The world is “on the highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator”,UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres
I first came across the concept of accelerationism in The Coming Storm, the BBC radio podcast by Gabriel Gatehouse and Lucy Proctor
In episode 8, The Sovereign Individual, Professor Douglas Rushkoff recounts a disturbing meeting with five tech billionaires. They ask him whether to build their billionaire bunkers in Alaska or New Zealand. And how to defend those bunkers. One billionaire asks if ‘shock collars’, essentially enslaving their guards, would be a good idea?
Rushkoff goes on to describe the billionaires’s futurist philosophy of accelerationism as
Push society towards cascading catastrophes because we will be braced and prepared to survive, even if everyone else isn’t
‘Sovereign Individuals’ who can afford billionaire bunkers, will be able to insulate themselves against the consequences of climate catastrophe including resource wars, extreme weather events, sea level rise and political / social unrest.
So why not let rip and speed it up?
Their Transhumanism philosophy / religion /narrative casts them as the tech barons who are on a trajectory to a higher level of being. Reminiscent of ‘geeks will inherit the earth’ except this isn’t a joke.
The futurist vision is of a new intelligent species, into which humanity will evolve and eventually will supplement or supersede it. Transhumanism stresses the evolutionary perspective, including the creation of a super intelligent human species (cyborgs) by way of cognitive enhancement. Artificial intelligence, gene editing and robotics. of course this vision is only available to the chosen few. The ‘intelligent’ elite. So what happens to the 8 billion other human beings? Or other life on this planet?
The problem with seeing opportunity in transhumanism is that, just when we urgently need to face the harsh reality of the social and environmental problems that afflict us, it actually serves to undermine that effort.
Most transhumanist thinkers assume that energy will be plentiful in the coming decades. However, energy consumption at the current rate is already running faster than our ability to roll out renewables. This reality renders many of the technoscientific transhumanist proposals / ideas unviable.
The problem is that the attraction to denialism and accelerationism is not about facts, but about feelings of psycho-social security. It helps us avoid the daunting personal and political consequences of accepting that disaster is very real indeed, and that we can’t rely on others to fix it for us. This security is never absolute. With every drought, every storm, every absence of a bird that used to sing, doubt creeps in, but facing it is difficult. To do so would, for most people, mean to abandon faith in the future and in authority as they know it. This is a disorientating and scary prospect, especially when it doesn’t come with new horizon of meaning and solidarity, a practice of composing fragments.
Natural carbon balance
From an eco-social perspective, the challenge posed by the century of the Great Test is none other than positioning our social and ecological systems and consumption within the limits of the planet. In order to do so, reducing the burden on the biosphere is vital. At this crucial juncture, two paths stretch ahead of us, representing two irreconcilable options. On the one hand, the proposal to escape from human limitations via Transhumanist fantasies and, on the other hand, the acceptance of those limitations and the modifications that they entail.
How are billionaires pushing through accelerating cascading catastrophes?
- Owning the media and controlling the narrative. Distracting with the superficial and noise: Polarising with endless discussions of ‘culture wars’. Example Elon Musk buying twitter Media barons owning journalism
- Micro targeting global citizens on social media to sell them stuff they don’t need, undermine their self-esteem or push propaganda to override democracy. Example QAnon Brexit Fast fashion Aviation industry Car industry Cruises, space travel, pushing self-harm content Gendered and racist algorithms
- Fund universities,, academia, politics, think tanks, charities etc Example Elon Musk funding of Transhumanist agenda at Oxford and Cambridge University.
- Push energy intensive ‘innovation’ and hyper consumption Example Cryptocurrencies self-driving SUVs Artificial Intelligence / machine learning
- Venture capitalism creating Ponzi / Pyramid schemes labelled as ‘innovation’ which is really a sci-fi fantasy masquerading as something useful
What part do Universities play?
Elite global Universities aspire to attract the most intelligent students. Essentially creaming off ‘intelligence’. Not only does this mean students are flying around the world in large numbers, racking up a massive carbon footprint. But it normalises high carbon consumption at an aspirational level.
When A-level grades were announced in August 2020, it was clear that the algorithm designed to combat grade inflation had unfairly disadvantaged students who went to state schools in comparison with those who were privately educated. While there was considerable public outcry, few people made the connection between this and the history of eugenics in this country.
The legacies of eugenics in education are most obvious in the way we continually assess our children. These methods are often based on standardised measures that result in the labelling, ranking and grouping of children.
They often ignore factors like emotional intelligence, the cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds of the children, or whether a child is an early or late developer or is neurodiverse. This is even before race and gender are considered. All of this has a long history.
This skeletal rendition of “intelligence,” crucially, entitles and empowers Very Smart People to revolutionize society according to their own needs and whims, whether political, social, economic, or even emotional. Lost in this neatly reductive understanding is the degree to which this “intelligence” is not nearly as scientifically valid—nor as essential to the survival of humanity—as its proponents would like us to believe.
Intelligence comes in many forms. However for Eugenics intelligence is narrowed down to reductive tests like IQ
Nothing was more important for eugenicists than intelligence. A means to measure intelligence and identify feeble-mindedness was central to the policies that eugenics promoted. ‘Eugenic intelligence’ explains the definition and classification of feeble-mindedness that resulted in the segregation and incarceration of thousands of people. It outlines the origins of intelligence testing with French psychologists Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon in 1905 and the mass application of intelligence testing that informed the social policies of the early twentieth century. It also explores the belief that feeble-mindedness was the actual cause of undesirable social behaviors; explains the links between race and intelligence; and discusses the critics who rejected the principles behind intelligence testing and disavowed a purely hereditary understanding of intelligence.
The alternative vision for universities
At a time of climate crisis are we intelligent enough to recognise the full range of human intelligence? From emotional intelligence; triarchic intelligence; linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligence. All these ideas bring us closer to a more holistic understanding of intelligence but we still haven’t fully grappled with indigenous wisdom, of neuro diverse intelligence available to us. And just different ways of perceiving and engaging with the world. And to harness this in a collective intelligence? Can we debunk in time the snobbery or frankly eugenicist approach to intelligence that is causing the human species to stagnate. And leading us down a dead end. Can we accelerate this collective intelligence? I believe we can with a new model of Universities joining up with their local communities to harness practical, embodied intelligence via role play. I set this out in my previous blog Role-play in a climate emergency
Systemic physiology is showing that intelligence involves the entire body. Work on embodied cognition has shown that memory, language comprehension, problem-solving and decision-making all depend on the quality of the relationship that mind and body have. (The philosophical chestnut about imagining a person as a ‘brain in a vat’, shorn of guts and muscles and connected only to eyes and finger-tips, simply doesn’t hold water.) And renewed interest in the real, intricate, creative intelligence of musicians, athletes and artisans has blown a hole in the idea that ‘true intelligence’ is to be found only in the conscious, rational world of the intellect.
As the body and the mind come together, rational, analytical thinking is being repositioned not as the absolute epitome of intelligence but as one (albeit very useful) tool in the box. Work on the cognitive unconscious (Kihlstrom, 1987) or the adaptive unconscious (Wilson, 2002) has enabled us to see that there are ‘many ways of knowing’ which include intuitions, physical feelings and sensations, emotions and images, as well as conscious knowledge and reason, and each has both its place and its fallibilities. In creative thinking especially, the intelligent mind needs to be able to ‘play with a full deck’, and not be hamstrung by a conditioned disdain for anything that is not immediately clear and propositional.
The goal of real-world intelligence is to coordinate actions that are effective and appropriate to both the concerns and the opportunities of the moment. Getting things done that matter: that’s what matters. From an embodied and an evolutionary perspective, knowing, understanding and thinking are means to that end, not ends in themselves. The pervasive western dualism that separates a rational and abstract mind from a fallible body, and bestows the honorific ‘intelligent’ only on the former, seems, from the embodied perspective, to put the cart (or possibly Descartes) before the horse. The body has functional primacy, even in the most intellectual of contexts.Guy Claxton is Visiting Professor of Education at King’s College London Department of Education. His book Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks is published by Yale University Press