Huxley: The Farsighted Anarchist

Erasmo Calzadilla

Aldous Huxley

HAVANA TIMES — Towards the 1930s, the West watched the ascent of fascism and communism in horror. Novelist Aldous Huxley, however, cast a glance at the times and presaged the advent of a Western-styled totalitarianism: one that would encourage hedonism, sexual permissiveness and the enjoyment of material possessions, a world where people are eternally young, healthy and happily alienated.

Years later, already an old man, the restless pioneer would experiment with a new “toy”: psychedelic drugs. His reflections on these would contribute to the cultural revolution that shook the United States and other parts of the world in the 1960s.

Much has been written about psychedelic experiences. Few, however, have managed to combine the analytical distance of the scientist, the humanism of the philosopher, the sensibility of the artist and the mystical openness of the bold psychonaut in their writings, as Huxley did.

I’ve enjoyed Huxley’s works immensely, but, this late in the game, I thought the old man no longer had anything in store to surprise me with me. I was wrong. Devouring Point Counter Point, a novel published in 1928, I ran into one of the first literary references to the geologicallimits of exponential growth. Let us hear the exchange that Huxley’s politician, Webley, has with the farsighted Lord Edward:

“Progress!” he echoed and the tone of misery and embarrassment was exchanged for one of confidence. “Progress! You politicians are always talking about it. As though it were going to last. Indefinitely. More motors, more babies, more food, more advertizing, more money, more everything, forever. (…) What do you propose to do about phosphorus, for example? (…)“you’re simply draining the soil of phosphorus. More than half of one per cent a year. Going clean out of circulation. And then the way you throw away hundreds of thousands of tons of phosphorus pentoxide in your sewage! Pouring it into the sea. And you call that progress. Your modern sewage systems!”

“But all this has nothing to do with me,” protested Webley.

“Then it ought to,” Lord Edward answered sternly. “That’s the trouble with you politicians. You don’t even think of the important things.

“Talking about progress and votes and Bolshevism and every year allowing a million tons of phosphorus pentoxide to run away into the sea. It’s idiotic, it’s criminal. it’s … it’s fiddling while Rome is burning.”

He saw Webley opening his mouth to speak and made haste to anticipate what he imagined was going to be his objection.

“No doubt,” he said, “you think you can make good the loss with phosphate rocks. But what’ll you do when the deposits are exhausted?” He poked Everard in the shirt front. “What then? Only two hundred years and they’ll be finished.”

Today, in the 21st century, Cuban politicians are as staunchly in favor of exponential growth (the kind measured on the basis of GDPs) and as indifferent to the fate of phosphorous as their capitalist counterparts were a hundred years ago. The difference is that the matter has now become a burning issue and they need to disguise their schemes with the makeup of “sustainable development.”

7 thoughts on “Huxley: The Farsighted Anarchist

  • You mention the irrational fear of nuclear power, and how you cannot understand why people oppose it. Perhaps you are looking at the issue only as about economics & environmental science. From those sciences it’s relatively straight forward process to arrive at rational policies. But that’s not where the most fervent opponents of nuclear power (and coal, and oil, and hydroelectric) power are coming from.

    There is a radical Luddite attitude, infused with Marxist, anarchist, anti-capitalist & anti-Western ideology at the base of the environmentalist movement. They oppose almost all technology because they oppose the civilization which created it. Their opposition to development is a strategy to weaken and eventually destroy Western civilization.

  • On that I agree, but again thats is not good enough reason to not doing what we can to minimize our ecological fingerprint.

    One little comment on the issue of hydrocarbons; unless we unleash a thermonuclear war we are never going to run out of hydrocarbons. Fossil fuel is just the fossilized remnant of ancient flora and fauna and as long as there is life on earth we are going to have the materials needed to make more and algae and plants are pretty adept to recycle the carbon we burn in the atmosphere. Sure, we can’t use it to replace the ridiculous amount of oil we are burning right now and there are a lot of ethical issues involved, but is been done as we speak (see maize alcohol in the US or sugar cane in Brazil)

    On this subject, I find tremendously stupid the irrational fear of nuclear power that for some weird reason permeates our societies. Not only we are discarding what is probably the most effective way to obtain power (and so far the cleanest and safest), but by actively opposing it we are making it unsafer for everyone by extending the operational life of decrepit old plants instead of building newer and safer ones.

  • You misunderstood the point of my comment on finite resources. I pointed out the fact that peak theories proclaim a specific finite limit to a given resource, which has turned out to be incorrect because previously unknown deposits of the resource were later found. The typical response of the peak theorist is to adjust their dooms day prediction and set another date for the final end. Which deadline is again missed, and so on.

    Yes, eventually we will run out of hydrocarbons: oil, natural gas & coal. However, natural gas (methane) can be synthesized from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The technology for doing that is not that far off. Bacteria produce methane naturally.

    Perhaps a better way of saying it is that the only real limit is human imagination, which has not reached a “peak”. I’m not a wild eyed futurist, but I do have confidence in human ingenuity and creativity to solve the challenges we face. The only question is do we have the wisdom & morality not to destroy each other and ourselves along the way?

  • Of course there is a limit to imagination, and at least in your case its the concept of “finite”. No matter how much ingenuity you spend on it, finite resources are going to get exhausted at some point in time.

    And yes, there are some theoretical solutions like colonizing other worlds or using fusion reactors to produce some elements, but if your mindset prevails, by the time we have the required technology we would have closed the windows of opportunity to use it, most likely by destroying ourselves in a stupid war to secure dwindling resources.

    I mean no offense, but you use the same self-centered train of thought of the so called baby boomer generation and their utterly selfish approach to life. Yes, that is going to happen at some point in the future, and yes they’ll probably will be dead by then, but no, it doesn’t make it right, particularly when for the most part it can be alleviated by simple things we can do right now and we don’t because its inconvenient or might hurt our standards of life.

  • Dude, put down the bong!

  • The exponential growth in all technologies which is tied to the rocketing fields of computing power and AI will result in an age of abundance,
    Nanotechnologies will be able to work out solutions to manufacturing cleanly with little waste and to clean up environmental problems at the molecular level.
    All meats, fish products will be factory grown using cells from the animals and fish to clone without all the land and grazing, fed lots, fishing boats , fish processing plants etc and with none of the present pollution .
    The pessimistic view of the future held by a great many is understandable given the state of the world now and in the past .
    But the past is NOT prologue.
    Our brains enabled us to develop tools and the evolutionary progress over the millennia has led us to a world-changing tool: computers/AI which will be the tools which will take us into a golden age of humanity .
    What most have a problem with is the time frame .
    Most think such a society has to be well over 100 years away and is the stuff of Star Trek but the growth in those two tools, computers and AI is multiplying and that rate of multiplication is steadily increasing ( Moore’s Law) .
    The technologies are at the elbow of a rocketing, nearly vertical acceleration which points to human level AI in seven years or less, a human worker-less workforce -nearly 100% automated manufacturing sector before 2035 and health cures that will extend human lives by hundreds of years before the half-century mark. all automated w
    Almost all AI people agree that by 2045 artificial intelligence/machine intelligence will hold in the order of a billion Earth’s civilizations worth of information at which point the cognoscenti have no idea what becomes of that god-like intelligence.
    It goes without saying that any such super-intelligence will have solved all of humanity’s problems by 2045 .
    At that point, we may well transcend our present forms and existence.
    I get laughed at regularly about this vision of the future but until someone can convince me that Moore’s Law will not be valid long after super-human AI levels are reached or some other argument that Ray Kurzweil has not long ago beaten down, I will continue to hold a most optimistic view of humanity’s future.
    Want a look at this future?
    pick up a copy of ” Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think ” by Peter Diamandis (Google him) and Robert Kotler .
    No, don’t just read reviews of the book. They are hot and cold and understanding the very real exponential growth in the associated technologies is something a few reviewers did not grasp or believe.
    Also: Ray Kurzweil’s ( now director of engineering at Google) “The Singularity is Near” will help understand the trends and science behind this technologically enhance future of humanity .

    You might also want to look into trans-humanism which refers to the merging of humans and AI .
    AI brains operate at well over a million times as fast as the human brain as discussed in ” Life At The Speed Of Light” Vernor Vinge (?) also a good book on this near-future human/AI merging.
    Most people knowledgeable in the rapid growth of all technologies know that anyone not AI enhanced ( brain chip-internet) will be very out of touch with what is happening around them, so rapid will be the changes
    I do not expect many to see this view of the future simply because few are reading the books on the subject matter but think about how fast smart phones came about and the changes that one multi-tasking device have brought about.
    That is just one tiny corner of technology and it came about only because of the use of computers and associated chip technologies .
    Those same and other technological advances in all fields are all tied to ever more powerful computers and the coming of human level AI.
    The smart phone is the visible tip of the technological iceberg very few of us are seeing and which technological iceberg is very rapidly advancing UNSEEN and right under our noses..
    End note: Cheer up!
    Things will be so much better than you could ever have hoped for and,better yet, much , much sooner than you now think possible .
    Look into it.
    It may well turn you from dreading the future to greatly anticipating it and working toward it .

  • The problem with “peak” resource theories is that as consumption of valuable resources leads to declining reserves, the resulting rise in prices spurs greater exploration and research, leading to the discovery of newer and greater reserves.

    Phosphorus is a case in point. Today, Morocco is building new phosphorus plants to process their newly discovered reserves of the mineral. Other locations around the world will reveal previously unknown deposits. At some point somebody will figure out a cost effective way to remove phosphorus and other valuable mineral from waste water. People are already researching ways to mine sea water for dissolved minerals.

    That’s the problem with “peak” theories. They assume that because there are finite limited to resources, that we therefore know today what those limits are, which is an assumption proven wrong time & again.

    Moreover, peak resource theorists assume there must also be a peak to the supply of ideas and ingenuity. There is not. Human intelligence and invention has not been exhausted. There is no finite limit to imagination.

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