Thursday, 13 September 2012

What if? Thoughts on a world of plenty

In his recent lecture, "Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll", (which you really must listen to, seriously, it'll blow your mind), James Burke encourages us to think about the perhaps unexpected consequences of potential technological innovations - we need to think about unforeseen results that spiral out of technological progress. The most arresting example that forms the centerpiece for Burke's lecture is the possibilities of nanotechnology in the future. It will not be too long, he points out, before someone invents what are today called Personal NanoFactories - desktop machines capable of creating literally anything out of the atoms contained in just dirt and water. They could even create more of themselves - thus even if they are initially expensive and copyrighted, they would swiftly become accessible to everyone on the planet.

And not just this - in our nano future, there would be, according to Burke, "virtually free energy, delivery of medication to specific individual cells in the body, clean drinking water planet-wide, a pollution-free global environment, non-wasteful bottom-up manufacture, food for everybody delivered in intelligent packaging, silent, clean transportation systems, ubiquitous zeta-bite computers on a chip, virtually free ultra-high bandwith, the end of the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer problem, and semi-intelligent machines of all kinds and all scales."

It sounds great, but Burke stresses we must think of the side effects. The unpredictable spiraling concequences of such a vast transformation could be almost beyond imagination. Here is the list Burke comes up with, almost arbitrarily, of questions that the nanopocalypse might raise:

"So what happens to the organisations satisfying [our] needs when people with personal nano factories don't need?  What happens to all the jobs in those organisations, and to all the taxes they provide the economy with so governments can create and manage the national infrastructure? But, if you no longer need power coming off the grid, or goods going up and down the road, do you need an infrastructure? Or anything else the government does? Will politics survive at all, with virtually no need to tax and spend? If people don't work to live anymore, how do they define themselves? Does abundance remove the trigger of scarcity that used to stimulate our creativity? How would we organise a global community composed not of 196 countries but of nine billion autonomous individuals? If there is no scarcity, does anything have any value? What does worth mean? Will DIY nanoweapons trigger guerrilla terrorism the like of which we've never seen before, and if so, how do we prevent that when in one sense there is no longer any "we"? With no need to grab or protect raw material resources, is that the end of war? Will the cities empty when we can live, and live comfortably, anywhere on the planet? And when each of us does live a geographically separate, truly independent life, what happens to the culture we once shared? Or will we achieve that through the use of real time 3D holograms? And what will that do to the way we socialise, especially if we hide behind avatars? Will any institution or organisation of any kind survive in its present form? Will the last act of nation states before they turn off the lights and leave the building be to provide emergency free downloads for nanomanufactured essentials like food, water, shelter, clothing, transportation and medication? And then, will nine billion people, each with their personal nanofactories ready to download software and spit out dreams, represent the greatest individually customised consumer goods software market that history has ever seen? The amount of innovation that such a marketplace could sustain might be limited only by the global imagination. But, what will we use to pay for it? There are a million more questions which abundance throws up to be answered, and we may have no more than 40 years to predict what those answers will need to be."

As my friend Carl points out, other questions raised might include disputes over privacy, sociable behaviour, drug use, land ownership/rights, protected nature and wildlife, and a wildly unpredictable reaction from humans as regards notions like entitlement and mental health. There'd be potential for never-ending hedonistic parties, with no limits of work or other obligations, other than your own health. 

For myself, my immediate instinct is to think of superpowers and tech, with everyone wearing customised versions of Iron Man's suit, and popping out to other continents for lunch on super-high speed flying cars or jet packs. Instant manufacture would speed up scientific research in all areas immeasurably, since it would remove barriers of equipment and funding. Things like music and filmmaking would be even more opened up to everyone than they are in this internet era. You could make your house and furniture out of pure diamond, so that they never wear out. Or maybe you'd prefer to make them out of cardboard, so that you can easily feed them back into the machine when you get bored and want new furniture. 

Health care would be so improved that you could push your body to much greater limits safe in the knowledge of more or less assured recovery. Disease would vanish. We would almost certainly reach Aubrey de Grey's beloved medical singularity, where life expectancy rises exponentially to immortality. It may even be possible to resurrect the dead with samples of their DNA.

Could you command your nanofactory to create a space elevator, massively boosting space exploration potential? Could we fire a couple of nanofactories off to Mars and leave them to terraform the environment for a few years, creating colonies that we will need to solve the overpopulation problems caused by immortality? Or will overpopulation even be a problem when there's no more resource scarcity?

To be serious, I just want to give my two pennies' worth on the subject of social consequences, which is the same two pennies I always give whenever people get hyperbolic about the impact of new tech on culture and society. Here they are:

1. Culture and society always change and evolve. Change and evolution are nothing abnormal - it always feels like things are different to how they were before, at every stage in history. Neither are they unhealthy, contrary to the beliefs of those labouring under the Golden Age fallacy (see Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris). 

2. Society always takes new configurations, but they're normally based on certain core elements that are much more resistant to change than people think. Ever since Hobbes, there's been a theoretical assumption that people only stay in each others' company for mutual benefit in terms of resources and material prosperity. I'm afraid that our friend Burke seems to have fallen for this one too. But it's a manifestly ridiculous idea. Humans enjoy socialising for its own sake. If cities do evaporate, it will only be because transport is so much better that frequent social contact no longer requires proximal living. Sure, maybe there will be increased use of digital or holographic avatars. But people aren't suddenly going to atomise and abandon community ties. There is a fundamental social logic that pulls people into groups. In the nanofuture, these groups may well transcend the narrowly-conceived boundaries we impose on ourselves now, and this is an exciting prospect. But there will always be a billion sub-groups; we will continue to invent new ways to identify with one another.

3. Cultural habits will undoubtedly change to precipitously radical extents. Lovers of tradition and the Old Ways will find constant cause for alarm. But they will be surrounded by like minded individuals and will be able to realistically reconstruct their Ways in little enclaves. (I'm also sure that many groups will shun the new tech for a long time, choosing to stay with the scarcity they know instead of embracing the plenty they fear.) But the main point is that there will still be culture - i.e. forms of behaviour, creation and communication that are shared among groups. 

Given this, in the spirit of Burke's call for an examination of possible consequences, let's take a very preliminary and sweeping look at some potential effects of the nanorevolution. It might help in some areas (or might not) to take the online game "Second Life" as a model - this is a game where players use an avatar to interact with others in a virtual online reality. Like the nanoworld, the Second Life world is entirely adaptable to one's will, so that you can create practically any object you like. You can also teleport and fly, choose your appearance and abilites, your pastimes and forms of socialisation. 


I would be very surprised if the ability to acquire any material item you desire leads to a decrease in materialism. There's no reason why people wouldn't still judge each other by appearances and possessions. Even in today's world, taste has become less about what's expensive (although there's still a way to go), and more about what's considered culturally "good taste". Hence the social category we call "chavs": people with excessive materialistic tastes, who display cultural poverty, not economic.

In Second Life, you can also have whatever you want for your avatar. Everybody is slim and good looking, conforming to mainstream ideas of beauty; their clothes are universally trendy or otherwise impressive. But it's not like fashion disappears, or everyone just starts wearing the same identical outfit which is recognised as the most cool. Your appearance is still used to convey social facts about oneself - the kinds of groups you belong to, the things you like, the way you want others to think of you etc. There's no reason this would vanish in circumstances of plenty in the actual world as opposed to the virtual.


Ever since the Enlightenment, we've predicted the end of religion due to modernisation and/or science. The fact is, religion is not the result of backwardness, lack of education or ignorance of scientific knowledge. It is merely a fairly typical form of social behaviour that is appealing across many demographics. Religion would continue to evolve and appeal to the new age in new ways.

Fanaticism of both religious and non-religious sorts would continue to appeal to certain individuals to roughly the same extent it does now. Why wouldn't it? There's no reason to suppose that we would become better educated. People may stop going to school because they will never need a job. Or, more likely, they will go to school in greater numbers because they have more time on their hands. Education might start at sixteen rather than six, and would never really end. But education doesn't make you less fanatic, if you're already an obsessive/crazy kind of person. 

There are plenty of fanatics on Second Life, a certain amount of educational opportunities, and lots of religious institutions and activities. I can't see how we could predict these ratios for the nanofuture.


Continuing from this, I would say that by far the biggest danger presented by the personal nanofactory is that it could make WMDs easy and accessible to all. It only takes one Chapman or Oswald to decimate an entire continent in a fit of delusional psychosis. This presents two alternatives for the political realm.

In the first, politics basically becomes about security and regulation of the use of nanotechnology. They would try to install unhackable systems that prevent the use of nanofactories for making anything with, say, depleted uranium or chemical agents capable of mass destruction. The internet would be highly policed to prevent downloads for the necessary software becoming available. People would probably be happy to put up with such regulation out of fear of what would happen without it.

But then how far would the regulation go? What would count as reasonable precautions whilst not overly limiting our freedom to create whatever we want? These would be the guiding questions of the new politics.

In the other version, the tech is so open and the firewalls are so easy to bypass that it becomes impossible to regulate. In this case, we would just have to hope that no one was crazy enough to do anything rash. But if the fear got high enough, people might start wearing radiation-proof suits and living in indestructible bunkers. Politics would then be less about security and more about helping everyone live in harmony. It might go super-local, with all political authority ignored outside the confines of one's own little community. There might be hardly any government action, with infrastructure maintained by altruists in their own free time. Wikipedia would become ludicrously active and informative, used as a model for all kinds of new projects, and many other volunteer-based activities would see a massive uptick in participation. That is, until someone decides in a moment of inspired lucidity to suddenly generate an army of lethal robots bent on the destruction of humanity.

In both versions, the political boundaries would likely shift away from countries and become more global/locally structured.


One thing Burke mentions is that not just our politics but our morality and moral values are based on the assumption of scarcity. Hence the injunction to share with others, to treat them as you would have them treat you, and so forth. But again, I think the idea that this might collapse when we have everything we want is a tad facile and implies that we only stick together to keep ourselves fed and sheltered (damn you, Hobbes). On Second Life, there are definitely notions of good and bad behaviour, and anything that's disruptive or unpleasant towards others is strongly frowned on. Communal spirit and altruism is just a part of the way we like to be around others and feel like we fit in. I would imagine that if anything, such instincts would flourish in circumstances where notions like private property seem petty and pathetic. We would basically become communists, but not in a big deal kind of way, but just because there's not really any reason not to be.

Irreplaceable objects, or ones with sentimental value, would become even more important to us. And as these become ever more scarce, the real irreplaceable things of worth would be relationships. Quality social time would become much more highly valued. Making time for others would be the focal point of altruistic morals.

Things like stereotypes would presumably be at least slightly eroded or changed, helping things like feminist and minority struggles and maybe causing decreased intolerance. The gaps between rich and poor and man and woman would not vanish overnight, but would slowly get filled in and replaced by gaps between other kinds of groupings that are less based on unchangeable things like gender/sexuality/wealth/ethnicity. Although, there's no guarantee that there wouldn't be similar amounts of institutional unfairness and inequality - at least in terms of prestige, "coolness" and so on if not actual material lifestyle. Women would become more independent, but may remained shackled to raising children. With unlimited life expectancy and probably also fertility, there may not be the same pressure to have children, however, and it may be that men become just as likely to raise kids as women, seeing as neither will need to work or stay at home. Family structures would be likely to continue their evolution in non-traditional directions. Child-rearing may become more of a communal enterprise, as it is in many so-called "primitive" cultures.


Wildlife and natural habitats may become more valued as they get filled with people escaping city crowding, or they may become less valued as they are easily replaced by nanofactories. People may like to spend time in them as something "real" and unmanufactured, even if they can't tell the difference between what is and isn't man made. Extinct species may be resurrected in nanoLazarus Pits, including dinosaurs if we can find any DNA.

Climate change will be greatly reduced by lack of fossil fuel consumption, but by the time this future is realised it may already have taken a huge toll. Nanotech will help to mitigate the effects and patch up some of the ravishings that have already been experienced.

Any other ideas, comments, thoughts? What do you think would happen in a nanofuture? What have I missed and got wrong?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Lay off Frank, he's a "free" man

Frank Turner, the so-called legendary folk-punk musician, was outed in the press recently as a person of right-wing political persuasion. This upset a lot of people, who seemingly thought he was a good, decent, morally upstanding lefty like themselves. It's unclear why they might have thought this, given that at least one of his songs is a hymn to libertarianism. Turner himself wrote a very reasonable response to the apparent scandal, saying he's never tried to hide his anti-government inclinations. It's obviously a bit cruel of the Guardian and the twittersphere to be so unkind to the guy over the whole thing so suddenly, but there you go.

Why do we find Turner's politics so upsetting? It's because we assumed he was one of us, of course. We assumed he was one of us, even to the point of ignoring his actual politics that came from his mouth, because he projected a punk-inspired, anti-corporate, culturally alternative persona. As he himself points out, Turner is far from a conservative or a Tory. What we failed to account for is that you don't have to be conservative to be a right-wing nutjob.

Turner's particular brand of nutjobbery is libertarianism. I suspect it's the whole concept of libertarianism that is getting people so hot and bothered, rather than any specific betrayal they unfairly perceive on Turner's part. We on the left find libertarianism extremely unsettling, because some of its core elements, almost embarrassingly, appeal to us. Yet at the same time, it's anti-government and anti-tax, which is anathema to leftist dogma.

Many on the left need to think things through a bit more before we can whole-heartedly believe in our own views without feeling guilty. What it comes down to is the liberal inability to deal with the concept of freedom. Freedom is a trigger-word; like "hope" or "justice" or "community" - it is automatically something to aspire to, something that must be sought at all costs. Any belief system can be imbued with positive affect by filling it with these words. When libertarians talk about the need to preserve freedom, it takes the wind out of the sails of our counter-argument. Something in our brain goes click, and we suddenly think to ourselves: "hold on, freedom is good, they're right about that. So why am I arguing against it? Especially since this guy seems so nice and punk." Normally, the response is to deny that left-wing principles or policies really reduce freedom, which is actually a fairly strong argument (they're no real evidence it's curtailed by government action), but we don't even need to go there. We just have to get over our cultural obsession with the word.

It doesn't take much musing on the subject to see that freedom, much like the other buzzwords I mentioned, is an entirely empty concept. It's so ill-defined as to be meaningless. We talk about it in quantities, as if you are always somewhere on a scale between pure power over all creation to shackled in a prison. (It's worth noting that even at this abstract stage, freedom is greatly limited by physics. I can't choose to fly or to kill people with my mind). We assume that limitations on freedom imply a smaller number of choices, when in fact you could argue the opposite is the case. And we see it in terms of individuals all trying to do their own thing, as if we weren't constantly impacting hundreds of other people with every choice we take.

What people mean by political freedom, perhaps, is restricted to certain specific actions or choices that are in some way deemed important. If the government blocks one of these, then we can fairly say we have been wronged. In this case, freedom is arbitrary - we want to be able to do whatever it is we happen to want to be able to do. Fair enough. It's nice to be able to do stuff we like. But what if we like to start wars or have sex with small children?

Freedom is a ridiculous ideal on which to base a social system, because it can't possibly exist in any social context. Even without a government, any interaction that involves two or more humans automatically implies a loss of freedom. Each individual set of desires and choices is likely to conflict with others. That's before you even come to things like culture, which is a set of behavioural codes and moral values that automatically massively limits the conceivable choices of individuals. I can't walk around naked, be overtly homophobic or talk to strangers on the tube without incurring social disapproval - is this restraint on my freedom the government's fault? All the biggest restraints on freedom take this form - we're not even aware of them as restraints because we've internalised them as second nature. So if we're not aware of them, are they still a restraint? What if I'm so used to paying tax that I no longer see it as a restraint. Is it still a limit on my freedom?

But even where the government is concerned, i.e. in the maintenance of a functional political system, no one expects full freedom. If you're going to lock up murderers, then you're going to limit the freedom of the entire population to kill each other. If you're going to prosecute libel laws, then you're going to infringe our freedom of speech. Not only that, but for either of these cases, you're going to have to have an effective police force and legal system, which you'll need to fund by limiting people's freedom to use their money as they want.

Everyone agrees that freedom must be limited to an extent, and even if we didn't, it still would be. The debate between libertarians and socialists concerns the size of this extent. Socialists may be willing to lose more freedom if it helps more people and makes everyone happier. We might be happy to fund the UK film council with tax money allotted by an elected government rather than let it slide into private hands with their own agenda. The libertarians might complain that the Council would then be funded through "the threat of violence towards citizens" (Frank's own words), which is obviously moronic on every level. One man's threat of violence is another's rule of law, and in either phrasing, you have to have it in some form if you want to lock up murderers.

But the debate about freedom is itself silly. We have so little of it anyway - or so much, depending on how you look at it - and government policy makes no real difference. If you deregulate the economy, our freedom merely becomes limited by corporate profiteering rather than government policy. This phenomenon has been documented extensively by social scientists; how the introduction of neoliberalism in the 80s largely led to an increase in regulation - only it was the market rather than the government doing the regulating. Meanwhile, societies we traditionally think of as lacking freedom, such as Soviet Asia, have been seen to produce communities that devise all kinds of new forms of action through which they can express their choices and create their own cultural limitations under the radar of official structures. (I can give references for studies documenting both these phenomena if anyone's interested). This doesn't mean that totalitarianism is OK, it just means that freedom tends to be the roughly the same in every kind of system. Or at least it's different in kind, not in degree.

The point is, freedom is so poorly understood, so amorphous and meaningless, that we need to abandon it as a valid political ideal. When arguing against libertarians, who are often obsessed with freedom to the point of insanity, we should have no inner doubts. This doesn't mean it's OK to stop people from doing stuff just for the sake of it, or that we can disregard things like privacy, but rather that when considering such issues, we should evaluate them in terms of benefits like happiness rather than moral absolutes like freedom. Such absolutes rarely exist in the real world the way we think they do, and they rarely bring any tangible gain when sought.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Gods, Nanotechnology and Saving the World

 A few months ago, I got annoyed with Paul Kingsnorth for implying that his prioritisation of nature and wilderness was more worthwhile than my interest in people living as happy lives as possible. I subsequently had some feedback from various people, including from the good Kingsnorth himself, much of which critiqued my dichotomy of people and nature, pointing out the the two are so inextricable that neglecting the latter is detrimental to the former.

I agree wholly with this critique: in fact I had intended to convey that very point in my original article. It is precisely because the natural world is so key to human prosperity that I am a green, and that I think we should prioritise the environment above all else. But our policies should not aim to protect nature simply for the sake of it, but only to maximise human happiness. Since humans often derive happiness from untamed wilderness (not to mention ecosystem issues that affect our food, climate etc etc), this should be preserved as far as possible. But it would be senseless, for example (as Kingsnorth seems to call for) to abandon vital renewable energy projects in order to simply preserve a bit more nature.

Kingsnorth annoyed me again this week with a new article in the Guardian, in which he called for

A kind of vernacular environmentalism; an engagement not with "the environment", but with environments as we experience them in lived reality. Perhaps it's time to go back to basics.

So we might learn what grows wild in our local area and whether we can eat it. We might build up a bank of practical skills, from horticulture to land management. We might go out at night and plant seeds in vacant flowerbeds near where we live. We might work on small-scale engineering projects, from water purification technologies to micro-solar panels. We might work to save bees or butterflies or water meadows or woodlands or playing fields that we know and have a relationship with...

In the article, Kingsnorth admits that this kind of solution won't save the world, saying that "we've had four decades of trying to "save the world", and we have failed utterly." The reason he is so defeatist is that the current green proposals for environmental solutions are, according to him, business-oriented, technology-obsessed, wilderness-denying programs designed to preserve western capitalism and sate our demented thirst for never ending progress.

As opposed to the previous argument by him I critiqued, which harangued greens for being not romantic enough, this new article harangues them for not being socialist enough (and also not romantic enough). This is an argument I'm actually much more comfortable with - I definitely agree that there is a tendency for environmental solutions to fall short precisely because they are too keen to preserve the status quo, and I am generally anti-capitalism in general. It is misleading to claim that an ideal of "progress" is ever wrong - progress is defined as change in a good direction, so it's always subjective - but I agree with Kingsnorth that the Progress sought by many people in power simply means continuous economic growth and increasing inequality, things which do not necessarily make anyone happier.

But the major problem here, and it is the same mistaken argument made by many technophobes that really gets my goat, is that Kingsnorth conflates capitalism with the beneficial use of superior technology. We must be able to attack the problems of the former without taring the the latter with the same brush. Capitalists use technology, but technology is not exclusively the domain of capitalists. It has consistently been used through history to make things enormously better. In the Industrial Revolution, technology was mainly used to make things better for the wealthy owners and considerably worse for the majority of workers. The Luddites who attempted to destroy this technology had good reason to do so. But if, in a parallel world, that technology and the prosperity it brought had been shared by everyone, Luddite action would have been morally repulsive.

Kingsnorth complains that strategies that rely on technological or other kinds of manipulation of nature for our own ends, presumably even when these ends are extremely positive, are a form of "acting as gods". This accusation is the most infuriating of all. If you say someone's acting as a god, you're implying that they are meddling with things they shouldn't have any power over. The phrase hails to a time when it was preached that mortals should stay in their proper place as men, not try to change the things that are too important or holy for them. It's a dogma that has kept the lower rungs of society in check for centuries.

Does Kingsnorth seriously mean to say that by attempting to manage the environment we live in we are overstepping our proper place in the world? That in the position we were born into, it is only right to plant seeds at night and save the butterflies, and that if such low-level actions leave the world to burn then that is the fate we must silently endure? I imagine that he does not mean such things - but this is what his argument implies. Obviously, I can understand that Kingsnorth is saddened by the way human abuse of the planet has led to environmental disaster, and that he wishes to avoid making things worse by continuing such high-level manipulation. But he is unwise to say that such manipulation is necessarily wrong. It may be god-like behaviour, but the gods were not always evil, detrimental, nor even always hubristic. Sometimes they were well meaning and did wonderful things. Ceres made the crops grow every year. Was he thus wrong to behave like a god?

Take this extraordinary sentence from Kingsnorth's article:

[Greens say] The future lies in enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, nanotechnology, geo-engineering and anything else new and complex that annoys Greenpeace.

To be clear, Kingsnorth is being witheringly dismissive here. Biotech? Synthetics? Nuclear? Nano? From the way he says it, you might think he was talking about eugenics and atom bombs. Geo-engineering aside, the benefits of which are yet unproven, all these technologies have the capability to radically transform the world for the better. Nanomaterials are currently being developed for applications in nuclear waste disposal, allowing toxic substances that could be dangerous for thousands of years to be disposed of unproblematically. Should we abandon this tech for our vegetable patches?

It's right to say that we can't just let technology do all the work for us; that's not how it works. It's also right to say that we should try to preserve the capitalist system with ever greater technologisation. It's right to point out that god-like behaviour in the past has typically been unhelpful. But it's wrong to suggest the only alternative is to go back to our homes, create a harmonious local neighbourhood and wait til the fire and brimstone hit. We must at least try to wield god-like power in non-god-like ways. We can try and make the crops grow, but not hurl bolts from mountaintops. Sure, we'd like to just be mortals who don't have to meddle in such things. But Ceres and Zeus have left us, or we've already destroyed them. If we don't start making the crops grow, we're going to starve.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Rise of the Batman interpretations


The Dark Knight Rises is a film centred round a prison, possibly in Morocco, a place several times compared to hell; it is an awful pit deep in the ground with a huge circular tunnel leading straight up to the light of day and the world of free men. This escape route is treacherously difficult to climb; when Bruce Wayne arrives there, he is told that only one person has ever achieved it before.

The prison is symbolic for many of the film's themes. Bane claims that the taunting potential for escape makes imprisonment there so much more horrible, because hope, when crushed, creates a despair worse than any other. But the most striking element of the prison is the chant that the prisoners take up each time one of their number attempts the escape. It is a crescendoing, pulsating cry of "Deshi basara", which is Moroccan Arabic for "He rises". The entire populace of this hell gathers and watches in tremulous excitement, the chant growing among them, as the escapee does in fact rise up the tunnel. But, as Bane foresaw, their hope is inevitably crushed when the individual crashes back painfully into the pit.

The Dark Knight Rises is a story about one who did not crash, about an individual who rises to the very summit of the tunnel and actually fulfills the fantastical hopes of the prison's inmates, ecstatically shouting their joy. It is Batman who achieves this feat, and it is Bane who stands as his nemesis, whose life and philosophy is structured on the belief that Batman's act is (as he says when he gazes on the burning bat symbol of return) "impossible".

The film is a story about a man, who, on losing his one hope for a normal life with the death of his beloved Rachel, falls back into hopeless seclusion, failing to achieve anything worthwhile, as Bane again correctly observes, other than that which was based on the lie of the murderous Harvey Dent's heroism. This is a man who fears nothing from death, because he has nothing in life he cares to live for. But just as he rises from the hellish prison, conquering crushed hope, so he is able to rise into a new life of meaning and import. He is no longer happy simply to sacrifice himself for greater good; he regains a will to live, a powerful fear of death that compels him to true heroism.

The Dark Knight Rises, in short, is a film about rising. It is not a film about politics, other than to the extent that it shows how we can rise above politics.

This major point was missed, unsurprisingly, by many commentators, who rushed in this week to share their political insights on the film's "message". The opinions have varied (Rush Limbaugh believes it to be a liberal conspiracy to slur Mitt Romney, of course), but most see the film as an "anti-Occupy Wall St" fable, whatever that means. The logic goes that Bane is a villain, and Bane uses populist rhetoric to cripple society and attempt to destroy 12 million lives, therefore the film is telling us that populism is evil, and Occupy Wall St is somehow linked to this because it's a movement which is, you know, popular. The right-wing blog Breitbart has several fine examples of this argument, e.g. here and here.

There are many fascinating and challenging themes regarding the political status of Batman in general, and as depicted in the Nolan trilogy especially. As a vigilante, Batman seeks to establish law and order outside the official channels, meting out his own justice in whatever he deems is the most morally justified fashion. He refuses to kill anyone, but uses torture, spying and brute force to achieve his ends. He attempts to inspire powerful dread in his enemies in order to further destroy them. Yet he is the champion of the weak and innocent, loved by little children, a symbol of justice and good in a world of violence and evil. Plus he stops baddies from killing loads of people. So is he, politically speaking, good or bad? Is he a conservative paragon of crime-fighting or a liberal crusader against corruption of power and money?

These are in some ways simplistic and petty questions, and the genius of the Dark Knight Rises is to, yes, rise above them. The film moves into themes that are so much more fundamental to human life than mere politics and morality. Comparing Bane's actions to those of Occupy Wall St or any left-wing attempt to combat economic inequality is, frankly, silly. Nolan himself has stated:

"I'm not being disingenuous when I say that we write from a place of 'What's the worst thing our villain Bane can do? What are we most afraid of?' He's going to come in and turn our world upside down. That has happened to other societies throughout history, many times, so why not here? Why not Gotham? We want something that moves people and gets under the skin...We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things. It's just telling a story."

Let's be clear here: Bane is a terrorist who eliminates a city's police force and contact with the outside world, holding it hostage with a nuclear bomb. He then releases the violent inmates of a major jail, arms them, and tells them to attack the wealthy. Sure, he claims that he is giving Gotham back to the people, but this is patently not the case; the people have nothing to do with it. They hole up in fear in their houses. Hiring a band of thugs to deliver violent retribution whilst nihilistically trying to raze an entire city to the ground has about as much in common with the aims and methods of Occupy as contained cold fusion has with conceivable physics (*relevant science joke*).

It's a ludicrous argument, and also a tragic one, because it misses the whole, glorious, epic point of the film. It's not about whether capitalism's downfall is good or bad, it's about life having meaning beyond the constraints of such petty politics. Originally, Batman aimed to fight against "evil" in general, and "crime" in particular. He was driven by the anger and remorse over his parents' death. In this sense he was essentially nihilist; a futile attempt to destroy his own grief by creating a better world. With Rachel's death, there was no longer anything to live for beyond the realm of this all-consuming mission. Thus, with the mission complete, Batman disappeared and Bruce retreated into the depths of seclusion. From this state, in the events of the new film, he rises. Batman's kiss and subsequent life with Catwoman at the film's end at first seems cliched and unnecessary. But it's actually symbolic of a spectacular re-emergence of life, of the ability to live and love again. If anything, this resonates with the political view that money, say, constrains free life and free love as much Batman's self-imposed exile. But we don't need to make this point explicitly. It is only one of many more concrete interpretations we might draw.

The real message of the film comes, as ever, from Alfred. He is missing for the majority of the story, but he sets the tone at the outset with his pleas to Bruce to abandon the hard-hearted, self-denying strictures of Batman and take up a real, fulfilled life instead. And his return at the film's conclusion shows us exactly how Batman was eventually able to take this advice to heart. By not sacrificing himself, by cultivating our most important human faculty, the fear or aversion to death, Batman rises to become humanity's true hero, rather than merely the hero needed by a corrupt Gotham City in the first two films.

You can't just take a film like that and claim it supports your political opinions. Like the prisoners in their pit, we should treat the film as a beacon and source of hope, an ideal towards which we can attempt to rise, out of the shackles of partisanship and enmity, refusing to let our setbacks forever crush our hope of a better life.

Friday, 22 June 2012


This article about zombies was just published in the fantabulous Cambridge Humanities Review, which unfortunately is not yet online (will add a link if/when it appears). Because of this, and because I thought of a couple of extra bits to add after I'd already submitted it, I'm putting my complete version of the article below, with kind permission. If you'd like a hard copy of the Review, they might have some left - email Harry at and ask if he can send you one.

I'd really love to know what you think of my (over)analysis - especially if you disagree with it! Please leave comments below.

Finally, I'm really pleased with this article, so if you like it please share it around and encourage others to do the same! Thankee!


Zombiescape: the real reasons why everyone is looking forward to the rise of the living dead

Everyone agrees: the early 21st century is the age of the zombie. The walking dead have saturated popular culture and the entertainment sector. Respectable universities and even schools offer zombie-inspired curricula. Activists flashmob government offices demanding preparedness in advance of the outbreak, which – a host of subcultures assure us – is clearly coming any day now.

As with any pop culture phenomenon, it's easy to spew armchair theories about the meaning of the undead infestation. In 2008, Simon Pegg, the new zombie godfather, who's 2004 “zom rom com” Shaun of the Dead paved the way for the genre's current popularity, complained in a Guardian editorial about a new upstart: running zombies. For Pegg, zombies must shuffle morosely or they would fail as effective metaphors for the inevitability of death. Meanwhile, critics of the classic Romero oeuvre tend to toe the standard line that the ghouls of the 60s-90s represented public fear of nuclear war or even terrorist-related catastrophe. Then, of course, zombies are also a synonym for sheep: symbolic of lack of individuality and the victory of mindless consumer ideology in modern times. After all, Dawn of the Dead is set in a shopping mall – it must be about shopping!

These analyses are fine if we want to restrict ourselves to how certain zombie films work as pieces of art. Romero himself has confirmed that much of the symbolism alluded to is intentional. But they do not in any way explain the pervasive mania for zombies in Western culture today. Zombie films are not effective because of any latent symbols or metaphors. The zombie zeitgeist did not emerge from people taking messages about the state of modern society or their own fear of death away from the cinema with them.

This article seeks to ask what exactly constitutes the appeal of the zombie. When a youthful pop culture nerd watches Dylan Moran being disembowelled or Woody Harrelson unloading several cartridges of ammunition into the screeching hordes, what makes him or her think “phwaor - awesome!”? What makes them buy a zombie-themed video game, stage real world zombie battles, or create a market for genre mash-ups with 19thcentury romantic fiction? My answer is threefold: zombies are fun, zombies hold rich imaginative potential, and zombies bring us together as humans.

I should also point out that many of these arguments are not exclusive to zombies. They also explain some of the appeal of alien invasions, superheroes and velociraptors, among other favourites. In fact, I want to start my zombie tale with a quote from a film that ostensibly features large monstrous aliens, but is in most respects indistinguishable from your standard zombie survival film: Joe Cornish's 2011 Attack the Block. Towards the end of the film, two main characters, Pest and Moses, are in a (temporarily) safe room, contemplating their approaching doom. Pest summarises everyone's feelings:

Pest: I'm shitting myself innit', but at the same time...
Moses: What?
Pest: This is sick.

There's no better way to capture the feeling of zombies. The sheer, fantastical fascination of horrific death and bodily destruction encroaching from all sides, and the sheer thrill and excitement at the prospect of dealing with it. To paraphrase Heath Ledger's Joker, people like zombies because they're just so much fun. Consider 2009's Zombieland, the highest grossing zombie film of all time and one of the few to gain more than a cult popularity. The very premise of the film is zombies as a theme park (Fasten your seat belts. This is going to be a bumpy ride.). Why are zombies fun? Because they're a game, of course.

Zombieland structures itself around a series of rules (e.g. Rule 31: always check the back seat). Perhaps one of the most common manifestations of the zombie craze in general culture is the famous zombie “plan”. Huge discussion forums across the internet endlessly dissect the best ways of surviving (winning) in the coming apocalypse (game). What kind of weapon is best? What kind of shelter? What are your general tactics – flee first or find team mates? Even before Zombieland, the basic rules are clear: zombies only attack the living and they're attracted to your movements. If you get even a small bite, you're dead. Only headshots kill. Weapons, food and shelter are the most vital elements.

The ideal of type of the Plan is established in Shaun of the Dead. As soon as they realise the situation viz.zombies, the protagonists Shaun and Ed immediately set out a course of action. They will rescue their loved ones and hole up safe. After considering several options, they elect their local pub (and what is a pub is not a symbol of fun?) as the best choice of shelter after asking themselves “Where's safe? Where's familiar? Where can I smoke?” In contrast to previous scenes, our heroes here are confident, determined and in control. The blood on their faces and weapons attests to their experience and clear ability to carry out what they are suggesting, as do the short, clipped, idealised images and fast, beat-driven music that accompany this recipe for unrealistic happy ending (“and wait for all this to blow over”). Their casual talk of doing away with Shaun's stepfather - “Sorry Philip!” - shows how, despite their seriousness, they are treating the whole thing as a game, something that doesn't really count as real life.

This brings us to the second part of our quest for what constitutes zombie appeal, namely its imaginative potential. This part has two key elements, escapism and identity-formation, both of which are also key to the Planning Scene. There's a reason Shaun takes place in a pub, and Zombieland in a themepark/millionaire's mansion. As well as representing fun, both are places where inhibitions are lost. The most important part of the zombie apocalypse's appeal is that social barriers, norms and other restrictions are voided. It is the allure of social collapse. Not complete anarchy, of course, which would be genuinely frightening. As we have seen, the apocalypse is surprisingly well ordered and has its own rules. But the everyday structures of our lives as they are currently experienced are demolished in the most satisfying fashion.

The result is a fantasy land which is not just fun but decidedly surreal. In escaping our ordinary strictures, we must emphasise our separation from the old order of life by focusing and revelling in all things foreign to it – ludicrous quantities of gory violence being the main example. You can kill humanoids without guilt. Removing the head or destroying the brain are both activities that are about as far from thinkable as it's possible to get in the real world. Zombies let us escape, they let us finally do whatever it is we feel like – the perfect antidote for a culture where everything is regulated by social approval. This is explicitly highlighted in Zombieland, when the protagonists, finding themselves in an empty shop, spontaneously decide to destroy it for no reason. The commercial setting makes the casting off of the shackles of capitalism as crystal clear as the shards of glass that whirl randomly through the air in slow motion to the joyous cadences of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro as the demolition unfolds. The scene is also replete with Native American objects (Little Rock is even wearing a feathered headdress), as if to stress the characters' return to a primitive state of ancient and simple freedom, generally constructed as the antithesis to the overbearing modern condition.

I am paying special attention to Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland in this essay because they – by far – are the two films which most latch on to (and create) the zombie appeal as it is enacted in mainstream popular culture. But other films have clearly been influential in this appeal. One successful film is 28 Days Later, which seems at first sight to undermine my point about escapism. The film is set in a military base, the paragon of modern order and constraint. And yet it is the soldiers themselves who become the enemy. It is only with the defeat – and zombification – of military order that the survivors can truly escape to their idyllic countryside retreat where they are found at the end of the film.

In the climactic moments of the film, in which the soldiers are dying in unpleasant ways to the sound of heavy guitar music, the hero Jim has clearly found himself. He is in control of the carnage, shirtless, covered in blood and rainwater, the epic mis-en-scene and soundtrack driving his glorious charge. Lost and aimless since the start of the film when he awakes in a world he does not recognise, his full identity finally breaks the surface when his love interest, Selina, hesitates for “longer than a heartbeat” – a pure act of recognition – and the two passionately kiss. In the same way, Shaun is able to establish his own sense of self only after killing his first zombie, and Colombus from Zombieland becomes a functional human only after all his dreams are destroyed by the apocalypse, as symbolised by the reanimation and killing of his fantasy girl “406”. Zombie films typically take those who are marginal or do badly under the normal system (and who does not see themselves as limited in such a system?), and allows them to flourish, build a proper sense of identity, and take control of their lives. Even in Romero's films, it was often the woman or black man who were pointedly the only ones that survived.

Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who has extensively studied and theorised globalisation, claims that the contemporary world is driven by imaginative possibilities. Mass migration has left many peoples out of place, with shattered social identities. Global interconnections, especially in the form of electronic mass media, have provided these “diasporic public spaces” with a vast source of new and diffuse cultural elements, allowing people to reconstruct hybrid identities out of the circulating fragments to which they are exposed. Cultural material in these global “flows” passes through different “-scapes”: ethnoscapes, technoscapes, ideoscapes and so forth. These are inherently interactive and overlapping, making identity or group construction slippery and almost impossible to pin down in any one arena.

Zombies are the ultimate solution to global identity crises. While it still provides a huge amount of imaginative material for building identity, the zombiescape has no difficulties with unclear boundaries or slippery self-definitions. It is single and clearly defined. In it, we can imagine ourselves as clear projections of unproblematic social categories. Like the displaced nationals in Appadurai's diasporas, zombie fanatics are active appropriators of this imaginative potential. They are intentionally and creatively using zombies to help construct who they really are. Zombies are excellent proof of Appadurai's argument that religiosity, spontaneity and play are not constrained but rather thrive in today's mobile, globalised world.

The final part of the zombie appeal is community. To use again one of Appadurai's points: modern fantasies are not private or individualistic or even just about thought. They entail purposeful collective action and group imagination in public space. Just like other fan groups, zombie nerds regularly meet and form societies in the real world. But more important than this is what the zombie apocalypse, as depicted in the films, represents. In the 1960s Victor Turner proposed a theory of social history in which groups cycle between states of “structure” and “communitas”. Structure is the standard state in which people functionally plod through ordinary life by dividing themselves into categories and following restrictive social norms or interaction. It fundamentally relies on a conception of difference among groups. Such a state is necessary for the long term stability of functional social order. But every now an again, it is equally vital that it's counterpart and polar opposite, communitas, makes an appearance. Communitas is a state of pure undiluted connection between all people. It is invigorating, freeing, spontaneous, immediate and concrete. Boundaries and rules are dissolved for a time so that the connection can be as strong as possible. This state is necessary on a temporary basis in order to prevent structured existence devolving into pathology and crime. Turner gives several examples, including Benedictine monks, the hippy movement and the ritual practices of tribes he studied in Africa.

What is the apocalypse if not the ultimate transition from structure to communitas? It is zombies that finally shore up Shaun's relationship with his family and girlfriend. The first thing he does is collect them all into a team to deal with the zombie situation together. While his team does have major tensions and conflicts, these are spectacularly resolved by the zombies themselves when they seize and devour the principal troublemaker. Shaun even quotes Bertrand Russell: “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”, perhaps the definitive motto for the zombiescape. The same goes for the other films. For all their talk of not forming attachments, the quartet in Zombieland become a tight-knit, harmonious social group by the end of the film, as do the trio from 28 Days Later. Again, Romero's willingness to use “minority” actors represents not just the potential for success of such marginal groups, but also the overcoming of group distinctions altogether. When 90% of the world is a reanimated corpse, your ties to the living, whatever their type or category, are automatically extremely powerful. In the words of Robert Brockway, author of Everything Is Going To Kill Everyone:

In every post-apocalyptic story, there's always the one crazy old man with the wacky helmet muttering about Revelations, and all the heroes take pity on him - "look at the poor soul, driven mad by all the death he's witnessed." But that's bullshit: We weren't driven mad at all. We were like this way before Armageddon, we just weren't allowed to show it because of all those damn people everywhere with their precious "morals" and "laws."

This is exactly the point. Zombie communitas lets us be who we want to be, and bond with whom we want to bond (even if that's no one). Unfortunately, Brockway misses the value of his own insight when he argues that apocalypse stories appeal because of our innate arrogance, our belief that we would be among the survivors and therefore the winners:

[It] all comes down to simple playground logic: The apocalypse is just a big game of King of the Hill with no other players left alive to retake the mountain.

While I have also argued that zombies have a game-like appeal, this alone could not possibly account for their astonishing popularity in recent years. Rather, it's the imaginative potential of the game world, which provides forms of escape and empowering self-creation, and the sociality this fosters, that makes us want to take part so badly. Zombies don't divide us, they don't bring out our competitive side, and they don't create a Hobbesian state of nature. In this sense they affirm our humanity, allowing us to build ourselves a utopia of human happiness and harmony, even while we're meting violent destruction to the outsiders, the enemies at the gates who are so non-human that they finally provide an Other against which to define the species as a whole – one big family – ending the depressing system of having small parts of it defining against each other. And we can take this utopia and set it up as the fantastical alternative to the world we live in today. Or even as the solution to it.

Sunday, 15 April 2012


Today Chris T-T, a musician with a great twitter account, tweeted an article by Paul Kingsnorth from a few months ago in Orion magazine. The article is very long, and mostly eulogises lost nature - the standard romantic narrative about how machines, industry and general humanity are increasingly encroaching on and destroying beautiful and inspiring landscapes and wildernesses. It's beautifully written, very touching, and I basically agree that such destruction is a sad state of affairs.

However, the article also has a political point, namely an attack on the "environmental" and "green" agenda for caring too much about climate change, carbon, sustainability and so forth - all things that essentially try to improve the living conditions of humans with little concern for pure ecology and untouched nature, its beauty and wonder etc. In the name of carbon emissions, we wreck yet more land (and sea) with wind turbines, and deserts with solar panels. When Kingsnorth expressed concern about this, his "green" friends attacked him as a reactionary romantic. Clearly, Kingsnorth says, environmenatalism is no longer about the environment, but about human comfort. Thus, to differentiate himself, he adopts the label of "ecocentric", someone who puts ecology and nature at the centre of his philosophy and politics, as opposed to humans.

Christ T-T originally tweeted the article with this claim:

If you're remotely eco-friendly or green this  piece is important, challenging reading:

So the article is supposed to challenge me? I consider myself eco-friendly and green, in that climate-related issues are among the most important of any modern issue to me, I've spend a lot of time and effort volunteering with climate change NGOs and projects, I tend to vote green, and I follow green issues in the media very closely (etc). But I was not challenged by the article. If anything, I found the article very easy to dismiss. As far as I could tell, Kingsnorth cares a lot about the literal environment, about pure nature (whatever these things are), about flora and fauna you can genuinely touch. He thinks these things are more important than humans and society. Given that this is what he thinks and cares about, it's hardly surprising that he feels the "green" movement has betrayed itself.

But I do not think these things. I think that humans are more important than "nature". I am not ecocentric; I am avowedly anthropocentric. As far as I can see, this is a simple difference of opinion, that our subjective concerns, values, beliefs happen to be different. If anything, I'm a little insulted at Kingsnorth's insinuation that my position is somehow inferior or less worthy than his. Why should support for the environment over humanity be better than vice versa?

Similarly, I tweeted these points at Chris T-T and he responded, saying

aha. I'd be interested to read why you believe that [he's referring to a statement I made: "I prefer to save lives more than wildernesses"]

Now that's a challenging question. Why do I have the opinion I do? I'd never thought about it before. Let me do some introversion here.

I suspect a lot of the answer comes from my experiences, most significantly the fact that I am a student currently finishing a degree in anthropology. Now, I wouldn't say that anthropology defines everything I do, not by a long shot. I'm actually quite bored with it by this point - it's just the subject I have to do to get this godforsaken degree. Anthropology isn't my philosophy, it's not at the centre of my value system. But things I've read in studying it certainly have affected my beliefs and opinions. 

Most of all, anthropologists love to deconstruct things. Bring up any idea or notion that we cherish or live our lives by, and your typical anthropologist will chuckle gleefully and then tell you why said notion/idea is entirely contingent, nothing more than a transient product of the specific cultural context that happens to have shaped you. They love to show that big things we take for granted - gender, economics, science etc - are not essential, ahistorical or universal, but that different cultures, and the same culture at different points in history, actually have very different notions of what such things are. We assume that pink is naturally a girly colour, but - aha! - go back 150 years and we find that it was considered masculine. See! Everything you believe is just a product of your culture's ideology. There is no truth.

Unfortunately, the smug anthropologists are basically right. They have strong evidence to support their deconstructionism. "Nature" is a classic case. As soon as I started reading Kingsnorth's waxing lyrical about Wordsworth and Indonesian rainforests, my anthropology senses started tingling. What we have here is your bog standard reification of a contingent cultural concept. Western culture tends to essentialise "nature" as a pure, untouched space free of all human ills. Hence how our beloved nature documentaries purposely play up the pristine, isolated jungles and oceans where man is entirely absent, despite the fact that almost no such places exist. But anything that complicates the picture is excluded from the documentary. 

Real life does not consist of separate spheres of humanity and (vs?) nature. Not that Kingsnorth would deny this - his whole point is that these separate spheres should but do not exist. But more importantly, the term "nature" on its own is entirely meaningless. It means whatever we happen to think it means at a given point in time. Some cultures don't even have a conceptual divide between nature and society. It is also as important as we happen to think it is - it has no inherent importance of its own.

So that's why I don't belive in ecocentricism. But why do I believe in anthrocentricism? Surely all the same problems apply - "humanity" as a concept is just as vague and contingent as "nature". I don't deny this. There's all kind of philosophical justifications that I could invent to claim that humans, as the site and source of subjectivity, are inherently more significant than anything else they subjectively think about, but this is not what I particularly believe. 

The truth is, I don't have a good reason that I'm anthropocentric. I just don't like other humans to suffer. I'd much rather nature suffers than humans, if indeed we can separate the two. I don't believe nature can feel suffering the way a person can. I'm an atheist and I believe in science. I don't like like climate change purely because it might disrupt human lives in a negative way. This doesn't mean that I think "progress" or "human comfort" justify environmental destruction, it just means that I'm opposed to whatever makes people suffer, and I'm in favour of whatever stops them suffering. Mine is a basically negative value system, and I think this goes for the middle class West in general. I don't fight for freedom or equality or nature, I fight against climate change and poverty and discrimination.

Because of my desconstructionist training, I no longer believe in objective truth, so the question of why I believe in something like anthropocentricism is indeed extremely challenging. I can't give a full-proof answer, but then I don't think Kingsnorth is capable of justifying his ecocentricism with anything fool-proof either. But I'll end with some more concrete thoughts on the issue.

Why I am anthropocentric:

All of my friends are human. Silly, but....well, I like my friends.

Most of my interests are human or human-generated, such as arts of various forms, thinking, reading, sports, games, chatting, eating cooked food (raw food is less yummy).

I've been raised within a moral code that is essentially anthropocentric. I can't justify it as better than other moral codes, but that's the one I've got. Its main points are things like "be nice to others", "share with others", "don't harm or deceive others" etc. There's very little in my moral code that I've inherited about being nice to inanimate things like nature.

While my culture in general does tend to romanticise "nature" as a good thing, it also romanticises things like money, egocentric success and certain forms of death, so I don't really trust its romanticisations.

The subcultures I'm most involved with are not very concerned with nature; much more with being cool and having fun with your friends.

Frankly, nature bores me. It enchants some people, and bores others. I happen to be bored by it. I've seen a lot of nature, I go to national parks (especially in the US and Europe) and hike and so on. Sure, it's pretty but it's not got much else to hold the attention. If it disappeared, I'd be sad but not devastated. I'd be devastated if 100 million people die from climate change.

While looking at nature bores me, scientific investigation of it excites me. I love reading about neuroscience, space exploration and colliding particles. I think the excitement here comes from the fact that people are finally figuring out amazing secrets that seemed so impossible to discover in the past. It's a very anthropocentric kind of excitement. Plus then there's the other kind of more practical science where the excitement comes from its applications to humans - eg internet technology, cures for diseases or new forms of transport.

I'm also anthropocentric for the simple reason that I interact intimately with humans constantly every day. I love thinking about how these interactions work, how different people behave around me and each other, how I can influence these interactions for the better, how I can create a world with high quality interactions. These kinds of thoughts occupy about 90% of what I do and believe. I'm defined by society, a social animal. It would be bizarre for me to be ecocentric when I'm so social.

People live and have real lives and I care deeply about that. While I care about other things too, anything without a conscious mind is simply a much lower priority for me. I can't justify this, and I'm sorry if it offends any ecocentrics reading it, but that's my position. I really care about humans and their happiness and I care much less about non-sentient concepts like nature.

A final caveat, if it wasn't already clear: While I believe humans are the first priority, nature has a big impact on humans - so big that the two categories are not really separable when it comes to things like actual policy.