Photo by Pete Ryan/National Geographic
Humanity is more technologically powerful than ever before, and yet we feel ourselves to be increasingly fragile. Why?
The end of the world is a growth industry. You can almost feel Armageddon in the air: from survivalist and ‘prepper’ websites (survivopedia.com, doomandbloom.net, prepforshtf.com) to new academic disciplines (‘disaster studies’, ‘Anthropocene studies’, ‘extinction studies’), human vulnerability is in vogue.
The panic isn’t merely about civilisational threats, but existential ones. Beyond doomsday proclamations about mass extinction, climate change, viral pandemics, global systemic collapse and resource depletion, we seem to be seized by an anxiety about losing the qualities that make us human. Social media, we’re told, threatens our capacity for empathy and genuine connection. Then there’s the disaster porn and apocalyptic cinema, in which zombies, vampires, genetic mutants, artificial intelligence and alien invaders are oh-so-nearly human that they cast doubt on the value and essence of the category itself.
How did we arrive at this moment in history, in which humanity is more technologically powerful than ever before, and yet we feel ourselves to be increasingly fragile? The answer lies in the long history of how we’ve understood the quintessence of ‘the human’, and the way this category has fortified itself by feeding on the fantasy of its own collapse. Fears about the frailty of human wisdom go back at least as far as Ancient Greece and the fable of Plato’s cave, in which humans are held captive and can only glimpse the shadows of true forms flickering on the stone walls. We prisoners struggle to turn towards the light and see the source (or truth) of images, and we resist doing so. In another Platonic dialogue, the Phaedrus, Socrates worries that the very medium of knowledge – writing – might discourage us from memorising and thinking for ourselves. It’s as though the faculty of reason that defines us is also something we’re constantly in danger of losing, and even tend to avoid.
This paradoxical logic of loss – in which we value that which we’re at the greatest risk of forsaking – is at work in how we’re dealing with our current predicament. It’s only by confronting how close we are to destruction that we might finally do something; it’s only by embracing the vulnerability of humanity itself that we have any hope of establishing a just future. Or so say the sages of pop culture, political theory and contemporary philosophy. Ecological destruction is what will finally force us to act on the violence of capitalism, according to Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (2014). The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has long argued that an attempt to secure humans from fragility and vulnerability explains the origins of political hierarchies from Plato to the present; it is only if we appreciate our own precarious bodily life, and the emotions and fears that attach to being human animals, that we can understand and overcome racism, sexism and other irrational hatreds. Disorder and potential destruction are actually opportunities to become more robust, argues Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile (2012) – and in Thank You for Being Late (2016), the New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman claims that the current, overwhelming ‘age of accelerations’ is an opportunity to take a pause. Meanwhile, Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute pursues research focused on avoiding existential catastrophes, at the same time as working on technological maturity and ‘superintelligence’.
It’s here that one can discern a tight knit between fragility and virility. ‘Humanity’ is a hardened concept, but a brittle one. History suggests that the more we define ‘the human’ as a subject of intellect, mastery and progress – the more ‘we’ insist on global unity under the umbrella of a supposedly universal kinship – the less possible it becomes to imagine any other mode of existence as human. The apocalypse is typically depicted as humanity reduced to mere life, fragile, exposed to all forms of exploitation and the arbitrary exercise of power. But these dystopian future scenarios are nothing worse than the conditions in which most humans live as their day-to-day reality. By ‘end of the world’, we usually mean the end of our world. What we don’t tend to ask is who gets included in the ‘we’, what it cost to attain our world, and whether we were entitled to such a world in the first place…