Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
17Feb/140

The Dystopia of Knowledge

Arendtquote

“This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The future man of whom Arendt writes is one who has been released from earthly ties, from nature.  He has been released from earth as a physical space but also as “the quintessence of the human condition.”  He will have been able to “create life in a test tube” and “extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.”  The idea that this man would wish to exchange his given existence for something artificial is part of a rather intricate intellectual historical argument about the development of modern science.

The more man has sought after perfect knowledge of nature, the more he has found himself in nature’s stead, and the more uncertain he has felt, and the more he has continued to seek, with dire consequences.  This is the essential idea.  The negative consequences are bundled together within Arendt’s term, “world alienation,” and signify, ultimately, the endangerment of possibilities for human freedom.  Evocative of dystopian fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, this theme has enjoyed renewed popularity in our current world of never-ending war and ubiquitous surveillance facilitated by technical innovation.

surv

Arendt’s narration gravitates around Galileo’s consummation of the Copernican revolution, which marks the birth of “the modern astrophysical world view.”  The significance of Galileo, Arendt writes, is that with him we managed to find “the Archimedean point” or the universal point of view.  This is an imagined point outside the earth from which it should be possible to make objective observations and formulate universal natural laws.  Our reaching of the Archimedean point, without leaving the earth, was responsible for natural science’s greatest triumphs and the extreme pace of discovery and technical innovation.

This was also a profoundly destabilizing achievement, and Arendt’s chronicle of its cultural effects takes on an almost psychological resonance.  While we had known since Plato that the senses were unreliable for the discovery of truth, she says, Galileo’s telescope told us that we could not trust our capacity for reason, either.  Instead, a manmade instrument had shown us the truth, undermining both reason and faith in reason.

In grappling with the resulting radical uncertainty, we arrived at Descartes’ solution of universal doubt.  Arendt describes this as a turn towards introspection, which provides a solution insofar as it takes place within the confines of one’s mind.  External forces cannot intrude here, at least upon the certainty that mental processes are true in the sense that they are real.  Man’s turn within himself afforded him some control.  This is because it corresponded with “the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the new physical science: though one cannot know truth as something given and disclosed, man can at least know what he makes himself.” According to Arendt, this is the fundamental reasoning that has driven science and discovery at an ever-quickening pace.  It is at the source of man’s desire to exchange his given existence “for something he has made himself.”

The discovery of the Archimedean point with Galileo led us to confront our basic condition of uncertainty, and the Cartesian solution was to move the Archimedean point inside man.  The human mind became the ultimate point of reference, supported by a mathematical framework that it produces itself.  Mathematics, as a formal structure produced by the mind, became the highest expression of knowledge.  As a consequence, “common sense” was internalized and lost its worldly, relational aspect.  If common sense only means that all of us will arrive at the same answer to a mathematical question, then it refers to a faculty that is internally held by individuals rather than one that fits us each into the common world of all, with each other, which is Arendt’s ideal.  She points to the loss of common sense as a crucial aspect of “world alienation.”

This loss is closely related to Arendt’s concerns about threats to human political communication. She worries that we have reached the point at which the discoveries of science are no longer comprehensible.  They cannot be translated from the language of mathematics into speech, which is at the core of Arendt’s notion of political action and freedom.

The threat to freedom is compounded when we apply our vision from the Archimedean point to ourselves.  Arendt cautions, “If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men, … then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” (“The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future)

She argues against the behaviorist perspective on human affairs as a false one, but more frightening for her is the fact it could become reality.  We may be seeking this transformation through our desire to control and know and thus live in a world that we have ourselves created.  When we look at human affairs from the Archimedean, objective scientific point of view, our behavior appears to be analyzable, predictable, and uniform like the activity of subatomic particles or the movement of celestial bodies.  We are choosing to look at things with such far remove that, like these other activities and movements, they are beyond the grasp of experience.  “World alienation” refers to this taking of distance, which collapses human action into behavior.  The purpose would be to remedy the unbearable condition of contingency, but in erasing contingency, by definition, we erase the unexpected events that are the worldly manifestations of human freedom.

To restate the argument in rather familiar terms: Our quest for control, to put an end to the unbearable human condition of uncertainty and contingency, leads to a loss of both control and freedom.  This sentiment should be recognizable as a hallmark of the immediate post-war period, represented in works of fiction like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Beckett’s Endgame, and Orwell’s 1984.  We can also find it even earlier in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Huxley’s Brave New World.  There has been a recent recovery and reemergence of the dystopian genre, at least in one notable case, and with it renewed interest in Arendt’s themes as they are explored here.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle, released in 2013, revolves around an imagined Bay Area cultish tech company that is a combination of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and PayPal.  In its apparent quest for progress, convenience, and utility, it creates an all-encompassing universe in which all of existence is interpreted in terms of data points and everything is recorded. The protagonist, an employee of the Circle, is eventually convinced to “go transparent,” meaning that her every moment is live streamed and recorded, with very few exceptions.   Reviews of the book have emphasized our culture of over-sharing and the risks to privacy that this entails.  They have also drawn parallels between this allegorical warning and the Snowden revelations.  Few, though, if any, have discussed the book in terms of the human quest for absolute knowledge in order to eliminate uncertainty and contingency, with privacy as collateral damage.

dave

In The Circle, the firm promotes transparency and surveillance as solutions to crime and corruption.  Executives claim that through acquired knowledge and technology, anything is possible, including social harmony and world peace.  The goal is to organize human affairs in a harmonious way using technical innovation and objective knowledge.  This new world is to be man made so that it can be manipulated for progressive ends.  In one key conversation, Mae, the main character, confronts one of the three firm leaders, saying, “… you can’t be saying that everyone should know everything,” to which he replies, “… I’m saying that everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know anything.  There’s not enough time to know everything, though I certainly wish there was.”

In this world, there are several senses in which man has chosen to replace existence as given with something he has made himself.  First and most obviously, new gadgets dazzle him at every turn, and he is dependent on them.  Second, he reduces all information “to the measure of the human mind.”  The technical innovations and continuing scientific discoveries are made with the help of manmade instruments, such that:  “Instead of objective qualities … we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe—in the words of Heisenberg—man encounters only himself.” (The Human Condition, p. 261) Everything is reduced to a mathematical calculation.  An employee’s (somewhat forced) contributions to the social network are tabulated and converted into “retail raw,” the dollar measure of consumption they have inspired (through product placement, etc.).  All circlers are ranked, in a competitive manner, according to their presence on social media.  The effects in terms of Arendt’s notion of common sense are obvious.  Communication takes place in flat, dead prose.  Some reviewers have criticized Eggers for the writing style, but what appears to be bad writing actually matches the form to the content in this case.

Finally, it is not enough to experience reality here; all experience must be recorded, stored, and made searchable by the Circle.  Experience is thus replaced with a man made replica.  Again, the logic is that we can only know what we produce ourselves.  As all knowledge is organized according to human artifice, the human mind, observing from a sufficient distance, can find the patterns within it.  These forms, pleasing to the mind, are justifiable because they work.

blue

They produce practical successes.  Here, harmony is discovered because it is created.  Arendt writes:

“If it should be true that a whole universe, or rather any number of utterly different universes will spring into existence and ‘prove’ whatever over-all pattern the human mind has constructed, then man may indeed, for a moment, rejoice in a reassertion of the ‘pre-established harmony between pure mathematics and physics,’ between mind and matter, between man and the universe.  But it will be difficult to ward off the suspicion that this mathematically preconceived world may be a dream world where every dreamed vision man himself produces has the character of reality only as long as the dream lasts.”

If harmony is artificially created, then it can only last so long as it is enforced.  Indeed, in the end of the novel, when the “dream” is revealed as nightmare, Mae is faced with the choice of prolonging it.  We can find a similar final moment of hope in The Human Condition.  As she often does, Arendt has set up a crushing course of events, a seeming onslaught of catastrophe, but she leaves us with at least one ambiguous ray of light: “The idea that only what I am going to make will be real—perfectly true and legitimate in the realm of fabrication—is forever defeated by the actual course of events, where nothing happens more frequently than the totally unexpected.”

-Jennifer M. Hudson

26Aug/130

Machine-man and man-machines in the last stage of the laboring society

Arendtquote

“The last stage of the laboring society, the society of job holders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized’, functional type of behavior”.

-Hannah Arendt,  "The Human Condition"

About fifty years ago Hannah Arendt diagnosed the “last stage of the laboring society”.  Human beings can only live as “job holders” without access to the realm of freedom in the sense of the classical ideal of political action. For Arendt this state of affairs is the result of the development process of modernity. As the life of the species, the ‘social’ became the central interest of the public sphere. There is no margin for self-realization unless this is within the limits of an adaptation to the needs of the collective life process. Even a passive freedom of “sensing pain and trouble of living” is no longer permitted. Human beings not only have to function automatically, they have to “bow with joy” to their condition. This ideological aspect of the contemporary conditio humana is perhaps the one that outrages Arendt the most. The anesthesia of the mind in modern society: Individuals have to “acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized’, functional type of behavior”.

labor

Through her diagnosis Arendt addresses the development of the “machine-man” in the laboring society. Subliminal to the process of the modern liberation of individuality, which reaches a pinnacle in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the private sphere of the ancient household as a place of labor is extended to the whole of society. At the end of the day individuals have to conform to the needs of the life production process in a way that makes it impossible for them even to look after their rights. This is the age of the machine-man. “Functionality” becomes the grounding element of human behavior. Positivistic fate in progress represents its civil religion: When every aspect of society could be traced back to its proper functioning there were no limits to life perfection.

With this result, to speak with Max Weber, a specific idea achieved an overwhelming impact on societal transformation. Descartes’ separation of res cogitans and res extensa produced the idea of an animal-machine without a soul, which could be completely reduced to the functional needs of rationalistic world domination. Some hundred years later La Mettrie completed the reflection with the idea of the homme-machine. Without knowing its sources in cultural history, industrialization translated the idea radically into action: By being reduced to machine-men individuals had to fulfill the needs of a mechanized production system. In order to face the anthropological consequences of the industrial development of modernity, Marx and Engels provided the plot for the political redemption of the machine-men. The only way to escape alienation is to attain the complete automation of the factory, and thus the substitution of job holders by intelligent machines. In 1921 reversed this utopia in a dystopia. He coined the word “robot” for his theater piece “Rossum’s Universal Robots” using the Slavic word robota, which traditionally means the work period (corvée) a serf had to give for his lord. By reviving the theme of the Jewish legend about the Golem, Čapek put the religious prohibition of recreating human beings at the forefront of the debate. There could be no liberation of machine-man by constructing man-machines without provoking a rebellion of the latter against their creators: this has been the subject of all science fiction literature and film about man-machines ever since.

A sociologically based intercultural survey about the current development of robotics shows that both the scientific utopia of creating man-machines as well as the public’s fears about their potential danger are present in the reflections of European and American engineers. Japanese roboticists on the other hand think that the introduction of man-machines into social interaction does not provoke any dystopic consequences. In an age of an increasing crisis of labor as the central category of modernity, technology research tries to develop substitutes for the missing animal laborans. Its leading idea is that an aging society needs support and care for humans who live long after they have ceased to be job holders. Instead of thinking about a different organization of society, decision-makers and stakeholders aim at substituting the absent young job holders with machines that have all the characteristics of functionality pointed out in Arendt’s diagnosis of the last stage of laboring society’s members. The machine-man reproduces himself as a man-machine.

But furthermore, the empirical surveys show that utopia stalls with the implementation of the man-machine. Technically, it is very hard to realize robots that can effectively substitute working humans in a real-world environment. Societally, there is a very low level of acceptance for man-machines, not least because of deep ethical concerns about human–robot interaction. Legal issues offer an even greater problem: Neither the European, American nor Japanese legal system provides proper legal instruments to allow robots to enter real-world settings.

robot

This background strongly influences the further development of technological research. So it is interesting to observe how developers worldwide slowly abandon the plan of realizing a substitute for the animal laborans as an autonomous entity. Following the design guidelines of “Ambient Assisted Living”, single parts of its body are disaggregated and put into the environment of the pensioned job holders. The man-machine only survives as an executer (Europe) or as a communication tool (Japan) for an overall ambient intelligence. Robots thereby become an interface for the “rule of nobody” of a superior control instance within the private life of the discharged job holders. No advent of autonomous robots seems therefore to be expected, if not as a result of undercover research into military robotics that plans for their introduction in the extra-legal domain of war.

Machine-men hesitate to realize the utopia of man-machines. They seem to abandon the idea of making man-machines full members of the public sphere, as they are to be seen e. g. in the film adaptation of Asimov’s I, Robot. This current stage of the laboring society poses the question of its critical assessment. It would be interesting to know what Hannah Arendt would have said about this.

-Gregor Fitzi

University of Potsdam, Germany

12Mar/130

The Brain Activity Map

AredntNola

I am a neural matrix of roughly 80 billion cells each charged with the potential for action, firing out in multiple patters of synchronicity towards a seemingly inexhaustible order of calculations -- I am the system that emerges, I am its apex, I am sentience -- therefore I am.

This, I imagine, is what Descartes would have to say today of what remains of the self under the scope of examination, though I will admit this sounds less poetic then his original statement.

Galileo’s telescope, the atom, the space age, the tech age, the Human Genome Project, and now the BAM project, all can be seen as a succession of strivings towards a new perspective through which we could gleam a greater understanding and synthesis of Man. The BAM project is the newest manifestation of this urge. It is an exciting endeavor, and yet as with any new attempt of science to probe ourselves, it is a frightening one too.

Recently I learned about the “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) initiative sponsored by the Obama administration. I have a baseline knowledge of neuroscience and have been long fascinated by its hoped for implications and speculative repercussions. I wanted more detail. I found what I understand to be the source paper for this project, The Brain Activity Functional Connectomics, by Paul Alivisatos, et al. This is hot stuff, and I am not being glib. Obama thinks so too, that’s why 3 billion governmental dollars are slated to go into the project. Microsoft and Google are throwing in real money too. So what is really going on?

Ars Electronica, Flickr

Ars Electronica, Flickr

BAM follows the model of the Human Genome Project. In the proposal paper, as well as Obama’s state of the union address, reference is made to the fact that each $1 put into the Human Genome Project brought back $140 to the economy. I will leave alone the implications of this being economy driven. Should science be economically driven? This question, in our society, is mostly moot. Everything must now at least appear to be economy driven. Knowledge, transcendence, self-discovery, can only resonate in conversation with the economy.

But what are the human as opposed to the economic implications of the Brain Activity Map? BAM is a 15-year plan to create a non-topographical map of the brain the repercussions of which reach into the medical, commercial, educational, and technological fields. Until now our neuro-understanding of the brain has been limited to compartmentalized thinking, or to the study of individual ingredients. The brain simply cannot be understood this way and thus Alivisatos’ paper argues that “no general theory of brain function is universally accepted.” BAM seeks to create an “emergent systems” model, something akin to the rules of complex systems. This stems from the knowledge that brain function arises from the interplay of the electrical impulse grid (the action potential of all the neurons). The best way I can state this is that brain activity is a symphony rather then a carpenter’s graph. It is the interplay of notes, tones, and pacing, and sound rather than a combination of these individual elements. The point is not to isolate and combine but to mimic the complex yet structured electrical impulses of the brain in a way that allows higher order brain function to emerge in an artificially intelligent being. To quote Alivisatos: “An emergent level of analysis appears to be critical for understanding the most compelling questions of how brain functions create sentience.” The most exciting effort, in other words, is to create a sentient, thinking, and autonomous entity.

The project calls for an investment into new technologies that could make recording the action potentials and coordination of their impulses more feasible. This can be accomplished by investing in nano-technology: nanotubes and wires, quantum dots, nano-particles, neural probes, shanks containing optical waveguides, and tiny microchips that can pass into the brain.

The brain mapping project could likely entail human testing, which “we do not exclude,” though it would not take place till the last phase of the project.

Microsoft and Google have signed on as partners and possibly fiscal contributors, because clearly the repercussions of such of project could be ground breaking for the tech industry: Computer chips that replicate the emergent systems model; search engines that could graph society by treating each user as if they are a neuron and their googling activity as action potential. The source paper acknowledges some possible paranoia at such an endeavor and thus states that it is essential that this project be a public one, thus allowing for transparency in all findings. It also encourages a public relations campaign to reassure any party that may be susceptible to conspiracy theory making. That’s me!

I hold both, a fear of repercussions and a sense of excitement for this project. I tend to think that conspiracy theories are healthy. All great science fiction is fed by the conspiracy model, but it also tends to foretell future technological and social revelations. And there exactly is my point, or fear, or observation -- the irrelevance of social relevance. We don’t really care, unless it scares us.

Flickr Creative Commons by @Tati

Flickr Creative Commons by @Tati

I found myself facing this in writing this post. I am excited to tell people about this project, but as a writer I have a constant mechanism at play in my head as I write, to present a story or topic in a light that will make people interested. As much as this mechanism comes from within me it is also a product of cultural observation, a consistent tracking of what stimulates popular dialogue. What stimulates popular dialogue is conspiracy, not excitement or optimism. This itself is worthy of examination.

Ultimately the fear is of what we are losing in the race to understand ourselves through science and technology, of what we leave behind. I do not mean to gesture towards a conservative approach on science. Rather, I am fascinated by the anxiety that accompanies the prospect, and propose that our fear is that of isolated parties traveling at quite different speeds. We can investigate the self intrusively or/and reflectively. Reflectively, we evaluate and discuss our culture, ethics, the relationship of groups and individuals to one another, we pause and contemplate the grace of being. Intrusively we probe into the elemental makeup of ourselves and the world we inhabit. As one practice outpaces the other, something feels askew, as if a key organ in the symphony of being human is muting in the distance.

-Nikita Nelin

5Nov/120

A Sorry Bunch of Dwarfs

Freeman Dyson, the eclectic physicist, took good aim at philosophy last week in a review of the silly book by Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?" An Existential Detective Story. Holt went around to "a portrait gallery of leading modern philosophers," and asked them the Leibnizian question: Why is there something rather than nothing?" The book offers their answers, along with biographical descriptions.

For Dyson, Holt's book "compels us to ask" these "ugly questions." First, "When and why did philosophy lose its bite?" Philosophers were, once important. In China, Confucius and his followers made a civilization. So too in Greece did Socrates and then the schools of Plato and Aristotle give birth to the western world. In the Christian era Jesus and Paul, then Aquinas and Augustine granted depth to dominant worldviews. Philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, and Leibniz were central figures in the scientific revolution, and philosophical minds like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Arendt (even if one was a philologist and the other two refused the name philosopher) have become central figures in the experience of nihilism. Against these towering figures, the "leading philosophers" in Holt's book cut a paltry figure. Here is Dyson:

Holt's philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant. At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life. Like the snark in Lewis Carroll's poem, they suddenly and silently vanished. So far as the general public was concerned, philosophers became invisible.

There are many reasons for the death of philosophy, some of which were behind Hannah Arendt's refusal to call herself a philosopher. Philosophy was born, at least in its Platonic variety, from out of the thinker's reaction to the death of Socrates. Confronted with the polis that put the thinker to death, Plato and Aristotle responded by retreating from the world into the world of ideas. Philosophical truth separated itself from worldly truths, and idealism was born. Realism was less a return to the world than a reactive fantasy to idealism. In both, the truths that were sought were otherworldly truths, disconnected to the world.

Christianity furthered the divorce of philosophy from the world by imagining two distinct realms, the higher realm existing beyond the world. Science, too, taught that truth could only be found in a world of abstract reason, divorced from real things. Christianity and science together gave substance to the philosophical rebellion against the world. The result, as Dyson rightly notes, is that philosophy today is as abstract, worldly, and relevant as it is profound.

What Dyson doesn't explore is why philosophers of the past had such importance, even as they also thought about worlds of ideas. The answer cannot be that ideas had more import in the past than now. On the contrary, we live in an age more saturated in ideas than any other. More people today are college educated, literate, and knowledgeable of philosophy than at any period in the history of the world. Books like Holt's are proof positive of the profitable industry of philosophical trinkets. That is the paradox—at a time when philosophy is read by more people than ever, it is less impactful than it ever was.

One explanation for this paradox is nihilism—The devaluing or re-valuing of the highest values. The truth about truth turned out to be neither so simple nor singular as the philosophers had hoped. An attentive inquiry into the true and the good led not to certainty, but to ideology critique. For Nietzsche, truth, like the Christian God, was a human creation, and the first truth of our age is that we recognized it as such. That is the precondition for the death of God and the death of truth. Nihilism has not expunged ideas from our world, but multiplied them. When speaking about the "true" or the "good" or the "just," Christians, Platonists, and moralists no longer have the stage to themselves. They must now shout to be heard amongst the public relations managers, advertisers, immoralists, epicureans, anarchists, and born again Christians.

Dyson ignores this strain of philosophy. He does point out that Nietzsche was the last great philosopher, but then dismisses Heidegger who "lost his credibility in 1933" and even Wittgentstein who would remain silent if a woman attended his lectures until she would leave. And yet it is Heidegger who has given us the great literary masterpieces of the 20th century philosophy.

His work on technology (The Question Concerning Technik) and art (The Origins of the Work of Art) has been widely read in artistic, literary, and lay circles. It is hard to imagine a philosopher more engaged with the science and literature than Heidegger was. He read physics widely and co-taught courses at the house of the Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss and also taught seminars with the German novelist Ernst Jünger.

It seems worthwhile to end with a poem of Heidegger's from his little book, Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens/From Out of the Experience of Thinking:

Drei Gefahren drohen dem Denken
Die gute und darum heilsame Gefahr ist die Nachbarschaft des singenden Dichters.
Die böse und darum schärfste Gefahr ist das Denken selber. Es muß gegen sich selbst denken, was es nur selten vermag.
Die schlechte und darum wirre Gefahr ist das Philosophieren.

Three dangers threaten thinking.
The good and thus healthy danger is the nearness of singing poetry.
The evil and thus sharpest danger is thinking itself. It must think against itself, something it can do only rarely.
The bad and thus confusing danger is philosophizing.

-RB

12Oct/120

How We Became Estranged With Nature

“An albatross dips towards the sea, then lifts again, beating its wings as if repelled by the opposing magnetism of the water.” Beginning her book, On Extinction, with this scene of natural collision, Melanie Challenger’s image soon unfolds as her gaze turns down to the expansive water. "The sea is deathly calm, spread out like a cerecloth. Then a rocketing breath hurls a rainbow into the air." With this Challenger paints the experience of watching a rising blue whale.

Ms. Challenger sent us a copy of her book here at the Arendt Center, suggesting a connection with Arendtian themes.  She is right. What albatross and whale mean, how we see them, and the ways in which we increasingly don't are the themes of Challenger's book. What is most visible in our world, she writes, is the loss of wonder at the natural world, the old Platonic thaumazein, “the wonder at what is” that is the birth of philosophy.

Modern life, however, seems to not simply repudiate the experience of thaumazein, but also the notion that anything occurring in nature is inherently meaningful, or, to put it in the economic terms which so pervade our thought processes, that anything has value “as it is.” Modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, replaces the wonder at the world with doubt regarding the world's existence or our ability to know it. But doubt does not have to lead to disregard. And even disregard for nature is not an adequate description for what Challenger has in mind.  Human beings have and will continue to recognize the economic possibilities of nature, which is less disregard than use; it is precisely this use and exploitation of nature for economic purposes that bestows meaning on nature for modern man. Wonder and doubt have both been replaced by an attitude of unremitting mastery.

Of course, everyone does not seek to exploit nature, or accept the ultimately wishful assertion that man is superior to nature and that any natural activity is either superfluous to human life, profitable to man, or a problem man must figure out how to overcome. Pressed on whether one supports or rejects the vast damage man has committed to the earth, be it in the form of global warming, obliteration of environments, or human-induced extinctions many times the rate of estimated natural extinction (see the Guardian’s Human Activity is Driving Earth’s ‘sixth great extinction event), most would say they do not support it, that we must live in a more sustainable way.

Watching “Planet Earth,” however, and then donating some money to Greenpeace is not going to radically change things. It is necessary to recognize that this language of sustainability, of “green” products and efforts, including efforts made by some businesses, to condone the most destructive practices of global industry are largely technical or superficial solutions which mask the need for a more fundamental discussion that addresses not simply the symptoms of modern exploitation of nature, but seeks to understand what we are doing and why. We must think about and discuss both the relationship between nature and man and the basic activities that gives form to and conditions our lives. In other words, to address the destruction of our environment, and why we are acting in this manner, we must adopt Arendt’s proposal “to think what we are doing.”

Indeed, “to think what we are doing” is the underlying impetus of Melanie Challenger’s On Extinction. Confronted with her own “fragmented connection with nature,” Ms. Challenger writes “I became aware that I was living through another mass extinction of animals and plants without even knowing it, this one due to human behavior. I wanted to explore the idea of extinction in the light of this new, sobering reality.”  Her “chief interest…in gathering a history of how we had become so destructive to the natural world and its diversity” springs from a determination “to understand why…marvels of nature were imperiled and why that should matter.”

Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition provides a wonderful banister upon which we may begin to think, with Ms. Challenger, about our proclivity toward exploitation and destruction of nature. Broadly speaking, the rise of human induced extinctions (which began to increase dramatically in the 18th century) and the massive exploitation of natural resources accompanying industrialization may be traced to the rise in prominence of homo faber within the vita activa, followed shortly by the succession of the animal laborans. “The modern age,” Arendt writes, “has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.” This reduction of the active life, comprised of labor, work, and action, into a life of mere laboring follows the modern commitment to infinite economic growth, and therefore limitless consumption, alongside an obsession with the life process itself.

The modern obsession with the life process is characterized by a continuous process of consumption. The laboring process is cyclical – we have needs, labor produces consumables to meet those needs, consumption occurs and the process begins anew. Arendt writes: “laboring always moves in the same circle which is prescribed by the biological process of the living organism and the end of its ‘toil and trouble’ comes only with the death of this organism.” It is not the biologically necessary process of labor and consumption, however, which has led to our massive exploitation of the earth’s resources, but rather the over-consumption symptomatic of the emergence of what Arendt calls a waste economy, “in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world, if the process itself is not to come to a sudden catastrophic end.”

Exploitation and abuse of nature, however, does not derive strictly from our capacity to labor and the emergence of a modern society captivated by necessities of life and addicted to the endless laboring process. We are not simply laboring animals, but also fabricators, and it is from this perspective of homo faber that nature divorced from man is almost meaningless. Nature, Arendt writes, “seen through the eyes of homo faber, the builder of the world, ‘furnishes only the almost worthless materials as in themselves,’ whose whole value lies in the work performed upon them.

Reading Challenger's On Extinction with Arendt in the background calls up a picture of a society dominated by the never-ending process of labor and consumption coupled with humanity's ability to deny intrinsic value to nature; with such a picture, one cannot help but consider, in Challenger's words, that “the lunacy of pursuing profit despite all warnings to the contrary” may be characterized not as a reckless and irresponsible gamble pursued by some but rather the unavoidable consequence of living within and being a member of modern society. While we may question how anyone “back then” could have supported the almost total depletion of the whale population for oil, for example, there seems to be a similar ambivalence in our own time, as many bemoan the warming of the planet and nations pledge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while the world’s leading economies and major oil companies are concurrently jockeying for drilling rights in the arctic to fuel the vehicles and supply power for those same people reflecting upon the destruction of nature and wishing it wasn’t so.

The consumerist society knows no boundary lines, and in the places most vulnerable to global warming, economic actors do not see tragic, avoidable destruction, but rather increased opportunities to profit from the exploitation of nature. While in Nunavut, Ms. Challenger spoke met an Inuit asking why she was there. Telling him that she was researching the changing relationship between the Inuit and their landscape, the man replied, “Nunavut’s future won’t be in the land…It’ll be funded by minerals.” Explaining that the Meta Incognita peninsula was recently surveyed and found to have significant deposits of iron, lead, gold, and diamonds, the man concluded by saying “The more the ice melts…the more they’ll get.”

Asking, and trying to answer a question such as why we have become so destructive to the natural world is by no means a worthless endeavor, even though it doesn’t always lead to directly positive results, or even anything tangible, unless one counts the confusion caused by the immensity of the subject. The simple fact that we do ask these questions though, people all over the world, every day, demonstrates that we are still ultimately world-seeking people conditioned by a world which includes the human artifice and earth’s nature. So despite the dominance of animal laborans and our fixation on limitless economic growth, despite the assertion of homo faber that man gives meaning to nature, man, seemingly in spite of himself, will still sometimes experience the state of thaumazein. If there is hope for better relations with the natural world in the future, hope in man recognizing the futility of limitless economic activity and exploitation of nature for objects of increasingly little permanence, then this hope rests in part with our capacity to still “wonder at everything that is as it is.” Ms. Challenger’s work provides a timely reminder to the importance of this wonder.

Ms. Challenger’s US edition of On Extinction may be pre-ordered and previewed here.

-David Breitenbucher