The Strawberry That Broke the Camels Back

Here’s a story that might not have made it across the oceans and interrupted your usual feed of anti-Trump, pro-globalism propaganda. In September of 2018 tiny needles were discovered in strawberries around Australia and a massive recall was instigated. Now a suspect has been arrested and it looks to be the doing of one 50-year-old Viet woman.

Before we discovered the culprit this was all us Australians could talk about. It was the word on everyone’s lips in every office in Australia. Why would someone do this? Who would do this? As the contamination spread we asked if it was a conspiracy, an army of agile-handed needle implanters working diligently to give Australians appendicitis. Thankfully only one man went to hospital, but the fear that our beloved fruit, our staple pavlova topping, could contain sharp objects put the fear in us all. Like with all conspiracies the truth is more mundane than we could imagine.

Take stock of this. One old woman with a little bit of spite managed to throw a big old spanner into the works and caused a national news cycle that lasted longer than your typical terrorist attack. The escapade prompted our Prime Minister to announce that, ‘If you do that sort of thing in this country we will come after you,’ and come after them we did, with a very large police operation set-up to sniff out the criminal. What can we learn from this?

That it doesn’t take much to upset the apple cart. Accelerationists, anarchists and other protestors talk about disruption, but how often do they upend an entire industry? As ISIL and the Strawberry Needler have proven the future of terrorism is isolated lone wolf attacks. Like blockchain attacks could be carried out on lines of trust, each cell separated from the larger body but able to put fuel on the fire wherever needed. This example was a haphazard revenge attack by a disgruntled worker; imagine a coordinated effort with the sole purpose of hijacking the news cycle. It is completely surprising that groups haven’t made an effort to impact the system in any meaningful way. Instead we get Occupy Wall Street.

Is it because the average protestor doesn’t want to risk hurting their fellow citizen? Surely our Strawberry Needler only went ahead with the plan because she reasoned the chances of actually hurting someone were slim. It now seems so easy that with such a complex system such as the one we have courtesy of global neoliberalism an individual effort can have much larger consequences. Ted K might have thought he was doing something by targeting and killing certain people, but it appears to me that he would have been better off actually disrupting the faceless, inhumane system (the fact that he didn’t perhaps points to his egoism). What other ways can the pine trees break down technological society? It must be non-harmful methods. Perhaps people could burn down post boxes. Breed cats and just let them go wild until there is an utter infestation of ferals in your neighbourhood. Or as I saw on Twitter, plant bamboo shoots in random places. And never forget Sky King who proved just how much one man can do. Things that are achievable alone but will definitely but stressors on various systems.

This is all purely hypothetical and theoretical, an interesting study of the ‘lone wolf’. I would be very interested in the psychology behind such cases. Mass shootings, terrorist attacks and needless in berries: what is the connection? Resentment? Is it that simple? That must be the only common thread between all three. You can blame Islam, and access to guns, but how do you blame an old woman? It’s almost as if you have to sympathize with her, just a little. We all know how much work sucks.

The future seems to belong to the lone wolf, the individual who has just had enough.

Against Anti-Natalism

Back in about 2014 I went through a bit of a nihilist stage. This included taking seriously ideas about being ‘pro’ suicide and anti-natalism. Now, I’ve moved well beyond this, but I can see how the ideas crop up. They are obviously heavily grounded in materialism, though you are not necessarily led to them if you are a materialist. Anti-natalism, which shares some ideas with veganism as we’ll see later, is particularly prone to materialist bias, and if based on purely material experiences ends up being completely imbalanced.

The first thing to note is that the apparently absurd idea of anti-natalism has been around for a long time. Take this part from Oeipus at Colonus:

Chorus:

It is obvious to me that those who shun moderation and want a longer life are fools.

The days of an overly long life are filled with pain.

Happiness eludes those who want to hang on to life longer than what the fates have allotted for them and in the end…

…the same attendant awaits him: Hades! Hades waits upon us all!

No ceremony, no wedding songs, no dances and no songs…

Just death! The end of us all is death.

The best would be not to be born at all.

But then, if he is born, the next best thing for him would be to try and return to where he came from…

…in the quickest possible time!

While youth and its careless mind lasts, no thought is given to what pain, what misery will, most certainly, follow.

Murder, mayhem, quarrels, wars will come before the inescapable end…

The hateful old age, frailty, loneliness, desolation and…

…your own misery’s neighbour, is even more misery.

And so, Oedipus like us, is old. Unhappy Oedipus! Bashed about like a reef facing north…

Bashed about on all sides by tempests of all sorts.

Never ending rain and wind crash over his head…

…fierce waves crash over him.

Now from West…

Now from the East…

Some during the midday’s light…

Some from the mountainous North…

…which the deep night darkens.

In modern times though the notion of anti-natalism has gained a sort of academic backing, one that dovetails neatly with so many other academic pursuits, namely colonial guilt and oppression. Now women are pushed towards careers, and anti-natalism takes on the nature of a choice, a right, a lifestyle decision. No longer merely a way to remove suffering from the world, but a way in which to increase your own pleasure.

David Benatar is a Professor of Philosophy at University of Cape Town. Now, leaving aside the fact that I find most South Africans less than savoury, his argument in favour of anti-natalism leaves a lot wanting. He was recently on Sam Harris’s podcast discussing these ideas, and one of his main arguments is that there is a greater gain from removing war and suffering than there is in producing love and joy. Harris makes the obvious point that this ‘benefit’ affects absolutely no one if there is no one to experience it. At this point going down this line of thought, you would — or should — immediately throw out the whole idea of anti-natalism.

This is particularly interesting because in a few podcasts before Harris had Max Tegmark on, who is a bit of an expert on Artificial Intelligence. His take away was that intelligence and consciousness is designed to spread, designed to become more complex, and so the best good we can do is to help it flourish. This is something Jordan Peterson echoes, especially in his Biblical stories series, specifically that ‘Whatever’s going on on this planet has to do with conscious reality, and the transformations of consciousness, for all we know, might be the most important things that happen everywhere.’ The anti-natalist position is completely at odds with these notions. It is a fault of the wrong type of materialism. If materialism takes as a presupposition that there is no inherent meaning to be found in the universe, then you can posit all sorts of other meaning values. That can be whatever David Chapman is trying to create, or it can be the complete reduction of suffering in the world, no matter the cost.

Interestingly, this appears to work as some sort of paperclip maximiser, without the runaway AI. It just requires unlimited empathy. Nothing else matters but the *ahem* humanitarian goal. This is where anti-natalism crosses with veganism. Both advocate not for the outright removal of their victim group, but for the slow disintegration of it, so that slowly suffering is removed. But what is the point of removing the beings that suffer if they are not there to experience this good?

The entire premise rests on suffering. Naturally I find Professor Benatar’s notion of suffering somewhat insufferable, even petty. In Fourth Way work there is focus on suffering, and how we use intentional suffering to further our own work on ourselves. Rather than try to solve or change suffering, modern and secular people — sometimes with a slightly too high IQ — would prefer to run away. They want big system solutions to the pain and suffering in the world, and none more all-encompassing than the idea of anti-natalism. It is quite plainly a cop out and an absurd solution.

But why is it that we are continuously faced with more and more absurd propositions? Why, for example, is the acceptance of abortion no longer absurd? Or any other progressive talking point from the last fifty years? Scott has a recent post where he goes into this idea of holding the line against absurdity, where we have to really question whether loosening or tightening the status quo is quite as strange as we fear it might be. How long until the idea of anti-natalism as a selfless mission falls into the Overton Window and is discussed openly, even lauded? Laws are in place because of custom or revealed truth, not the other way around. We did not create laws to enforce culture, but created laws to implement culture. We have forgotten why we made such laws to begin with. Reaction is the opposite of complacency, of letting go. Even if the world around us is speeding by, we have to be ready to plant our feet firmly in the ground and have reason ready to combat the waves of absurdity.

And these waves grow in strength, enabled by the new wonders of civilisation. Anti-natalism is plainly an absurd idea, but I can see it encroaching on good people. So its arguments must be laid to bare as what they are: ridiculous. They are premised on flimsy materialism and asymmetrical point scoring. We must remain against it.

Maelstrom

Morality was a chemical.

I believe it is the prescience of a work of science fiction that makes it a classic. The only way for this to happen is not by correctly predicting the future technology (though that can help), but by interweaving a strong philosophical core into the usual elements of plot, character and setting. I can think of no modern writer who does this better than Peter Watts (and perhaps Cixin Liu), who is quite simply an under-appreciated genius.

Maelstrom is the sequel to Starfish, and while it does continue the story and themes, it brings a lot more to the table. In some cases this harasses the main story, where too many characters are introduced, and too much is going on. But as a whole it still provides a nihilistic look at the world, this time without constraints. Because while Starfish was contained on the bottom of the ocean, Maelstrom takes the chaos to the surface.

Spoiler alert: Behemoth, the ancient microbe that gobbles sulphur like there’s no tomorrow (which, there won’t be) is loose and being spread by Lenie Clarke, our genetically modified and physiologically fucked-up protagonist. It’s a grim story where really grim things happen. Refugees, food shortages, technological breakdown, you name it, it’s happening. And then the apocalypse walks out of the ocean.

Even just as a science fiction story it’s a fatalistic romp, but it’s more than that. It describes the situation we find ourselves in now.

Watts discusses memes before they became cool, and indeed we can look at the memes in the book as a reflection of the memes that lead to the rise of Donald Trump. Whoa, where did that come from? It’s quite clear.

There were exceptions, of course. Every now and then a single thread persisted, grew thick and gnarled and unkillable: conspiracy theories and urban legends, the hooks embedded in popular songs, the comforting Easter-bunny lies of religious doctrine. These were the memes: viral concepts, infections of conscious thought. Some flared and died like mayflies. Others lasted a thousand years or more, tricked billions into the endless propagation of parasitic half-truths.”

Memes play an important role. Not only is there the biological agency of memes, such as in Behemoth or general evolution, but there are the sociological memes we are so used to today. Lenie Clarke is essentially hi-jacked by a computer program that vomits out memes until one sticks: that of doombringer. Isn’t that EXACTLY what has happened with Trump? Isn’t that a huge part of his popularity? When everything is fucked up, we want it to end. Another quote describing the end:

 

“What happens is, the dog’s a social animal, and it gets so lonely it actually looks forward to the shit-kicking. It asks to be kicked. It begs.”

“What are you saying?”

“Maybe everyone’s just so used to being kicked around they’ll help out anyone they think has a big enough boot.”

“Or maybe,” Perreault said, “we’re so fucking tired of being kicked that we’re finally lining up with anyone who kicks back.”

“Yeah? At what cost?”

“What do we have to lose?”

“You have no idea.”

This idea is reflected both by the general populace’s embrace of doom, but also in Lenie Clarke’s embrace of sadism. She looks to be raped, she looks to be harmed, but only to further her own end, a weird perversion of schadenfreude. She doesn’t give a fuck about a world that treated her so badly, so she’s going to return the favour. That idea of embracing the end because what do we have to lose? Well, with Trump we have no idea. (As an aside, with Hilary we have a pretty good picture.)

To further hone in on what is happening, let me take a recent quote from Ran Prieur, renowned doomer:

When people lack that skill, when they know how to focus down into “us-vs-them” but not focus back out, then there’s a ratcheting effect where former allies fight each other about ever smaller disagreements. This is socially unstable, like a black hole collapsing in on itself, or maybe like a forest fire. If you see this happening, the first move is to put the fire out, to make peace; if that fails, the second move is to isolate it and let it burn itself out, to let the enemies fight in a way that doesn’t harm the world around them; and the emergency third move is to run away.

Us vs Them is what the current American (global?) situation represents. This is very much what is happening in Maelstrom, though it is simply Order vs Chaos. Indeed, a large part of the book involves putting out fires, and when it inevitably fails as Lenie marches onward, we move towards isolation (as happens in all outbreak stories). Then, right at the end, the forces of order literally run away (in the most ironic fashion possible). Maelstrom is a book written 15 years ago that represents the very problems we face right now. That is what I call a science fiction classic.

Some more choice quotes:

“Perhaps they’d been conditioned by all the quarantines and blackouts, all the invisible boundaries CSIRA erected on a moment’s notice. The rules changed from one second to the next, the rug could get pulled out just because the wind blew some exotic weed outside its acceptable home range. You couldn’t fight something like that, you couldn’t fight the wind. All you could do was adapt. People were evolving into herd animals.

Or maybe just accepting that that’s what they’d always been.”

“It’s the pattern that matters, you see. Not the choice of building materials. Life is information, shaped by natural selection. Carbon’s just fashion, nucleic acids mere optional accessories. Electrons can do all that stuff, if they’re coded the right way. It’s all just pattern.”

 

“Sometimes she really pissed him off. ‘There’s a war going on,’ he wanted to shout. ‘And it’s not against corpses or bureaucrats or your imaginary Evil Empires; we’re fighting against a whole indifferent universe that’s coming down around our ears and you’re shitting on me because sometimes we have to accept casualties?’

Oh, and it’s depiction of a future internet is just fucking perfect.