Prospection and the Anthropocene

I’d like to share two recent items from the news that make a sobering pairing.

The first is an opinion piece in the New York Times by psychologist Martin Seligman and Times science writer John Tierny summarizing a new theory about human beings that emphasizes our orientation toward the future. Seligman suggests that this orientation is the distinguishing characteristic of our species. Rather than identifying ourselves in terms of our purported wisdom—the “sapiens” part of “Homo sapiens”—Seligman argues that “a more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise.”

More to the point regarding the Anthropocene, for Seligman the power of prospection is what enables people to cooperate.

We are social animals like no others, living and working in very large groups of strangers, because we have jointly constructed the future. Human culture— our language, our division of labor, our knowledge, our laws and technology— is possible only because we can anticipate what fellow humans will do in the distant future.

But the link between society and prospection runs two ways. Seligman is lead author of a book, Homo Prospectus; one of his co-authors Roy Baumeister elaborates the collective character of prospection, noting the contribution of social cooperation to humans’ ability to think about the future at all: the future, as we act toward it in the present, can be understood as a social construction (pp. 134 ff.)

It seems extremely plausible that the power of prospection is instrumental for social cooperation—but of course it itself doesn’t determine the character of what people cooperate to do. Thus, it is obviously not right to suggest that prospection in itself is responsible for the forms of cooperation that have produced the global-scale changes in the Earth system that we now identify with the Anthropocene. Nonetheless, it seems right that in explanations of how something like the Anthropocene is possible—i.e. in explaining how it has been possible for members of our species to have had the transformative impact they did—the human capacity to look to the future plays an important role.

But prospection seems to be at work with the Anthropocene in multiple ways: as a capacity underlying the social cooperation that leads to it, but also as the capacity many people use to imagine it, and to respond to it. To be sure, it seems correct that many people across the globe have already begun to suffer the adverse impacts associated with changes in the Earth System. But I think it is fair to say that for many others those adverse impacts are a matter of prediction: they are what we are told to expect in the future, albeit a future that is not very distant. This makes the Anthropocene, in part, something we experience as a challenge we are equipped to face by our capacity for prospection. Thus we think of ways to mitigate changes we can foresee, and, foreseeing the limits of our ability to forestall those changes, we anticipate ways of adapting to them.

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Svalbard Globale frøhvelv.

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault; Photo credit: Landbruks – og matdepartementet

But now let’s turn to the second item—a news story from The Guardian on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, reporting on water intrusion due to melting of the permafrost into which the vault is built.

The Seed Vault seems like an epitome of prospection. (See this post by Robert Bailey for some thoughts about it.) According to the Crop Trust, a funder of the project,

The Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today.

The vault was constructed in part as a prospective response to potential disruptions to agriculture due to climate change. And its site was chosen with the prospect of sea level rise in mind: it is high enough to be “protected from ocean flooding according to worst case scenario sea level rises.” The project seems to be organized around the idea of foresight.

However, it appears that the planners of the vault did not foresee the possibility that the permafrost itself might melt. According to The Guardian,

soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year led to melting and heavy rain, when light snow should have been falling. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault.

The meltwater only intruded into the tunnel leading to the actual storage vault—it did not reach the seeds, which were unaffected. However it pointed to an unanticipated vulnerability—a prospect that the vault’s designers’ prospection had not considered.

It is tempting—and perhaps correct—to see in this story the inevitable inadequacy of human prospection. Figures from Robert Burns to Donald Rumsfeld have given crisp expression to the impossibility of mastering the future. Thus, the moral we might want to draw from the story is an all-too-familiar reminder of human fallibility, in particular in the face of natural systems whose complexity we have only compounded through our interference in them. How appropriate, on this view, that a danger we have posed to ourselves is so profound that we cannot even foresee the futility of our efforts to protect ourselves from it. How hubristic to imagine that we could.

But there is another moral we might draw as well—or instead. It is not hubristic to seek knowledge of the world; hubris comes in the belief that we can have final, certain knowledge, without the need for revision in light of what the world actually presents us. Thus, as responsibility demands, the organizations that operate the vault are responding to the problem they discovered: their present experience has led them to reimagine the future. The Guardian reports on their “precautions, including major work to waterproof the 100m-long tunnel into the mountain and digging trenches into the mountainside to channel meltwater and rain away.” (See also the operator’s statement about their plan for improvements to the facility.) This is a cycle familiar to pragmatist understandings of knowledge, which emphasizes responsiveness to experience. Indeed, in the book I mention above Baumeister alludes to this connection (p. 163)—and he concludes a section on prospection and accuracy by noting that “there are two steps to prospection. The first is ‘What do I want?’ The second is ‘What can go wrong?’” (Though, in line with the connection he sees between prospection and social interaction, noted above, for Baumeister human intelligence is rooted not in the ability to predict the behavior of the physical environment, but of other people. (179))

Thus, the moral of the story about flooding at the vault might be about hubris of a different sort. The aspiration of the project is that the vault can run on its own:

“It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day,” Aschim said. “We must see what we can do to minimise all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself.”

The hubris here is perhaps the aspiration to create something that will persist independently of human effort, that will attain permanence outside of the human world of fallibility and change.

Indeed that aspiration involves beliefs about the permanent features of the world—for the planners of the vault those included the permafrost that turned out to be permeable after all (see Robert’s comment on this point). But of course the planners of the vault are fallible; they could not foresee everything that might happen. The fundamental error, however, is not that they envisioned a picture of the future, and something unforeseen intruded into it. Rather, the error has to do with what they perhaps left out of the picture in the first place: the necessity of continuing human activity in tending to our own productions.

Thus, finally, it is not hubristic to try to defend against future problems—including problems which human beings have had a hand in creating. Rather, the hubris comes in thinking that we in the present can forestall the need for people in the future, including our own future selves, to actively participate in that defense. A moral for the Svalbard story I’d like to entertain, therefore, is that we cannot free anyone—ourselves or our descendants—from humans’ fundamental circumstance of having to create and maintain the conditions of their lives. For we can only meaningfully train our prospection onto a future we ourselves inhabit.

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