Shared Physics
by Roman Kudryashov
Shared Physics

Environmentalism & Entangled Systems

Published on 4 min read

TLDR: Hyperobjects. Entangled systems. Tinkering as pathfinding. Small, localized solutions as bet-hedging. Future-facing or backwards looking?

This was originally written as an email to a friend who asked what I thought about the Extinction Rebellion and more broadly the environmental crisis. I wonder if they regret asking!

Apathy, Frustration and Terror

Re: the Extinction Rebellion and thoughts on the impending climate collapse: It is really all too much. I go back and forth on it, a cascade of being overwhelmed, apathetic, disappointed, terrified, frustrated, and agnostic on it. I think -- and I guess let this be my official position for some temporary and undefined period of time -- that it is all too much for any one person to be both informed-about and acting rationally in response to.

The concept of hyperobjects comes to mind: "entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place" (Tim Morton). Coincidently, Morton coined the term in reaction to ecological issues.

The entangledness of the individual issues within the climate-related space, compounded against deeply related issues across technology, economics, ecology, ways-of-living, built systems, modes of governance, etc etc etc make it a problem where there is no way to come up with a solution that a) isn't futile in how minutely it affects only a tiny corner of the crisis, and b) doesn't account for a myriad of unintended trickle effects that ripple outwards.

I remember a very distinct conversation in college that I had with a professor on the crisis -- after going back and forth on ecological solutions vs. how to implement them – where the end of the conversation was that any proposed solution to the environmental crisis required some sort of absolutism or totalitarian governance to fundamentally rip out the broken systems and implement something that works.

Solutions veered into totalitarianism. "There is no other way" -- everything else was talking around the issue, which was that we cannot rely on the same sort of acting and thinking that got us into this mess to get us out.There's a tension then, between the liberal ideas of consensus-building and acting in our best interests that is in some way incompatible with the required solutions -- both in terms of what needs to be done and how quickly.

One can look at it from many different standpoints and come to the same conclusion: from the standpoint of embedded interests, you have The Powerful who have too much to lose or The Powerless who want to hold on to what hard-gained comforts they have.

From the standpoint of liberal democracy you have the Karl Popper's paradox of tolerance where you can't be entirely liberal or  must be intolerant of intolerance if you don't want it to -- or in the case here, the solution is being less liberal and less democratic when a neat political consensus can't be won (marketing! messaging! teaching people to care about things they can't understand or wrap their heads around!).

Or from the standpoint of "what technology wants": technology has an embedded logic in how it can be used and what it enables, and that becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop. If we look at both capital-t Technology and political-and-economic-systems-as-technology, then neither one of them is designed or has any inherent logic that steers us away from the perpetuating the same types of behaviors that got us here.

So yes -- overwhelmed, apathetic, disappointed, terrified, frustrated, and agnostic. At times, I feel like the only personal solution I can muster is a careful balance of resignation with head-down approach to small technical problem solving.

Which is to say: on one hand -- and forgive me if this is horribly morbid -- we've already gone through plagues and wars and crises that have wiped out 2/3rds or more of all living humans at a time (multiple times) and yet we've survived and went on to prosper.

We've had ecological crises that we've survived before, including the massive deforestation of the Americas and Europe, including ice ages, a comet that wiped out nearly every living thing on earth millions of years ago... and well, here we are and we will be, in some way. What for, in this cold and uncaring universe? You and I will also be gone one day... and so grappling with this answer and what we leave behind to our children and future generations is grappling with our own mortality and legacies and the judgement of history more generally. Even though, over a long enough period of time, it will all be dust. #morbid #gettingolder

On the other hand, I never cease to be astonished by our ingenuity as a species for coming up with new solutions and ways of thinking -- often technological in nature -- that completely change the way we look at a problem. This is often led by tinkers and hobbyists, people solving their own problems, people who care deeply about things and work outside sanctioned systems.

Those efforts are to me a real possible solution -- albeit a long shot -- and whether people call it wishful thinking or black swans or paradigm shifts or whatever, I want to remember that many notices of the climate crisis come from these unofficial channels -- bug catchers in Germany, local beekeepers, amateur botanists, and other people who pay attention to the small things -- and if they can do what Science and Government and Business cannot or would not even have noticed, than why not propose that a solution will come from some minor corner as well?

The odds there aren't half bad and one could do a lot of good by way of small distributed funding to support such tinkering (and thus bettering out collective odds). Lots of small solutions to change the nature of the problem of nature.

But not small solutions like "recycling". Not that I don't believe in personal change, but personal change won't affect broader change without having scaled-up, alternative supporting systems in place. Personal recycling and composting and recycling batteries and other such solutions (not that there's anything inherently bad about them) are meaningless if the trash ultimately ends up in the same landfill. They're also meaningless if we cause a recycling crisis, as we're reading about now. That's just pushing the problem downstream. If one wants personal change to affect something bigger, they need to build the local systems that can support bigger change. Alternative systems need to be created and nurtured and ready to step in to replace the ones not working. It reminds me: "think global, act local". Otherwise, you only end up disappointed, tired, and depleted of willpower.

And then lastly -- and perhaps the most important question here – is the solution to revert back to the way things were before, or to come up with ways to manage and adapt to the future?

I'm on the forward looking side, I suppose.

December 2019

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