Cyborgs after dinner

I have a good friend who loves the lost cultural institution of the after-dinner speech. For his birthday party this year, he encouraged his guests to prepare and present their own talks in what amounted to a mini conference— it was a blast! I decided to throw my hat into the ring, and the result is reproduced below. It’s a strange piece of writing: an experiment in rhetoric, a test-bench for ideas arising from a reading group on climate movements, an earnest pastiche filled with meta-in-jokes. This is the sort of throwaway piece I’d normally just leave on some backup drive, but I’ve received enough interest to make the decision to post it here. If anything, it’s a nice reminder to myself that putting something out there is often more important than polishing it to brilliance.

This talk is, at some level, about climate change. But the real aim is to let you see yourself, and the world around you, a little differently; and to give you new tools or lenses to help envision a better future. Last year marked a dramatic jump-shift in the record for maximum global average temperature. We all know that carbon emissions from human activity are dangerously warming the planet, and that the primary way we've managed to put all those troublesome greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is by digging up and burning so-called “fossil fuels” for energy. But to label these substances merely “fuels” is deceptive, as our relationship goes far deeper than that: in some sense, fossil fuels are the foundation of human life as we know it.

Here's what I mean. First, some background: “fossil fuels” are named as such because they are composed primarily of plants that lived and died between 360 million and 290 million years ago. Their biomass sank to the bottom of swamps and was transformed through intense geological processes into energy-dense molecules called hydrocarbons. Now, let's take a bit of a jump and talk about steel. Steel is awesome: it's strong, ductile, wear-resistant, rigid, totally recyclable, and therefore great for making things. Ships, bicycles, buildings, bridges, pots and pans– it's so useful that humans produce more steel by far than we do any other substance on earth, aside from concrete. So how do you make steel? Well, basically the most practical way to do it is you take iron ore, you seal it in a furnace with some coal, and you ignite it. The heat from burning the coal melts the ore, and the carbon monoxide from the burning reacts and combines with the iron to form steel. So steel is made from hydrocarbons. Next, let's talk about food: arguably even more awesome than steel. Once you work your way down the food chain, most of what we eat comes from plants. And plants need nitrogen in order to grow, and in order to sustain consistent agricultural yields we need to manually add nitrogen to the soil, in the form of fertilizer. Since exhausting the entire global supply of bird shit for this purpose wasn't really working out, about 100 years ago we came up with a way of pulling nitrogen directly out of the atmosphere. How do you make fertilizer out of thin air? Well, again, you heat it and combine it with... methane, AKA “natural gas.” So all of our modern fertilizer, and therefore our entire food system, is built on hydrocarbons. Let's see, what else... Plastics? That's an easy one, we use them for everything: textiles, foams, paints, coatings, toys, appliances, packaging. Very much made of hydrocarbons. Roads? Roofs? Made from bitumen, which is– you guessed it– a hydrocarbon. Maybe you can see where this is going. Yes, we combust hydrocarbons for energy to fly our planes and drive our cars and generate heat and electricity, but that's only half of the picture; our civilization doesn't just run on hydrocarbons, our civilization is hydrocarbons. The kinds of people who enjoyed Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer might call ours the “Nuclear Age,” but the fact that one of the last serious applications of nuclear ordinance research was for fracking is telling. Our entire material existence, starting from an atomic level and ascending to our love of cars and consumerism, is entirely constituted and organized around this single limited and sparsely-distributed geological resource. It is impossible to understand the former without recognizing the latter. And it doesn't stop at the tangible level: society and technology are always mutually interpellated, with our fossil roots constantly shaping, and in turn being shaped by, our politics, ideologies, aspirations, and conceptions of the good life. Neither mind nor body would exist as they do in this moment without hydrocarbons.

One very abstract way to think about this argument is as if we are no longer Homo sapiens but have instead become a race of carbon cyborgs. To use this term, of course, is to invoke Donna Haraway, for whom “the cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.” It's not every eon that a species manages to re-engineer the entire basis of its ecological metabolism, after all. The next obvious line of inquiry is into the nature of this hypothetical evolutionary step; how, and under what conditions, did such a change come about? What is the shape of this cyborg, its prostheses, its sacrificial organs, and how are they distributed through space and time? While these are interesting and important questions, we must mostly leave them aside for today. Our concept of “carbon cyborg,” even in its coarse form, still presents an intriguing subject for analysis– or perhaps psychoanalysis.

Returning to that climate change thing, the undisputed policy consensus is for decarbonization: since burning fossil fuels causes harm, we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Under the operating assumption of a human civilization that only uses hydrocarbons as a thermal energy source, this seems like a no-brainer: alternatives already exist, just switch over! So why, then, is the historical record a stream of denial, resistance, and, above all, unchanged use of hydrocarbons? These behaviors come across as irrational and self-destructive. However, consider now our carbon cyborg: hydrocarbons are integral to who and what they are, so the notion of hydrocarbons causing harm presents a psychological contradiction. How can that which constitutes the self be bad for the self?! Suddenly denial and resistance appear rational and sympathetic. As the impacts of burning hydrocarbons worsen, so too does the strain of this psychological rift. Maybe the carbon cyborgs develop a schizophrenic popular climate discourse fixated on both naive techno-optimism and nihilistic doomerism. Instead of gas turbine generators, they switch to wind turbines made with far more plastic and steel. They add solar panels to their roofs and use extremely energy-intensive chemistry to produce a weak trickle of synthetic fuels made with carbon pulled from the air rather than the ground. But they are still carbon cyborgs; their modalities, their ways of life and material relations, are qualitatively unchanged. They still extract hydrocarbons as fossil feedstocks, and even still burn fossil fuels, though perhaps now pumping sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the stratosphere in an attempt to offset the warming effects. Even if this path leads to a stable existence instead of merely a delayed form of auto-annihilation, the carbon cyborgs are left with no true resolution to their inner dysfunction, and face perpetual risk of breakdown. Theirs is a world where, as Karl Marx famously put, “the traditions of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living.”

The vision I've just presented in caricature aligns with the most optimistic projections of our trajectory through a so-called “green transition.” To understand this vision is to realize that interventions like eating less meat or installing heat pumps or exercising shareholder votes on emissions reporting are necessary steps in the right direction, but they are not enough: in order to prevent mass death of present and future generations, we need to change on a deeper level. Though hydrocarbons may be our lifeblood, they are not in our genetic code; the carbon cyborg is doomed, but Homo sapiens doesn't have to be. It is possible to imagine a life-world that has no fundamental dependency on hydrocarbons. After all, that's how things worked just 300 years ago; and even the industrial revolution, widely held as the inception of the hydrocarbon era, could have gone differently. Andreas Malm demonstrates in his book Fossil Capital that the early British industrial plants where coal-fired steam engines were first widely deployed did not turn to the technology to surpass limitations on fundamental energy needs: hydropower was substantially cheaper than coal, and only ever utilized to about 5% of total accessible watershed capacity in the UK. That's not to say that solving the post-hydrocarbon technology question will be easy, or that it's even the most difficult part of the equation. Malm argues that the industrial adoption of coal was primarily fueled by the re-organization of society and resulting shift in social relations; outgrowing the carbon cyborg will no doubt require equally radical changes to our current values and political systems. This work must be performed by everyone, regarding everything, with the urgency of outpacing the next heat wave or cyclone. Imagination is the first step; Ursula LeGuin, an exemplar practitioner, wisely observed that “it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.” She spent her career fighting against the idea that fantasy was a luxury, a respite from the problems of the so-called “real;” indeed, today, perhaps more than ever, fantasy is necessary for our survival. Fantasy in that the very molecules of our bodies do not have to be as they are; fantasy in that we can fight the inertia of the cyborg logics of our existence, and win.

This isn't some saccharine TED talk where I end with a nicely-wrapped just-so resolution. If anything, I've done the opposite: barged up here and killed the vibes by shouting at you that you need to rethink your entire existence from the ground up. And you do! But my point is that that's not such a bad thing. I can personally think of nothing that makes me feel more alive. And so I raise my cup, made from hydrocarbons, full of beer, that is also made from hydrocarbons, and say: To a better future! Happy birthday, Bryan! {\}