotional turmoil over perceived offense, and even the workpoints for later discussions become unwieldy. So we are going direct to workpoints for Part Four, that part that is intended to address some of the problems discussed in Parts One through Three.

No one of the phenomena described in these twelve workpoints plays out in isolation, as is implied by the contortions of Parts One and Two as previously posted and the probable contortions of the as yet unwritten Part Three. It is useful to separate them out, however, for the simple purpose of achieving a bit of transient clarity before plunging back into the fatal muddle that is the labyrinth of the world. There are many permutations that could turn into further workpoints, but that would land us back in the middle of the labyrinth instead of in the—well, not quite the paradise of the heart, but hopefully something of which Comenius might approve. —Jerry Cullum, still asserting some version of Creative Commons right of ascription of authorship in this text’s subsequent uses



1) Under ordinary circumstances, we are not adequately equipped by our bodies’ biological wiring to consider concurrently all the tipping points in the anthropocene era, and how they interact with, alter, reinforce or diminish the impact of one another.

2) Even if we can learn how to expand both the length of our attention span and number of topics we can keep in mind simultaneously, we still run up against the problem of the fields of knowledge in which we simply aren’t any good. All of these fields need to be deployed together merely to understand the interacting tipping points—never mind do something about them that doesn’t suffer fatally from the law of unintended consequences.

3) So we need to figure out how to coordinate our collective information in a way to which our ordinary condition does not predispose us. If we entrust the task to machines, we need to know the consequences of how the information was presented to the machines, which at this point is determined by the human beings writing the algorithms that input and analyze the data. As we know from the websites that recommend books and merchandise and vacation sites to us, algorithms and programmers do err. (That’s a joking reference to Martin Luther’s “popes and councils do err,” by the way; which piece of information illustrates a subsequent tipping point of communally shared knowledge that must be dealt with.)

4) Machines can understand the world, but the point is to change it. (Can a machine be altruistic? Can a human being? Points for debate currently.)

5) The cultures within which we operate are not particularly capable of changing it in the ways it needs to be changed not just to maximize human happiness, but to ensure human survival.

6) The cultures within which we operate are currently under stress from the increasingly random collisions—for many different reasons—of populations with no more than semi-compatible value systems. While hybridity seems possible because it has been the way of the earth for millennia, right now in many situations a sophisticated hybridity is the exception, and uncomfortable accommodation the rule when there is not outright mutual rejection. This is a simple empirically verifiable reality regardless of what we wish were the case. What to do about it is the question that must be answered if we are to maintain societies in which most human beings would want to live—and there is a wide variety of opinion as to what sorts of societies particular human beings would prefer to inhabit, once we get beyond a few very widespread preferences.

7) A tiny minority of humanity is engaged in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs that are unsettling habits formed over millennia even more thoroughly than the technological breakthroughs of the previous hundred and fifty years put together. Yet the system within which these technologies are being deployed randomly and uncontrollably is governed by economic maxims developed a century and a quarter ago and applied as though they were immutable universal truths. The tension between the two forces is creating a level of social and economic insecurity among the vast majority of humankind that is giving rise to demodernizing movements, xenophobic mythologies, and other pathologies that occur when human beings are pushed to their limit culturally, financially, and environmentally, and mostly all at the same moment.

8) The stresses of global industrial society, including industrialized agriculture and resource extraction, are leading to mass extinctions of species, intensifying already existing cycles of climate variation and thus creating destructive alterations in food production and survival of natural systems (a.k.a. ecological networks), and also creating urban environments that perpetuate personal stress among an already socially and financially beleaguered global citizenry. This is so whether the governmental entity within which the stresses are being generated calls itself capitalist or socialist, whether the form of global capitalism being practiced is corporate or state-controlled and regardless of the philosophical background of the putatively socialist economy.

9) The vast majority of human beings are too busy with other matters to absorb even a stripped-down understanding of these problems, and even if they did absorb such an understanding, many would be inclined to reject solutions that are anathema to the crumbling cultures in which they were brought to adulthood.

10) The rapidity of change increases the level of incomprehension not only between cultures and generations, but between individuals. Fewer starting points than ever are available from which to analyze and choose among the possible outcomes of global difficulties.

11) Specialized subgroups of professionals whose collective body of knowledge comes as close as we can get at this point to solving the planet-wide crisis of our epoch hold each other in mutual contempt most of the time, and misunderstand each other’s points when they overcome their contempt long enough to attempt collaboration.

12) What is to be done?

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