review of X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction by Thomas Moynihan (2020 Urbanomic Press)


Forthcoming book with MIT Press & Urbanomic.
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more texts by Thomas Moynihan

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I got a free copy of this book for an honest review. I already had the occasion to read a few related articles and essays by Thomas Moynihan in sumrevija.si and Palladium Mag. This review expands on those early first observations. Only later have I found out how they fit into a book of a much grander scope.

Its purpose is none other than redefining modernity and even reason as reason to ensure that thinking will not cease to exist in the future. All this in the light of something that has never before dawned on human minds: that the universe can well do without those very minds. One risks being overlooked when arriving on the crest of such an expanding body of collapse studies or end of the world as “growth industry”(Claire Colebrook), with scientists moving the Doomsday Clock closer to Midnight and ongoing “slow violence”(Rob Nixon) of 6th mass extinction blending into nearly omnipresent barrage of media apocalypticism. Yet, I believe X-Risk cuts like no other trough all of the recent secular/post-secular eschatological confusions, separating the threat of exterminism from prepper talk. Once and for all witnessing the end of one’s (or another’s) world is not the same as experiencing extinction nor is it establishing a presumptive final date of expiration. Thomas Moynihan’s book should be able to dispel all the lingering hesitation about what Big Filters to chose from (take ur pick from gray goo nano planetary meltdown to superintelligent AIs using our entire biomass as computronium fodder) by inviting us to step down from the giants upon whose shoulders we supposedly stand, and get a frisson as they succumb to ‘infinitarian paralysis’ (Nick Bostrom quoted by TM) and kamikaze theories about biospheres and entire worlds that keep on bursting like soda bubbles.

“The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Engraving by James Macaulay, 1880”

Clearly this book was written by someone who enjoys collecting all these ruinous and delightfully abhorrent mental cataclysms, a necessary feat at the very moment when we might desperately cling to old certitudes in the throes of apocalyptic theology, in spite of the daily facts that remind us that we’ve jumped off the cliff a while ago. Here comes a 21st c historical perspective on the long XX century of dreaming up wild galactic-scale visions about the present via the far future and across cosmic silences, not ignoring both the divergences and the ongoing dialogue btw Mutually Assured Destructive partners, a worthwhile recuperative effort especially in light of recent New Cold War fears.

“Design for a space habitat by Tsiolkosky”

With a strong impetus from the cosmist undercurrent (what Zizek used to call the “biocosmist heresy”) the Former East or ex-Soviet Bloc futurological contributions from ‘actually existing socialism’ that previously got short writ, astronomers Nikolai Kardashev and Iosif Shklovsky finally get their due. I don’t want to give the false impression this book is just a collection of daring visions and whimsical cosmological fallacies – it accomplishes the prodigious feat of channeling all these disparate resources about endangered futures trough the lens of rapidly expanding (since ~mid 90s explosion) astrobiological (or xenobiological as it was called) exoplanetary knowledge. The conceptual break criss-crossing a historical (diachronic) backdrop rich in brazen technological solutions and initial responses to ever more darkly looming existential threats – takes us to precedents and first inklings of the idea that there might be something deeply wrong with entrusting the universe the mission to bring us back once we disappear. While examplflifying this novelty, X-Risk nevertheless eagerly recognizes the pioneering work of Milan M. Ćirković, Toby Ord, Anders Sandberg, Nick Bostrom and Sir Martin Rees that contributed to the establishment of a new academic discipline. At the same time, there is so much more to be said about a wider search of Non-Western forecasting institutions and X-Risks mediation with examples from the Global Southor Chinese Society for Futures Studies (CSFS) established in 1979 China with the role of  “to serve the long-term planning and the modernization construction of the country, and to serve the progress of mankind.”  or 1970s Romania’s Laboratory for Prospective Research (later CIMSVD Institute) and their Tofflerian romances.

Numerous mini chapters with memorable titles like “Bubbles of Cosmic Nonchalance”, “Eternalism and Its Discontents”, “Worst of All Possible Worlds”, “Tadpole Hedonists and Fatal Flower-Arrangers”, “Shitting on the Morning Star or the Uses and Abuses of History” remind me that we should cherish all the thinkers that know how to tickle the hyper-modulated nerve of maximally distracted 21st reading. Clearly one of the best ways to do it – is to zoom-in on hopelessly (till now) and shamefully lost metaphysical constructions (Stanislaw Lem once called upon the singular powers of Sci-Fi to peddle such disreputable – but oh so intriguing metaphysical beasts). X-Risk is full with the decadent splendor of abstruse, smothered in their cradle natural philosophies, full of enormities with blusterous cosmic (and comic) reach.

“Henry de la Beche’s lampooning of Lyell’s resurrecting necrofauna, entitled ‘Awful Changes’, drawn in 1830”

Adjoining are excellent B&W images peppering the text from a draft of dela Beche ‘Awful Changes’ with Professor Icthyosaurus lecturing the necrofauna, woodcuts of Tambora’s eruption provoking the Year Without a Summer and unwittingly creating the perfect conditions for Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus at Diodati Villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, including some well-chosen portraits of Eduard von Hartmann (“looking omnicidal”) and F.W.J. Schelling (“in his old age and cosmic wisdom”) or biologist Oka Asajirō (“considering omnicidal degeneration, decadence, and debauchery”).

“Bernard de Fontenelle’s cosmic theatre of throning plenitudes, 1686”

Whatever we might still think about giants of Continental philosophy (with either waning extinctionist credentials or pretty shaky perennialist positions), their Appetite For Destruction seems to have been fed by a very tenacious metaphysical Principle – the undead Principle of Plenitude. Years ago i read a fresh Romanian translation of The Great Chain of Being: Study of an Idea (1936) by Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, where the Principle of Plenitude gets ample exposition.

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana

This and Alexandre Koyre’s From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (1957) potentially changed our understanding of how such cosmic modelling and reordering got us to where we are now. The Great Chain of Being is one of those books that will never let any figureheads of Scientific, Literary and Philosophical canon rest in peace. It unwinds the living history of Scala Naturae, patiently uncovering the seams that bound innumerable taxonomical schemes almost till Linnaeus or Darwin & Wallace, the glue that kept everything in place in grand preordained hierarchies.

“Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906), looking omnicidal”

X-Risk newness consist in striking a definitive last blow at this chain constricting the way Life on Earth and the supralunar realms were imagined under the grip of Plenitude, finally to be ruined after the idea of extinction had sunk in. X-Risk widens the non sequiturs and gaps of the eternalist principle of Plentitude, or the endurance of value in a universe that appeared biased in our favor (take ur pick: Weak or Strong Anthropic Principle) as much part of philosophical and theological clusters as for Leibniz’s theodicy, under-girding his whole “best of the best worlds” on the same inherent overestimation and smugness about ultimate default safety nets. One may wonder if – Schumpeter’s gale – schöpferische Zerstörung or creative destruction that animates capitalism blows hard on the same wind of teleologic justification for destruction and ensuing cosmic renewal that made J. G. Fichte remark “All death in nature is birth, and precisely in dying does the augmentation of life visibly appear”(The Vocation of Man – quoted by T Moynihan).

“F. W. J. Schelling, in his old age and cosmic wisdom”

While Whitehead is not present in any visible way, I somehow felt his mathematical approach to philosophical aporias useful in this altogether different context. In the unsuspecting way he discovers an age-old problem while rotating certitudes around almost like a Rubik cube, unceremoniously fitting parts that have been kept apart since ages, lightly addressing hampering axioms that constrain all subsequent chains of reasoning or their given solutions, restricting all flights of speculative endeavor. He does not try to eliminate or weed out the audacious brambles and thickets of reason. X-Risk also finds immense scope in detailing and following up on all the consequences of setting these finitudes free, in order to establishing what grounding beliefs subtend and unite all thinkers, no matter their school, language, methods or their particular apocalyptic flavor. What Thomas Moynihan in both rich detail and systematic search brings forth example after illuminating and frankly hilarious example from the most quirky, whimsical to the brightest of feverish minds – is their nearly complete naivete in regard to humanity’s cosmic no-rerun show. Up to a certain point, nobody seems to get that once they are out they are out. It is really gloriously and darkly funny to try and go back to the Encyclopedistes, or to the most pre-critical Philosophers as well as later SETI searches for humanoid aliens and see why so much of this intellectual bravado went so wonderfully askew. Only Marquis de Sade stands apace – but here he is on its own in many ways as he actively promotes extinction. This might also partially explain why reactions to the actual disappearance of the Dodo species (and others) in Mauritius or why Dodo-populated planets seemed possible to Bernard de Fontenelle (in retrospect), or why the dramatic realization of ultimate extinction came so late (possible clue: the Plurality of World aka Multiverse – Many Worlds theory sadly also fails the sensitivity-to-extinction litmus test).

“William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, engraving of the Orion Nebula, as described by De Quincey. You can almost make out the skull De Quincey imagined the nebula forming. From An Account of the Obesrvations of the Great Nebula in Orion, Made at Birr Castle, with the 3-Feet and 6-Feet Telescopes, between 1848 and 1867, WIth a Drawing of the Nebula, 1868.”

This brings me to a possible consequence of this book imho – the way it counters the sort of abundance craze – Plenitude – as an expression of ontological excess, an ontology that seems to stumble on examples of non-experience or absence, or tends to avoid what might be called the wasteland of missing ‘windows of opportunity’ or singular encounters. An unrecognized dearth that might isolate such abundance on ‘lucky’ rafts drifting the void of space or forever lost in the gulfs between ‘island universes’. In some way Plenitude tangles as well with Cornucopian versions of ecological or eco-critical thinking. A cornucopian might have the same obliviousness to man-made disasters or to how everything runs its course if left alone (ex: neo-Malthusian COVID herd immunity or man-made conflicts that seem to help nature replenish itself). Thus, the faltering and lazy logic of non-interventionism runs amok and abstains specifically when worst comes to worst. What seems to be an increasingly growing problem of our times, not only disarray and suspicion about what is to be done, is a retreat from directed collective action coupled with nonchalant stand-back attitude. One cannot fully abandon excess – since austerity seems to be allied with the worst of capitalism nowadays, imposing all manners of punishing restrictions and well-targeted scarcity on those who anyway feel the brunt of a very bad deal. Technological post-scaricity Pays de Cockaygne’s is far indeed almost because it felt possible to the most prosperous and wasteful boomer generation, children of plenty and man-made extinction (mostly atomic) fears. It is easy to trumpet austerity on a planet where waste-disposal is being rerouted to second or third world and efficiency has become ever pressing and depressing. Before recognizing extinction as a fact of history and evolution, past or future, as this baroque abundance of literary, scientific and philosophical examples makes clear, it became a sheer impossibility to see something else besides basically bursting, agglomerated, populous celestial spheres.

Emblem XLII by Michael Maier woodcut from Atalanta Fugiens, Frankfurt 1618.

If this cornucopian view of ‘nature’ (here terrestrial thus inclusive of humans) where all new continents and all worlds & all planets are as full as the old rivers, fields or standing forests becomes a thing of the past, even at fault for being completely exploitative, genocidal and predatory, what lies at the other end? Future Orchidelirium might not be such a bad habit after all, only and only if it does not become a botanical hunter’s dream bioprospecting after the rare and valued. Otherwise ‘Herschel’s Garden’ might resemble the good old lawns. Embracing full artificiality and artistry we might still learn from pop cultural ET galactic horticulturalists as Ralo Mayer already explored in his E.T.E. Extra-Terrestrial Ecologies performance lecture. With the waning of plentiful plenitude and strategically retreating from it, even if unaffected by extinction ideas and the radical realization of irreversible disappearance – extreme environments and desert communities where the anorganic was abundant (sun and sand in the excess) also birthed say Dune’s Frementhe Albertian Order of St. Leibowitz, crypto-communist Essenes or mothers of the desert or fathers of the wasteland in the Eastern cenobitic tradition (with whom at least presumably we could exchange apocalyptic or messianic pleasantries) could help along by entertaining ideas of infertility, of absence, of no return and a growing emptiness that resonates far better with the vast expanse of suddenly available exoplanetary (external ‘nature’ unaffected by humans) desolation.

A clearly applied and directed Pessimism is essential nowadays for any collective, distributed & planned action to take place. Scientifically grounded 21st c Pessimism has somehow remade itself and at the same time remade the entire cannon of Western thought by emboldening us to abandon all complacent thoughts about unswerving teleology insuring reserved-seats for the human species in this universe, while never abandoning the need to secure its further existence. The mind- argument, the rarity and preservation of so-called “sophonts”, of reason endowed entities as threatened species in a mindless (or valueless) universe is one of the strongest arguments of why we should try and change course and think about securing the chance of future generations to exist and prosper (X-Risk being a staunch supporter of Enlightenment values and universality if fragility of reason). Panpsychism or cosmopsychism etc as understood and popularized noways (by Philip Goff for one in his Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousnesses 2019) elaborates on a parallel history of “what matter is in contrast to what it does” – an alternative entertained by both Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington, arriving at quite opposite conclusions to extinction thinking from what I gather. I am on very thin ice here – but I wonder how consciousnesses and experience as the medium of reality itself squares out with extinctionism at this very precise historical juncture. As such, any extended, immanent non-human consciousnesses inherent at completely different scales (gradients, levels, degrees, substrates of organization etc) – might be also confronted with this ultimate task i.e. having to probe its foreseeable disappearance and thinning out further ahead.

After reading X-Risk, one may finally breathe again relieved because one is not left to suck in another of the private an frankly boring musings and philanthropic escape plans of company founders attending to their favorite Sci-Fi fears (Superintelligences transforming everyone into Paperclips etc), that seem to ignore and completely circumvent the bountiful historical examples of past and present – of extinctions that go on without a bang, of non-spectacular threats no less important to human and more-than-human existence here on planet Earth (divestment from fossil fuels or the present retreat from long-term planning in spite of Green New Deal and Extinction Rebellion).

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