Micheline R. Ishay


On her book The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East

Cover Interview of February 19, 2020


This book opens with a poem, “Farewell to Abu Dhabi,” which I wrote on the plane as I completed my Gulf sojourn and returned to Denver. Reflecting on the people I was leaving behind, I thought of them as uncertain travelers like myself, struggling to find their way through tempestuous times. “I will bring you along to my new refuge,” I wrote, “an ambassador for dreams yet to bloom.” While I use poetry and creative images to take readers to the realm of the possible, I advance and document practical proposals designed to draw the attention of an interested audience, analysts, and policy-makers.

No one can offer a blueprint for the future, but I sketch alternatives that are today obscured by sectarian conflict, religious extremism, and authoritarian repression. I invite others to enter into this conversation by adding, altering, or proposing different paths. I am gratified that some of these ideas are making inroads in palaces, parliamentary offices, businesses, and other audiences. Amidst war fatigue, such proposals, based on fundamental principles of rights, may present themselves as more realistic and viable alternatives. Roosevelt reminded us in an even darker time that “the world will either move forward toward unity and widely shared prosperity or it will move apart.” I agree, and would add that the stakes are too high and the world cannot afford to lose.



Lucas Richert


On his book Break On Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture

Cover Interview of February 12, 2020


Mental health is an emotionally charged issue. And rightly so. Given the World Health Organization’s recent warnings that mental illness will become the planet’s most common illness in the next two decades, it is not surprising that mainstream, preventative, and alternative approaches to mental illness are attracting attention.

For instance, in 2018, the UK-based Wellcome Trust Foundation, advocated a “radical new approach” to mental health treatment because “different disciplines use different measurement scales, there are inconsistent approaches to diagnosis and treatment, and there’s a lack of shared data.”

This is important to recognize. That the current discussion about mental health is ongoing – and it’s got a long history. Whether we’re plumbers or pediatricians or politicians, we should understand that some debates happen over and over. Or what was once considered radical is pretty obvious.

Raymond Waggoner, the president of the 16,000-member strong APA in 1968, asserted that “change was a catchword in American life” and the APA ought to be more “action-oriented.” He added: “We should not be afraid to be social activists,” and psychiatry ought to play a more “constructive role in our future society.”

Fifty years later we still struggle with mental health policy. And we could all get a bit more “action-oriented.”



Françoise Baylis


On her book Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing

Cover Interview of February 05, 2020


Should we be excited, cautious, or fearful about designing future children? Should we be aggressively trying to take over the human evolutionary story by genetically modifying our descendants? Is it reasonable to think that designing the (near) perfect human is a project we should embrace? Or, do we need to introduce strong global regulations to prohibit, or seriously limit, efforts to control the biology of future generations?

We need time to think carefully and critically about such questions. More precisely, we need “time to consult, to deliberate, to question, to investigate, to interpret, and to respond.” For this, we need slow science.

But slow science is a challenge insofar as it is clearly in tension with dominant practices in science where there is increasing competition and corporatization in response to the political and commercial drive to build knowledge economies. But at what cost do we keep racing about without knowing or understanding where we are racing to?  In November 2018, after the surprise revelation that genome-edited twins had been born, the Organizers of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing called for a translational pathway forward — a roadmap from basic research in the laboratory to future research in humans. But do we know which direction is forward? And, who decides?

Though I worry about some of the negative consequences of rampant populism, my answer to this question is “all of us.” This book aims to improve science literacy and ethics literacy so as to broaden the conversation. The longer-term goal is to shift the power dynamics so that the important questions we need to ask and answer about our future are not the purview of select elites.

If we are not able to make this shift, dire predictions of a future bifurcated world may well come to pass – assuming we are able to effectively tackle the current problems of climate change and still inhabit this planet. Consider, for example, the future depicted in the 1997 film GATTACA where there are ‘valids’ (persons who are genetically enhanced) and ‘in-valids’ (persons who are naturally born). Allowing those with economic, social, political, and geographical privilege to entrench their privilege in their DNA — thereby increasing the genetic gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ — cannot be a good thing, anymore that the current and ever-increasing economic divide between the 1% and the masses. Ultimately these kinds of divides do not bode well for any of us.



Alex Krieger


On his book City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

Cover Interview of January 28, 2020


My hope is that readers come away with two primary insights about the evolution of American city building. First, that Americans have rarely felt bound by traditional ideas about what constitutes a city. Instead, they have instinctively relied on an ancient notion—the city being a place inhabited by citizens, from the Latin civis, for citizen, and civitas, for the social body of citizens. This more general construct has produced some unprecedented environments, such as suburban spread that rankle those who define a city in a particular way, and has led to exaggerated accusations of cultural anti-urbanism.

Secondly, an inherent American idealism and optimism about a better future, has played an important and near continuous role in the creation of the metropolitan American landscape. The idealism may at times have been misguided or unwarranted, but instrumental nonetheless. It arrived with the arrivals from the old world, was fortified in concert with a body of ideals that became fundamental to the European Enlightenment, and intensified during the explosion of urban growth arriving with the Industrial Revolution.

The cities in America just taking shape, rather than old European cities needing to adapt (with considerable difficulty) to the cultural, political, and technological transformations of the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, heralded the arrival of the modern age. And even during eras of ambivalence about the large city, such as during the massive suburbanization at mid-20th century, optimism about future possibilities still characterized innovations in the built environment.

At the dawn of the third decade of the 21st-century America is home to fewer optimists, much less utopians. That inherent idealism—embodied in the Constitution with the phrase “to form a more perfect Union”—is seemingly in remission. Concerns about growing social and economic inequalities; political partisanship and resulting inaction; climate change accelerating environmental harm; and even about diminished standing around the word, are subjects of near-daily conversations from living rooms to classrooms to board rooms.

Given its long gestation in a classroom, the book was not undertaken as a call for our old aspirational angels to spring forth again. However, as the chapters introduce each pursuit at constructing more perfect unions, at least in the shaping of towns and cities, readers may conclude that a return of American idealism may be useful in mitigating present anxieties. As we increasingly become, worldwide, an urban species, additional imagination with which to manage our expanding urban footprints will be necessary.


David M. Struthers


On his book The World in a City: Multiethnic Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles

Cover Interview of December 11, 2019


The book has distinct lessons for different audiences. For historians and other scholars, I think that affinity is a useful tool applicable to other periods and locations. There are many instances of racial divisions being altered by distinct local power relationships. Two quick examples: A “sawbuck equality” developed between enslaved and owners in South Carolina in the late 1700s, and the cosmopolitan lower decks of ships in the Atlantic during the Age of Revolution provided space for whites, blacks, and many others to find common ground. Affinity can help us understand flexible forms of association in relation to race, power, and states.

For most readers, the implication is that the broadest moments of interracial organizing were brief and came outside of hierarchical organizations. Stronger power structures focused institutional power to enforce racism in these organizations and parties. Interracial affinities developed their broadest form in places that lacked the organizational structures to enforce racist exclusion. When whites in these spaces held deeply racist beliefs, they had less power to act upon these beliefs; all the while, the structural manifestations of race still organized society and the economy.

In our era of increasingly vocal racism and nationalism, the book has a powerful story to tell about people that fought to create a world counter to these noxious beliefs. One place for us to start is learning that the mix of organizers, workers, and migrants in the book didn’t have superpowers. They didn’t have it all figured out, but what they knew was that to make a better world was to struggle. In the end, we can all work to continue their rich cultural tradition of mutual solidarity. Anarchists, syndicalists, and socialists brought interracial, multilingual, and international organizing to the center of regional working-class culture through their struggle to bring their visions of a new social and economic order into reality. It’s up to us to retranslate these practices and invent our own today. This book illustrates that the pull of cooperation could be stronger than the will for division for many residents of Los Angeles. Only through struggle can we make a culture of affinity as much their legacy as our own.



David T. Courtwright


On his book The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business

Cover Interview of December 04, 2019


Drafts of The Age of Addiction provoked two different sorts of criticisms. Either I had been too quick to accept the idea of novel addictions, or I had underrated the hydra-headed menace of limbic capitalism and failed to show how to counter it. The book, historian Bill McAllister told me, was really about who controls our brains. Naming the system was not enough.

The second charge troubled me more than the first. Behavioral addictions are obviously subject to hype, and not every form of consumer excess is an addiction. In fact, one way to describe proliferating addictions is simply as the most harmful endpoints on different spectrums of excessive consumption.

Yet the harms are real, often lethal, and bear the stamp of corporate design and business rationalization. What could be done about the McDonaldization of old and new vices?

A lot, it turns out. We have options like education, taxation, age restrictions, prescription-only sales, advertising bans, spatial segregation (smokers freezing outdoors), digitally decluttered environments (favored by wary elites), lawsuits, international treaties to control supply and marketing, manufacturing quotas, and state monopolies designed to limit supply and intoxication. Blanket prohibitions have not worked well, as organized crime typically steps in when licit commerce is outlawed. But combinations of the other policies have produced some public health victories, such as the recent leveling off and decline of global per capita cigarette consumption. Limbic capitalists don’t win them all.

Limbic capitalists are likewise vulnerable to ridicule. BUGA UP, Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions, was founded by Australian anti-smoking activists in 1978. The acronym punned on Aussie slang for screwing something up. What the activists screwed up was billboards, which they altered with spray paint. Overnight “Have a Winfield”—a popular Australian cigarette brand—became “Have a Wank.”

Cheeky populism worked. In 1992 the Australian government outlawed all tobacco ads save for those at point of sale. It was a victory for activists like Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, a spray-can-wielding surgeon who gave a defiant speech to a crowd gathered around a Sydney billboard. “After six years of surgery,” he said, “I could accept that people suffer and die. But I had real trouble coming to terms with the fact that cigarette diseases were the result of a cold-blooded and systematic campaign of deception waged by monied interests against less informed consumers.”

Then the doctor climbed a ladder, rattled his can, and spray-painted “Legal drug pushers the real criminals.” The cheering, placard-waving crowd joined in, covering the ad from top to bottom with mocking graffiti. The police, who were looking on, did nothing to stop them.

All of this happened back in 1983. More than a generation later we still live in a world in which monied interests wage cold-blooded and systematic campaigns of deception against less informed consumers, above all those with low levels of education and social status.

The question I leave for readers is this: Do we, like Dr. Chesterfield-Evans, have the moral courage and political wit to do something about it?



Todd McGowan


On his book Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution

Cover Interview of November 27, 2019


The final two chapters of the book deal with the political implications of Hegel’s thought. This is the part of the book that goes beyond any interpretation of Hegel’s thought and envisions how this thought might impact our thinking about politics. I don’t think that Hegel has all the answers for us politically—he’s not a magic eight ball—but he does provide an approach that has dramatic implications for how we orient ourselves with regard to political problems.

Even though Hegel died when Marx was in his teens, Hegel’s philosophy nonetheless offers a political corrective to Marxism that can be valuable for us today, as Marxism has again arisen as an alternative to ubiquitous capitalism. We all know that Marxist attempts at restructuring society in the twentieth century went horribly awry. I think Hegel’s philosophy points to a theoretical reason why that was so, which is what makes taking stock of him so important in our times.

Hegel doesn’t really have much to offer as a critic of capitalism, although he does make the point that massive increases in wealth will necessarily correspond to widespread poverty. I think Hegel basically must defer to Marx’s critique of capitalism and his revelation of capitalism’s fundamental contradictions. What Hegel adds, however, is the insight that our political response to capitalism cannot aim at eliminating contradiction altogether, as it is for Marx. If our response tries to do this, something akin to the gulag or the killing fields will inevitably develop. In our theorizing about politics and in our political practice, the attempt to sustain contradiction must remain in the foreground. I see this as Hegel’s fundamental political lesson and one that retains its importance in the contemporary world.

Furthermore, Hegel’s philosophy of contradiction has important implications for how we think about identity, one of the key political questions today. He sees that every assertion of identity involves itself in non-identity. There is no pure identity. As identity movements rage throughout the world, it is important to consider how fraught the question of identity is. Identity only becomes what it is through a differentiation that relies on what it excludes. It needs what it rejects in order to be what it is. Thus, all identity claims involve a disavowal of what they negate in order to create an identity.

What Hegel offers in the place of identity is universality. He is a firm believer in universal political struggle. He grounds universal values such as freedom and equality not in some vision of human essence or in natural law but rather in contradiction itself. Because of the contradiction that undoes every identity, we are all free. Because of the contradiction that undermines the highest authority, we are all equal. Hegel provides a way of thinking about universality that removes it from dominance and imperialism. Universality connects us through what we aren’t, not what we are. Hegel holds up universality as the only way to combat the retreat into the isolated trap of identity.



Tobias Boes


On his book Thomas Mann's War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters

Cover Interview of November 20, 2019


The reception of Thomas Mann’s War has been irrevocably altered by the events of 2016. The first major review of my book, for example, was published in The National Interest, a policy journal that steers a conservative but anti-Trump line. The reviewer, Jacob Heilbrunn, was thoughtful and well informed. Nevertheless, it was clear he was drawn to my book not because of Mann’s literary importance, but because he saw in the author the very model of an impassioned conservative response to authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. Most audiences to whom I have presented my project react in the same way.

I feel somewhat ambiguous about this reception, and not just because I have my doubts about Thomas Mann’s often-postulated political “conservatism.” The question also has to be asked what his example can actually teach us in the present. We live in a radically different social moment, and amidst a radically different media environment than did Mann. Somehow, I don’t think that a cultural commentator with his undeniably patrician demeanor will be able to reverse the damage done to our democracy on Twitter through thoughtful opinion pieces in The New Republic or The Atlantic.

Still, the fact remains that Mann provides a powerful illustration of the fact that it is possible to accept globalization without losing one’s roots in a specific cultural tradition, and to reject nationalism while simultaneously embracing patriotism. And Mann understood that democracy—to summarize his words—“will die off, disappear, be lost, if it is not cared for.” That is certainly a lesson that too many of us across Europe and North America have learned far too late.

Beyond these political implications, I also hope that Mann’s story will help illuminate the contemporary literary landscape. For example, I had to think about Mann a lot during the turmoil that followed the announcement of Peter Handke’s 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. Handke, of course, is infamous for denying that the Srebrenica massacre took place. His defenders in the German-speaking press argue that these political missteps should not matter, and that the Nobel Prize is awarded solely for aesthetic merits. This is a line of reasoning familiar to any Mann scholar. When Mann won his Nobel Prize in 1929, the influential member of the Swedish Academy Fredrik Böök similarly let it be known that The Magic Mountain, Mann’s dissection of the venomous ideologies that had led to World War I, had played no role in the committee’s deliberation. Instead, the prize was awarded in recognition of the thoroughly unpolitical Buddenbrooks.

My detailed reconstructions of Mann’s changing celebrity during the 1930s shows how specious these arguments are. Mann’s esteem as a Nobel laureate was very quickly tied to his political actions. Handke’s defenders not only embarrass themselves by downplaying genocide denial, they also show themselves to be insufficiently informed about the literary tradition that they claim to serve.



Amanda Boetzkes


On her book Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste

Cover Interview of November 13, 2019


When I started the book, my sincere hope was that people would understand that a politics of managing or controlling domestic waste was a symptom of an economic logic, rather than a truly ecological paradigm. I also wanted the reader to see how important art is to visualizing the “big picture” of waste, and making strong connections between the global circulation of waste and the economic paradigm of capitalism.

From my perspective now, it seems more important than ever that people connect to the sensibilities of the artworks I discuss. Nobody is a stranger to the fact that there is a climate crisis, and that global warming is a symptom of carbon emissions, the largest form of planetary waste produced by the global oil economy. The question is: how might we think or feel about this predicament? I would like people to engage with both the affective and somatic dimensions of waste through these works of art. The artworks are reflective, energizing, even if they strike us with the grief and overwhelm of ecological catastrophe.

I would like readers to come away knowing how intelligent and generative the realm of contemporary art really is. So many people think of art as an unnecessary extravagance. I could not disagree more. This is a symptom of how cheap the capitalist orientation is, and how much it demands that we deprive ourselves of what is exuberant in life. Contemporary art may be extravagant, but we need its form of criticism and insight. Artists show us perspectives of the global condition that are often denounced or diminished because they sit at odds with the calculated ways in which we visualize the world. I see this as a sign of how deeply entrenched economic thinking has become.

I hope this book goes some distance towards showing that we cannot envision a future without artistic visualization; and that artistic visualization might find us a way of being that breaks with the capitalist mindset. This is a hope not just for the public at large, but for scholars too. Capitalism impoverishes people from all walks of life. Precarious times can make people think cheaply and forget the energies and aesthetic dimensions of planetary life. The artists in this book have not forgotten, however, and want to remind all of us how much we need to waste to live, and to waste well. To understand that statement as an ecological one, however, you would have to spend some time reading the book!



David Farber


On his book Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed

Cover Interview of November 06, 2019


In part, I wrote Crack to tell a dark story, a historical accounting of the underside of the American dream. We’ve grown inured, I think, to words like economic inequality, racism, and mass incarceration—for many, they have lost their visceral impact. In Crack, I do my best to explore the lived experience of racial injustice, of what it felt like to endure grinding poverty, of how it felt to believe that your only opportunities were ignominious ones. And then to have discovered, as one of the men I interviewed called it, “white gold.”

In much of American society during the Age of Reagan and Reagonomics, disinvesting in inner city communities and denigrating people living in poverty became political common sense. In another part of American society, during that era, selling crack cocaine became an economic lifeline; it became a way to live out dreams of self-worth and material riches. And on the other side of that economic transaction, for too many poor people of color who had become economically dislocated and socially alienated from mainstream society, crack cocaine was a balm that offered solace for their hard lives.

Good history—even recent history—I think, places readers in a different world. In Crack, I want readers to see the world as it existed for many poor Americans, especially poor African Americans, at the tail end of the twentieth century. And I want readers to begin to understand why crack cocaine, as a product both to sell and consume, made sense to some of those people. This book about the crack cocaine industry in the last decades of the twentieth century explores how the go-go economy of that era looked to those on the wrong side of that era’s massive economic divide. It explores, too, how powerful Americans helped create that divide and then built a carceral state to house so many of those who had been left out of America’s bounty.



Mary Anne Franks


On her book The Cult of the Constitution

Cover Interview of October 30, 2019


My most modest goal for the book is for it to contribute to the improvement of Americans’ constitutional literacy. More ambitiously, I would like the book to deprive constitutional fundamentalism of its seductive but corrosive power. I would be gratified if reading this book encourages people to adopt a critical, rather than reverent, attitude to the Constitution, so that bad faith constitutional claims might more easily be exposed as such. If this book led people to persistently question not only which constitutional rights but whose constitutional rights are being defended, I would consider it a success.

Most ambitiously, I would wish that the book could make people more receptive to adopting the principle of reciprocity, not only as a legal but as a moral principle. It is always tempting to dress up one’s self-serving beliefs as fidelity to a higher authority, and it can be hard to detect when we are doing so. The principle of reciprocity is the surest test of our real motivations, whether in law or love or any part of life: to ask ourselves whether we would deny to others the benefits we claim for ourselves, or, conversely, whether we would impose on others the wrongs we seek to avoid for ourselves.



Andrew Ross


On his book Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel

Cover Interview of October 22, 2019


My journey to this book began in Abu Dhabi, where I had been doing research, with colleagues in the Gulf Labor Coalition, on South Asian migrant workers (documented in the book The Gulf: Hard Labor/High Culture). The government did not like what we were doing there so they banned us from entering the country. Shortly thereafter, some of us re-grouped in Palestine to help make a film, and I found myself doing interviews, at the Green Line checkpoints, with people who were, in effect, migrant workers in their own land.

My decision to pursue the research was also driven by a personal effort to follow through on the BDS—Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions—resolution vote passed by my professional association, the American Studies Association, in 2014. It’s one thing to vote for such a resolution, but how do you make good on the analogy often cited as an argument for the resolution—that our discipline’s knowledge about settler colonialism in the U.S. had some intimate relevance to the ongoing record of Zionist settlement in historic Palestine? Like many others in the field, I felt a responsibility to engage further in my own research. So, too, I joined the organizing committee of USACBI, the American branch of the BDS movement.

The book was written for the general reader, so no specialist knowledge of the region is required. I am not a Middle Eastern expert myself, which makes it easier to approach readers roughly on the same level. But I also wanted to put some materials and reasoning on the table that might be useful to front line advocates of Palestinian liberation. Hence the argument I make about political sweat equity—based on the principle that building a country should translate into political rights within it. Palestinians have put in more than a century of toil building the Jewish “national home,” and most other assets on these lands. What rights accrue from that long inventory of labor, and how can this record of contributions feed into the transitional justice claims needed to bring about the one-state solution with full rights for all?



James Simpson


On his book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism

Cover Interview of October 16, 2019


As a cultural historian, I work to the ideal that cultural history is ancillary to the complex history of freedoms. I also aim to write what I call “cultural etymology,” by which I designate a practice of excavating the present. The present is, if we are to be honest with ourselves, the place where most historical enquiry most urgently and frequently starts. I myself always start with the conditions of contemporary modernity, where “conditions” also designates pathology. Many cultural historians would describe their work as an act of discovery. My project is rather one of recovery, where one starts from the present and recovers immanent histories by which the present is understood, as if for the first time.

As a cultural historian, I write as, and for, both scholar and citizen.

To the scholar, my appeal is to write cultural history with long chronologies, as we try to evade the historiographical deformities imposed upon us by the standard periodic divisions of cultural history. To write either as “medievalist” or as “early modernist” is already to buy into many prejudicial presuppositions. The standard divisions of cultural history are designed so as neutralize most powerfully the interest of our fractured histories.

As a citizen, I appeal not to the evangelical, since in my experience that reader judges only from their convictions. If any evangelical is prepared to engage with me, I will be delighted, but that has not been my experience with previous books. As a citizen, I appeal instead to the liberal. I ask her or him to understand the liberal tradition more deeply, as a precious but fragile product of history. As Liberalism is in retreat worldwide, liberals need to understand their opponents, and their intimate relation with their opponents. They need to understand that they, as liberals, can be just as intolerant as their evangelical opponents, and they need to understand Liberalism less as a belief system and more as an instrument for managing potentially violent belief systems.



Herbert S. Terrace


On his book Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can

Cover Interview of October 02, 2019


There are two major implications I would like the reader to draw from my book. The first is the importance of non-verbal experiences that an infant shares with their parents. The other is how to overcome the weakness of Chomsky’s theory of the evolution of language.

Now that intersubjectivity and joint attention have been well documented by developmental psychologists, we need to learn more about their antecedents. For example, the renowned anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, has suggested that Homo erectus benefited from cooperation instilled by collective breeding, the practice of sharing the care of infants with relatives. Unlike a chimpanzee mother, who won’t allow anyone to approach a newborn infant for six months, there is evidence that Homo erectus’ infants were raised by “alloparents” in addition to their own mothers. Satisfying alloparents is presumed to strengthen intersubjectivity which, in turn, facilitates cooperation.

Recent advances in technology allow researchers to detect the focus of attention of a parent and their infant over long intervals of time. Such data will, for the first time, allow investigators to measure joint attention precisely in a variety of situations.

Chomsky’s prominence as a linguist is based on his concept of a Universal Grammar that can generate any of the languages that people speak. Those models have transformed linguistics and have contributed significantly to cognitive psychology. Chomsky’s anti-behaviorist stance has served him well in developing models of grammar. The same cannot be said for his treatment of words. Although Chomsky believes that grammar is innate and that it resulted from a mutation, the same cannot be said of words. Words have obvious behavioral origins, origins that are clearly social. The challenge is to determine those origins. If I were starting out as a graduate student and needed a field of inquiry to study, that would be my focus.

Given our current technological sophistication, I anticipate important discoveries about how language not only began but how it has also thrived. Words provide the glue that allows for and preserves learning, intelligence, knowledge, invention, discovery, understanding, wisdom, and love.



Ian Hodder


On his book Where Are We Heading? The Evolution of Humans and Things

Cover Interview of September 25, 2019


I have wanted to make an intervention into current debates about issues of planetary concern, in particular the debates about global warming and environmental crisis. I have been very struck at how the focus is usually placed on human relationships with the environment and energy use. For example, in both Al Gore’s films An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel the emphasis is on humans and their impact on the climate and the need for renewable energy. Neither film really probes at any great depth the reasons we are using so much energy. A part of the answer is undoubtedly our dependence on things. But we don’t look at that. Our dependence on things is so obvious that we take it for granted and try and find an answer outside ourselves in renewable energy. Or we have become so persuaded by high capitalism that our happiness depends on things that we cannot question that dependence. Increased use of renewable energy sources may contribute towards solving global warming, although the extent to which this is possible remains unclear given path dependency. But the fix also involves us in new entanglements such as lithium mining and complex energy saving and management systems. As an example, solar panels only last about 30 years, and there are projects worldwide to produce them in their millions such that toxic waste from used solar panels now poses a global environmental threat, with solar panels creating 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than nuclear power plants. (I am aware of the contention surrounding such estimates.) And some of the geoengineering solutions for dealing with CO2 emissions such as sulfur dispersion in the upper atmosphere involve enormous technological investment.

The primary response to global warming, and indeed to the other great scourge of our times, global inequality, is to find technological solutions to, for example, providing renewable energy or various forms of aid. We think we can fix things by using more things, as part of a complex set of multi-stranded responses. This is what we have always done, and the message from an ‘archaeological’ scrutiny of the long-term is that the result will be yet more entanglement and entrapment and inequality. People often blame the last 200 years of industrial capitalism, but the archaeological view is of a much longer term and deeper human propensity towards human-thing entanglement. Consumerism produces inequality and contributes to global warming and it derives from longer-term trends. Alternatives such as decluttering, sustainable shopping, minimalist living, seem important at the grass-roots level, while no-growth capitalism and stronger global governance seem worth exploring at the structural level. But the long-term view is of ever-increasing dependencies.

My contribution is to say that in our responses to global warming we are doing what we have always done. The likely result will be an ever-greater entanglement with things such that material things and technologies will become increasingly part of our lives, and we will become increasingly dependent on them and on the technological systems that run them. We will all increasingly be cyborgs lost in the machines we have made and that determine our direction.