Welcome back to Professor Andy Miah Faces the Future, a podcast where I take a topic from the worlds of transhumanism, philosophy, and science, to think through the questions we face and the answers we have that will get us through these remarkable times. You can access the audio version of this text on all good podcasting platforms, or just hit play below :)
Today, we’re talking about sustainability and whether what we do are doing is enough to get our planet through what must be the riskiest period of human history to date.
We live in a time when the smartest, most trustworthy people on our planet have shown us, with copious amounts of evidence, that we are living through a climate emergency; a term that’s only recently been popularised, but which has been expressed in countless other ways over the last few decades.
There can be little doubt now that there is a need for us all to re-think major parts of our lives in order to turn things around and avert a global catastrophic disaster. Even if you are one of the remaining few who are unconvinced by the evidence, deep down, everybody knows that a life that is characterised by the careless destruction of natural resources in order to serve the unbound ambitions of the human species cannot be a good way to live.
And so, we all need to think about how to live a more sustainable life, a life which ceases to extract the finite resources from earth and, instead, begins to allow them to replenish. But, what does this mean and where should we focus our efforts? And perhaps more importantly, will any of it be enough to turn things around? Is it possible to achieve an entirely sustainable future and, if so, what will this demand of us, and are we ready to make that commitment?
One of the major problems with answering these questions is that we haven’t really committed to the idea yet. A lot of what we do involves making small changes that many activists will argue is not nearly enough. And those who are most passionate about this subject have done all they can to confront us with the impact of our failure to act.
It’s not just those radical acts of rebellion that we see across the world that are showing us the importance of taking a new direction. People who have, historically, remained absent from the number of public voices that champion the need for more action have come out in support of greater interventions; people like Dr Richard Horton, Editor of the medical journal, The Lancet who, in a monumental statement last year urged us all to take seriously the existential threat that we face as a result of the climate emergency.
And yet, we continue to do things that we know are damaging the planet, jeopardising our future prospects as a species, and wreaking havoc on the natural world.
Nevertheless, despite coming up short, we are well on our way to figuring out a vast number of new solutions and huge sectors of our society have embarked into large programmes of work that are making major commitments to sustainability. These programmes have been assisted by guidance from the United Nations which, since 2015, has has urged us all to work towards its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. From education and research to transportation and housing, these goals helpfully put into context the idea that sustainability isn’t just about you or me; it’s about all of us.
Very early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Secretary General used the phrase ‘none of us is safe, until all of us are safe” an idea that remains resonant, as the world continues to battle with the disease. But, when we think of this quote in the context of sustainability, we’re not just talking about the human a species. It’s far greater than this.
No species is safe until all of them are safe.
If we fail to think about the wellbeing of all life forms, rather than just our own, then we fail also to protect humanity. It is in this sense that sustainability is a transhumanist concept. It provokes us to think about how humanity needs to continually adapt and re-define its circle of solidarity to more adequately encompass a wider community of biological concern, to more adequately safeguard its own future.
Those who understand the bigger picture that underpins a commitment to sustainable living, appreciate that we can’t solve the problem by thinking of the interests of just our own species. And we certainly can’t think about the interest of only those who are within our national borders. It’s not just about you, me, or the people we know or care about, although each of us is implicated.
Instead, sustainability is a concept deeply rooted in a wider appreciation for how we promote greater planetary resilience and how we avoid creating impacts on our earth that will lead to the demise of all the life that it hosts.
In this sense, it’s a concept that is intimately connected to a belief about humanity’s wider place and role in the well-being of all species on planet Earth. And, even more, it’s wedded to the idea that humanity must continue adapting, not just biologically, but also cognitively, emotionally, and socially.
The means by which we achieve these adaptations today might be more a product of our collective, cognitive wherewithal, rather than discernible, individual phenotypic transformations. Those transhumanists who believe we can just modify our biology so that we optimise our compatibility with an increasingly toxic world are likely to be pretty disappointed.
The better way to go is to level up our way of thinking about the circumstances we face. We might even consider that the ability of humanity to think and behave collectively is the most reliable measure of our evolutionary achievement, rather than the proliferation of our number; an idea which elevates our ability to think and behave cooperatively rather than judge our success on the basis of competition, in order to make claims about our intelligence.
For those who study the lives of non-human animals, these ideas are not surprising and the claims humans wish to make about their exceptionally high intelligence are already understood to be beliefs born out of hubris and anthropic bias, rather than their being ideas that are rooted in a scientific theory of intelligence.
Historically, we have favoured a certain definition of intelligence that places humans at the pinnacle of biological evolution, but there are other ideas out there, other forms of intelligence that may be a more compelling way of thinking about which of us is advanced and which of us is primitive.
For many people, believing in sustainability is difficult, as it involves distancing ourselves from a significant part of our history, particularly that aspect of our past that has involved the relentless pillaging of natural resources to advance humanity’s selfish interests. It reminds us that that there was a time when we didn’t think about this at all and that’s pretty devastating. It’s like realising your behaviour in the past was racist or sexist. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it we must.
Many of the things that we thought were awesome examples of humanity’s excellence in the past need complete re-evaluation, which also means turning our back on this past; condemning it rather than celebrating it. In the same way that we are cancelling culture, we may need to cancel science and technology, the discoveries that have continuously allowed us to exert our self-importance on the rest of the world, either by saving the lives of our species or by extending our freedom, all to the detriment of other species.
Sustainability demands something else from us, a different conception of ourselves and our place in the world. But there’s still a very long way to go before we need even to think just about the really hard sacrifices we must make.
Before we worry about that, we need to consider how a commitment to sustainability, globally, means a major re-distribution of wealth, to ensure that all nations can begin to commit to these sustainability goals. For many parts of the world, it is impossible to afford the greenest machinery to undertake the labour required to propel their nation into a more advanced economic situation. Instead, many countries rely on hand me own technology, which keeps them firmly in the early stages of industrialisation.
And this is where it starts to get complicated for those people who own the means of production; the wealthy and the job creators. This technological class system is a significant part of the global economy that keeps certain nations ahead of others and it’s hard to imagine any nation’s government voluntarily making their nation comparatively worse off, perhaps by giving away green technology, just because it might benefit the world in a larger sense. But this might be what it takes.
In any case, as I said before, sustainability is a peculiar idea because even when people know and accept all of this — myself included — they continue to do things that are unsustainable, like drive cars or take airplanes for holidays. We don’t do all that we can, even if we know we should.
We do this for a variety of reasons, from personal desires or the pursuit of wellness, to a belief that our continuing consumption of goods and services maintains an economy that, otherwise would collapse if we ceased to do such things. In turn, we believe that this would propel millions of the people we care most about into unemployment and a whole range of hardships that would be extremely harmful and, even life-threatening for much of humanity.
It’s hard not to see this also as a kind of selfishness, but it is a sort of speciesism; we put the interests our species before the interests of others. And this gets to the heart of the problem. How do we stop doing this, when doing so means having to do something like begin to limit our number on earth? To cease growing as a population. This is really what sustainability demands of us, not simply investing into green technology which would allow us to keep living the lives to which we have become accustomed.
Now, part of the problem is that we’ve got ourselves into a bit of a mess, which we cant easily untangle. We have created layer upon layer of ways in which unsustainability is wedded to the lives we lead. In this way, a helpful way of thinking about the problem of sustainability is to think of it as a kind of untangling, a process by which we free ourselves of the habits that continue to have negative impacts on Earth, so that we may foster better ones, alternative, new habits.
To do this, it’s not just down to you and me. We can’t easily swap our cars for trains, if there’s not a reliable public transportation system that will get us to our destinations each day. We can’t just work from home, if doing so means that a whole bunch of office staff are no longer employable or if the economy around building rentals collapses as a result.
The hard truth about sustainability is that a great deal of our world needs a complete overhaul in order for us to meet the needs of our planet. And the point we are at today is where we see widespread, volatile disagreement about what measures are appropriate or necessary. A piecemeal, incremental approach is unlikely to get us where the UN wants us to be by 2030.
Yet, moderates will call for incremental change to preserve the quality of life for people who will suffer if we, instead, allow a radical break from our current way of life. They advocate a managed approach to transforming the innovation chain that is so critical to the discovery of green technologies. And this does make a lot of sense.
If one imagines the engineering community around the automobile industry, it is more plausible that maintaining jobs for these engineers who can be encouraged to turn their attention to green solutions is better than plunging them highly skilled professionals into redundancy, just because their industry is no longer tolerable.
I’m optimistic that, if, all of a sudden, all car manufacturing companies were to cease business overnight, these bright engineers may yet find gainful employment through the pursuit of more sustainable solutions, perhaps even self-organize into new communities of green engineering, seeking to design a better, more sustainable world and usher in an entirely new way of life for us all.
But it’s a big risk to take and a managed, encouraged transition would likely be far more effective, as stability of circumstances, free from concerns about how to survive are likely to be a more productive backdrop to changing the world than by creating and living with great uncertainty. As well, it’s wrong to think of these engineers as the sole drivers of innovation. Making them redundant can’t be thought of as just an isolated event. Anyone working in a design system knows that expertise does not lead to innovation within isolation. These engineers are able to innovate, in part, because their expertise is located within a wider innovation chain and it’s this kind of thinking that, again, sustainability demands of us. Everything is connected.
So, what is the right way for you and I to think about sustainability? The learning we can take from all of this is that we should only imagine part of the solution to be about the cultivation of more sustainable habits.
The bigger chunk of work that’s needed is to encourage us all to be sustainability innovators and to make such innovation a bigger part of our daily lives. In short, we need to think of ourselves as participants within the innovation community, not just consumers of its products. To think of ourselves as actors in a system, rather than reactors does two major things for sustainability.
First, it gets us to examine how we can contribute to the mission beyond just how we consume and absorb things that exist in the world. The second thing it does is to encourage us to think of ourselves as part of the bigger picture, rather than observers of it. To think of ourselves not as one animal, but as all animals.
Radical acts are not those that involve simply turning the world upside down. Instead, they must be accompanied by some concrete ideas about how to put it back together again. And if you find yourself without such ideas, then there’s a good chance you’re not really taking it seriously at all.