How big is "big"?

sloterdijk portaitPeter Sloterdijk

Février 2010


  • Big autodidactics
  • The frugal star?
  • The Earth, times four

“How big can we think?” Buckminster Fuller [1]

Metaphors have a fate, too. When, back in 1969, Buckminster Fuller published his famous Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth he made a daring, indeed a utopian assumption, namely that the time was ripe in our social systems for the politicians and financiers to hand over control to the designers, engineers and artists. The assumption was based on his diagnosis that the members of the former group (like all ‘specialists’) only look at reality through a small hole that prevents them from seeing anything more than a section of it. By contrast, by virtue of their profession the latter develop holistic views and relate to the panorama of reality in its entirety. It was as if the Romantic call for “imagination to take power” had crossed the Atlantic and as if on the other side of the pond the slogan “all power to design” had been decoded. The sheer audacity of Buckminster Fuller’s publication, which was soon to emerge as a bible of “counter-culture” and later that of the alternative culture, can be seen not only in his despise for the purportedly high and mighty of this world, who he suggested were “now only ghostly”. It was also evidenced by his truly outrageous redefinition of our home planet: From that critical moment onwards, the good old earth could no longer be considered some natural variable, but as a huge artificial construct. It was no longer the foundation of things, and instead a vehicle.

The outrageousness and irresistibility of Buckminster Fuller’s metaphor is evidenced by the fact that in less than half a century it has gradually permeated the collective mind. At the same time what highlights the current precarious state of life on board Spaceship Earth is the fact that, after the hardly convincing foreplay of Kyoto and a dozen other climate summits, it was not until now that for the first time an effective general assembly of this planet’s politicians and negotiators gathered in order to debate halfway seriously about the climate management on board our starship. Man has now realized that the talk of Spaceship Earth does not imply some diversion into poetic vagueness in the absence of precise concepts. Here, the metaphor stands for the highest form of conceptual thought. Its truth emerges from the fact that its implications do justice to the real situation. If Earth is a spaceship, then its crew must indeed above all be interested in maintaining the conditions for life inside the vehicle – the space technologists speak in this context of the life support system or LSS that controls the biosphere-mimetic constants on board space stations. Atmosphere management thus becomes the prime criterion when it comes from now on to the art of managing the integral spaceship. And it bears remembering here that in such a vehicle no oxygen masks automatically fall from above your heads in the “unlikely event” of air becoming scarce. And it would likewise be absurd to suggest that illuminated strips on the floor lead to the emergency exits – Spaceship Earth has no exits, in the event of either emergencies or normality. And as regards the illuminated strips on the floor, what are they other than a mild form of hypnotizing passengers who are afraid of flying? The fear of the guests on board Spaceship Earth need to be assuaged by more down-to-earth means. Their treatment requires revolutionary cognitive and technical procedures.

Buckminster Fuller accurately described the hitherto most important condition for humans as regards survival on board Spaceship Earth: The passengers were not issued with instructions on how to use the spaceship, probably because they are expected to themselves find out the secret underlying their situation. In actual fact, the Earth has been inhabited by human beings and their ancestors for two million years now “not even knowing they were on board a ship.”[2] Put differently, in the past humans were allowed a large degree of ignorance as regards navigation, as the system was designed to accommodate a high degree of human stupidity. However, to the extent that the passengers started airing the secret behind things and by means of technology to seize power over their surroundings and thus the environment, the initial tolerance of ignorance by the system dwindled until a point was reached where certain forms of unknowing behavior are no longer compatible with the passengers staying on board. Human being-in-the-world, as 20th century philosophy puts it, thus turns out actually to be being-on-board on a cosmic vehicle prone to faults. From today’s viewpoint, the history of thinking on this planet proves to be a finalized cognitive experiment in the course of which we have to shed light on the truth about the global situation. Anyone on board the spaceship with the courage to make use o their own reason will sooner or later have to accept the fact that we are self-taught when it comes to space travel. The real term for the conditio humana is therefore: Autodidactics for life and death. He or she is an autodidact who has to learn the crucial lessons without a teacher. I would add that as a result resorting to religious traditions will not get us any further in this regard as the so-called world religions are without exception stuck in a pre-astronautic understanding of the world – even Jesus, when ascending to Heaven, was not able to contribute much of note to the instructions for the use of the spaceship.

These deliberations involve a statement on the relation between Being and knowledge: Knowledge by definition lags behind reality – in fact we could say that it essentially always arrives late. In this light, the question arises whether the tardiness of knowledge inevitably means that it will necessarily come too late as regards our future problems. Fortunately we are in a position to answer the question in the negative. There is a form of prognostic intelligence that comes to bear precisely in the gap between “late” and “too late”. It is this intelligence that seeks to be heard loudly here and now. While to date a large part of human learning was subject to the law of “once bitten, twice shy”, prognostic intelligence must seek to be clever before we get bitten – a novelty in the history of learning. We need a critique of prophetic reason if we are to penetrate to the logic of such learning processes. And the critique must not be deterred by the basal paradox of the prophesies of doom, namely that if successful, it looks ex post like a quite pointless alarm because precisely by dint of it having intervened in-between that will not have happened which it warned against. Jean-Pierre Dupuy has outlined what such a critique could look like in his study Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. Thus, only the apocalyptically minded among us can conduct a rational future politics because only they really consider the worst-case as a real possibility.

Today, to become clever means primarily to grasp that the kinetic expressionism of recent centuries must be radically modified if we cannot actually end it. I understand kinetic expressionism to be the style in which the moderns exist, the style enabled primarily by the easy availability of fossil fuels. Ever since these materials have more or less fallen into everyone’s hands, we have been leading lives as if Prometheus had stolen fire a second time. What this means becomes clear if we concede that the second fire has long ceased just to power our engines, but burns bright in our existential motifs, in our vital concepts of freedom. We can no longer imagine a freedom that does not automatically include the freedom to risky accelerations, the freedom to move to the remotest of destinations, the freedom to exaggerate and to be extravagant, indeed the freedom to explode and self-destruct. We can hear kinetic expressionism in the words with which the young Goethe wrote a letter in true Storm-and-Stress spirit to Lavater in 1776: “I am now fully abroad on the waves of the world, completely committed to discover, gain, struggle, fail or simply blow myself and the whole load to smithereens.” We can sense it when Nietzsche declares in Ecce homo: “I am not a man, I am dynamite.” And we can see it functioning practically when on the last leg of his circumnavigation of the world, namely the Atlantic crossing from New York back to England, and in the absence of coal Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, starts burning the wooden superstructure of his own ship in order to feed the combustion chambers of the steam engines. With this image of Phileas Fogg’s self-combusting ship Jules Verne came up with nothing less than a world metaphor for the Industrial Age. It evokes the fatal self-referentiality of transport and burns that on which it stands. You have to go back to Early Romantic poet Novalis and his critical vision of the “self-grinding mill” to find a similarly trenchant image to describe the current modus vivendi. That said, inherent is kinetic expressionism is the gesture with which Queen Elisabeth I of England lays her ruling hand on the globe in the famous 16th century engravings, as if to show that an era has now commenced in which the rulers of this world are no longer content with their own estates but are driven to extend their power to the furthers corners of the earth. Expressionism becomes political as soon as the subject that seeks to express itself claims and craves all the world’s assets as its own to consume. The principle of growth such as is constitutive of modern forms of life designates nothing other than kinetic expressionism in action.

“We are on a mission: We are called upon to educate the Earth.” Novalis [3]

Expressionism as practiced by Modernity rests on an assumption that was so blatantly obvious to people of earlier ages that it almost never needed to be explicitly formulated. For them, nature was an infinitely superior outer domain, and thus one that could be put under unlimited strain, an outer domain that absorbed everything humans could throw at it and ignored all exploitation. This spontaneous idea of nature defined human history until yesterday, and today there are still countless of our contemporaries who cannot and do not wish to imagine that it is time to change our thinking in this regard. However, the untrammeled expressionist trait of the life styles of the rich civilizations of today has shown one thing clearly, namely that nature’s indifference to human activity was an illusion that corresponded to the age of ignorance. There are limits to expression, limits to emissions, limits to the tolerance of ignorance – and because there are such limits (even if we do not know exactly where they lie) the idea of nature as the all-absorbent domain outside us, a notion that has ostensibly been with us since time immemorial, is starting to come undone. We suddenly find ourselves compelled to accept the seemingly contra-natural idea that human praxis has transformed the terrestrial sphere as a whole into one big interior. Buckminster Fuller wanted to place responsibility for this shattering turn in the hands of the designer, whom he called on to think in a “comprehensive“ and “anticipatory“ way. Such a form of thought, he suggestion, would enable “world planning” in the “total communications system of Man” on Spaceship Earth.

Forty years after Buckminster Fuller’s manifesto first came out it transpires that it is less the designers who have ensured that the new world idea of the macro-interior has gained sway and more the meteorologists. What is evident for us is that not design but meteorology has come to power. It has become politically and scientifically accepted because for the moment it offers the most suggestive model of the global interior: It deals with the dynamic continuum of the terrestrial sheath of gas that envelopes the Earth and which since the days of the Greek physicists we have called the atmosphere, which meant “ball of vapor”. People have stopped talking about the weather by way of harmless conversation now that climate scientists have proved for us that the atmosphere has a memory: It has still not quite forgotten the smoke from the chimneys of the early Industrial Revolution, and it will not completely forget any of what the coal-fired power stations in the developed countries, the heating plants in the mega-cities, the airplanes, the ships, the automobiles of the affluent and the countless open hearths of the poor in all the continents send its way – even if usually half of those emissions get bound by the oceans and the biosphere. Admittedly, the Earth preserves other relics of doubtful human behavior: Today people are still discovering horseshoes in the mud of North Germany that attest to the Roman cavalry having passed that way. But the German soil is neither heated nor cooled by the presence of the Roman horseshoe. By contrast, the Earth’s atmosphere is a sensitive depository: It tends to respond to past and present emissions by warming the Earth. If the meteorologists are telling the truth, then the climate change we can expect will lead in many parts of the world to conditions inimical to human life as we have known it.

Meaning that the meteorologists find themselves in the role of the Reformers. The message they are conveying to people in the industrialized nations and in the large threshold countries is that the lifestyle there must change. The meteorologists are calling for nothing less than a medium-term decarbonization of civilization and thus for people to largely forgo the immense comfort of the fossil-fuel based modus vivendi. The break with the past that these postulates imply will be so deep that there is some justification in going for major analogies: The rethink expected of 21st-century man is greater than that of the 16th-century reformations, in which as we all know, nothing less the rules of interaction between Heaven and Earth were revised. In fact, the rethink is reminiscent of the voice of St. John the Baptist who called for a complete moral about-turn. Back then, the voice from the desert called for nothing less than such repentance as would jettison the trivial egoistic ethos of everyday life for a moral state of emergency of the heart – it was a call that was to trigger the permanent revolution we term Christianity. Indeed, the call for a rethink today also brings to mind Plato’s subtle remark in his dialog Sophistes, according to which the dispute between friends of the idea (vulgo ‘idealists’) and lovers of the tangible bodies ( vulgo ‘materialists’) on the meaning of Being resembles a struggle between Titans – a struggle that, given the matter in dispute, itself lasts as long as there are humans who can vote for the one or other side.

The current struggle on climate change no longer focuses on the “world dominion” that the political commentators of the Imperialist age so liked to talk about. Instead, it hinges on the possibility of keeping the process of civilization open and guaranteeing that it continues. After the cultures reciprocally discovered each other between the 16th and 20th centuries through long-distance travel, this process has led to the provisional synthesis of global actors through trade and diplomacy. And the process is supposedly soon to be moved forward to the point of positive interaction by the cultures in functioning joint institutions – whereby I shall ignore the question whether “humanity” is capable in the first place of developing a coherent “we” or a volonté générale capable of practical action. At this moment in time, only two things are certain: First that the meteorological Reformation, whose origins we are now living through, brings with it the prospect of an age of greater conflicts; and second that the 21st century will go down in history as a fair of savior vanities, at the end of which humans will yearn to be saved from salvation and rescued from the rescuers. And we are also seeing the beginnings of an era of hypocrisy and double morals. Nevertheless, for all the vanity, panic and hypocritical rhetoric, during this epoch the serious question will be addressed of whether something like a global stabilizing regime can be established on Spaceship Earth. And it bears remembering here that we must from the outset make only modest demands of the concept of stabilization. Cultural evolution does not know of stable balances. It can at best lead from a livable state of imbalance into the next.

We can already discern the contours of the future struggle of the Titans. In it, the representatives of a New Simplicity are represented by the idealist party. They confront their materialist opponents with the demand that all forms of kinetic expressionism must be reduced to the minimum tolerable in terms of Earth politics. Once we have grasped that this expressionism is identical with the modus vivendi of the cultures of affluence on the planet, indeed that it permeates the entirety of our “metabolism with nature”, our production, our consumption, our living, our transport, our arts and communications and that in each of these areas the signals continue to be set unerringly on growth and surfeit, then we immediately understand that the ethics of the future inimical to expression and emissions focuses unequivocally on inverting the direction in which civilization has moved hitherto. It calls for a decrease where the agenda to date has been to increase, it calls for minimization where thus far all that counted was maximization, it urges restraint where until now explosion was in order, it decrees thriftiness where to date extravagance was felt to be the greatest excitement, it admonishes us to restrict ourselves where otherwise self-liberation was celebrated. If one thinks these reversals through then in the course of the meteorological Reformation one reaches a kind of ecological Calvinism. And the latter is based on the axiom: Humanity only has this one Earth at its disposal. It may therefore not expect of this basis that it gives more than it can – the penalty being self-destruction. In this way, globalization paradoxically works against its own underlying trend: By asserting one expansion after another across the board it compels across-the-board restrictions. By seeking to generalize affluence it discovers that in the final instance globally only the opposite is practicable, namely frugality for all.

The Titans who will clash in the coming century take the stage against the backdrop of these remarks. We will see the struggle between expansionism and minimalism. We will be expected to choose between the ethics of fireworks and the ethics of asceticism. We will feel how the warring alternatives are reflected in our feeling for life and how we vacillate between states of manic extravagance and depressive thriftiness. Nietzsche once remarked of the Earth that it must appear to an outside intelligence as the “ascetic star” on which the elite of resentment-driven depressive spiritualists hold sway. Ever since the 20th century, the affluent part of Earth has enjoyed a hedonist interregnum that may be over before the 21st century is out. Should the announced Reformation lead to a meteorological socialism, then Earth will soon be perceived by the outside world as the frugal star: Each individual person on it will manage a small set of emission credits accorded him or her as a stakeholder in the atmosphere and the other elements. Since Nietzsche was also an expert on matters of battles between the Gods and between the Titans, he knew that there is no neutral position in such conflicts: “Alas,” he wrote, “it is the magic of these struggles that those who behold them must also take part and fight!”[4] The citizens of the rich nations will without exception not only feel that struggle of the Titans within themselves, but will also make public by their private consumer decisions on what side they stand.

“Yet to date no one has determined all the things the body can do.” Spinoza [5]

At this stage in the proceedings it would appear as if ecological Puritanism may be the only rational morality on board Spaceship Earth. And irrespective of whether one agrees or not, what is indisputable is that during the 20th century a new form of the absolute imperative has come into the world: “You must change your life” – this sentence has since exercised an incontrovertible authority and has taken a firm place in the ethical intuitions of many of our contemporaries. It has impregnated our minds with the binding duty to create a modus vivendi that is in line with the ecological/cosmopolitan insights of our culture. And it achieves a degree of evidence comparable with that which in former times the Buddhist, the Stoic, the Christian, the Islamic and the humanist ethics have always asserted their validity among the individual and communities seized by them. Because like any major ethical evidence, the new imperative appeals to all, it is realistic to predict that a wave of ethical enthusiasm will spread world-wide. And in it, the current will to life will combine with the current feeling for the good and the right to form a powerful, perhaps world-moving elan – both within and beyond the traditional religions. And it is just as realistic to expect to see a complementary wave of resignation, of defeatism and a cynical “aprés moi le deluge” mindset.

At a first reading it would thus seem as if the current imperative could give rise to nothing less than an ethics of global moderation. The only thing that will probably remain unresolved is the question whether the turn to simplicity is the result of a voluntary change of approach by the populations in the emission-intensive cultures or the governments in the rich nations (in the absence of global governance they have to date been the only functional macrosystems) will sooner or later see themselves forced to proclaim something like ecological martial law in their respective territories, a law that will force through what has not been possible voluntarily.

It emerges at second glance that the call for a global ethics of moderation or even of hopes of climatic socialism are illusory. They not only have the full momentum of expressionist civilization flying in their face, they also contradict the insights into the forces driving higher cultures. For these are inconceivable without the liaison between the desire for self-preservation and the will to self-enhancement. The linkage of self-preservation and self-enhancement contains the advance decision in favor of a culture in which surfeit, extravagance and the luxury are granted civil rights. None other than Plato had to abandon the hypothesis of the frugal polis when deliberating on how to establish an ideal commonality: The wisest of all Greeks found no appropriate answer to counter Glaucon, who, replied coarsely to Socrates description of a meal in the sparing city: “’Really, Socrates,… that’s just the fodder you would provide if you were founding a community of pigs!”[6] Socrates had to accept he had no rejoinder and admitted the construct of the opulent city. In analog manner, for all the predictions and projects for the world of tomorrow we are today forced to assume that people in the rich nations regard their affluence and its technological premisses as conquests that they will no longer give up. They will remain convinced that it is the task of evolution through constant growth to globalize material prosperity and the expressive privileges they themselves enjoy. They will refuse to come to terms with a future that is based on contraction and restraint.

The champions of New Simplicity object here that the affluent people of today will in the long run have no other choice than to bend down to the ecological facts. To the extent that large numbers of new producers and consumers join the club of the extravagant, the limits of emissions and expression will become ever more dramatic and be noticed at an ever earlier point in time. Here, the axiom come to bear on which all ‘limits-to-growth’ arguments rest: There is only one example of the Earth – and yet the rich nations are already living as if it were permissible for them to exploit one and one half such Earths. Should their lifestyle be extended to all the Planet’s inhabitants, then humanity would need to be able to rely on no less than four Earths. But since the Earth is a single, non-multipliable monad, we must accept that the limits take precedence over the impulse to exceed them.

At first sight, this argument would appear to be incontrovertible. As long as the Earth and its biosphere are grasped as an non-proliferatable singularity, the exploitative behavior of the modern expressive and comfort civilization must seem to be a matter of unpardonable irrationality. How people treat their planet then resembles a disaster movie in which rival Mafia gangs shoot it out using large-caliber fire-arms onboard a plane at an altitude of 12,000 meters. Yet it is nevertheless legitimate to ask whether we have drawn the appropriate conclusions from the monadological interpretation of the Earth. Do we understand the conditions we find ourselves in correctly if we interpret the Planet and its biosphere as an unmultipliable One and proceed to grasp this as fixed limits that cannot be transgressed? We should bear in mind that what we have before us is no longer just the cosmological and primordial unit of the Earth and the evolutionary and primordial phenomenon of life. In the course of social evolution these basic variables have been joined by two more, the technosphere, which is in turn animated and directed by a noosphere. With a view to these two added dimensions, we are justified in transposing Spinoza’s famous adage that no one has to date determined what the body is capable of (and he referred to the human body) onto the Earth. No one has to date found out of what the Earth’s body is capable. We do not yet know what development will become possible if the geosphere and biosphere are advanced by an intelligent technosphere and the noosphere. It is not excluded a priori that this could spawn effects that would be equivalent to the Earth’s multiplication.

Technology has not yet said its last word. While to date we tend to view it from the angle of environmental destruction and bionegativity, this merely shows that in some respects it is still in its infancy. Some time ago, a proposal was made to distinguish between heterotechnology and homeotechnology,[7] whereby the former relies on procedures for raping and tricking nature, the latter on imitating nature and continuing natural production pricniples at an artificial level. By re-aligning the technosphere to meet homeotechnical and biomimetic standards in the course of time a completely different image of the interaction between the environment and technology would arise. We would find out what the Earth’s body is capable of the moment humans switch in their dealing with Earth from exploitation over to coproduction. Down the path of mere exploitation, the Earth will forever remain a limited monad. Down the path of coproduction between nature and technology, it could become a hybrid planet on which more would be possible than conservative geologists believe.

The smarter minds in the eco-movement the world over have spawned analogous ideas. They have shown us how we can double prosperity world-wide while halving our resource consumption levels at the same time. This is also the thrust of an erratic comment by Buckminster Fuller that builds a bridge between the miraculous increase of loaves in the New Testament and a metaphysically seen history of technology: “By virtue of the leverage principles… it is literally possible to do more with less in a multitude of physio-chemical ways. Possibly it was this intellectual augmentation of humanity’s survival and success … that Christ was trying to teach in the obscurely told story of the loaves and the fishes.” [8] His Operating Manual logically includes an appeal to the spirit of creativity: “So, planners, architects, and engineers, take the initiative. Go to work, and above all co-operate and don’t hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived. These are the synergetic rules that evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us. They are not man-made laws. They are the infinitely accommodative laws of the intellectual integrity governing universe.”[9] We must eschew reducing these statements to the naivety innate in them. Should the big autodidactics succeed in keeping the emissions of ignorance in check: This could only happen thanks to the intellectual integrity of those who today assume the responsibility for their positive knowledge and their somber predictions.

Collegium International, February 2010

[1] Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, (Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), p. 53

[2] Buckminster Fuller, op. cit., S, 45.

[3] Blütenstaub, Fragmente.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, 15.

[5] Etenim, quid corpus possit, nemo hucusque determinavit. Ethics, Part III, Proposition 2, Scholium

[6] Politeia, II, 372d., quoted from Plato: The Republic, tr. D. Lee, (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1955) p. 122

[7] Peter Sloterdijk, Nicht gerettet. Versuche nach Heidegger, (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/Main, 2001), p. 212f.

[8] Buckminster Fuller, op. cit., p. 50

[9] Buckminster Fuller, op. cit., p. 120.

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