Utopia or dystopia; which is it?
There is a growing realization among those who think about the future that we are headed for some kind of major upheaval in human events. Some foresee a catastrophic end to modern industrial/technological society. There is considerable evidence supporting this. We are on an unsustainable path, with our expanding population depleting essential nonrenewable resources and polluting the land, water and air. We may be altering the global climate irreversibly, and rendering many regions of the planet uninhabitable.
Others, like Ray Kurzweil, are more optimistic. They see the approach of a “singularity.” Kurzweil is renowned for his predictions and participation in the development of technological breakthroughs, like artificial intelligence and speech recognition. His latest one is a jaw-dropper, as you will see.
First a little background. The name Dark Mountain is taken from the last two words of an apocalyptic poem by Robinson Jeffers.
These grand and fatal movements toward death: the grandeur of the mass
Makes pity a fool, the tearing pity
For the atoms of the mass, the persons, the victims, makes it seem monstrous
To admire the tragic beauty they build.
It is beautiful as a river flowing or a slowly gathering
Glacier on a high mountain rock-face,
Bound to plow down a forest, or as frost in November,
The gold and flaming death-dance for leaves,
Or a girl in the night of her spent maidenhood, bleeding and kissing.
I would burn my right hand in a slow fire
To change the future … I should do foolishly. The beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.
Robinson Jeffers, 1935
The organization that derived its name from those last two words was started in 2009 by two English writers, who had concluded that the human race is headed down that dark mountain into catastrophic chaos and possible extinction. A quote in their Manifesto makes this clear:
The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
On the other hand, Kurzweil defines the Singularity that he predicts as ““technological change so rapid and profound it could create a rupture in the very fabric of human history.” It has been called “The Big Think.” He predicts that we will be “neurologically hooked up to computers in the not too distant future, and that technology will do more good than harm.” The result will be humans with far greater intelligence…transhumans. Merging with our technology is the next stage of our evolution, he says, and it will happen by 2045.
On the scale of history, 2045 is just around the corner. Will it be a return to the simple, bucolic life of a few hundred years ago, as the Dark Mountaineers predict, or a world inhabited by people quite different from us in their intellectual capacity, and their ability to develop the necessary technology to address the problems we face? The alternative, they say, is the Apocalypse. Destruction of the ecosphere. Extinction of humans, and maybe most other life. Nobody knows how soon this will happen, but it is pretty clear that we cannot continue much longer on our present path, with more people consuming more and polluting more. Our efforts to rein in the damage have been insufficient. We need to address this problem on the scale required to solve it once and for all.
The sections that follow will look in detail at both views of humanity’s fate, and what we could and should be doing to avoid the Apocalypse, so that we emerge into a new and (hopefully) better world.
Dark Mountain is not really a formal organization. It is more like a support group to help people deal with the coming collapse of our industrial/technological society, which they view as inevitable. It was started by two English environmental activists and journalists named Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. They both realized that the magnitude and scope of the looming ecological and social catastrophes were so great that the current efforts by governments were largely ineffectual. Nobody wanted to spend the money. Raising taxes is unpopular. Everybody wanted to kick the can down the road and let future generations deal with it.
Kingsnorth and Hine decided it was time for society to face reality. Environmental laws weren’t gonna fix the problem. “Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other,” they urged. Optimistic environmentalism was unrealistic, they asserted. Recycling cans and bottles, buying reusable shopping bags, using “green” cleaning agents, etc. was mostly virtue signaling. The scale of the problem made such efforts laughably insufficient. (Not saying I agree, but that is their position.)
The Dark Mountain Manifesto spells it out:
There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight – Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.
So what do they propose as a solution?
Not much. They don’t advocate any specific actions. Mostly they just say we should acknowledge the reality of the mess we have made. They have enlisted artists, writers, poets even some scientists and academics to add their voices…saying what? Um, lots of essays, poems, photography, and the like. Dark Mountain has sponsored dozens of retreats and festivals where they gather around campfires, go hiking in the woods, all that good, nature-loving stuff. Sounds like more virtue signaling to me.
Their main point seems to be that nature is good and civilization is bad. So we should all return to nature and throw away all our comforts and gadgets. And once the Collapse comes, which they consider inevitable, we will all return to life the way it was…um…a long time ago. It all seems kinda vague to me. Almost a childlike dream. I wonder what they have been smoking…or toking.
There is no doubt that there is a looming environmental disaster for our planet. Not the planet itself. The Earth will still be here for billions of years, until it is fried into a cinder by our aging sun. But the inhabitants of the planet, both human and nonhuman are about to undergo a major upheaval. Not that such upheavals have not happened in the past, like the asteroid that hit the earth 65 million years ago, extinguishing much of the plant and animal life. Like ice ages that have occurred periodically. This one is a bit different, in that it was caused by an intelligent species that could have prevented it. We will pay the price for that if we don’t make the effort…and yes, sacrifice…to address the problems we have caused. But I don’t see Dark Mountain contributing much to that project.
The term transhuman is not new. Dante may have coined it in “Paradiso,” the third and final part of Divine Comedy. That was a while ago…around 1320:
Words may not tell of that transhuman change,
And therefore let the example serve, though weak,
For those whom grace hath better proof in store.
Of course, that is not what modern transhumanists are talking about. The modern philosophy can be traced back to Julian Huxley, the less-famous brother of Aldous, author of that dystopian masterpiece, “Brave New World.”
Huxley saw the unique power that humans have to change the course of events on the planet. No other animals have ever had such power:
“It is as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution—appointed without being asked if he wanted it, and without proper warning and preparation. What is more, he can’t refuse the job. … That is his inescapable destiny, and the sooner he realizes it and starts believing in it, the better for all concerned.”
Humanity, Huxley says, must now prepare to occupy the “cosmic office” to which it has been appointed and begin to fulfil the promises of scientific discovery for all: eliminating poverty, hunger, misery, and ignorance as we embark on a “zestful but scientific exploration of the whole realm of human possibility.
We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”
Huxley wrote this in 1927, nearly a hundred years ago, but the basic tenets of transhumanism that he defined are still valid. Modern transhumanists seek to improve the human species through enhancements to both mind and body. The ultimate goal is implied in the word: transhuman. They envision a transition to…what? Post-human, superhuman, call it what you will. The next stage in human evolution. But this time, evolution will not proceed through the process of Natural Selection…unless you consider Man’s application of his intellect a natural process.
Unlike the Dark Mountaineers, who are waiting fatalistically for the collapse of modern society, which they consider inevitable, transhumanists actively seek to transform their vision into reality, urging major investments in science and research. Some of their proposals will raise legal and ethical questions, so government involvement in regulatory actions that allow changes that are deemed beneficial, while prohibiting others that appear dangerous, will be a real barrel of snakes. Our whole social structure will change, and this will require inputs from all facets of society. Indeed, this may be a tougher problem to solve than the technical issues.
Summary and Conclusions
As you have probably realized by now, Dark Mountainism and Transhumanism are metaphors for conservatism and progressivism, respectively. Both, in their purest forms, are myths, of course; idealized reverence for a past that never was, and a future utopia that probably never will be. Both, however, have elements of truth, and so they are instructive.
Dark Mountaineers look back nostalgically to times when life was simpler. They decry the “myth of progress,” that each generation will live a better life than the one that preceded it. The horrific mess in the world today supports their skepticism. With the global pandemic, the rise of right-wing tribalism, shortages of food and drinkable water, mass population displacements due to climate change, the overriding threat from a growing population, and countless other crises just over the horizon, it is likely that future generations, at least in the short term, will live significantly worse lives that we are living today. The Mountaineers accept that as a necessary consequence of the collapse of modern society, but they look ahead to a deindustrialized world that will be cleaner and healthier for the human species. What they overlook is the many real improvements that science and technology have brought. The rose-colored glasses of their nostalgia have blinded them to these benefits, most of which they take for granted, like medical care and mechanized food production, for example. The bucolic society they envision would have to be a lot smaller than today’s population to provide even the most basic of needs to all its members. The struggle just to survive would be the primary occupation of most people.
There is one more facet of this Luddite-like worldview that should be considered: The influence of religious belief. Organized religions are almost certain to oppose transhumanism, seeing it as an affront to God, who designed us…and every other living thing…exactly as He wants everything to be…and remain unchanged forever. Many, if not most, Dark Mountaineers are probably religious believers.
Transhumanists are looking ahead at continuing improvements in the life experience of the human species. Are their visions realistic, or utopian dreams? Even if we achieve their dreams of a super-intelligent society, will it lead to the realization of those dreams? Can they prevent the collapse that the Mountaineers predict? There is no clear answer, but other elements of human nature, like greed, jealousy and the quest for wealth and power, are major obstacles that must be overcome before we can advance to that lofty goal.
There is a lot more to read about this if you are interested. Here are a couple of suggestions, but there is much more available on the Internet, and in printed books, pamphlets, etc.
Much of the information in this article was taken from the following source:
“Post-Humans on a Sterile Promontory: The New Myths of Transhumanism and the Dark Mountain” article in Free Inquiry magazine, April/May, 2021.