Issue 8: longtermism and trauma

Small nuclear, new ICBMs, life extension, disease in history and US Manicheanism

Dear reader,

Welcome to this week’s issue of the Anti-Apocalyptus newsletter. Each week I send you five links about some of the most important challenges of our time: climate change, weapons of mass destruction, emerging technologies, mass causes of death and great power wars. If you haven’t done so yet, feel free to subscribe at the button below, hit the heart button or share this email with anyone who could be interested.

This week Friday was the 11th of September. The date of course when terrorists destroyed the WTC in New York. But also, ironically, the date when a US-supported coup unseated the Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973, leading to decades of military dictatorship and the associated killing and torturing of political opponents.

During his last radio speech, shortly before killing himself, Allende said this:

“Tienen la fuerza, podrán avasallarnos, pero no se detienen los procesos sociales ni con el crimen ni con la fuerza.  La historia es nuestra y la hacen los pueblos.”

In English it translates into:

“They have force and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested by neither crime nor force.  History is ours, and people make history.”

This reminded me of something I read about French historian Fernand Braudel recently. Braudel is a pioneer of the Annales school, and emphasised the longue durée, or the deep, hardly changing layers of daily human life, often associated with agricultural society. Which he contrasted with evenemential history, concerned with events, wars and dates.

Braudel was, however, quite traumatically caught up in evenemential history. He served in the French army during World War II, where he was captured by the Germans, spending years in a POW camp. Marc Bloch, a founder of the Annales school, was killed after Gestapo torture. Henri Hauser had to flee, and spend the war in hiding.

According to a paper by Olivia Harris, Braudel’s focus on the long-term, deep-history, partly sheltered him from this trauma of the short-term. Or as Braudel says in a lecture:

“we the defeated, unjustly and without warning condemned to captivity, we were the lost France, like the dust that the wind whips up from a heap of sand. The true France, the France in reserve, deep France was behind us, she would survive, she did survive.”

A similar sentiment can be found in the last speech of Allende. Right before the end he reminds himself and his followers that history goes on. Short-term repression and chaos doesn’t stop the march of history, which in his view moves to a socialist future where the people rule.

Recently longtermism increased in popularity. Effective Altruism is pushing for it, using to back up their fight against existential risk, and recent philosophical advances like patient longtermism are interesting. Driven by our climate crisis, people like Roman Krznaric with his book The Good Ancestor are emphasising long-term thinking.

This is good. We systematically discount our future in favour of the present, and a better view of the long-term is dearly needed. Yet we shouldn’t let this become a mental shelter.

Often, it seems our world is in a never-ending crisis and when the present is traumatic, it’s easy to run away into another temporality. Some go into the past or conservatism (‘in the past everything was better’). But some run away into the future, or the deeper reality of history. The present doesn’t matter, just the long-term.

Yet any successful movement or philosophy will need to combine the short-term with the long-term. We can never just run away into the deeper layers of history, however appealing that sounds. Merging the two: offering present-day solutions, and combing it with a view on the deeper movement of our society, will remain key if we want to keep going.

1. Climate change

Grist - Nuclear power’s big new idea is really … small

Interesting look at small nuclear power plants, particularly the plans of NuScale Power in the US. In theory small plants could solve a lot of the problems of nuclear. They would be safer, could compensate for the instability of other renewables and aren’t massive, mismanagement-prone mega-projects (most recent projects for new nuclear power plants failed or went way over budget). Nevertheless small nuclear also has potential issues, which the article explores.

2. Weapons of mass destruction

Air Force Magazine - Northrop Wins $13.3B Contract to Design New ICBMs

The US is upgrading its nuclear capabilities. Northrop just got a billion dollar contract to replace around 600 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s). These are stored in underground silo’s across the US, and could launch nuclear weapons. This is part of a larger push for a newer nuclear arsenal, in the context of tensions with countries like Russia and China.

3. Emerging technologies

UnHerd - Let’s all meet up in the year 3000

Interesting look at life extension and ending ageing by Tom Chivers. Part of this is of course technological utopianism and the associated Silicon Valley hype. But making us live longer and healthier is a worthy goal to pursue. We might today consider ageing and the associated decline as inevitable, but if it isn’t, then we might prevent a whole lot of suffering.

4. Mass causes of death

Boston Review - The Angel of History

Interesting sprawling essay by John Merrick. In it he explores the relation between apocalypse (particularly disease) and our intellectual and world history. People mentioned range from Walter Benjamin and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, to Albrecht Dürer and John the Apostle.

5. Great power war

Foreign Exchanges - The American Empire and Existential Enemies

Great piece from the Foreign Exchanges newsletter. Daniel Bessner looks at US foreign policy, and notes how since World War II it has been marked by a Manicheanism. They see their position in the world as a struggle between good (themselves) and evil (another power). This outlook originated during the Second World War, where they were fighting the evil of fascism. Yet afterwards it got carried over into their analysis of powers as diverse as soviet communism, Islamic terrorism and now China.

I hope you enjoyed this newsletter. Feel free to send me comments or remarks by responding to this email. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe at the link below, hit the heart button or forward this email to someone who could be interested.