Views from the third world. Earth.

Flying On A Dinosaur

The Colombo-Doha flight drops us off nowhere near the terminal. We have to physically walk down the airplane and into the dry heat of Qatar. I watch the business-class people drive away in their own half-empty bus, and then wait for the cattle car. We drive for a long time through the tarmac, hanging from straps. Like twenty minutes. Maybe half an hour. I feel like a human dropped in the Jurassic. A strange mix of awe and horror.

The sheer amount of asphalt and concrete and giant drums full of fuel is staggering. It just keeps going and going. And it’s all so desolate. No souls there, only machines. This airport — any airport — is a completely alien environment, populated entirely by fire-breathing beasts. We don’t usually see this because we’re inside the beasts. It’s a completely different ecosystem, and we can only survive there inside some sort of casing.

Whether through gates or buses, we have to be shuttled between orifices, like bacteria riding droplets in a sneeze. This is how being inside the human gut must feel to microbes. We’re just particles in the bowels of a machine. I bring up the microbial metaphor because it’s not a metaphor. Life is constantly evolving inside other lifeforms. Your own farts are the product of millions of angry anaerobes, forced to retreat up your butts after the evolution of photosynthesizers poisoned the air for them. Aerobic life evolved out of anaerobic life, and killed its ancestors. Today we’re doing the same thing or, more accurately, the machines are doing it to us. And yet we think we’re in charge cause they give us a ride. I know that we’re dreaming, but still I dream.

Thisis how it feels to be a human in the fossil fuel age, where machines are evolving out of us and choking us with their emissions and heat. Now we have to retreat inside them for safety, like anaerobes after the Great Oxygen Holocaust 2.5 billion years ago (never forget). We’re living through the Great Carbon Holocaust, caused by digging up the same photosynthesizers that nearly froze the Earth last time. Now the process goes in reverse, with global heating. It’s just a little bit of history repeating.

Nothing makes you feel the hostile environment we ‘created’ more than an airport. As I look out the window there’s no humans, unless they’re attached to a machine. Human’s can’t be here. You need a uniform, you need a pass, you need a job, you need money, something to make you fit into the digestive system of the machines. This is the artificial world we ‘created’ in scare quotes, because, biologically speaking, all life is created out of another, and usually kills its ancestors. In the long run, the victor writes the history, and I don’t see us winning.

We step into the terminal, where the illusion is less naked. But it’s still illusory. When you’re in international transit you’ll either die or be arrested if you step out of the machine network. The whole thing is a circulatory system and you’re just an undifferentiated cell carrying instructions and energy (re: currency). Lose any of these things and you get put in a room and isolated like a germ. Flushed out of the system or returned to sender. One of those people wailing at the transfer desk, stuck in purgatory.

How did we get here? It all starts, I think, with our preoccupation with me. The modern preoccupation with the self (to the exclusion of all other selves) is the mother of all illusions. This is what I, as a Buddhist, call anatta, not-self. Not that there is no self, but that’s not all. Children know this intuitively. They ascribe self to animals, to cars, to planes. We correct children but they’re right. We’re merely deluding them in the correct ways, not describing reality (such as it is). Of course planes and trains and automobiles are living. They move, they consume energy, they resist entropy. We call this anthropomorphism, but that’s just a mouthful of hubris.

This vain idea that one particular ape branch of evolution is better than all others (before and after) is the most destructive delusions in modern mythology. In ancient mythology — which we laugh at — the trees and animals and spirits were obviously living. Not just living, they had life abundantly, more than us humans could dream of. They were gods. We think the ancient animist beliefs stupid and primitive but, as Forrest Gump said, stupid is as stupid does. We’re the ones sawing down the very evolutionary tree we sit in, thinking ourselves so fucking wise. We miss our connection and end up falling straight through purgatory and into hell.

One of the core lessons in evolution is that life is wildly incestuous. Life is always evolving out of other life. You were physically connected to your mother and completely useless for months. Your body is in fact a teeming ecosystem of billions of bacteria and viruses, digesting your food, influencing your mood, and keeping the other, ‘bad’, microbes away. There’s more not-human DNA than human DNA on your person, but we really think we’re the center of the universe. We’re not even the center of our own bodies. And so we miss the machines, evolving out of the ecosystem of us.

Just machines (ie, corporations and commodities) use humans in their life processes doesn’t make them less living. Are you less living because you rely on other creatures to digest your own food? Just because machines require us for their life processes make us think we’re their masters, but are we, really? Who’s running over whom? What we call the artificial is a literally artificial boundary. Life is merely evolving in silicon instead of carbon now. Stranger things have happened.

The idea that there’s some clear border between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is false. All new life is impossible in the context of what came before. We sit here with lifeforms literally evolving in our pockets and claim they don’t exist. But they obviously do. They literally dominate us, and corporate AI has been ruling us for centuries now. This denial of artificial evolution is just pride, and you know what comes after that. The fall.

The rule we follow today is that airplanes and cars and corporations are not living, that’s for children. The rule we follow is that plants and animals are not living, and spirits and gods don’t exist, that’s for heathens. And so we get run over, enslaved, and farted to death by machines and corporate AI, all while being very proud of how smart we are. We destroy the family tree that supports us and the mother that feeds us, and we think ourselves imminently reasonable. As the homicidal philosopher Anton Chigurh said, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” And then he killed people. That’s what evolution is telling us, and we still don’t listen, even as the cattle-gun is at our foreheads.

I sit in the Doha airport and look at the arching beams above me. It feels like I’m inside the rib-cage of a giant dinosaur. Then I look out at the winged dinosaurs — literal petrosaurs — that this entire artificial landscape is built for. We act like humans run the place, but it sure doesn’t look like it. I have to get permission for every damn thing I do. I have to carry a machine-readable document to go anywhere at all. Meanwhile the worker-humans — chained by their passports — scurry around helping those creatures with their digestive processes (loading and unloading bags, people, and fuel). Even from outside the plane window the workers look like remoras around sharks. Living off the scraps, but certainly not in charge. And that’s when you see the workers at all. Most of the time the bodily servants of capital are completely invisible, like microbes.

Where the fuck am I, who am I, and most importantly, when? As the sanitation sage Anthony Soprano said, “Lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end.” When flying first started it was an easy, drunk, feasty, smoky affair. That experience is relegated to private planes today. Until the 80s, planes kept going faster and faster, things kept getting better and better, but that was really a high water mark. ‘Progress’ has only been rolling back since. Now we are at a point where A) we’re nearing the end of fossil fuels this century (they are, by definition, non-renewable) and B) we have to stop using them anyways because they’re killing us. Hence whichever way we meet our end, plane travel as we know it is ending, and within our lifetimes (inshallah). This is like Damien Hirst’s rotting artwork of a dead shark. The Impossibility Of Dying In The Mind Of Someone Living. It’s the impossibility of not-flying in the mind of someone flying. But it’s coming.

I think about this as I look around the airport. As I look at myself. With things like electric vehicles and electrified grids, we can at least imagine how it’s technically possible to transition. It’s not practically or economically possible, but it’s imaginable. Commercial electric planes are actually beyond our imagination. We have no idea how they’d work. We just do some hand-waving based on our faith in progress (which should have died last century) but we actually have no fucking clue. It’s technically not possible to have sustainable planes at all, not as we expect them. As Dr. Tom Murphy says, being generous,

A comparable energy storage in the form of batteries — even allowing a factor of three difference in thermal efficiency versus electric efficiency — would take 300 tons of battery, far in excess of the entire plane’s maximum takeoff weight. Alternatively, the airplane could simply accept a reduced range by a factor of 20, down to 200 km. Recharge time could easily exceed flight time. It’s not the same.

Battery powered 737s are just not possible. It’s not happening. Alternatives like hydrogen are also impractical. Hydrogen is A) not an energy source, it’s a battery and B) it’s difficult to store and would also take up passenger space. It’s also explosive and we’ve tried hydrogen vehicles of a sort before (re: the Hindenburg). Which went up in flames. Biofuels are technically works, but that literally means burning food, which we’re also going to run short of as fertilizers require natural gas and we don’t know how to substitute that either. Fossil fuels were really a one-time energetic inheritance and we blew it on flights and dumb shit like trust fund babies. Now we have to grow up and take the bus.

While it is possible to make electric, hydrogen, or biodiesel proof-of-concept planes, they simply don’t scale up to the massive, petrol-powered flight machine that we’re used to. These giant, globe-spanning machines and the airports that support them are really part of an ecosystem that simply won’t exist after the fossil fuel era is over. They’re dinosaurs or, more accurately, petrosaurs. And they’re not long for this world. Just as it happened before.

It’s not that animals and even flight stopped when the dinosaurs went ‘extinct’. You still had animals and even aviary dinosaurs. It’s just that things were much smaller and far less awesome than before. The climate changed and life adapted to smaller ambitions than, say, being the size of a house and flying. In the same way, as climate changes again, we will have to scale our ambitions down.

I’m not judging the individual here. Hell, I’m flying and anyways, anatta. Indulge in your self all you want, but that’s obviously not all. The opinion of an individual is about as relevant as what an individual gut bacteria thinks about your diet. For all we know bacteria wax quite philosophical about us, but we literally do not give a shit. That’s the individual scale relative to the larger ecosystem we call an economy. And you can really feel it when you’re in an airport. You’re nothing. You’re a piece of paper.

So I just clutch my papers and wait in line. I worry about petty comforts, like how far can I lean my seat back, and who fucking farted. I’m not riding the petrosaur, I’m inside it. I’m just part of the food this economy chews up for its own growth, and then part of the waste it churns out. The best I can do as a self-aware microbe in the macroeconomy is be aware that the self is not all. That it’s not even much. As peer out of a fossil-fueled dinosaur into an artificial environment, I’m struck by the temporariness of it all. It’s like being a rat knowing that an asteroid is coming. So what? What are you going to tell a dinosaur? They’ll just eat you. So I just put my eye mask on and keep flying until the fall.